Best Practices in Fractal Spinning

If there’s any downside to being a collector and spinner of colourful, hand-painted fibre, it’s that the options for dividing and spinning these braids can feel overwhelming to some. That’s why, years ago, I settled on fractal spinning as my go-to method for splitting down such fibre before it hits the wheel. Over time, I’ve learned to manage my fractal spinning based on the style of dyeing applied, combined with the knitted results I’m seeking.

Janel Laidman is credited with first applying this mathematical theory to spinning dyed fibres in her 2007 article in Spin Off, and curiosity about the method seems to have only increased in the years since.

What’s a Fractal Spin?

Fractal spinning is a method of colour management, not a spinning technique. It’s a mode of dividing and breaking down a braid of fibre into smaller colour repeats, as derived from the mathematical theory of fractals and complex wholes. Unlike intricate geometric principles, however, this formula is simple: any patterned whole can be split into self-similar smaller parts, pretty much endlessly.

How this translates to handspinning: a fractally split braid of fibre starts with a “whole”—a full-sized representation of the pattern—in this case, dyed colours. This whole is spun up as your first ply. Your second ply is spun from smaller strips of the same pattern, spun one after the other in intentionally repeating order. The theory could be continued in a third (and fourth, etc.) ply. The number of these smaller repeats is up to you. (See? No math involved!)

When knit, a fractal yarn has a lovely meandering striping look to it, as the shorter colour repeats gently intersperse with the longer, full-sized ones. Generally speaking, the more you split down the fibre, the more heathered and gentle the striping will appear, while fewer repeating smaller-scale strips will yield a bolder, more definitive effect in your knitting.

Selecting the Proper Fibre for Effective Fractal Spinning

Despite the easy, forgiving nature of this means of colour management, this is where spinners tend to go awry, as not every hand-painted braid of fibre is meant for fractals. Your initial whole needs to have distinctive and/or long runs of colour(s) so it can be split down into its smaller, self-repeating parts. Ideal options include fibre dyed in colour blocks, sequential repeats (sometimes called space dyeing) or non-repeats of definitive colours. Random blips and short runs of colour, such as those created in kettle dyeing, will not work as a visible fractal-spun yarn, and neither would a tonal dye. These dyeing methods would be lost in the finished yarn.

Fibre set for the simplest of all fractal spins
Fibre set for the simplest of all fractal spins

Splitting Your Fibre for Fractal Spinning

Once you’ve chosen your braid of fibre, dividing it into strips for your spin is simple.

  • Open your braid and lay it out so you can see your colour runs. Make note of which end colour is going to be your beginning (I like to take a photo as a reminder). Split the fiber at the center point so you have one whole stretch of your original colour run/patterning. This is your first ply, which will be spun onto one bobbin.
  • Your second ply is the “smaller repeats of the whole.” You may split it down into as few or as many (shorter) repeats as you’d like by stripping it vertically. Bear in mind that the more repeats, the softer the combined striping will appear in your knitted fabric.
  • Spin your second ply by spinning each of your smaller strips onto another bobbin, keeping them in the same order as the first ply (e.g. three colours in a repeat are ABC).
  • Ply your bobbins. If you’re a spinner who likes to rewind their singles prior to plying, pay attention to your rewinding order. I do rewind my singles and find it easiest to spin each of my plies onto a single bobbin, which I then rewind in its entirety.
  • To spin a 3-ply fractal, you would split the full braid into three self-similar sections instead of two, still spinning your first ply in its whole form and then following the above steps for your second and third plies.illustration explaining fractal spinning divisions

Other Considerations

There is no actual math to fractal spinning and you can interpret your own spins as literally or as conceptually as you choose. The premise is to have smaller-scale approximate repeats within a larger whole. For a more literal interpretation, follow the steps above. More loosely, you might spin the fibre strips for your second ply all in the opposite colour order as the whole (in the above example, CBA). Or, you could choose to spin them forward to backward/backward to forward (ABCCBA) or even randomly, as your smaller-scale pattern would still be recurring.

What if you mess up or lose track of the order of your singles during the spinning or plying process? It happens, and your results will still be gorgeous. No one is grading your work. This is your interpretation of colour handling as based on the concept of fractals in mathematical theory and as found in nature (such as in bark and snowflakes). How accurately you adhere to the model is up to you.

We’d love to see your fractal spinning on social media using the hashtag #sosfractalspinning, or join other School of SweetGeorgia members and instructors in the Community Forums.

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