If you run a few sheep to keep the grass down in your orchard or a rough wildlife area of your garden, there may come a time when you want to have a go at making your own yarn ready for weaving or knitting. There is nothing quite like the thrill of producing cloth, blankets or hand-knitted garments from the fleeces from your own small flock, which, if well handled, can also make marvellous pets for all the family to enjoy.

Sheep’s wool is probably the most popular fibre for spinners. This is because it is versatile, easy to spin and in plentiful supply. If you don’t have quite enough wool from your own fleece or fleeces take a bag with you when you go walking in the country and start collecting all the bits of wool stuck on wire fences and prickly hedges; you will be amazed how it soon mounts up. While you can also buy wool that has already been washed dyed and combed if your wool is coming directly from your own sheep, bear in mind that it is much easier to spin if it’s prepared by separating the fibers properly first.

They should be formed into a loose, fluffy arrangement. In order to achieve this you will need to thoroughly wash and sort through your fleece by first of all, picking out any large clumps of dried grass and other vegetable matter or old dung ready for the next stage which is called carding.

Carding wool can be done with simple old fashioned hand carders that haven’t changed much over the centuries or you can use an electric carder that will save you time and lots of energy. Go through your fleece thoroughly and search for short tough hairs. Any clumps of fiber under an inch long won’t card or spin well, so they’re best removed.

If you don’t have an electric carder, only card small clumps of wool at a time, placing each clump onto the center of one paddle and using the other paddle, with the handles pointing away from each other, brush out the wool. It must be said that carding can be surprisingly soothing, especially if done at a leisurely pace in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night. When you’ve got rid of all the knots, tease the carded wool out of the bristles and roll into a small sausage and then it is all ready to get on with the job of spinning.

Spinning can be done on a spinning wheel, which was invented in the 1500’s to speed up the process. It is ideal for those doing a great deal of spinning but expensive to buy. Alternatively you can use a drop spindle, which is ideal for a beginner and a lot cheaper. Drop spindles are very primitive spinning tools and virtually the only spinning tool used until the invention of the spinning wheel.

They are still used in remote locations throughout the world and have become very popular among hand-spinners in the last few years. The drop spinner consists of three parts: the stick is called the spindle, the disk on top of the stick called the whorl and the hook.

Start spinning by tying on the leader, this is done by attaching a piece of yarn about 18 inches long onto the shaft right above the whorl, then by taking the yarn over the side of the whorl, looping it around the shaft underneath and back over the side of the whorl.

Then secure the end onto the hook; always spin clockwise and remember it will take some time to regulate the spin to where you feel comfortable. Practice this until you to learn exactly what speeds and what spins work best for you.

Leave the fibers at the end of the leader loose while letting the spindle hang beneath your hand suspended by the leader. Next take the spindle in your right hand and the leader in your left hand, spin the drop spindle from the shaft in a clockwise direction to make the yarn. Repeat this process of spinning the spindle in the same direction until the leader begins to take in the twist. Leave a fluff of fiber at the end for joining on more fiber.

You must hold the tension on your newly spun yarn to allow the twist to run into the newly formed fiber, if you release the tension, the twist will not travel up. Repeat this process a few times while checking to make sure that there is enough twist before continuing. If the yarn pulls apart or is too slack spin the spindle again to create more twist.

Once the yarn is long enough to cause the spindle to almost touch the ground, unhook the yarn and wrap it around the base of the spindle next to the whorl. This is called a single. Leave enough yarn unwound in order to slip it back on the hook with a couple of inches to spare.

To add on your next piece of wool, overlap the wool a few inches over the fluff of drafted fibers to catch and twist into the leader. Let the twist run into the joined fibers, add even more twist by spinning the spindle before you continue making a new length of yarn, otherwise your join may not be secure; test the join before continuing.

Give the spindle another twist, and bring your right hand back to where the left hand is holding the yarn. Move the left hand back about three inches, pulling and drafting out more fibers of wool and letting the spindle turn around a few times. Let go of the yarn with your right hand and let the twist move up into the fibers like before. Gently pull out more fibers from the fiber mass by pulling back with your left hand, allowing the twist to run into the drafted fibers.

If you find your yarn pulls apart, you will need to add more twist. To connect the ends back together, untwist both ends again and loosen the fibers. Lay one side on top of the other and twist the fibers together the same as before. Also if the spindle should get away from you and the twist runs up into the fiber mass untwist the fiber mass and then start the drafting process again.

Sometimes the yarn can become over twisted, if that happens loosen some of the extra twist by drafting out more fibers. After you have wound off a considerable amount of singles the spindle becomes too heavy and will start to wobble a lot while spinning, this is the time to stop spinning yarn and remove it from the spindle.

Most yarns consist of more than a single ply (one thread) of yarn. In order to ply the yarn together, you’ll need to take two of your finished skeins, and ply them together. This is done exactly like you were spinning, but instead of loose fibers, you put the two threads together (no need for a leader yarn, just tie them together and loop to the bottom of the spindle).

The major difference: When plying yarn together, use a counter clockwise motion. Once you’ve plied your threads together, re-skein and set the twist again. You’re now officially a spinner!

You can of course dye your wool any colour you wish but a good way of creating beautiful natural looking yarn is to use the wool from Shetland or Jacob sheep. Although a little coarser that some fleeces these two breeds, especially the Shetlands, produce fleeces in an amazing range of colours from chocolate brown to silver grey.

A great site to find out more about these charming and hardy little sheep and their wonderful coloured fleeces is www.woollymatters.co.uk which is run by Angela Kirby at Craiktree Shetlands in Cumbria.