You know, without string we wouldn't hardly have any clothes at all, so if you're going to understand clothes, you better understand string. And a lot of chemical technology came about because of the needs of folks making clothes, so if you want to understand chemical technology, you better understand clothes. And if you don't want to understand chemical technology, well, you probably shouldn't be reading this book, on account of that's what it's about.

You could learn to spin string from many kinds of fiber: cotton, dog hair, wool, the list is probably endless. Students have tried to spin human hair, assuming that long hair would give them a leg up on making long string, but the truth of the matter is that relatively short, curly fibers are easier to spin than long, smooth ones. While raw cotton is fine, cotton balls from the drugstore have been cut and polished to the point that they are difficult to spin. I personally learned to spin dog hair, and if this is your choice you would be well-advised to select the woolly hair from the belly over the straight, glossy hair from the back. But of all the fibers I have experienced, wool is the easiest to spin, the sheep having been bred for their wool. If there are no shepherds in your area, there are numerous places on the Internet to buy raw wool.

When they shear sheep, the wool comes off about two inches long and with all the hairs running parallel. And being fresh, it probably has dingle-berries and straw and stuff in it, so don't let that freak you out. You can pick that stuff out. Raw wool is coated with lanolin and other sheep oils, making the wool water-repellent so the sheep don't freeze to death in the rain. There is no need to wash these oils off and spinning "in the grease" is a very satisfying experience indeed; it'll leave you hands smelling farm fresh.

Figure 6-2. Raw Wool

In preparation for spinning, you need to tease the wool, both to remove the dingle-berries and to stop the hairs from running parallel. In order for the string to grow, the fibers must be staggered, with the end of one fiber in the middle of the next, but as it comes of the sheep, the ends of the wool fibers are next to each other. So you want to pick the wool apart so it's all random and tangled up with the hairs going every which way, as shown in Figure 6-2(R). Beginners are often in a hurry, but the more attention you pay to preparing your wool, the less frustration you will experience later on.

Figure 6-3. Pulling and Twisting

I usually hold wool in my right hand and I will describe it in those terms, but if you prefer, you may switch left for right in the following description. With your wool in your right hand, take a pinch with your left hand and pull, as shown in Figure 6-3(L). Pull pretty hard. You can pull harder than you might imagine until you hear a sound like the wool is tearing. That's a good sound. It's just the sound of the fibers moving over each other as they line up. After you've pulled, you can twist the end between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand. If you push your thumb away from your body, you're giving it a Z twist and if you pull your thumb toward your body, you're giving it an S twist. The direction you choose is arbitrary, but once begun you must continue twisting the same direction or your string will unravel.

Once you've twisted, you'll have a little piece of string going up to a point and then the fibers will fan out into your right hand as shown in Figure 6-3(R). Schematically, your sting now looks like this: —<. That little fan, or vee, is very important. You don't want to lose that vee, or you're string will move up into the ball of un-spun fibers and you'll be hard pressed to get things back in order. Use the fingers of your right hand to keep the wool spread out while your left hand twists and pulls. The vee forms at the point where the twisting and pulling bumps up against the spreading of the yet-to-be-spun fibers. The maintenance of the vee is known as drafting.

Figure 6-4. Four Hands Are Better Than Two

Now, there is nothing wrong with spinning alone, but it'll be easier to explain if we separate the twisting from the drafting. It will also be easier to learn to spin if you do it that way and so I'm going to presume that we have two different people spinning together. Let's call the hands in Figure 6-5(L), "Og" and the hands in Figure 6-4(R), "Venus." Og's job is to hold the end of the string and twist it. He needs to twist it the same direction it was started in, an S twist in this case. Now, your Og may be tempted to move up the string as he twists, but you need to nip that in the bud as quick as you can. He just needs to twist the very end of the string without creeping along it. Instruct Og to twist as fast as he can and to continue for as long as it takes. That's pretty much it for Og. It's a boring job, but somebody's got to do it.

Venus' job, the drafting, is a little harder. Her task is to keep the vee going as the string grows and to this end, her right hand is constantly spreading the wool into a fan. In Figure 6-4(R), her left hand is just about to grab the point of that vee and pull.

In Figure 6-5 Venus has just pinched that point and pulled to the left. She's not worried about pulling too hard. She hears that ripping sound and knows that it is the sound of fibers locking together. At the beginning of a pull the fibers resist, but as the ripping sound begins, the fibers slide over each other more easily. If she pulls too hard, the string will break off of at the point of the vee, so she is careful to stop pulling just before the string breaks. If she pulls too hard for too long, she can repair the damage simply by unraveling a half an inch or so of the end of the string and working it back into the un-spun fibers. Another pull should re-establish the vee and she can continue with her spinning. Careful attention to the vee will prevent such a mishap and the work will go quickly and smoothly.

Figure 6-5. Drafting

So she's just pulled the point of her vee hard enough to hear the ripping sound but not so hard that she tears it plumb off. When she lets go, Og's twist will move up the string until it meets the spreading fibers and that's were the next vee will show up. If she hasn't been spreading with her right hand, the twist will move all the way up into her right hand and she'll have to work to get her vee back. Once she has the technique down, she will get into a rhythm of pulling and spreading simultaneously, progressing from one vee to the next, and the string will grow an inch or two with every pull. Of course, eventually, she's going to run out of wool in her right hand and he'll have to grab another hunk of teased and de-dingle-berry-fied fiber.

Figure 6-6. Two Plies Are Better Than One

Figure 6-7. The Drop Spindle

And that's pretty much it, with Og twisting the end and Venus drafting, the string growing longer and longer. If either one of them lets go, the string will twist up on itself and make a big mess. But if Og takes Venus' end and holds it next to his, while Venus holds the middle and pulls it tight, they'll fold that string exactly in two. When Venus let's go, it'll look like that string is twisting up on itself in a big mess, but she'll walk over to Og and run her fingers down that string while he holds his ends fast. And as she runs her fingers down that string, magic happens. The S twist of one half fights against the S twist in the other half and they exactly cancel each other out. And the two halves twist around each other as they battle it out and this new twist is a Z twist. The Z twist keeps the two S twists from unraveling, so that the new two-ply string, or twine, will not twist up on itself any more. In addition, it will be twice as strong as the single-ply pieces, so twine is doubly good.

At this point, if you have been playing the role of Venus, you should ask your Og about his level of job satisfaction. If he is like the Ogs I have known, he will be bored out of his skull and will welcome the opportunity to be replaced by a machine. That machine is the drop spindle. A drop spindle is just a stick with a weight at one end and a hook at the other. You can buy them in online or in craft stores, but they are not hard to make for yourself. I make them from wooden wheels sold in craft stores. I glue a foot or so of dowel rod through the hole in the wheel, or whorl, and screw a hook into the top of the dowel. To use the drop spindle, make a little piece of string the old way and tie the end to the stick, underneath the whorl. Pass the string over the whorl and just loop it through the hook at the top. Don't tie it to the hook, just loop it. Now give the spindle a spin. Be sure you spin it the same way that you started your string, either with an S twist or a Z twist, or else that spindle will undo what you started. If you get used to spinning either one direction or the other all the time, you'll always know which way to spin the spindle.

With the spindle taking care of the spinning, all you have to do is pay attention to the drafting, that is, to the spreading and pulling. Since the spindle is hanging down instead of sideways, your vee will be vertical, like this: V. Other than that, your job is the same as before, except you have to reach down from time to time and give the spindle a spin. Whenever you get into trouble with a knot or a tangle, just swing the spindle and catch it between your knees; you can hold it there until you have your drafting straightened out. You can spin all by yourself, now, until that string is so long that your spindle hits the floor. When that happens, pick up your spindle and wind the string onto the stick above the whorl, as if you were winding it onto a spool. It doesn't matter which way you wind it as long as you always wind it in the same direction all the time. When you've wound all but the last foot or so, pass the string back under the whorl, around the stick, back over the whorl again and up to the hook. It looks the same as before, now, with the string running from the edge of the whorl, looped around the hook, and up to your vee. Whenever the spindle hits the floor, wind your string onto it and pick up where you left off.

One nice thing about the drop spindle is that you can just put it down any time and your string won't unravel. That's why it was a good job for women for so long. If the stew is boiling over, you can just put your spinning down and go take care of it. Same thing if the baby needs nursing or the toddler is wandering too close to the fire or your husband comes home a little frisky. Just put it down, it won't go anywhere.

So that's it, really. Once you can make string, you have a good start at understanding a bunch of the technologies that came along down through the years. And even if you can buy string real cheap, it's always good to know where it comes from and that you could make it yourself any time you wanted to. And when you hear about boring, repetitive jobs being taken over by machines, you'll know that's nothing new at all.

ImportantQuality Assurance

If you can spin 20 feet of single-ply string or 10 feet of two-ply twine, you are probably good enough to spin as much as you want. Break off a couple of inches of your string and tape it into your notebook. And if you think you might have daughters someday, you might want to spin a little extra to get a head start on her belt.