Spinning Fibres: Silk hankies, two drafting possibilities

My very first fiber order contained a batch of silk hankies, also called mawatas, together with the merino I was planning to learn on. Having read in Knitty that silk hankies are amongst the easiest of fibers to spin on a drop spindle I decided I should include some in my first batch of fibers. The rationale behind it was simple, if spinning proved too difficult, or if I managed to spin the merino but not the silk hankies, I could just knit with them unspun, as I’d seen the Yarn Harlot do it.

Silk hankies are made by stretching cooked silk cocoons onto a square form. Wormspit.com shows a detailed explanation, with photos clearly illustrating each step, of how the mawatas are made.

I bought mine ready-made from Wingham Wool, they are sold in stacks, as each of them is incredibly thin. I then dyed them with acid dyes and because I hadn’t pre-soaked them for long (I was way too impatient), the colour is slightly deeper on one side of the stack than on the other. I’m planning to use this little error as a design feature at some point.

stack of dyed silk hankies

[Sorry about the greyish tones of most of those pictures, the sun hasn’t made an appearance in days around these parts. For a more accurate colour of the silk, have a look at the skein at the bottom of the page, the photo was taken on a sunnier day.]

 

I first set out to spin my mawatas using the drafting method described in Knitty.  Separate one mawata from your stack by grabing a corner and gently pulling, putting your second hand flat underneath to keep the stack stable. Poke a hole in the middle of your mawata with your fingers, and start stretching the hanky by pulling on it with both hands to enlarge the hole. You can rotate the position of your hands along the hanky to obtain a more even thickness.

predrafted mawata

Once you’re happy with the thickness, just break the loop to obtain a length of ‘roving’. Unlike silk tops, the fibres in the pre-drafted hankies do not slide against, but instead grab each other, which is also why you can even knit with the unspun fibre prepped that way.

 

For a beginner spinner, it truly is a very easy fiber since it can be predrafted to the thickness you have decided on, and you then only need to focus on spinning the spindle without needing to think about drafting the fibers as you are spinning. It helps deconstructing the movements involved in spinning in more manageable steps. And because the fibers in the mawatas are so ‘grabby’ there are no issues of the predrafted roving falling apart when handling it, or if the twist is introduced too slowly. This makes for a very forgiving predrafted roving.

However, one thing I didn’t like so much about that method was that once the mawata had been stretched, drafting it further whilst spinning (if I suddenly realised that the thickness was uneven for instance) became significantly more difficult, and required much more physical strength in pulling on the roving to make it thinner. It might just be that I am quite lazy at heart, but I like my spinning to be fairly effortless. I therefore looked for alternative drafting method for the hankies.

In one of my knitting groups,  a friend suggested I just tried to draft from the centre, rather than breaking the hanky. Gently but firmly pulling on the fibers at the centre of the hanky, I hold the rest of it lightly folded in my hand, as shown on the picture on the right, drafting from the mawata as I spin. It is now my preferred method of drafting silk hankies, because I am not a great fan of pre-drafting fibres. The edge of the mawata is always slightly harder in texture, so when reaching this part, I usually draft a bit further to keep the same consistency.

 

And just because I love the finished product, this was just a sample skein: 5.4 grams of mawatas gave me 120 meters of a thin 2-ply… I’ve been pondering what to knit with it…

5.4g skein, approx. 120m of 2-plied mawatas

 

 

A few mistakes I made with silk hankies, which you could easily avoid:

  • Make your hands as smooth as possible before handling the hankies (exfoliation and moisture are your friends), the hankies will catch on the smallest amount of rough skin.
  • Do not spin very thin silk singles on a Turkish spindle, you might not be able to remove your cop from the arms once done. Because the arms of a Turkish slide into each other, the centre part, which the shaft traverses, is generally thicker than the tip of the arms. When the time comes to remove the arms, the centre needs to slide through openings smaller than itself. With wool, the give in the fabric compensate for the difference in diameter. Silk, I learned the hard way, doesn’t always have enough give for the centre to work its way through.
  • Beware of plying using an Andean bracelet. Because the fibre is so ‘grabby’, silk singles can get tangled more

    Tangled singles...

    easily. Making an Andean bracelet is not impossible, but a tangle with silk singles will be much more difficult to sort out… Here is a bracelet of singles I have more or less given up on… well, officially it has simply been waiting to be untangled for the past six months… no signof the untangling fairy yet…

 

How about you? Have you tried silk hankies yet? Any tips to share?

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