Learning new things – medieval style spinning

I’m in a process where I’m learning new things. Learning a new skill is a beautiful experience. To be able to meet a new technique from a perspective of a beginner allows me to experiment with new tools before I have had the chance to decide which tools to get comfortable with. It teaches me to be humble before the learning process. For a moment I can step outside of myself and watch me gradually grasp the new technique.

Learning to spin medieval style

The purpose of my romance with the ever so charming process of learning is the art of spinning medieval style with a distaff. In this, there are several new things for me to learn:

  • The technique to spin on a new kind of spindle with a new technique
  • How to dress and draft from a distaff
  • How to spin and draft with the wrong hand

Medieval style spinning technique

The medieval spindle technique can be described as a third kind of technique along with suspended and supported spindle spinning. It is a grasped kind of spinning or in-hand spinning. But one of the beauties of spinning medieval style is that you can combine it with suspended spinning (long and short) and support spinning, all according to the circumstances in which you are spinning.

When spinning in-hand style, the yarn goes over the top of the spindle shaft, much like it does with supported spinning. I just love that light pattering sound of the thread snapping off the spindle tip for every turn of the spindle. Check out Cathelina di Alessandri‘s videos at 15th century spinning for great technique instructions.

The distaff

Working with a distaff is totally new to me. I have a hand-held distaff and a belt distaff. The first task is to dress the distaff. I prefer to hand-card my fleece, and so I do my best to assemble 20–25 grams of hand-carded batts on my distaff. I had lots of inspiration from Luca Costigliolo.

My hand distaff is hand turned by Caroline Hershey at Hershey Fiber arts. My belt distaff is hand-carved by my son when he was eight. He was inspired by the wizarding world and wanted to make a “magic cane”. He carved and decorated with mysterious signs and a magic gemstone on top. And when I found it a couple of weeks ago (he is 15 now and doesn’t like to throw away stuff) I saw the perfect belt distaff! A tad too short, but I can live with that. I am planning to carv myself some new ones though, in various lengths for hand-held, belt and floor distaff spinning.

Changing hands

In almost all of my spinning my left hand is my spinning hand and my right hand is my fiber hand. I tried this with in-hand spinning, but I got a cramp in my left hand all the time. The motion is the same whether you spin with your right or left hand, but if you want a specific spinning direction the motion will be different. Unless I spin for something special, I always spin clockwise. Spinning clockwise with your right hand means moving your first and second fingers outwards, away from your body. Spinning clockwise with tour left hand means moving your fingers inward towards your center. And apparently this didn’t work for me. So I switched. I know it is possible, since I have done it with Navajo spindle spinning for similar reasons.

A person holding a spindle
Learning to spin with the wrong hand

Changing an incorporated muscular pattern does take its time, though. But today I really felt progress and thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having some sort of control over my right hand muscles.

Video plans

I have plans to make a video with medieval style spinning. It’s still a little cold outside, though. The lanolin isn’t on its best behaviour in -7°C. Believe me, I have tried. Today in fact. So I will give you a short sneak peak of my learning process from a cold and snowy Stockholm. Enjoy!

The spindle is one of the spiral notched spindle shafts from NiddyNoddyUK that I unboxed the other day and the whorl is from John Rizzi. Hat pattern is Ella Gordon‘s Crofthoose hat in my handspun yarn and the shawl is my handspun and handwoven from my video Slow Fashion 2 – from sheep to shawl. The fiber I am spinning is a prize winning Värmland fleece. Wonderful to work with and it drafts like a dream. Just not in winter temperatures.

There will be more! In the meantime I will continue to practice and learn.

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14 Replies to “Learning new things – medieval style spinning”

  1. Hi Josefin,
    what a great coincidence that the topic of changing hands came up for you just now! I had a stubborn problem with supported spinning. Watching your videos (but apparently not closely enough) I had taught myself spinning the spindle with the left hand, but (accidentally) counterclockwise. For me, it feels so much more natural that way! Trying to spin the spindle with my left hand clockwise just does not produce enough torque for me, no matter what I try, and I do get cramps from that (so funny that you’re just the opposite!). So taking your inspiration, I switched the spindle to the right hand where I can turn the spindle clockwise and still keep turning while I work the thread (something that I had a problem with achieving when it ran counter-clockwise in my left). Bingo! Works like a charm. Much easier to get used to working the thread with my left. I’m really curious now for which “special projects” you use spinning counterclockwise (except for plying, I assume) and if you run into similar problems then? I wish I could take one of your real-world courses – there’s so much I do now know yet – but your blog post today solved a huge problem for me! Thank you!

    1. Yay for your Bingo moment! Thank you so much for this comment, it means so much with constructive feedback and questions. And it is a great question!

      To start with, I have never considered changing hands for supported spindle spinning, it has worked well from the start. But now I am really wondering, perhaps I should try it! If nothing else, I will benefit from knowing both ways when I teach.

      Special projects when I spin counter-clockwise is of course plying, which I do occasionally on spindles. And, come to think of it, plying comes really easy to me on the supported spindle. Also if I spin for Z-plied yarn, which I may need for twined knitting or for weaving (e.g. Z-plied warp with S-plied weft). These are theoretical examples, though, so I can’t really answer your question about whether I run into the same problem on these special projects. I have plied on a Navajo spindle. I tried changing hands and I tried keeping hands but changing rolling direction, and the latter won.

      Thanks again for your question, it really made me reflect over my spinning habits! Perhaps there will be more posts on this subject.

      Happy spinning!

      1. This is so interesting – turning the spindle by pulling the first and second finger towards me instead of pushing away from me makes the spindle turn so much better, no matter which hand I use – maybe there’s “pullers” and “pushers”? Which makes me wanna become ambidextrous, so I can produce the spin I need (clockwise or counter) by simply changing my spinning hand instead of having to switch from pull to push. This might also be the reason why I never enjoyed spinning on a drop spindle much (same problem with getting cramps and not enough spin). Have to try that with switched hands next. Looks like you found something major here!

        Thank you for your wonderful work and your generous sharing!

          1. Feel free to use me as a study-object any time! So I guess we are “speeks”? 😉 (Another fun fact: In German, “spinning” and “being a little crazy” are the same word …)

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