Spinning cotton on an Akha spindle

I have a new spinning video for you today! This time I discover the beauty of spinning cotton on an Akha spindle. The Akha spindle is by far my favorite tool for spinning cotton.

This is the fifth and last post in my cotton blog series. Previous posts have been about my opinion of the cotton industrycotton processing, spinning cotton on a Tahkli spindle and spinning cotton on a Navajo spindle.

The Akha spindle

The Akha spindle is used by the Akha people who live in the region between Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Chinese Yunnan. It is a spindle primarily used for spinning cotton. I think it would work for other short fibers as well, but I haven’t tried that. The whorl is placed in the middle of the shaft and you spin it with a two-step technique in two dimensions. The end of the upper part of the shaft has either a hook or a notch. Mine comes from NiddyNoddyUK and has a notch and I make a half-hitch to secure the yarn.

Spinning cotton on an Akha spindle

Cotton drafts very easily but has very short fibers. This means that you can draft the fiber as long as you don’t apply any pressure on the yarn.

It also means that you can’t spin cotton with a suspended spindle. Or, at least it would be very difficult. Yet, you use the Akha spindle suspended in the second step of the spinning technique. How does this work? Well, you need to make sure the drafting is all done in the first step. This is how I do it:

First step: Horizontal and supported

Setup: I hold the spindle horizontally in my spindle hand (my right hand for clockwise spinning). I hold the bottom part of the spindle shaft. The fiber is in my fiber hand, I hold it very lightly. I use hand-carded rolags. You can see how I card cotton here. No hand is on the yarn.

A person spinning horizontally on a spindle
Drafting away on my Akha spindle
  • I draft the fiber by increasing the distance between my hands. My fiber hand just supports the rolag and keeps it from falling down. No holding or pinching.
  • At the same time I roll the bottom of the spindle shaft. It is a very light movement – I use my index finger and thumb for rolling and the other three fingers for support. I pull my index finger toward the palm of my hand – clockwise with my right or counter-clockwise with my left (for a discussion on spinning direction and ergonomics, see this post).
  • I make a loose draft until I reach a length of the yarn that allows for a second draft.
  • When I have enough length between my hands I can allow myself to pinch the yarn in front of the rolag to avoid more fiber to enter the draft.
  • Now I can keep drafting and rolling. I make sure I do very small adjustments – I draft a little, roll a little, always checking that there is enough twist to hold the fibers together and enough draft to give the fibers mobility.
  • I draft until I can’t see or feel any more mobility or uneven parts in the fiber. When there are no more lumps and when there is no more give in the yarn, I stop the drafting.
A spindle hanging in its yarn
The second part of the two-step spinning sequence.

Second step: Vertical and suspended

  • I hold the yarn right in front of the rolag and let the spindle hang in its now-drafted yarn. If the fiber hasn’t been sufficiently drafted, the yarn will break.
  • I roll the bottom part of the shaft along my thigh in the spinning direction to add twist. A lot of twist. The bottom tip of the shaft is a bit tapered, so the spindle spins very fast.
  • When I’m happy with the amount of twist, I roll the yarn onto the cop, make a half-hitch and start the first step again.

The real spinners

I found a YouTube clip of a woman spinning on an Akha spindle. She does It a bit differently. She combines the first and second parts by having an arm’s length of long draw and then another arm’s length where the spindle hangs suspended. Also, she seems to spin counter-clockwise and she manipulates the yarn with her spindle hand to keep the spindle in motion.

Here is another clip of women spinning cotton on Akha spindles. They seem to be using both methods. The person behind the camera doesn’t seem to fully understand how to shoot spinning, though.

The setting

I shot the video when I was teaching spinning at Sätergläntan in early October. Before I came I knew it would be a beautiful place so I had planned to shoot a video there. I just needed to find a suitable spot. And it didn’t take long for me to find the perfect location. There are lots of beautiful old wooden houses where the students live. But the prettiest ones were the storage houses (härbre) that are used as simple lodging in the summer. You can compare it to an Alaskan or Canadian bear cache. I am truly fascinated by the old wood. I just want to hold my hands against the log walls on a sunny day and feel the warmth and the kindness of the wood.

A row of wooden store houses
Old wooden store houses, used for light lodging at Sätergläntan craft institute.

All the store houses had different doors. I just picked the one with the prettiest door. A student in the course I was teaching was kind enough to help me with the shooting of the video.

A favourite tool

In the cotton blog series I have prepared my cotton bolls and spun with three different spindle types – the Tahkli, Navajo and now Akha spindles. They are quite different but they all make the most of the superpowers of the cotton fiber.

  • The Takhli spindle with its speed catches the short fibers in the twist and I can manipulate the yarn while the spindle spins.
  • With the Navajo spindle I can  take my time making a double draft and use the length between my hands to even out the twist.
  • The Akha spindle allows me to separate the different parts of the spinning process and finish one at a time.

I have to say that my favourite of all these cotton spinning tools is the Akha spindle. It fits the characteristics of the cotton so perfectly and really makes the most of the properties of the cotton fiber. I can choose to sit or stand when I spin with it. The supported part does not require me to sit and the length of the yarn is short enough not to dangle in the floor for the suspended part if I sit down.

The Akha spindle I’m spinning on in the video (from NiddyNoddyUK ) is so very light and sweet to work with. It weighs only 14 grams but is not too delicate. It is very comfortable to spin with. I love the light feeling when I roll the shaft in my hand, feeling the structure of the wood and the subtle turning details. It is really fast when I set it in motion against my thigh and spins beautifully centered. She’s a keeper!

A spindle hanging in its own yarn
A favourite cotton spinning tool

Happy spinning!

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