Fractal Spinalong Retrospective

I had an absolute blast hosting my first spinalong and learning about fractal spinning with everyone who participated. If you’ve listened to my podcast, you know I’m a fan of conducting a “lessons learned” exercise after big projects to evaluate what worked well, and what could be done better in the future. Here is that retrospective for the fractal spinalong.

What I Learned from the Project

About Fractal Yarn Design

First and foremost: trust the process! Many times during the spinalong, I got frustrated with how my yarn was evolving, and even once it was plied I thought I’d screwed up big time. I’m reaaaaaaaally not a fan of “barber poling” yarns, and yet here I was doing it on purpose!

Bobbin shot while plying my fractal yarn
Bobbin shot while plying my fractal yarn

But I love, love, love the final finished yarn and the scarf I knit from it!

Someone suggested I might like how it looked better in a cake rather than a skein. I rarely bother with my little yarn winder, preferring the meditative practice of winding a ball manually. But I gave it a shot, and it really did make a difference. Looking at it from the top, you can start to feel what the color transitions might look like in the finished product.

My fractal yarn was prettier in a cake, rather than a skein, because it helped demonstrate the color transitions
My fractal yarn was prettier in a cake, rather than a skein, because it helped demonstrate the color transitions

I also learned that predrafting your fiber is even more important with a fractal yarn design if you want sharp color breaks. Usually I just draft like “whatever”, with little forethought and the colors gently fade into each other along the singles. But this time I wanted the colors as separate as possible so I predrafted the fiber almost the point of pencil roving. And while it seemed tedious at the time, I think it a) improved the quality of my yarn and b) made the spinning itself go faster, because I spent less time fighting with the fiber while trying to spin.

The other key element of a good fractal yarn is careful weighing of your braid splits. Or is it? A LOT of participants in the spinalong commented that they wished they had invested more time in splitting their fiber into the separate singles. I checked the weight in grams of my splits every inch or so, adjusting as I went, and ended up with a pretty close divide between my three singles. (If you missed it previously, you can see a picture of my yarn design here.) Despite the attention to detail, I still ended up with different amounts of singles yarn on my three bobbins.

My three bobbins ended up with different lengths of singles yarn, despite my OCD weighing while splitting the fiber
My three bobbins ended up with different lengths of singles yarn, despite my OCD weighing while splitting the fiber

In my case, these leftovers reflect my improvement in spinning with Evie, my EEW 6 e-spinner. The top bobbin was the first I spun, and ran out first because the singles was thicker – I was still getting the hang of drafting fast enough to keep up with the wheel. The bottom bobbin was the last, and had the most leftover fiber, indicating that my spinning got progressively thinner as I got the hang of it. So the lesson here is: OCD measuring of the splits does NOT guarantee your singles will be the same length!

About the EEW 6 versus supported spindles

I spun & plied much less yardage than I expected – only 185 yards – even when compared to my other “thick” yarns which were also three-ply.  I primarily attribute this to the chunkier singles as I learned to use the e-spinner. The low yardage limited my pattern options for a knitted finished object (FO). I opted for the very versatile One Row Handspun Scarf by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. The scarf ended up being even shorter than I expected because I added more stitches to each row to ensure the colors transitioned the way I wanted. Too late I learned about this One Stitch Lace Scarf, but then I would have wanted to keep it for myself!

A simple knitting pattern shows off the fractal yarn's color transitions
A simple knitting pattern shows off the fractal yarn’s color transitions

It was good to diversify my spinning repertoire, but going forward I will probably stick to spinning on supported spindles and plying with Evie.

About project spinning versus process spinning

Don’t laugh but – it was really weird spinning for a specific outcome, rather than just spinning because I enjoy the process.

For one thing, I did not experience my typical plycrastination (unlike my typical spinning projects) because plying is the whole point. In fact, this is whole effort has been very different from my typical spinning experience. I am generally a process spinner. Even if I put forethought into planning the spin (still the exception rather than the rule), I care more about the zen of spinning the yarn, rather than finishing the yarn. Or being able to knit with the yarn. This time, however, finishing was the whole point of the project, because you can’t see the fractal colors interact when you have three separate singles!

Mike shows off his new scarf
Mike shows off his new scarf

Last but certainly not least, I learned I can spin, ply, and finish a yarn and knit a small project within the span of a month! I’ve never timed myself before – again, because of plycrastination it can be, well, years before I finish the yarn. (I still haven’t plied last year’s Tour de Fleece spin, for instance.) And no telling if or when the yarn will get used for a knitted thing. Making yarn is my hobby, not making things with yarn.

What I learned from participating in a spinalong

I have a confession to make. Aside from a smattering of Tour de Fleece teams over the years, this was my first spinalong. Yes, you read that right – the spinalong I hosted was also the first one I participated in! And it was a lot of fun. Like, way more fun that learning to spin a fractal by myself. Yes, another spinalong is in the planning stages!

The one drawback to spinning with a group? I’ve always thought of myself as a slow spinner. Now I know for sure! Even with the e-spinner, rather than supported hand spindles; even with prepping my fiber ahead of time so I could start spinning on day one. Several people finished multiple skeins of yarn on the fractal theme, and I finished ONE. (Well, finished one and knit a scarf with it.) I constantly felt like I was falling behind, even though I was the one who declared it would be a no-stress spinalong! And here I was, causing myself stress by comparing my progress to others. It was good for me to emotionally work through this, because the point of the spinalong was to try a new technique, produce a cool-looking yarn, and learn from each other along the way! And I definitely achieved that. (It helped to dedicate time every day to working on the yarn, rather than trying to smush it all into the weekend.)

What I learned from other participants

The biggest thing I learned from others: fractal is a concept, not a recipe. I designed my yarn with a specific formula. In my own thinking, if you weren’t mathematical about it, it wasn’t “really” a fractal. What a limited view! Other participants took the idea of fractal and transformed it into their own creative vision, rather than following a rigid method like I did. There are so many ways to spin a fractal besides colored combed top! (I’m lazy when it comes to fiber prep, so commercially prepared and dyed top is my go-to when it comes to fiber). Additionally, the range of colors people chose blew my mind, from pastels to jewel tones, from super subtle to obnoxiously bright. In hindsight, it felt like my fiber / color choice was very conservative and predictable, compared to what others started with!

I was also impressed by how many people created their own colored fiber for fractal spinning, instead of starting with a prepared braid like I did. One popular option: dyeing your own! If you have white fiber available, and you’re comfortable with dyeing it (I wouldn’t be!), you can create your own colors for the ultimate control over your finished product. Another approach I saw people use was to combine the colors of several different braids into one fractal project, similar to combo spinning. A third technique would be to deconstruct a braid and rearrange its colors to better suit the design of a fractal. And I’m sure there are others I wasn’t even aware of!

One technical note several people mentioned was reversing one or more of the smaller singles / short repeats to prevent the colors “pooling” where they matched up with the same color on the larger singles. In my case, it wouldn’t have mattered because my braid was dyed symmetrically. (Which was great, I didn’t have to keep track of whether I’d screwed up the direction I was spinning.) Either way I expected a solid(-ish) chunk of color at the beginning and end, which I got(-ish). The end is actually a mix of brown and black; the last singles I spun was the one with the longest color repeats, so I had the most practice and it ended up the longest.

What Would I Do Different Next Time

A good “lessons learned” exercise includes two parts: what went well (in this case, what I learned because the objective was to learn new things), and what could be done better/different going forward. In my case, this falls into three main categories: the fiber choice, the number of plies and the spinning tool.

I absolutely will spin am spinning another fractal yarn. This time I picked a fiber with more saturated colors which are located closer to each other on the color wheel. Hopefully this choice will result in subtle barber poling and transitions, versus the very bold results of my spinalong yarn.

Additionally, I have designed this next fractal yarn to be a two-ply, rather than three-ply. I’m planning to spin fine enough for lace weight, and two-plies tend to form more crisp knitted lace projects than three-plies do. (Don’t ask me why I am obsessed with knitting lace, even when it takes me so long and is so fraught with “challenges”.)

Most importantly, I have returned to my supported spindle happy place.

My next fractal yarn ... two ply, supported spindle spun!
My next fractal yarn … two ply, supported spindle spun!

While I appreciated the experience of spinning with Evie, supported spindles fit everything about my lifestyle and spinning habits. They are quiet, portable, and keep my hands busy while watching TV with my family or riding shotgun while running errands. Even though I purchased the battery pack for the e-spinner, it just didn’t fit my context the same way that supported spindles do. I can also spin much finer on the supported spindles, and they give me the level of control over my singles that I really prefer.

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