Yesterday I came back from Sätergläntan center for craft education. I have been teaching a five-day course in different spindle techniques. I call the course A spindle a day, referring to both the outline of the course and of the way spinning keeps me healthy – it makes me feel focused, peaceful and and sharp.
Sätergläntan bursts of crafting and creativity and it is a very inspirational place to be. This is the second time I teach at Sätergläntan, the last time was last October when I taught a five-day course in supported spindle spinning. I feel so lucky to be able to teach here. Only a couple of weeks ago Hazel Tindall and Nancy Marchant taught classes here.
A spindle a day
In October 2018 I taught a five-day course in supported spindle spinning. The principal of the center asked me if I wanted to come back and teach this summer. I did. From previous courses I knew that many people want to learn how to spin on a supported spindle, but I also know that there are many other spindle types that people want to learn. I sketched up a new course and called it A spindle a day.
I wanted to create a course where people could learn different spindle types, but also to really enjoy the superpowers of the slowness of spindle spinning. Spindle spinning allows you to focus on quality. You get time to listen to the wool and find out how it wants to be treated to be able to spin its best yarn.
Practicing spindle techniques is also a perfect thing to do outdoors – all you need is a spindle and some processed fiber and you are good to go. After all, that’s how people have been spinning for tens of thousands of years.
Day 1: Suspended spindle
The first part of day 1 was dedicated to wool knowledge and processing. After that we were ready to spin!
We started the first day with some basic wool knowledge. We looked at some of the Swedish breeds and their characteristics – staple length, crimp, fiber types, fineness etc. Handling wool from the very beginning helps us get to know the wool and understand what the characteristics do in a yarn and how we can enhance certain characteristics in the way we prepare and spin the yarn.
We also needed some wool to spin with, so we spent the next lesson combing. Some had combed before but hadn’t really got the hang of it and some had not combed at all. We used mainly a very dense Swedish Leicester wool that was a challenge to separate.
We also looked at desired characteristics of hand combs – Tine length, sharpness, tine rows and distance between the tines. All these aspects will have an impact of the yarn we spin. As a spinner I need to adapt my combs to the wool I use and the result I want.
Most of the students in the class had spun on a suspended spindle before, some for a long time. They took the time to focus and practice. Some of them had never set the spindle in motion by rolling the shaft up the thigh before and were amazed at the speed it induced.
The most experienced spinner played the game “how long can I spin before I need to roll the yarn onto the shaft” and set the spindle in motion with her feet.
There was one student who had no prior spinning or wool processing experience. It was my responsibility to meet her at her level and find the right step size for her to make progress and shine. And she did! It was wonderful to see how she worked with the wool with determination and dedication, how she understood the concept of drafting and found the point of twist engagement.
When I teach spindle spinning I encourage, no, I make my students change hands. I want them to be able to use either hand as spinning hand or fiber hand. All hands in my class need to learn and be comfortable with how to control the fiber and how to control the yarn. I am a firm believer that you understand more about the spinning process and spinning mechanics if both hands know both tasks.
All the students did as I told them and they were amazed at how it actually worked after the initial learning process.
Day 2: Floor-supported spindle
On the second day all the students were beginners again, none of them had any previous experience of the floor-supported spindle.
A floor-supported spindle is, obviously, supported by the floor. It is thus a long spindle, somewhat longer if you sit on a chair than if you sit on the floor. We focused on the Navajo spindle where the spinner spins longdraw from hand-carded rolags.
With Navajo spindle spinning there are no short cuts – you need to make hand-carded rolags and they need to be even. The quality of the rolag will have consequences for the spinning process and the yarn you are spinning.
Most of the students had experience in carding, but they all realized what difference dedicated time and thoroughness can do for the result. They learned quickly, though, and were amazed at their own progress – after a few loose and uneven rolags came concentric and even ones that made the teacher very proud.
Let your hands listen to the wool
With a Navajo floor-supported spindle your hands need to communicate. Those of you who have watched the beautiful video of Navajo weaver Clara Sherman spinning on a Navajo spindle have heard her talk about the hands knowing and feeling what to do. This is very true when it comes to Navajo spindle spinning. The spindle hand is rolling the spindle shaft up the thigh and the fiber hand is holding the rolag ever so lightly. No hand is on the yarn to control it. The yarn is created in the cooperation between the hands, like a choreographed dance. The hands therefore need to listen to the wool to know when more twist needs to be added and when to add more length to the yarn or to open up the twist.
Being a beginner in a known field
The students I teach are generally experienced spinners. But when they come to my classroom they are beginners again. This can cause lots of frustration. As intermediate and experienced spinners they have so much knowledge. They know how wool behaves, how to draft and what they need to do to the yarn to get it where they want. They just don’t know this particular tool. I need to remind them to be patient and have respect for their own learning process.
Day 3: In-hand spindle with distaff
Mid-week we are tired. The students have been stuffed for two days and their brains need time to process all the things they have learned. And that’s ok. Sometimes we need to stop and listen, take a break or a step back. Still, they managed to take in and flourish in a new spinning technique and a new way to handle the fiber.
In this section of the course we also looked at some historical aspects of spinning. How did they spin in Central European medieval times? How did the Vikings spin? We also looked at French, Portuguese and Balkan spindles, which are all spun with a similar technique and with a distaff.
For the in-hand (or grasped or twiddle) spindle, the spinner holds the upper tip of the spindle between their fingers and turns the spindle in the hand. After some practice you can let go of the spindle and allow it to spin freely for short periods, still in the hand, always ready to grasp again. This was a challenge to the students. They thought they would never be able to control the spindle in the hand, but before lunch they all did!
Managing the distaff
The next step was to add the distaff. That too was a challenge – to hold the distaff while at the same time draft with the fiber hand, twiddle the spindle and keep an eye on the yarn going diagonally over the chest. They managed that too.
In fact, we even went for a walk with our spindles and distaffs. Now, that’s progress!
Day 4: Supported spindle
This is my game. I have taught lots of classes in supported spindle spinning. I know what to do, I know my course outline and I know the most common challenges the students face.
This time I was dead wrong.
These students have, step by step and in other contexts, become acquainted with most of the skills needed for supported spindle spinning, and they didn’t need much of my assistance before they were spinning away on their supported spindles. They didn’t have to start with a leader to practice the movements and angles, they had already practiced them the previous days with the other techniques.
Old skills in a new package
This is the thing about new skills – even if you are totally new to a thing, you always have some older skills you can apply to the new ones, albeit in a new package.
- They know from the floor-rested and in-hand spindles how to change the angle between spinning and rolling onto the shaft.
- With the in-hand spindle they have practiced fine-motor skills for twiddling the spinning tip.
- Early on the first day we talked about opening up the twist to achieve a more even yarn and they have practiced it ever since.
- Since day one they have practiced wool preparation and know what consequences it has for the quality of the spinning and the yarn.
- For nearly every question they have asked I have encouraged them to analyze and find the answer themselves. They have started to analyze more themselves now and understand more why things happen the way they do in their spinning.
- They know how to pack a mean permanent cop.
All I had to do was to coach them in flicking and encourage them to analyze even more.
I’m so proud of them!
Day 5: Wool tasting
The fifth day was only half a day, so there was no new spindle. Instead the students put their new skills to the test in a wool tasting.
Testing new skills
They got five different wools and a chart. For each wool they were to make an initial assessment of the wool – what was their immediate feeling of the wool?
They prepared and spun the wool and made a sample, taking notes of preparation method, spinning technique and spindle type. For every wool they got fifteen minutes. The room was quiet and the air thick with concentration. They were all dedicated and knew exactly how they wanted to prepare and spin the different wools and made thorough notes. It was a joy to observe!
So much of what they had learned during the week came in use in the wool tasting. They had been provided with lots of tools and in the wool tasting they proved that they knew how to use them.
The last thing we did before lunch and journeys homeward was a spinning meditation. I hadn’t planned it, but one of the student had taken one of my previous courses where we had had a spinning meditation and asked if we could do it again. And it was a very suitable finale of a wonderful week.
Spinning, especially on spindles, can be truly meditative and is one of the superpowers of the craft. For me, a spindle a day keeps me balanced and focused. Perhaps it also keeps the doctor away.
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