If you’ve looked much around my website, you’ve probably seen me saying that I can blend pet hair with other fibres. It’s easy to skim over, but if you think too hard about it, you may find yourself confused as to how the blending actually happens. I know I was when I first got into this. In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about how this process works and some of the different things you can do with it. For those experienced spinners who might be reading, this post will cover blending boards, as opposed to the hackle and comb method of blending. I may cover hackles in the future, but at the moment I have much more experience with blending boards.

Blending can be done in very small batches on hand carders. This is as simple as adding the fibres to the carders as you normally would and giving them a few passes back and forth to incorporate the different colours or fibre types together. I’ll do a blog post in the future that goes into greater depth on fibre preparation methods, where I will demonstrate simple carding methods.

A set of hand carders.

The drawback of using hand carders is that they are quite limited in how much fibre they can hold. This isn’t a huge issue if you’re spinning to pass the time, but it is quite a slow way to blend your fibres. The more functional drawback in my opinion is the reduced space you have to play with the way your colours interact. I love to create complex stripe patterns on my blending board, and I simply don’t have enough room on hand carders to create these stripes. If you’re blending simply to mix fibre content and not to create stripe patterns, this is again not an issue, and I will do a lot of the blending of pet hair with other fibres simply on the hand carders. 

The blending board has roughly a square foot of working area. This is covered, like the hand carders, in bent metal “teeth”. The mechanics of the process are very similar to carding: these teeth grab the fibre and cause it to be combed together into what is known as “woolen” preparation. Woolen yarn is spun with the unspun fibres perpendicular to the spun yarn – as opposed to “worsted” yarn, where the unspun fibres are roughly parallel with the spun yarn. If you knit but don’t spin, you’ve likely seen “worsted weight” yarn. This is a different thing from worsted prep yarn. It’s confusing.

First the fibre is laid across the teeth in long strips. In these photos, I’ll be creating a colour blend that is meant to have quite random striping when the yarn is finished. I lay out three distinct stripes in the first layer, and then shift the colours over one spot for each of the next two layers. If I wanted very clear colour distribution, I would simply not layer these colours on top of each other at this stage. You can see the version of these same colours with clearer stripes in my gallery here.

As each layer is added to the teeth, I use the blending comb to push the fibres deeper onto the teeth and comb them together into one unit. There is a particular motion that must be used to do this without damaging the fibre, and it takes unlearning a lot of what you know about how to brush things. When using carders or blending boards, I’ve found that you can never use pulling motions, but must always be rotating the comb into the fibre.

The three layers of this colour blend, from left to right.

When the colours have been combed together, the whole thing must be taken off the board by being rolled around a pair of wooden dowels. This finished unit is called a “rolag”. It is spun from end to end on the wheel, which maintains the structure of the stripes that were made on the board. Similarly, when hand carders are used, the fibres must be rolled off into a smaller unit known as a “puni”. Rather than the larger wooden dowels, I usually roll my punis onto a pair of knitting needles.

All the cool Instagram handspinners coil their rolags up like this. I have no idea why, I don’t think it serves any functional purpose.

When the colours have all been spun into a single thread (or several single threads) of yarn, the choice of how to ply the yarn also plays a large role in how the colours will show up in the finished product. If you’re unsure of what plying is, take a close look at a piece of yarn or knitwear you have nearby. Most likely you’ll see that the yarn is not just one single thread but several smaller threads wrapped around each other into a larger piece of yarn. Most of the yarns I make at Memory Yarns are 3-ply yarns, which means there are three single threads coming together into the finished yarn.

For this yarn where the colour distribution does not need to follow any specific pattern, I will use a simple traditional plying method. This means I will spin three single threads onto three separate bobbins. I will put those bobbins together onto a tool that is hilariously known as a “lazy Kate”. All these single threads will be spun clockwise, so they will now be plied counter-clockwise. This balances out the twist of the yarn and keeps the finished product from coming undone.

A tension band on the Lazy Kate allows the three bobbins to unwind at the same rate for perfectly even plying. It’s around this picture that fellow spinners will start to realize what a big Ashford fan I am.

Traditional plying is one of the easiest, fastest things to do in all of hand spinning. However, it has its drawbacks. The most obvious is that it’s virtually impossible to make sure you get exactly the same amount of thread on all three bobbins, so you might end up wth some leftovers on one or two bobbins when another has run out. The other is that if you’re trying to create cohesive stripes, you can never be sure that your single threads will change colours at the same time. This second one isn’t an issue for this yarn, and since I plan to do a few batches of this purple blend I should be able to even out most of my bobbins and have minimal leftovers.

If I really did need to create stripes though, that is where chain plying comes into play. There’s a few aspects of knitting/spinning/etc that blow my mind a little bit every time I think about them too much or try to imagine how anybody came up with these techniques from scratch. Chain plying is one of these – it’s just absolute magic. Maybe it’s because I am at best a novice at crochet, which forms the backbone of this technique.

Chain plying allows you to create a 3-ply yarn out of a single thread. Essentially, you create a large crochet chain out of your single yarn, and then allow the spinning wheel to twist that into one piece of yarn. If you are trying to maintain the stripe pattern of your single thread, this allows you to do that. It also means that you can ply every last inch of your single thread and have no leftovers. This technique takes a lot of practice though – the spots where new loops are made will be very obvious in the finished yarn unless the rhythm of the plying is pretty much perfect. It also requires quite a sturdy single thread – it will be put under more stress than in traditional plying, and if the single is not sound then it will break constantly in the process of chain plying.

All the best magic spells require fancy hand movements, right? Here’s a quick glimpse of chain plying.

There are more methods of blending (and plying, for that matter), but I wanted to do a deep dive today into one of my favourites. I probably spin more from rolags than from any other type of fibre preparation, and I wanted to give a bit of a window into why I love this preparation so much and a few of the things you can do with it. I’ll be back in a couple weeks to talk about natural dyes – only the first of what I’m sure will be many posts on that topic.

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