What is Spinning in Textiles? - Definition & Process

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever looked closely at a spool of cotton thread or the yarn in a wool sweater? Do you know how that yarn is made? In this lesson, learn about the spinning process and how it's used in making textiles.

What is Spinning?

Textiles are all around us. We wear them, use them when we sleep, and decorate our homes with them. But have you ever thought about how they are made? One important step is spinning the yarn. Spinning is the process of taking textile fibers and filaments and making them into yarn. For thousands of years, people spun natural fibers into yarn by hand. Today, spinning involves many methods and different machines, depending on what kind of yarn is being made.

Before we discuss how spinning works, let's review some basics. Fibers are short, natural hairs that come from plants like cotton and animals like sheep. Filaments are long continuous single strands. Silk is a natural filament, but most filaments are synthetic or man-made materials, like polyester and nylon. Converting fibers and the substances that form synthetic filaments into yarn involves different methods of spinning.

Basic Process of Spinning Yarn

First, let's look at the basics of spinning, which can be done with very simple tools. To make a natural yarn, you gather cleaned and prepared natural fibers like wool or cotton. Using a tool called a spindle, a rounded stick with tapered ends, you pull the fibers by hand onto it as the spindle twists. To aid the process, the spindle is weighted by something called a whorl, a small, round stone or piece of wood which allows the spinning to be maintained at a regular speed. The process of pulling and twisting results in a piece of yarn.

A woman using a spindle and whorl to spin yarn by hand
Woman using spindle and whorl to spin yarn

Types of Spinning in Textile Production

Spinning Natural Fibers

This basic spinning process was used for natural fibers. It's how the process worked for thousands of years. Then, advances in tools and technology made spinning more efficient. In 1828, a machine was invented that allowed a method called ring spinning to mechanize the process. Hundreds of spindles were mounted vertically on a machine that spun fibers into yarns.

Machine used in ring spinning. Notice the line of multiple spindles.
Machine used in ring spinning

Ring spinning is still the way many fibers are turned into yarn, but in the 20th century another method was invented. Today, some yarns are made through rotor or open-ended spinning. In this method, the fibers are fed into a rotor and blown with air into a system that turns them into yarn without using a spindle. Yarns created by rotor spinning tend to be bulkier and heavier than those made by ring spinning.

Spinning Synthetic Filaments

The processes used to turn synthetic substances into filaments are a bit different, because they start with substances that are not yet in strand-like form. Let's look at three common methods of spinning synthetic filaments.

In melt spinning, a base substance like a polymer is melted and then pumped under pressure through a piece of equipment called a spinneret, which through many tiny holes, extrudes the melted substance as long filaments. Filaments like Polyester and Nylon can be produced by melt spinning.

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