Dancing the Navajo spindle

I have a new video for you today! In the video I’m dancing the Navajo spindle. The technique and cooperation between the hands remind me of a choreographed dance.

The weft yarn for the shawl I’m wearing in the video was spun on a Navajo spindle. You can see how I made the shawl here.

In the beech forest

The video was shot on a May day in a beech forest just in time for the spring flushing. The light was magical with the fresh newborn green on a background of the smooth, almost bewitching warm grey trunks. This is a small beech forest near Dan’s childhood home and less than an hour away from our house. We like to visit it on festive times like early May for the spring flushing and mid-October for the peak of the sparkling autumn leaves fireworks. It is the perfect location for photo and video shoots and for letting your shoulders relax and enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature.

A woman sitting on a tree trunk and spinning on a ground-supported spindle. A basket of carded wool on the ground beside her. She is wearing a T-shirt with a sheep on it and a woven plaid shawl.
Dancing the Navajo spindle. Photo by Dan Waltin.

Dan was behind the camera (his fancy one) for the shooting of this video, hence the beautiful quality. He can’t shoot all my videos for me, so it is an extra treat for me when he does have time to help me. He has the right eye for the motif, composition, the sense of the perfect light and colour scheme and the artistic and technical experience for a beautiful shot. We have a lot of fun on these occasions and I like to think the interplay between us shows in the video. Moreover, I can flirt shamelessly with the camera man!

Words or no words?

At first I had planned to add keywords to the video describing my technique. But when I saw the beautiful shots I was afraid that a tutorial style would ruin the artistic perspective in the video. So for a while I planned to skip text altogether. Then one night when I had trouble sleeping I knew exactly what to do – I wanted to match the artistic perspective in the video with sort of poetic style reflections on the spinning technique.

Dancing

When Dan and I first met in our late teens we took dancing classes together. First jive, then on to ballroom dancing and later Argentine tango. To me, spinning on a Navajo spindle has many similarities with dancing as it includes leading and following, technical and artistic aspects and choreographed and improvised sequences.

Dancing the Navajo spindle

The moves are alternately bold and subtle, following each other in a balanced wave. Both hands lead and follow through different parts of the dance in a power balance between two equal partners.

Both hands so light on spindle and fiber, still controlled and ready for the instructions from their choreography master – the wool. The spindle hand sets the spindle in motion and a never-ending series of pirouettes. Meanwhile, the fiber hand mindfully follows the movements, waiting for the moment to gently take over the lead. When the twist is right the spindle hand surrenders the control in favour of the fiber hand that magically drafts the fiber into a smooth and even yarn.

The union between spun and unspun in the drafting zone is the heart of the dance, the spot where all the energy is created and transmitted to the hands. Fiber is transformed from cloudy mist to organized yarn in a cyclic motion lovingly shared between mindful and experienced hands. All the hands need to do is listen and dance the wool away.

A woman sitting on a tree trunk and spinning on a ground-supported spindle. A basket of carded wool on the trunk beside her. She is wearing a T-shirt with a sheep on it and a woven plaid shawl.
The hands just need to listen to the wool and dance the wool away. Photo by Dan Waltin.

The technical steps

I do like to animate spinning. Spinning is such a large part of my life and I see so much beauty and art in the craft. Animating the spinning becomes sort of a celebration of the beauty of it and a nod in recognition from my soul to the soul of spinning. But I realize dancing the Navajo spindle may not be everyone’s cup of tea. So here is a more technical description of the steps.

Since none of the hands really is on the yarn the hands need to communicate through the yarn, pretty much like a tin can telephone. The energy of the twist and the drafting is transmitted to the hands and you can actually feel it. If you allow your hands to listen carefully they will understand how to react to the different signals. The yarn thus acts like the coreographer – through both planned (the general cycle from fluff to stuff) and improvised signals (stuff happen on the way) the yarn, or rather the energy in the yarn, tells the hands what to do when. The hands follow the guidance from the yarn.

A woman sitting on a tree trunk and spinning on a ground-supported spindle. A basket of carded wool on the trunk beside her. She is wearing a T-shirt with a sheep on it and a woven plaid shawl.
The spun yarn works like a tin can phone and transmits the signals from the yarn to the hands that in turn take action. Photo by Dan Waltin.

This is how I spin on a Navajo spindle:

Both hands are very light – the spindle hand on the shaft and the fiber hand holding the rolag very lightly, like a baby bird. In fact, I tell my students to name their baby bird to be aware of the grip and not strangle sweet Kajsa (a rolag name borrowed from my most recent spinning class). You don’t want to strain your wrists and you don’t want to squish the rolag.

  1. The spindle hand sets the spindle in motion while the fiber hand follows the movements of the spindle.
  2. Now, here comes the first step of the double draft: When there is enough twist in the fiber, the fiber hand drafts the fiber while the spindle hand acts as the antagonist. I draft an arm’s length.
  3. When my arm doesn’t reach any longer but the yarn isn’t drafted enough I store the excess yarn between the pinkie and thumb of my fiber hand, always keeping the yarn taut.
  4. In the second step of the double draft I insert more twist when I need to. To even out the yarn I open up the twist by drafting some more. I can also pin-point uneven parts by rolling the yarn against the twist with my spindle hand thumb to allow the fibers to pass each other smoothly. You can read more about opening up the twist in my post about the Twist model (including examples from Navajo spindle spinning).
  5. I store the spun yarn in a temoporary upper cop.
  6. Repeat steps 1–5 until the rolag is all spun up.
  7. Then I transfer the yarn to the permanent lower cop. I use my fiber hand as a middle station. I butterfly the yarn between my thumb and pinkie. When all the yarn is on the fiber hand I roll it onto the lower cop, supporting the spindle either on the ground or on my hip.
  8. To join in a new rolag I simply place the end of the yarn on top of the rolag and insert twist.

I watch the yarn at all times. This is the beauty of spindle spinning – it is slow enough for the spinner to watch the yarn in the making at all times. You have the opportunity to control the quality up close. Use it.

A woman sitting on a tree trunk and holding a floor-supported spindle. She is reaching down into a basket of white carded rolags.
Well prepared rolags are essential in Navajo spindle spinning. Photo by Dan Waltin.

The prep of the fiber is essential in all spinning, and perhaps especially in the (English) long draw. Read my post and watch my video about teasing wool and carding rolags if you need an update on hand-carding.

A woman spinning on a ground-supported spindle. Large castle gates in the foreground.
The gates to the castle the beech forest belongs to. Photo by Dan Waltin

Dan and I had a wonderful time in the spring beech forest. We went back in early November for the majestic autumn colours. We may have brought the camera too. You may see the results of that photo shoot soon.

Happy spinning!


There is still time to register for the free live breed study webinar on Värmland wool this afternoon! Register here and read more about Värmland wool here. There may be Navajo spindle spinning in the webinar.


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