Just as 2010 was closing, I finally got a piece of equipment I've wanted for a long time: a commercial-grade electric cone winder.
I know, I know! An electric device seems totally out of character for me, spending much of my time in a cabin in the woods.
There is a real, sizable problem that this machine solves: my regular yarn supply is drying up. Only a few spinning mills are releasing "mill ends", leftover batches of yarn from the end of a production run. These mills are all producing yarn that's much too skinny to use in the warp.
So, how can I use these skinny yarns? By putting multiple strands together and weaving them like a single yarn. The Silver Needles cone winder does the trick. It takes multiple strands and puts them on the cone together.
I'm OK with integrating an electric machine into the mix, partly because it isn't going to become part of my daily routine. It will be used to ply warp threads once a month or so. The daily plying of weft threads directly onto bobbins will continue to be done with my hand-cranked wooden bobbin winder.
There's a strange problem that creeps in when plying multiple strands, especially with a fast machine. One strand always seems to creep up in length compared to the others. I think it's because it always lies to one side and after a few thousand turns of the cone, that slight extra length becomes a section of slack or an ugly loop.
The solution is simple. I use a marudai to hold one cone up in the air and run all of the other threads through it. Then, they are loosely twisted on the way to the cone winder. This prevents them from lengthening strangely.
When the threads are being wound onto the beam, they will be pulled from the end of the cone, adding even more twist to the plied yarn. This twist is important when the threads are on the loom. When threading and sleying, it will be important to know which threads are plied. I'll have over 60 individual threads per inch, plied to give me 20 real threads. The added twist as they leave the cones will help me to tell which threads are supposed to be threaded together.
Getting back to the new winder...
There are two features that make this winder an especially elegant device: the auto-stop mechanism and the tension arm.
When winding, one of the problems that can creep in are knots in the thread. The Silver Needles winder handles them beautifully. Attached to the power switch is a lever with a custom spring. The yarn is threaded through the spring in such a way that a knot will catch and switch off the machine. That is slick!
In the marudai photo above, you'll see crushed paper cones acting as wedges under the big source cones on the floor. This switch mechanism is sensitive enough that it will shut off if the thread catches on the cone as it unwinds. This is good because the "snapping" of the threads unwinding that way is another cause of the problematic loops in plied thread.
The tension arm is another beautiful thing. The yarn is wrapped around it as many times as necessary to provide the right amount of tension for winding the cones. Nothing could be simpler! There's no need for a fancy tensioning device clamped to the table. Just wind it an exta turn or two if the cones are turning out squishy.
By plying my own threads, I have even more design possibility open to me. For this next project, I'll be using about 8 yarn colors to create over 30 shades of off-white.
This works because of an interesting visual effect with weaving. Each thread passes over and under the crossing threads to form cloth, so we only see tiny dots of it. This pointillist view of the threads creates a visual blending effect. If I use one grey thread with three white ones, your eye will see very light grey. It would take a patient expert with a magnifying glass to determine that these threads were not actually plied as a single yarn.
This visual blending happens in the camera, too. Take a look at my first dozen shades of off-white in the photo below. Cool, huh?