Antique French spindle

Earlier this summer I got a antique French spindle from a follower. It is the first antique spindle I have and I’m childishly happy about it. Today I share a video where I spin on my antique French spindle.

A French spindle is held in the hand. The shaft stays in the hand or close to it as the spinner twiddles the upper tip. Some call it in-hand spindle, some grasped and some twiddle spindle.

A collector

There is very little information on French spindles and their use. Sylvie Damey is the person who knows the most about French spindles. She has been collecting spindles for many years now and has quite a collection. She collects the spindles to understand more about them. Sylvie says that the reason why there is so little information about the use of these spindles is that spinning used to be such a common daily activity for women and girls and therefore there was no need to document the use of spindles. Sylvie also collects old postcards with spindle spinners. This way she can learn something about who was spinning and how.

The spindle

A French spindle is made in one piece. It has a belly onto which the cop is wound. Embellishments seem to be common.

A French spindle has a belly in the lower part of the shaft to store the yarn on.
A French spindle has a belly in the lower part of the shaft to store the yarn on. This one is 32 centimeters long and weighs 50 grams.

Some French spindles have a detachable metal upper tip. Most of them have a spiral groove. Some of the metal tips have hooks instead of grooves.

The tip of a spindle with a spiral groove.
A spiral groove on the upper tip of a French spindle.

My antique French spindle spindle has a spiral groove carved into the upper tip for clockwise spinning.

Technique

The yarn rests in the groove as long as the spindle spins. The spinning hand is always close to the spindle, ready to grasp it when necessary. You either spin with the spindle in the hand all the time or spin with a short suspension. In the video you can see how I keep the spindle in the hand. However, if you look closely, the spindle spins against my thumb at times, without me holding on to it. In another video I made about French spindle spinning last year I let go of the spindle for longer periods.

The spinning hand

When I spin on a French spindle, or any in-hand spindle really, I use four fingers. I use my thumb and index fingers to twiddle the spindle and my middle and ring fingers to balance the spindle.

I pull the spindle towards the palm of my hand. In this case, since there is a spiral groove for clockwise spinning, my right hand is my spinning hand. You can read more about my thoughts on spinning direction and spindle spinning here or check out my webinar on spindle ergonomics.

I spin by rolling my forefinger against the spindle shaft, supporting it with my thumb. My third and fourth fingers are balancing the spindle between them.
I spin by rolling my forefinger against the spindle shaft, supporting it with my thumb. My middle and ring fingers are balancing the spindle between them.

With the spindle in my hand I am always prepared to make to make fine adjustments when necessary. In this sense, in-hand spinning is a technique where the spinner has a high degree of control. The slow nature of the technique also gives the spinner time to see and understand what is happening in the drafting zone.

The fiber hand

In the video I use a hand distaff. This is for practical reasons – I was on vacation and a hand distaff was easier to bring than a belt distaff. Up until recently, I have only spun with some sort of woolen technique on an in-hand spindle and a hand distaff. But I know that knitting is a relatively new technique and basically all spinning before knitting was developed was focused on weaving yarns. Therefore I wanted to learn how to spin a worsted yarn for a strong warp. I had a video meeting with my friend Anna and she demonstrated how she spins a worsted yarn with a hand distaff.

This is how she showed me and how I do it:

  • I hold the distaff loosely with my thumb against the palm of my hand
  • In my distaff hand I hold the yarn between my thumb and ring finger
  • I draft the fibers with my index and middle finger
  • After I have drafted the fibers I let the twist into the drafting zone by sliding the pinching finger towards the drafting fingers
  • I make a new pinch with my pinching fingers and draft a new section with my drafting fingers
  • I rearrange the wool when I need to to have the best drafting position.
A hand holding a distaff between the thumb and the palm. The index and middle fingers are holding the fiber and the thumb and ring fingers are pinching the yarn.
The distaff hand with two fingers managing drafting and two managing pinching.

Dressing the distaff

I haven’t dressed a distaff for worsted spinning with wool before. I tried different ways, but this is the way that worked best for me: I hand-combed wool and dressed the tops onto the distaff lengthwise in stripes in lengths that were suitable in relation to the length of the hand distaff. The wool I have used is a year’s growth of Norwegian NKS.

A woman holding a spindle in one hand and a distaff in the other. The yarn between the hands is tensioned.
To get an evenly wound on cop I tension the yarn between my pinching fingers and the spindle.

Even tension for a steady cop

Making a steady cop is an art form in itself. The cop needs to be firm so that the cop doesn’t collapse. If the cop collapses the yarn may slide down below the lower end of the cop and ruin the whole cop. A firm cop is achieved by an even tension. I used to support my spindle against my belly for winding the yarn onto the cop, but I discovered that the yarn was too loosely wound onto the cop this way.

I have seen talented traditional spinners wind the yarn onto the cop without support. When I tried it their way I realized why. When I have no support for the spindle I have to tension the yarn between the distaff and spindle to give balance to the spindle. Since the tension depends on the weight of the spindle the tension will be even. My cop remains firm and the shape will stay in shape, so to speak. It also allows me to store more yarn on the spindle.

Location: Tvättstuga

I shot the video this summer when I rented a cabin at a sheep farm with my family. There is a creek by the farm and a wash house – a tvättstuga – by the creek. It is over 100 years old, probably from the turn of the last century or earlier. Perhaps from around the time my antique French spindle was in use! If you peek inside the windows you can see the old boiler they used to heat up the creek water and beautiful wooden wash tubs.

One winter in the early 1900s when the mother of the family was in labour the main house burned to the ground. Everybody survived, but the whole family had to move to the small wash house until a new house was built. I hope they had time to save the spinning wheel.

A woman spinning on a hand-held spindle and distaff in front of an old red building.
Spinning by the old wash house.

A word about the music

I wanted to add music that would reflect the peace in the video. I searched for French music on Free music archive that I usually use for my videos and found this. In the beginning I was concerned that it might be too slow, but the more I listen to it the more perfect I think it is for the video. I hope you enjoy it too.

Bon filage!

Close-up of an antique spindle with yarn wound onto it.
Such a pretty antique French spindle

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4 Replies to “Antique French spindle”

  1. Great to see, thank you! I have two Portuguese spindles of the same type, but my old wrists and hands can’t do that twirling or hold a hand distaff anymore, it hurts too much. One of the Portuguese spindles is antique with a metal spiraled tip. Very fragile, I haven’t used it. I believe those same types of spindles have been common in at least France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, is that correct?

    1. Lucky you to have an antique Portuguese spindle to cuddle! Yes, the spindles in France, Portugal and Italy seem to be quite similar. I haven’t seen any Spanish spindles, but in the spindle directory of Universität Innsbruck there are several different types of spindles in Spain, one of which (from Zaragoza, near the French and Catalonian borders) looks very much like the French and Portuguese models. The Mallorcan spindle looks a lot like the Portuguese.

  2. It would be natural for equipment and tools to travel in that area, just as other goods. You can see those same types of spindles in medieval pictures from southern Europe. Easy to take with you, easy to replace if broken or lost. And efficient. So happy you master that technique also!

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