Portuguese spindle

Spring is not far away now in my part of the world, so today I tease you with some summer. In this new video I spin on a Portuguese spindle and distaff. I shot the video last summer when we rented a log cabin at a sheep farm. There are lovely woods in this part of the country and this sweet place is situated just a few kilometers from the cabin. It is a place where you can hear the wind in the trees and just listen to the silence.

A Portuguese spindle

I didn’t plan to buy this spindle, I already had a Portuguese spindle and I had made a video about it. But when this one turned up I knew I needed it. I got the spindle from the talented Neil Whiteley at NiddyNoddyUK.

A brass tip

The spindle is modern but looks just like the antique Portuguese spindles I have seen. It has a quite bulky shaft and a brass tip with a spiral groove.

A wooden spindle with a brass tip. Brown wool is wound around the lower tip.
A lovely Portuguese spindle with a spiral grooved brass tip, by NiddyNoddyUK. The yarn is from Badger Face Welsh Mountain (Torddu) wool that the spindle came cozily wrapped in. That is my kind of packaging!

I have another Portuguese spindle that is quite similar, only without the brass tip. Alice at Saber Fazer that sell the all-wood Portuguese spindles says she has tried to make new spindles with brass tips like the antique ones she owns, but so far she hasn’t succeeded. Luckily, Neil has.

Close-up of a wooden spindle with a brass tip. Yarn is spiraled up the brass part.
The brass tip has a spiral groove where the yarn rests. This makes it possible for the spindle to spin freely for short periods.

In-hand spindles

While a suspended spindle spins hanging in its own yarn and a supported spindle rests on a surface, a Portuguese spindle is spun in the hand, usually from fiber dressed on a distaff. There are several names for this kind of spindle – in-hand spindle, grasped spindle or even twiddle spindle. Other models that work the same way are French, Bulgarian/Balkan, Italian (do let me know if you know anything about these!) European Medieval and Viking spindles.

Some of these have spiral grooves in the upper tip. 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. 

For short periods the tip of the spindle spins against my thumb without me holding on to it. I set the spindle in motion with my thumb and forefinger. The spindle is balanced between my middle and ring fingers.

How I spin

The spindle hand

When I spin on a Portuguese 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 middle and ring fingers are balancing the spindle between them.

With the spindle in my hand I am always prepared to make to make small 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 and distaff

For practical reasons I am using a hand distaff. I could just as easily have used a belt distaff, but it was less convenient for me since we were on vacation. The task of the fiber hand is to arrange and feed the fiber into the drafting zone. In this case I have chosen to spin worsted. For this reason I have combed the wool and arranged it with the fibers going in the same direction as the yarn. For a more detailed description of the dressing of the distaff, see my post on spinning on an antique French spindle.

This is how my fiber hand works:

  • 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.

Keeping an eye on the cop

Making a steady cop is an art form in itself. The cop needs to be firm and steady so that the spindle can store more yarn without the cop collapsing. 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 balance the spindle in the air when I roll the yarn onto the cop. This way I achieve an even tension between my hands and a firm and steady cop.

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 hands 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.

Spinning in the forest

While I do love the scenery in this video I am not as happy with the technical side. I didn’t get the right camera angles and my hands wouldn’t really do what I wanted them to do. However, the technique is in my view quite similar to how you spin on a French spindle. I published a video recently where I spin on an antique French spindle. The angles and technical shots are better in that video and you can watch it for inspiration.

The best way to learn how to spin on a Portuguese spindle, though, is to watch the real professionals. In this post I have linked to several videos with talented spinners of Portuguese spindles. Watch, learn and – most of all – enjoy!

Happy spinning!

A woman sitting on a tree trunk in a forest. She is holding a spindle and distaff with white wool.
Listening to the silence of the mossy forest.

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