The Impetuous Weaver Spins Silk Hankies

 You know that moment when a new skill you have been struggling with suddenly makes sense and becomes a whole lot more fun? I recently received a bit of advice that led to this AHA! moment for me, regarding spinning silk hankies.


a skein of handspun silk yarn and a wooden drop spindle lay on a silk hankie dyed in strips of purple, red, and orange, matching the yarn


Their name can be deceptive: silk hankies are not fabric, but rather a filmy square of stretched silk cocoon fiber. Naturally a glowing pearly white, they also take dye beautifully, and can contribute to beautiful nuno-felted pieces, or be spun into yarn.



Multiple silk hankies have found their way to my stash over the years- they are just so pretty with their vibrant, saturated colors! And I have tried to spin them using the commonly-recommended technique of poking a hole through one thin layer and gradually stretching the sheet into a thinner, larger ring. Then you simply pull the ring apart at one point, and you have a pre-drafted length of silk ready to spin on a drop-spindle or wheel. (Because the silk is so "grippy" in hankie form, you can also knit this strand, as it can handle being pulled on somewhat.)


It sounds simple and straighforward, but sadly, I just never enjoyed the process. It took so much hand strength for me to get the silk stretched to a thin, consistent strand, and the very large loop/strand had to be managed carefully to avoid tangles. The most I ever spun was a wee sample skein of a few yards or so. So pretty, but not enough to motivate me to persevere.


Now, if you have tried the above technique and love it, by all means carry on making your beautiful yarn! But let me tell you about the technique that changed everything for me: instead of pre-drafting the entire hankie into a big ring, just pinch it in the middle to begin drafting, and start spinning. It was worth a try, with plenty of hankies already in my stash (I chose "Moulin Rouge" dyed by Frabjous Fibers), and a new drop spindle having arrived just that day (from Snyder Spindles on etsy). Why not!


a thin layer of the dyes silk hankie is held up in front of a wooden drop-spindle with a whorl shaped like a cog


This method begins in the same way as the ring method: separate a thin layer from the stack (similar to layers of a biscuit). You can't really quantify how thick each layer is, but you want to peel layers of similar thickness throughout the project. I had a one-ounce piece, and I separated it into about 12 sheets for this skein. Then you just pinch some fiber from the middle-ish of the sheet, and give it a pull, while holding down the hankie. For the first piece, I just hooked the pinched end onto the spindle hook, and started spinning!


fiber from the center of the hankie is being pulled away from the surface  the drop spindle has a bit of yarn collected on it, and the hankie is attached, and bunched up  the drop spindle with quite a bit of yarn on it rests in a rectangular basket set in grass. the silk looks like a little dyed cloud


The silk required a very long drafting triangle because it's very long fiber and also very grippy- my hands were 8-12 inches apart most of the time, and I occasionally used pincer-fingers to smooth out larger slubs. It also seemed to need much more twist than a wool of similar thickness, but other than that, this was feeling like a much more familiar spinning experience, and I was well on my way to spinning a respectable amount of yarn.


The silk hankie would become quite bunched-up behind my hand, so I would occasionally give it a gentle tug backwards to smooth it out. I was enjoying the random and jumbled way that the colors were being pulled in, but if you want more distinction between colors, you can straighten out the hankie more frequently, and it will pull from a more focused point of color. The only really tricky thing is joining a new layer, since the pinched end is a closed loop and didn't readily "grab" the end of the previous piece. I found that I could pull a very thin strand from the end of the old piece, and tease the loop of the new piece open, and then overlap them quite a bit to create a join that wouldn't slide apart. Again, lots of twist was key here!


showing a new piece being joined to the old piece of silk, bith ends stretched thin and overlapped


This was a much more delightful experience than my previous attempts at spinning hankies, and I was ready to ply the yarn within a couple days. I suspect that my relatively weighty spindle (1.2 ounces) was an asset here- the silk is unlikely to break under weight, and it needed such a firm twist, that I feel like a light spindle would struggle to stay a-spinning.


I wound the singles from my spindle onto a ball winder to make a center-pull ball, then pulled strands from the inside and outside of the ball to start plying (back onto the same spindle). Like spinning the singles, the plying wanted a lot more twist than I was used to, but it went smoothly, and I soon had a finished skein!


finished skein, piled on a wooden surface


The skein is exactly one ounce, and 250 yards. The finished texture is soft, drapy, and light, and it has a pleasing bit of *creak* when you squish it. The color proves elusive to capture. It is most like the hankie (but not the skein) in the first photo. It's not pinkish in real life, but really spicy and rich. Lovely!


I'm eager to start my next skein now. Maybe in one of DHG's solid colors, or maybe one ply each of solid and handpainted, or maybe I will dye my own, or how about plying it with a lofty wool. . . possibilities abound! The next question, of course, is what to make with the new yarn?


If you have been afraid to try spinning silk hankies, or if you tried it the other way and didn't like it, I hope this serves as inspiration and encouragement for you. If you do spin some silk hankies (or anything else), we would love to see!

You can share with us on Instagram (@weavingworks), Facebook (@weavingworks), or by email (info@weavingworks.com).


Happy Spinning!