Antique French spindle

Close-up of an antique spindle with yarn wound onto it.

Earlier this summer I got a antique French spindle from a follower. It is the first antique spindle I have and I’m childishly happy about it. Today I share a video where I spin on my antique French spindle.

A French spindle is held in the hand. The shaft stays in the hand or close to it as the spinner twiddles the upper tip. Some call it in-hand spindle, some grasped and some twiddle spindle.

A collector

There is very little information on French spindles and their use. Sylvie Damey is the person who knows the most about French spindles. She has been collecting spindles for many years now and has quite a collection. She collects the spindles to understand more about them. Sylvie says that the reason why there is so little information about the use of these spindles is that spinning used to be such a common daily activity for women and girls and therefore there was no need to document the use of spindles. Sylvie also collects old postcards with spindle spinners. This way she can learn something about who was spinning and how.

The spindle

A French spindle is made in one piece. It has a belly onto which the cop is wound. Embellishments seem to be common.

A French spindle has a belly in the lower part of the shaft to store the yarn on.
A French spindle has a belly in the lower part of the shaft to store the yarn on. This one is 32 centimeters long and weighs 50 grams.

Some French spindles have a detachable metal upper tip. Most of them have a spiral groove. Some of the metal tips have hooks instead of grooves.

The tip of a spindle with a spiral groove.
A spiral groove on the upper tip of a French spindle.

My antique French spindle spindle has a spiral groove carved into the upper tip for clockwise spinning.

Technique

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. In another video I made about French spindle spinning last year I let go of the spindle for longer periods.

The spinning hand

When I spin on a French 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 third and fourth fingers are balancing the spindle between them.
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 fine 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

In the video I use a hand distaff. This is for practical reasons – I was on vacation and a hand distaff was easier to bring than a belt distaff. Up until recently, I have only spun with some sort of woolen technique on an in-hand spindle and a hand distaff. But I know that knitting is a relatively new technique and basically all spinning before knitting was developed was focused on weaving yarns. Therefore I wanted to learn how to spin a worsted yarn for a strong warp. I had a video meeting with my friend Anna and she demonstrated how she spins a worsted yarn with a hand distaff.

This is how she showed me and how I do it:

  • 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.
A hand holding a distaff between the thumb and the palm. The index and middle fingers are holding the fiber and the thumb and ring fingers are pinching the yarn.
The distaff hand with two fingers managing drafting and two managing pinching.

Dressing the distaff

I haven’t dressed a distaff for worsted spinning with wool before. I tried different ways, but this is the way that worked best for me: I hand-combed wool and dressed the tops onto the distaff lengthwise in stripes in lengths that were suitable in relation to the length of the hand distaff. The wool I have used is a year’s growth of Norwegian NKS.

A woman holding a spindle in one hand and a distaff in the other. The yarn between the hands is tensioned.
To get an evenly wound on cop I tension the yarn between my pinching fingers and the spindle.

Even tension for a steady cop

Making a steady cop is an art form in itself. The cop needs to be firm so that the cop doesn’t collapse. 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 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 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.

Location: Tvättstuga

I shot the video this summer when I rented a cabin at a sheep farm with my family. There is a creek by the farm and a wash house – a tvättstuga – by the creek. It is over 100 years old, probably from the turn of the last century or earlier. Perhaps from around the time my antique French spindle was in use! If you peek inside the windows you can see the old boiler they used to heat up the creek water and beautiful wooden wash tubs.

One winter in the early 1900s when the mother of the family was in labour the main house burned to the ground. Everybody survived, but the whole family had to move to the small wash house until a new house was built. I hope they had time to save the spinning wheel.

A woman spinning on a hand-held spindle and distaff in front of an old red building.
Spinning by the old wash house.

A word about the music

I wanted to add music that would reflect the peace in the video. I searched for French music on Free music archive that I usually use for my videos and found this. In the beginning I was concerned that it might be too slow, but the more I listen to it the more perfect I think it is for the video. I hope you enjoy it too.

Bon filage!

Close-up of an antique spindle with yarn wound onto it.
Such a pretty antique French spindle

You can follow me in several social media:

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The power of slowness

Spinning your own yarn is a slow process, and the slowest tool is the spindle. I’m not in it for the speed, though. My guess is that few of you are. Spindles are wonderful tools that are easy to bring, affordable and simple in their execution. One of the most powerful benefits of spinning on a spindle is its slowness. Yes, you read that right. The slowness of the spindle is a superpower and a characteristic that we should take advantage of. In this post I celebrate the power of slowness and share my thoughts of the benefits of spindle spinning. If you are reluctant to spindles, this post might convince you to give spindles a chance.

A Navajo lap spindle. Supported by the ground, resting against your thigh. Photo by Dan Waltin.
A Navajo lap spindle from Roosterick. Supported by the ground, resting against your thigh. Photo by Dan Waltin.

Spindle spinning characteristics

Compared to buying a sweater or buying yarn for a sweater, spinning in general is a slow process. But spindle spinning is particularly slow. There are many spindle types around the world – supported, suspended, lap spindles, in-hand/grasped spindles and more. The names of the types reveal how you operate them.

Common spindle types

Different kinds of spindles are better suited for some spinning techniques and yarn constructions than others and the spindle types are quite different from each other.

  • Suspended spindles hang in the yarn you are spinning. The whorl or weight can be on the top of the shaft or on the bottom. You can sit, stand or walk while spinning on a suspended spindle.
  • Supported spindles are supported in a tiny bowl. You usually sit and spin with the bowl in your lap.
  • Lap spindles are supported by the ground and rest against your thigh. You sit on a chair or on the ground and roll the shaft up your thigh to set the spindle in motion.
  • In-hand or grasped spindles (different names for the same group of spindles) are held in the hand. Usually you spin from a distaff on which the fiber is organized. You can spin grasped, with short or long suspension or supported.
  • Horizontal spindles (in lack of a better word) are held horizontally.
A supported spindle and spinning bowl. Spindle maker is Björn Peck.
The spindle is a slow tool. Here a supported spindle and spinning bowl by Björn Peck.

Spindle similarities

Spindles are very old tools that have been used all over the world for at least ten thousand years. They have been developed in their cultural context and thus many spinning traditions have developed a spindle type and spinning technique adapted to the fiber available and the needs of its users. Despite these differences, spindles still have many things in common.

  • Spindles have a simple construction, usually consisting of a spindle shaft and sometimes a whorl.
  • The spindle is operated by your hand.
  • Speed is controlled by your muscles alone. Speed can be facilitated by its construction or by a support from underneath, but there is nothing that accelerates the speed other than your body. Compared to a spinning wheel, a spindle is slow.
  • Tension is governed by gravity (if the spindle is hanging in the yarn you are spinning) or your hands (if you are holding the drafting zone between your hands).
  • The yarn you are spinning is manually wound onto the shaft of the spindle.

The power of slowness

One could argue that spindle spinning is too slow to see any progress. I choose to see the slowness as a superpower. By operating the tool and producing the yarn slowly, your hands and your brain have time to understand what is happening. Especially since you are controlling tool, mechanics and process with your hands.

Drafting

Spinning on a spindle gives you lots of time to focus on your drafting. If you are new to spindle spinning you can even draft when the spindle is not moving at all – the park and draft method allows you to stop the spindle completely, make the draft and set the spindle in motion again. As you get more experienced you can easily adjust the speed to your drafting skills. You can also use a double drafting technique which, with a few exceptions, is exclusive to spindle spinning. Double drafting is possible on most spindle types, but is most common with Navajo spindles and spindles adapted to cotton spinning like the tahkli and the akha spindles.

At 1:12 you can see the double draft on an Akha spindle.

Tension

When you spin on a spindle you are to varying degrees in control of the tension of the yarn. On a suspended spindle the tension is governed by the weight of the spindle. The tension on a supported spindle is governed by the tension between your hands alone – by the position and motions of your hands you have sole control of the tension of the yarn. The same goes for a lap spindle like the Navajo spindle. With an in-hand or grasped spindle it can be a mix of both.

The tension on a supported spindle is governed by your hands alone. Look at 0:14.

Speed

You are responsible for the speed of the spindle. With all spindle types you set the spindle in motion with your spindle hand. Well, apart from occasional foot ignition with suspended top whorl spindles. If you set the spindle in motion with force the spindle will spin fast or for a long time. There are features of the spindle that will facilitate speed or duration of the spin, but there is still a one to one relationship between your setting the spindle in motion and the resulting motion in the spindle.

This simple (but definitely not easy) turn of events is fairly easily and quickly intelligible – you operate a tool and it results in a straightforward action.

With an in-hand or grasped spindle you get lots of time to handle the fiber. Look at 2:31. In fact, I got all the way from Stockholm to Austria on spindles. There’s the power of slowness for ya!

Twist

With the slow action in spindle spinning it is easier to see the twist entering the fiber. With spindle spinning you also have time to control and adjust the amount of twist that goes into the yarn. With the slow speed in spindle spinning it is also easy to experiment and make samples to quickly find the right twist for your yarn. With an in-hand or grasped spindle the spinning process can be quite slow and you can achieve a beautifully lofty and low-twist yarn.

With the in-hand or grasped spindle you have a good view of the drafting zone. You spin slowly and can fine-tune the twist at all times. Start at 0:10.

With the Navajo lap spindle you can easily control twist by adding twist to the yarn for a tighter twist or length for less twist.

A Navajo spindle is a great tool for spinning low twist singles. You have a good overview of the twist and can easily add or remove twist in this technique. The video also shows the double drafting technique used in Navajo spindle spinning.

Understanding through body mechanics

When you control so much of the spinning process at a pace that works for you it will be easier to understand the mechanics of spinning and the process of making yarn. Through controlling the spindle and yarn with your body and feeling the movement of the spindle and the fiber it is easier to understand what is happening than through the mechanics of a spinning wheel. After all, the spinning wheel was invented to facilitate what the body does to handle the spindle. The spinning wheel is a tool to facilitate yarn making for you, but it can also take away some of your muscular memory from the spinning process.

What’s in it for the wheel spinner?

Let’s make a quick and overall comparison of spinning mechanics between spindle spinning and wheel spinning.

Tension

  • Spinning wheel: The tensioning screw moves the mother-of-all further away from the wheel, tensioning the brake band, resulting in a faster in-take of the yarn. The tension is set before you start spinning and can be adjusted during spinning if you stop the wheel.
  • Spindle: You control the tension with your hands. It can be adjusted whenever you like.

Speed

  • Spinning wheel: The size of the pulleys control the speed of the wheel which drives the flyer. You can adjust the speed with your feet to some degree. You can also change the speed by changing pulleys (or change the tension on a scotch tension wheel).
  • Spindle: You control the speed with your hands. You can change the speed whenever you like.

Twist

  • Spinning wheel: The twist is controlled by the speed and tension that you have adjusted before you started your spinning project (see above) and also in the pace with which you feed the yarn onto the bobbin.
  • Spindle: You control the twist with your hands. You can change the tension and speed whenever you like.

Don’t get me wrong – I love spinning on a spinning wheel. I also love what the spinning wheel can achieve with its mechanics.However,spinning on spindles can help me understand what I need to do on the wheel to get the yarn the way I want. And vice versa – spinning on a spinning wheel can help me understand how to work the spindle to get the result I want. Thus, the combination of spinning on spindles and on spinning wheels is unbeatable.

Learning by slowness

The simplicity of spindle spinning can help us understand the mechanics of spinning and the yarn making process. This is much due to the fact that you as a spinner are a part of the spinning mechanics. Your fine motor muscles are more involved in the spinning mechanics when you spin on a spindle than when you spin on a spinning wheel. Moreover, you spend more time with the spinning when you spin on a spindle since it takes longer. Due to these circumstances I like to think that your body will incorporate more of the spinning process and learn through the power of slownessof spindle spinning.

Here I spin flax on an in-hand spindle. I spin quite slowly to get time to handle the drafting of the flax fibers. Look at 2:47.

If you haven’t tried spinning on a spindle, go ahead and give it a chance! Perhaps you have tried and decided it’s not for you. Go ahead and give it another chance! If you have tried and decided that you get pains in your hands/arms/shoulders, go ahead and try a different kind of spindle, change hands or try to find a way to avoid the pain. I challenge you to try spinning on a spindle.

Happy spindling!


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You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • I run an online spinning school, welcome to join a course!
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. Shooting and editing a 3 minute video takes about 5 hours. Writing a blog post around 3. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better content. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
    If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

French spindle

A spindle with yarn and a distaff with wool

I have a new spindle! I didn’t mean for it to happen so fast, though. Today I present to you my French spindle.

Spindle of the month

I have allowed myself to buy one spindle or spinning tool and one book per month. This month it was the Portuguese spindle. I started planning to buy next month’s spindle. I wanted to buy a French spindle and realized that there weren’t any in Europe. So I contacted Neil at NiddyNoddyUK in Wales and asked him if he could make me one, I had noticed in his Etsy store that he had sold some in the past. He was happy to do it. I also asked for a matching ring distaff, because why not? I figured that it would take him a while and I would get it in time for next month. But he had them ready for me the next day, and now I suddenly have them here in my hand. And since I do, I allow myself to use them, even though I’m not supposed to have them yet.

Unboxing pleasure

I love opening spindle parcels. There is so much anticipation – how will the spindle be protected, has the sender thought of reducing plastic in their shipping, will there be a card etc. I love it when the sender combines an environmentally smart package material with the receiver’s eagerness to start spinning straight away. This was a good package. The spindles were protected with sweet Lleyn wool and packed in tissue paper with fancy tape. No plastic as far as the eye could see. Now, that’s a beautiful spindle unwrapping experience.

 

A spindle and distaff on a bed of wool.
French spindle and ring distaff in pear, by NiddyNoddyUK.

French vs Portuguese spindles

The French spindle has lots of similarities with the Portuguese spindle. They are both made out of one piece of wood and they have no whorl. As far as I know the Portuguese spindles always have spiral notches while the French usually do, but they can also have a hook. They can both be made completely out of wood or with a metal tip. While the Portuguese spindle has its belly quite low, the French spindle has a belly just below the middle of the spindle length. The French spindles can be slightly more ornamented than the usually plain, pear-shaped Portuguese.

A French spindle and a ring distaff
Spindle, distaff and wool.

French spindles can have an interchangeable metal cap with a spiral notch. This way a spinner needs only one cap for several spindles. Lots of models of French spindles can be seen at the spindle typology index at the university of Innsbruck. I’m not sure I totally agree with their use of the terms drop spindle and support spindle, though. But the pictures are very valuable and they give us a unique insight in the spinning history of France.

Spinning on a French spindle

There is very little information on how the French spindles were used. Sylvie Dame has been a collector of antique French spindles and documentation for many years and she has quite a large collection. She says that collecting these spindles helps her understand how they were used. She argues that the reason why there is so little information about the usage of these spindles is that spinning used to be such a common daily activity for women and girls and therefore there was no need to write anything down.

From the few clips that I have seen, it seems reasonable to spin the French spindle similarly as the Portuguese or other in-hand spindles. That also makes sense when you look at images of French spindle spinning.

New video

Of course I needed to make a video about it. It was the first warm day of spring. Turn on the volume and listen to the sound of nature. Listen closer, and hear the quiet patter of the yarn against the tip of the spindle.

In the video I’m using the ring distaff I ordered with the spindle. As far as I know, these two are not historically or regionally connected, I just wanted/needed a ring distaff and it’s just what I used for this video. My using the ring distaff together with the French spindle is thus totally unorthodox. I can live with that, though.

Do you have a French spindle, antique or modern? Do you know anything about French spindles or spinning on French spindles? Is there a historical connection between the French and Portuguese spindles?Please let me know in the comments!

Happy spinning!