Deborah Gray on Working with Wool

This afternoon we bring you the concluding Q&A in our mini-series of pieces profiling handspinners. We are joined by Deborah Gray who will talk about the role that teaching plays in her handspinning business. We hope you have enjoyed exploring some of these different ways of working with wool in the context of handspinning! All content and photos © Deborah Gray and used with kind permission.


WOVEMBER: Could you tell us first of all about your handspinning business? What is the range of yarns that you produce?

Deborah: These days my handspinning business is all about enabling others to enter the world of creating their own handspun yarns. I stopped spinning yarn for sale many years ago, to concentrate on running workshops. I get a huge amount of pleasure from helping someone reach the moment when they realise that they can do ‘it’, whether ‘it’ is spinning, dyeing, feltmaking or knitting. I get that satisfaction whenever I am teaching beginners, but also teaching a new technique to a more experienced spinner, or simply helping them sort out a persistent problem. With feltmaking the results are more instant and I can share the sense of achievement each person gets in their finished object.

WOVEMBER: To a non-specialist audience, the only difference between a skein of 2-ply handspun and a skein of 2-ply millspun is the price. Obviously handspun yarn is far more labour intensive to make than millspun yarn, but I also feel that there is an extra value to handspun which can only be achieved through working at this detailed, hands-on level with wool. Could you say a little bit about something which you put into yarn-making which could just never be replicated by a spinning mill?


Deborah: Handspun yarn, especially if processed by hand right from the raw fleece, is a very special product, and most people can feel the difference as soon as they touch good quality handspun yarn. Only one sheep and two pairs of hands (the shearer and the spinner) have been involved in its creation. Well, ok, the farmer/shepherd took care of the sheep while it was growing the wool as well! But it is the spinner’s hands and skill that turn the raw material into something beautiful and wearable.

Zwartbles fleece

Every breed of sheep, and every individual sheep within each breed, produces wool with its own specific characteristsics, and I select my raw material (still on the sheep sometimes!) carefully to match the characteristics of the wool to the type of yarn necessary for the project I have in mind. Then I sort the wool into different qualities (from different areas of the sheep’s body) and use each for the type of yarn (and final project) for which it is best suited. Spinning mills sort the wool by quality but have to use wool from a large number of sheep, mixed together in each batch.

The wool cleaning processes (called scouring) used industrially are quite different to the gentle handwashing that I do and the hand of the clean fibre is quite different. Combing and carding processes when carried out by hand are again much more gentle on the fibre, and I can decide just how much to card or comb depending on the final effect I want to achieve. Indeed I often decide to spin the raw wool after sorting without washing, combing or carding, and wash the skeins of yarn. The effect of this, especially with a naturally coloured fleece, is subtle variegations in texture and colour that cannot be reproduced by machinery. The sun-bleached tips of a dark fleece give a heathery, tweedy effect, while a white fleece spun this way and then dyed will also show variegations as the tips absorb more colour.

Before I start to spin I have decided how thick my yarn should be, and how much twist it needs, to suit the end use. I do this first by calculation, and then by spinning samples to check that I’m getting the yarn I want. However, unlike a machine, while I am spinning I am constantly making minute adjustments to my technique, often to accentuate a particular characteristic of the fibre. This constant adjustment becomes almost instinctive after a few minutes spinning a particular yarn, and continues in the plying process.

The actual spinning becomes almost a meditation – the process cannot be hurried, and the feel of the fibres in my hands, the rhythm of treadling co-ordinated to hand movements, the almost soundless soothing action of a well-oiled and adjusted spinning wheel and the slow accumulation of yarn on the bobbin induce a relaxation and contentment which I hope is also somehow captured in the yarn, and in the warm garment it will become.

Every hand-spinner’s yarn is individual, even if spun from the same raw material, and has something of the person who spun it contained in the twist of the fibres.


WOVEMBER: Handspinning has the huge advantage that you can add things into yarn as you’re spinning it; that you can play with colours and concepts; and that you can experiment on a small scale with very little wastage involved. Could you describe an experiment in handspinning?

Deborah: Mixing different colours and textures of fibres in handspun yarns is an endlessly fascinating area but one which many spinners find a bit scary. I have developed a very popular spinning workshop called Playing With Colour where we explore just a few techniques to encourage people to give free rein to their creativity. Using photographs of nature or other images as inspiration, we recreate particular shades by blending fibres dyed in only the three primary colours and natural black and white. Or we use the whole photograph as the basis for selecting colours and textures to mix together, capturing something of the feel of the image.



In my Art Yarns workshop we also mix colours and fibres, often creating a yarn which is composed of several elements – for example a curled loop or boucle yarn using Blue-faced Leicester and Shetland wools and Mohair, or a spiral yarn with a fat and lofty Ryeland wool spiralling round a finer lustrous silk core. I prefer the Art yarns that I spin to still be functional as yarn (by which I mean still capable of being knitted, crocheted or woven) but some of my students take theirs further into Art and incorporate wilder textures and objects such as feathers, leaves etc.

WOVEMBER: Handspun yarn is a luxury product to knit or weave with, and it is a far more expensive choice than millspun… however it also presents creative possibilities that are just not possible with millspun. Have you ever enjoyed a particularly beneficial collaboration where your expertise in spinning helped a knitter or weaver to realise their vision?

Deborah: Probably each person that I have taught to spin over the last thirty years has had a different reason for learning to spin, but some are very specific. One weaver wanted to learn how to spin her own warp yarns – she knew that for weft she could use almost any kind of yarn she could produce, but that the requirements for warp are much stricter. One of my Italian learners wanted to produce small quantities of special yarns for the tiny handwoven jewellery he makes, incorporating very fine wire. Understanding the characteristics needed in the yarn for any specific purpose, and knowing how to create yarn with those characteristics, is the topic of my Purposeful Spinning workshop. Quite a lot of my learners have their own animals – sheep, alpacas or angora goats (for mohair) are popular – and want to learn not just how to spin, but how to make the best use of the fibres they have. I enjoy experimenting with the samples they give me to see what range of yarn types I can create as examples for them to reproduce.

Zwartbles, Texel, and koolaid-dyed yarn

WOVEMBER: Finally, I wondered if you could tell WOVEMBER readers where/if they can buy your handspun or attend your handspinning classes?

Deborah: My workshop programme for 2014 will be available soon under the Workshops tab (UK) and Corsi in Italia tab (Italy) at where you can also find Open Studios dates, accounts of previous workshops in Scotland and Italy and prices of spinning equipment, natural dyes and fibres. You can also find me on Facebook – Deborah Gray with a spinning wheel avatar.

Scatness pattern by Kate Davies being swatched in handspun by Deborah Gray

Thank you, Deborah! It’s so great to discover the different ways in which handspinners are working with wool, and to see the crossovers and differences in approaches.

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

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