Opening up the twist

Earlier this week I got a question from a follower on Instagram. Shelly asked: How do you avoid overuse injuries to your back, shoulders, wrists and hands since you use all these repetitively and so frequently when spinning/knitting? I see people like you posting constantly and seemingly unaffected by strain. Do you have a special practice to avoid issues when spinning with a drop spindle/Turkish spindle?

I have several replies to this interesting and important question, but my focus will stay on opening up the twist for the sake of this post.

But first, a few shorter replies to Shelly’s question:

  • I am not a monogamous crafter. I have a need to craft and I have lots of projects going on at the same time. When my body reminds me that I have been working in one technique for a long time I take a break and do something else. Preferably this will include a walk or some other way to engage different muscle groups. If I still have a crafting need I may change to some other technique, tool or craft.
  • Instagram posts shows things that have happened. It doesn’t say when it happened or things that happened but were not instagrammed. I love sharing pictures of spinning and other crafts, but it is not what I do all day long. My goal with posting on Instagram is to inspire others to craft and find the joy in the process of making. My wish is that my followers see it as inspiration and not as something that leads to stress for not spinning 24/7. Listen to your body when it tells you to stop.
  • When I spin on spindles I always spin clockwise with my right hand as spindle hand and counter-clockwise with my left hand as spindle hand. With this system the fingers always pull the spindle towards the palm of the hand (as opposed to pushing it away), which is better ergonomically. In all my spindle spinning classes I therefore make my students learn how to spin with both hands. You can read more about pulling and pushing in this blog post or watch this webinar on spindle ergonomics. In the article The Flick that I wrote for PLY magazine’s supported spindle issue I write about pushing and pulling too.
In the article The Flick in PLY magazine's Supported spindle issue I talk about pulling the spindle towards the palm of the hand and how it is better ergonomically than pushing it outward.
In the article The Flick in PLY magazine’s Supported spindle issue I talk about pulling the spindle towards the palm of the hand and how it is better ergonomically than pushing it outward. The thumb and index finger is turning the yarn against the twist direction to open up the twist.

Twist engagement

In the beginning of 2019 I wrote about a theory I call the Twist model. The model focuses on how the presence of twist engages the fibers into the draft and how we can take advantage of this when we spin. With no twist the fibers will pull apart when we pull in each end – nothing stops the fibers when pulled. The fiber is unstable. With a lot of twist nothing happens when we pull in each end – the high twist stops the fibers from moving. The yarn is stable. But there is a point between stable and unstable in which the fibers are semi-stable and will slide past each other without pulling apart. I call this the point of twist engagement (the term Point of twist engagement comes from the Swedish word dragläge which describes the point in a stick shift car where, when both clutch and gas pedals are engaged, the engine is running without moving).

The twist model
The twist model

Working with the point of twist engagement is a way to achieve an even yarn and a smooth spinning with a low strain on the hands, wrists and shoulders of the spinner.

Opening up the twist

When I spin I always work close to the point of twist engagement. In some techniques I keep the twist close to the point of twist engagement as I draft. Not until I have the thickness and evenness I want I add twist to get the final twist angle of the yarn. In others I open up the twist after it has passed the point of twist engagement. By opening up the twist I mean to turn the the yarn between the hands against the spinning direction with my spinning hand. The twist that was too much opens up and allows the fibers to glide past each other.

By rolling the yarn against the twist I open up the twist to allow the fibers to glide past each other.
By rolling the yarn against the twist I open up the twist to allow the fibers to glide past each other.

Short draw

When I spin a short draw I open up the twist with my spinning hand to allow the fibers to slide past each other without coming apart.

In the video above I spin on a suspended spindle. At 1:18 you can see how the thumb and index finger of my spindle hand turns the yarn against the spinning direction to open up the twist. This way I ease the motion for my fiber hand – I don’t need to pull. Instead, it is the opening up of the twist that allows my fiber hand to move outwards.

In supported spindle spinning I open up the twist with the thumb and index finger of my spindle hand by turning the yarn against the twist direction. You can see this in the video, beginning at 0:22. Turning the yarn against the spinning direction with my spindle hand – opening up the twist – is what allows my fiber hand to move outward.

To be able to open up the twist between the hands they need to be close enough to each other so that the twist opens up all the way between them. I usually keep my middle finger under the spun yarn. The way the yarn is bent over the finger the twist from the spindle is momentarily prevented from traveling up through the yarn too fast.

The yarn lies over the middle finger of my spinning hand, which prevents the twist from traveling up too fast.
The yarn lies over the middle finger of my spinning hand, which prevents the twist from traveling up too fast.

Longdraw

An example of keeping the twist close to the point of twist engagement is the English longdraw, either on a Navajo spindle, a supported spindle or a spinning wheel.

Spinning wheel

In the video above where I spin English longdraw on a spinning wheel I have a sequence that I repeat:

  • I treadle to build up the twist in the yarn on the bobbin side (yarn pinched to keep the twist from entering the rolag)
  • I make the draft in one smooth motion. At this stage the twist travels up the fibers. As long as I can draft with the fibers still semi-stable I am at the point of twist engagement. If I need to, I can manipulate the yarn slightly with my front hand to open up the twist.
  • When I am happy with the thickness and evenness of the yarn, I treadle some more to add the twist I want for the final yarn.

Navajo style spindle

On the video above where I spin on a Navajo spindle I do the same – I work close to the point of twist engagement. If there is too much twist for the fibers to glide smoothly I manipulate the yarn with just a slight roll with my spindle hand thumb. This opens up the twist just enough for the fibers to slide a little smoother. You can see this at 2:17 in the video. When I feel I have the thickness and evenness of the yarn that I want, I add more twist.

Supported spindle

Spinning an English style longdraw on a supported spindle is not very different from the Navajo spindle. I flick the spindle to build up twist, make the draw. As I make the draw I use the thumb and forefinger of my spinning hand to open up the twist. This allow the fibers to glide more smoothly. You can see this at 1:22 in the video above. When I’m happy with the evenness of the yarn I add more twist and roll on.

Spinning students

When I teach spinning I always talk about opening up the twist. In fact, it is one of the first things I bring up in the class. To me, the point of twist engagement is what explains drafting, be it to a beginner or intermediate spinner.

The students open up the twist when they learn how to spin on a Navajo style spindle.

The students work with opening up the twist and get the theory. Usually, though, I find myself picking at their grip and wonder what I need to understand to get them to ease their grips. During my last five-day course A spindle a day I realized that I need to connect the opening up of the twist (spindle hand) with how to hold the fiber (fiber hand).

A soft grip

When I learn a new practical skill I usually hold on to the tool or material for dear life. It is like I believe holding it harder will somehow make the skill morph itself into my hands through the tool or material. I see the same tight grip in my students’ hands – they compress the fiber and pinch the yarn.

Listen to the wool

The wool knows how it wants to be spun. As spinners we just need to listen to what it has to say. It is like the movement the fibers make when they slide past each other forms a signal with information. We can listen to the fibers through opening up the twist – the fibers can keep sliding past each other and set themselves into the twist. But if we hold the fiber preparation and/or yarn (usually and since both hands tend to want to keep the same firmness) too tightly the fibers won’t be able to move – the signal will die. With a gentle grip of both fiber and yarn the signal is free to move between the spinning hand and the fiber hand. This way the wool communicates with us while it also helps the hands communicate with each other.

No pain in the classroom

As a teacher it is my job to make sure my students can spin without strain and pain. To help them ease the grip of the fiber I ask them to see the prepared fiber as a baby bird. It needs to be held firmly enough to prevent it from taking off but loosely enough not to crush it.

I observe my students in the classroom. By this I try to make sure they spin with as much muscle economy as possible. They are there to spin and to enjoy the process and I need to make sure they can without strain. When the fibers slide past each other the fiber hand doesn’t need to pull. Instead the opening up of the twist by the spinning hand allows the fiber hand to move outwards without force, enough to just keep the yarn stretched.

I hold the rolag in a very gentle grip. Basically the yarn just goes over my thumb and rests in the hand. Photo by Dan Waltin
I hold the rolag in a very gentle grip. Basically the yarn just goes over my thumb and rests in the hand. Photo by Dan Waltin

Drafting or pulling?

If the fibers are not opened up enough between the fiber hand and spinning hand the fiber hand needs to start pulling. And with a pull from the fiber hand comes a counter-pull from the spinning hand and both hands end up using more muscle power than they need. Spinning this way may lead to strained hands, wrists or shoulders.

A grip too firm will reveal itself in other ways too – if there is just a bundled-up mess left in the fiber hand when a top or rolag is almost finished it is a sure sign that it has been held too tightly – the outermost fibers of the preparation have slid with the gripping hand hand to the end of the preparation. A fiber preparation that has been held gently has the same shape at the end as it did in the beginning.

I hold the fiber in a gentle grip to keep its original shape. Through the gentle grip and the opening up of the fibers I put the least strain on my body.

A positive result of opening up the twist is that the resulting yarn will end up much smoother than if it were pinched and pulled. Provided of course that the wool is well and evenly prepared. That, however, is another blog post.

Thank you Shelly for this interesting and important question. I gave you a rather short reply on Instagram. I hope this longer reply makes sense to you.


The fall issue of Spin-Off magazine is out now. In it I have written an article called Sliding hooks and textile heritage where I explore antique Swedish spinning wheels with sliding flyer hooks while at the same time discovering my textile heritage. It is a very personal story and I am very happy with the article. As usual, my husband Dan took the wonderful pictures.

Happy spinning!


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6 Replies to “Opening up the twist”

  1. Thanks for a very detailed reply to this excellent question. I’m going to spend some time considering your answer and seeing where I can improve my techniques.

  2. I also want to thank you Josefin, for this detailed post. I have just started to regularly use this technique and my spinning is so much better. I have to remind myself, also, to hold my fiber gently. I concentrate so completely on something else, I end up gripping my fiber. Another excellent post. Thank you so much.

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