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Plant fibres

Spinning plant fibres

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by guest writer Amanda Rofe

What is spinning?

Spinning involves twisting fibres together to form a continuous thread or yarn. This yarn can then be used for knitting, weaving, crochet, sewing, embroidery, macramé and to make string, rope, rugs and carpets. Spinning fibre has been around for thousands of years. It can be carried out using just the hands or by using tools such as hand spindles and spinning wheels.

juts fibre  rose stem fibre  seacell fibre  

The photos show (left to right) jute fibre, rose stem fibre and seacell fibre.

Learning to spin

It isn't very difficult to spin and basic spinning skills can be self-taught in as little as a couple of weeks or less. There are a lot of useful books, web sites, videos as well as classes available to help the beginner. Methods of spinning are many and varied but usually involve either hand spindles such as a drop whorl, or the larger spinning wheels with a treadle attached.

bamboo fibre and yarn

Wool is, almost without fail, recommended to learn to spin with and there are dire warnings about the difficulties of spinning cotton. Please don't be put off. Wool (long staple) and cotton (short staple) are two different fibres and therefore require different approaches when spinning. For example, short staples like cotton require more twists per inch (TPI). The photo to the right shows bamboo fibre and handspun yarn.

For my part, I learned to spin with a bag of very badly prepared cotton on an Ashford spinning wheel. Even then it didn't take that long to learn how to produce a length of yarn, although the quality left a lot to be desired! The next fibre I spun was jute to make garden twine. Rather a lot of it as it turns out but it was superb stuff and became a talking point with the neighbours. My point is that you can learn to spin with many different fibres. Having been vegan for many years, it never crossed my mind to use wool. As it turned out I didn't need to.

Cotton on

handspun cotton yarnFor those who choose to start spinning with cotton, more information can be obtained on this subject from Joan Ruane at Of course, not all cottons have short fibres. Some are grown with extra long staples (ELS) such as Acala and Pima cottons. In addition, some American companies sell easy-to-spin cottons that have been processed especially for the hand spinner. See

At times like this I like to remind myself that countries like India have been growing, processing and hand spinning cotton for very many years without complaint! Hand spinning was a huge part of Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy and politics. He claimed that spinning in the traditional manner was a means for economic independence for India and would aid the rural poor. For Gandhi, cotton spinning was not simply a form of economic self-sufficiency. Spinning on a charkha (spinning wheel) was also a form of meditation that could help spinners achieve deep philosophical and spiritual insights.  The photo shows a ball of hand spun cotton yarn.

Which spindle?

There are many different spindles and ways of using them. Low whorl spindles are often recommended for the beginner since they can be purchased for under £10 or can easily be handmade using a wooden dowel, a wooden toy wheel andhand spindle a small cup hook. However, hand spindles like these are not simply a beginner's spindle and are extremely valuable spinning tools in their own right. Certainly it probably takes far more effort to use a hand spindle skilfully than it does a spinning wheel. As well as being cheap to buy, hand spindles have a lot of other benefits. They take up very little space and can be used anywhere. Since they have so few parts they are virtually maintenance free and it is easy to tell if something has gone wrong. Being cheap to buy almost anyone can use them and more than one can be employed at the same time for different projects.

Spinning wheels can be expensive and it might be an idea to try one out before you decide spinning is for you. This is where a friend with a spinning wheel or spinning classes can be very useful. I couldn't find either in my area so I took the plunge and bought a new wheel. I bought new because I couldn't work out whether the second-hand wheels had all their bits or if they were going to work properly! At this point I wasn't absolutely sure spinning was for me but felt I could easily sell it if the worst came to the worst.

Non-animal fibres for spinning

Some of the most popular non-animal fibres for spinning include cotton, flax and hemp. Certainly hand spinners have tended towards using the more natural fibres. Cotton is the world's most widely used natural fibre and has been in use for thousands of years. It is one of the most important industrial crops and has become far more important than wool. There were many reasons for this including the fact that it was more suited to machine handling and therefore mass production. It also travelled well and more cheaply, holding less moisture and being less susceptible to mould or moth infestation. When woven into cloth and printed on, it could be adapted to be sold in different countries and to different cultures.  The photos below show a ball of hemp yarn from the Vegan Yarn Store, and a knitted hemp scrub.

                     hemp yarn  hemp scrub cloth

Some of the plant derived fibres for spinning include banana, corn (Ingeo), ramie and rose stems. Other popular fibres include those in the regenerated cellulose group such as viscose, bamboo and lyocell e.g. Tencel and Seacell. Seacell is rather interesting since it contains seaweed, hence the name. Soya is another regenerated fibre but is considered a protein rather than a cellulose. All are a pleasure to handle with a lovely soft and silky feel.

Some fibres are quite strong and rough like coir which comes from the coconut husk and sisal which comes from the agave plant. Coir is used for hard wearing rope, rugs, carpets and for stuffing upholstery. While the husk is usually processed by machine, the spinning is often still done by hand.

Rather less exotic, but no less important, is the nettle which grows widely in the temperate areas of the world. Having lost popularity to cotton, which was easier to process, there is now a renewed interest in it as a sustainable fibre. Nettles are easy to grow requiring no herbicides or pesticides. Once processed they can be made into a very fine fibre for spinning and weaving. The British Isles has Urtica doica, the stinging or common nettle. Nepal has the species Girardinia diversifolia, commonly known as the giant nettle. Both are from the Urticaceae family. The inner bark of the stem of the giant nettle yields fine strong fibres which are among the longest in the plant world.

In addition to the natural plant fibres there are an array of synthetic fibres for spinning. These include acrylic, nylon and viscose. Acrylic yarn is one of the most popular non-wool fibres available. It has properties very similar to wool including the elasticity favoured by knitters.

Increasingly fibres are being processed from re-used or recycled fabrics. Discarded blue jeans are are one such example. Already processed for spinning, blue jeans fibre is available from many spinning supply companies. Plastics, such as PET waste e.g. water bottles, can be re-used by melting and spinning into fibres. Some fibres from household waste can actually be processed at home. Newspaper and household textiles such as old sheets, pillow cases, t-shirts and other fabrics, can be cut up into strips and spun. Home-made and machine knitted garments can also be unpicked and spun to make different colours and plys.

Elusive elasticity

Plant fibres do lack the elasticity, springiness and bulk of wool but there are ways of making plant fibres more elastic. Plying is one example. Plying involves spinning one or more yarns together. Plying yarns together also adds interest such as different colours or textures. After plying, however, the twist might need to be set again by, for example, soaking in warm water. Hemp sliver is probably the most wool-like of the plant fibres as the staple length is similar and it has some tack with a more familiar resistance. It won't compress as readily as cotton but is best handled lightly. Condensed hemp will be unresponsive until recarded. (The Practical Spinner's Guide by Stephenie Gaustad). Of course, synthetic fibres like acrylic have wool-like properties and can be used as a straight substitute for wool.

There several methods for the knitter to make inelastic fibres more elastic. Knit using stitches that instil elasticity e.g. knit one, purl one. Alternatively, knit in an elastic thread or use a cable or picot finish to the edge instead of the usual cuffs.

While plant fibres may not have the natural elasticity of wool, they are often stronger and more resilient than wool. Flax, hemp and cotton have long been used to make hard wearing fabrics for clothing and household use. They don't shrink, felt or pill like wool does. Neither are they itchy to wear. In fact they are invariably soft and smooth. They often weigh more but will drape well over the body. They are cool to knit and wear, and are good to work with during the summer months. The photos show hand spun soya bean yarn, and a hand spun hand knitted soya fibre hat.

                 soya yarn   soya yarn hat

Growing your own

Plant fibres can also be grown at home. However, do remember that plants grown for fibre are often different varieties than those grown for food so choose seeds accordingly. While not wanting to put anyone off, it can be hard work, time consuming and messy. In the UK plant fibres that can easily be grown for spinning include flax, hemp and nettle. To grow hemp legally within the UK, a licence is required from the Home Office Drugs Licensing website costing almost £600 or nearer £1400 if a compliance visit is required! Similar restrictions, that have long been in force in America, are gradually being lifted under the new US 2014 Farm Bill.

Stinging nettles are easy to find or grow and plants will sprout up from a small piece of transplanted root. They are probably one of the easiest fibres for the home grower to process. Birte Ford, in her very useful book 'Yarn from Wild Nettles' gives a detailed account of hand processing nettles.


Spinning fibre and equipment

Learning how to spin

The Practical Spinner's Guide by Stephenie Gaustad

Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont

Home processing nettles

Yarn from Wild Nettles: A Practical Guide by Birte Ford

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