Saturday morning spinning and the Bradford count 

Good morning and happy Saturday! This week I wanted to talk a little bit about the Bradford count (aka: English Worsted Yarn Count System) more commonly referred to as the spinning count. Many spinners are familiar with this as an indication of the fineness or coarseness of a fiber. The higher the Bradford count number is, the finer the fiber is. For example, merino fiber may indicate a Bradford count of 70s – 80s, Bluefaced Leicester may be 56s – 60s, and North American Romney may be 44s – 50s. There’s more to that number though, and it that can often be a source of confusion and frustration for some spinners.

The Bradford count was developed in England long before we possessed the technology to accurately measure fiber diameter. The numbers indicate how many 560 yard skeins of singles (the s following the number stands for singles) that a given fleece should theoretically yield. So take a moment to think about that fiber in relation to the numbers. One pound of that fine merino fleece, even at the lower number, is supposed to yield 70 skeins of singles that measure 560 yards each. That’s 39,200 yards of singles per pound!

Wool classic in Australia, circa 1900 – image from Wikipedia

It’s a very subjective method for classifying and grading wool as the person doing the grading relies solely on touch to determine the Bradford count. This not only leaves room for error, despite the training these wool graders had to go through, but for bias and dishonesty as well. This system was developed long before the industrialization of spinning, which means that hand spinners were expected to meet that often arbitrary number of yards per pound. There’s no doubt that some spinners could, but I imagine there were just as many who couldn’t. Maybe that was because they lacked the skill to produce that yardage and maybe it was because the wool wasn’t graded correctly. Most likely it was a little of both.

So what does this mean for the modern hand spinner? Are we not competent spinners if we aren’t able to produce 39,200 yards from a pound of 70s merino? Certainly not! Those Bradford counts were developed with the commercial textile industry in mind, and hand spinners haven’t been supplying the commercial textile industry for at least a couple hundred years now. There are spinners with an interest in reproducing those textiles of old, and spinning to those arbitrary Bradford counts and I think that’s awesome. There are even spinners (maybe just one or two very opinionated and arrogant spinners) who think that fibers MUST be spun to that Bradford count number and that yarn that isn’t spun to that specification and spinners who are unable to spin that specification are inferior. I think that’s nonsense.

The different methods of wool classing side by side

The reality is that most of us have no need to produce that kind of yarn because we aren’t making those kinds of garments. It’s helpful to know what the Bradford count is and what it means, but it’s not necessary to be able to spin to that count and a spinner’s inability to do that is by no means an indication of incompetence. If a spinner is producing yarn that meets their needs and that they are happy with, they are competent.

That’s it for me this morning. Have a great weekend and a Happy Thanksgiving!

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