Spinning the Boss Cow Way

Skeins of gansey yarn
Skeins of gansey yarn

This week, I’ve mostly been spinning gansey yarn.

Here is some of it on the clothes horse. It’s been washed and is dried unweighted. That is the extent of ‘blocking’ for knitting yarn.

Why is commercial guernsey yarn always 5 ply? Because guernseys came about post Industrialisation. By the 1820s, most yarn in England was machine spun. The Spinning Jenny had already been superceded by the Water Frame. Handspun was less common, although some 20thC Dales knitters recalled their grandmothers spinning for home use but they are often talking about small things like stockings and gloves rather than the ‘Popped Uns’ (jumpers) and ‘jackets’ they contract knitted for mills.

So 5 ply guernsey yarn was firmly a product of the Industrial age. Machines liked making singles of a certain grist (fatness) and 5 plies of those singles made the perfect yarn for knitting guernseys. Other yarns made from the standard singles included 3 ply, 4 ply and double knitting.

There is no real reason for guernsey yarn to be 5 plies, but it might be better at more than 2. There are structural differences between 2 and 3 ply yarn.  I decided to go with 3 plies for my handspun. That gives me good stitch definition due to 3 ply having a more circular cross-section than 2 and also a bit more wear and strength.  No need to go up to 5 plies as it would never have been done historically: too much labour expended at nearly double the time to spin 5 singles as opposed to 3.

I decided to match my yarn approximately to Frangipani. It’s a nice grist; not too fat.  I wanted a slightly higher ply twist, though. I used iSpin Toolkit for all my calculations re. wraps and twists per inch and their handy calculator for ply twist to get a balanced yarn. First time I have used it and found it extremely handy.  Will be using it for all my projects!

On a certain blog, we are told, with utter authority:

” the old Fisherman’s Wool was rather tightly spun singles of fine wool, rather loosely plied.”

But this is the pronouncement of someone who has never seen ‘the old Fisherman’s wool’ or rather, the extant ganseys made from it. In fact it often strikes me as being fairly tightly plied. And, just to confound the theory that a looser ply makes a more ‘waterproof’ fabric with extra integrity therefore those ganseys were used for fishing… oddly the opposite is true:  ganseys I have seen that appear to be made from a slightly ‘woollier’ yarn, plied a bit looser, are often the grey ‘Sunday best’ ganseys that were never worn to sea. The ones worn to sea often have a sheen and patina, gaps between the stitches, and stitch definition like you wouldn’t believe, from the fact they are plied tightly. Oilskins existed, of course, so no need for a totally ‘weatherproof’  fabric.

Now the art in handspinning gansey yarn is to accentuate the lustre and the fact you’re preserving the length of the staple – at the same time, not to produce leaden, lifeless looking worsted. Fine spinning is of no interest to me as a rule as I want to spin for knitting. And I don’t enjoy lace knitting.

singles ganseyI’m spinning Blue Faced Leicester because it is easily obtainable beyond the UK,  so other spinners can replicate, but also because ‘Biffle’ is another product of the 19thC, like the gansey itself. It has the lustre of older longwools but is finer and softer than Cotswold, Wensleydale or Swaledale – all of which I sampled. All this spinning is for a design due to be published later in the year so the project as it progresses wil be Top Secret…

The big question is: how long would it take to spin the yarn for a gansey?   Bear in mind most of my spinning, 95% of it, is wool spun longdraw or silk spun semi-worsted from the fold. And for a gansey you need a short, forward draw (for true worsted).

Well, I looked to a certain blog for info:

one can easily spin and ply 400 yards of gansey yarn in 8 hours, so 30 to 40 hours of spinning time is a very reasonable estimate for total spinning time for the yarn for a gansey.

Only I’m afraid to admit, I failed to meet the Blogger’s exacting requirements as I found I couldn’t spin a skein of gansey yarn in 8 hours.

Admittedly 3 ply not 5, but I have discovered I can easily spin 100g of BFL into 3 fine singles of gansey yarn  in…. 75 minutes.

Am left wondering why our Hero is so slow, when he has spent so long pimping his wheel?   I’m using a TT Chair Wheel as it came to me from Mr Williamson in 1998.  Admittedly, it’s not an entry level wheel . So you could probably pimp a “Traddy” til you were gansey blue in the face and still end up with a much slower wheel than a Lendrum Saxony or some models of  TT, or many others, as they come to you from the workshop.  Maybe someone should tell him.

Our Hero says:

” I want a better tool. I am always refining my tools so they work better. Better tools are how better spinners made better money…”

I’m different. I like my “tools” fit for purpose.  On the day I buy them and ever after.  I don’t want to refine them or spend further money on them. I am not a wheelwright, or turner or mechanic.  Spinners in the past were the same – they spun on the wheel they had. It’s unheard of to find an old wheel that has been heavily adapted after manufacture.  (And I say that as someone who has seen many old wheels both on display in museums and behind the scenes in reserve collections – not as someone who has just read a book or two). The best contemporary wheel-makers provide all a FAST spinner needs. Although it doesn’t fit the thesis that they have been actively selling “slow” wheels for “Victorian parlour ladies”, or, in Our Hero’s more sexist and offensive language “Boss Cows” and their herds…  The statement:

…modern wheels all have a very narrow envelop [sic] of performance design standards.  Is that because they go as fast as is mechanically possible?  No, it is what the group wants, so everyone can spin the same yarns at the same rate.

insults wheelmakers, who are fellow craftspeople as well as spinners.  According to this person, spinners (that’s you and me!) are divided into ‘Boss Cows’ and… cows. Nice, eh?  And the whole herd is part of some kind of evil conspiracy to keep wheels slow. These are the words of someone who has only owned a nice, but mass produced, entry level wheel and makes the mistake of judging every other spinning wheel on the market, by the standards of the only wheel they have owned. It also shows deep ignorance of old wheels as they are essentially no different to our modern ones. I think we’re looking at some profound misogyny here, with all the references to cows and Victoria’s court and hobbyists. For ‘hobbyist’ read: ‘female’.

A preliminary scout about in a spinners’ Rav group suggests that quite a few of us routinely spin considerably faster than the Blogger.  And even when we’re not trying to “race”. Check out YouTube video of Abby Franquemont spinning on a Lendrum Saxony, to see fast – but relaxed – spinning. Slow wheels have their place, too. I have days when I prefer to spin on my Timbertops Lonsdale. So I spin on it. I am not denigrating slower wheels. Spinning is a joy, not a chore.

Our Hero plies loosely but I am the opposite  and ply pretty tightly with a fair few twists per inch which slows down the plying process considerably. Even so, I am spinning in minutes what he appears to be able to produce in hours. And that is consciously going fast but by no means going flat out… I am not a particularly fast spinner, compared to many others. It is not something I have ever cared about, or focused on. Other spinners go faster than me.

If you are a competent spinner, you can spin the 5-ply needed for a gansey in 30 or 40 hours.

Ah that must make me (and many, many other spinners) incompetent, then. As I am spinning in odd moments, between other jobs (like handspinners of the 18thC) and after just several sessions last week, already have 700g of gansey yarn. There is a lot in there, as usual, about how “experts” are not as expert as our Hero:

The spinners that have been spinning for 30 yeas [sic] should have gotten busy 25 years ago and developed those skills.

I’d just say: don’t make assumptions about craftspeople. Or denigrate them. 30 years is, coincidentally, precisely how long I’ve been spinning.  And without any wheel modifications, and not much effort to consciously ‘go fast’,  I can more than half the vaunted spinning time. Many experienced spinners will be faster than me.

My approach to learning to spin the impossible worked. Their criticism would only have validity if they were much better spinners than I am.

Show us the yarn. Show us that you can spin a full hank of 5-ply sport weight in 8 hours of spinning. If you can’t do that, then you do not have the moral authority to criticize me.

To be honest, in 8 hours, I could spin 3 skeins of guernsey yarn to his 1. Better, faster… and cheaper.

That said, I’d give no credence to the idea that speed = good spinning. But just wanted to deflate the windbag and his offensive assumptions.

75 mins is a reasonable amount of time to spin one leisurely, Parlour Lady skein of gansey yarn.  So… What shall I do with the other 5  1/2 hours, per skein? Spinning a skein in 8 hours is not “doing the impossible”. But maybe doing the improbable, for certain wheels…

Anyone familiar with The Blog will know that whatever the Blogger is currently doing, becomes the yardstick by which others must be measured and found to fail.  Apparently no-one’s opinion on weaving is valid, unless they have woven ‘a bolt’ of ‘woolen shirting fabric’, for example. I have 2 problems with this particular example. (i)  no ‘shirting’ fabric in Europe was woollen. Shirts were always made from linen, later cotton. So there is no such fabric in the English aulnages anyway, historically. So no need for anyone to make it as even re-enactors can’t use it. And (ii) Well… as you haven’t done it yet either, all your opinions are invalid, by your own criteria.

And, all the folks who say that my analysis of history is wrong, did not manage to learn to spin as fast and as fine as I do.

No. That’s true. The boss cows spin faster. Some of them finer, too.



Old Hand Knitters of the Dales is up for pre-order  as an e Book,and print copies coming VERY soon! (It’s being printed in the UK, although it has a US publisher, so copies should be available here, too, shortly)

And I will try and get a thrumming video up and linked to on here, so anyone who is making the General Carleton Hat or the G Walton 1846 gloves, has a handy guide, ASAP.








5 replies on “Spinning the Boss Cow Way”

I am not a spinner, but my friend is and for the moment, i’m content watching her spin some beautiful skeins. She’s the one who recommended your blog to me.I recognise the Blogger whom you mention, and have scratched my head a time or two after reading some of his –er– posts. As it happens i ordered some Frangipani yarn because i wanted to make a gansey. I was hoping to have it done by the start of this sailing season, but i am not a fast knitter, and i fit in my knitting with other mundane tasks like working full time, cleaning the house, cooking meals, etc. So, perhaps by this time next year, my gansey will be ready for me to wear.


To be fair to our favourite scrotepunnet, I mean, blogger, by Fishermens Wool I think he’s referring to something that used to be made by Lion Brand. Not 19th century gansey yarn. Although with his habit of making up fiction to justify whatever bizarre cul de sac he’s illogic-ed his way into, who knows.


Your factual and interesting blog is the perfect antidote to That Man’s ridiculous rantings. He cannot, it seems, even understand the reasoning behind the old saying about spindles being faster by the week. It annoys me mightily to think that newcomers to the spinning/knitting world might read his rantings and believe them.


Interesting. I’ve also found the blogger in question, and can only echo both of you, adding more confirmation of the fact that he is often inaccurate on factual matters and seems to have a pressing need for self-validation – not a good combination (and that’s without considering the implicit misogyny which almost pushes him into troll territory). Not really worth consideration.

Having said that, I don’t spin for speed, though; I spin for satisfaction. I’ve only been spinning for three years, most of which I spent with a hand injury, so that’s not surprising. But I do belong to spinning groups with people who learned to spin at school (!), and they could certainly beat his timings. But, according to him, they’d be doing it wrong. Or badly. Or not as well as he was…


Having done some googling… I would say that this blogger has something of a chip on his shoulder and a very wobbly grasp of history (I speak not as one of the textile historians he loathes so much but as a history graduate), I would also like to point him in the direction of experimental archaeology.
I’m not sure a medieval spinner would have wanted to spin full pelt all day as that way lies serious pain, a relaxed speed one could keep up for a prolonged time would be far more useful. In the UK weaving industry c.1500 (and later) it was the women (and children) who tended to spin as far as I knew. Moreover the history of fashion does not go furs, knitted clothing…
Sigh. Have you read Cynthia Harnett’s novel “The Woolpack”? It’s full of detail about the medieval wool industry, she was a historian by training I believe and did her research thoroughly and it’s a good fun read, more profitable than certain blogs I fear.


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