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:

  • 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! You can also check out my course page for courses in Sweden.
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    If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

A spindle a day

A meadow of flowers with a red building in the background.
Sätergläntan craft education center in its prettiest midsummer dress.

Yesterday I came back from Sätergläntan center for craft education. I have been teaching a five-day course in different spindle techniques. I call the course A spindle a day, referring to both the outline of the course and of the way spinning keeps me healthy – it makes me feel focused, peaceful and and sharp.

A person spinning on a suspended spindle in backlight
The rooms bursts with creativity on A spindle a day. Spindle by Wildcraft.

Sätergläntan bursts of crafting and creativity and it is a very inspirational place to be. This is the second time I teach at Sätergläntan, the last time was last October when I taught a five-day course in supported spindle spinning. I feel so lucky to be able to teach here. Only a couple of weeks ago Hazel Tindall and Nancy Marchant taught classes here.

A spindle a day

In October 2018 I taught a five-day course in supported spindle spinning. The principal of the center asked me if I wanted to come back and teach this summer. I did. From previous courses I knew that many people want to learn how to spin on a supported spindle, but I also know that there are many other spindle types that people want to learn. I sketched up a new course and called it A spindle a day.

I wanted to create a course where people could learn different spindle types, but also to really enjoy the superpowers of the slowness of spindle spinning. Spindle spinning allows you to focus on quality. You get time to listen to the wool and find out how it wants to be treated to be able to spin its best yarn.

Practicing spindle techniques is also a perfect thing to do outdoors – all you need is a spindle and some processed fiber and you are good to go. After all, that’s how people have been spinning for tens of thousands of years.

Day 1: Suspended spindle

The first part of day 1 was dedicated to wool knowledge and processing. After that we were ready to spin!

Wool knowledge

We started the first day with some basic wool knowledge. We looked at some of the Swedish breeds and their characteristics – staple length, crimp, fiber types, fineness etc. Handling wool from the very beginning helps us get to know the wool and understand what the characteristics do in a yarn and how we can enhance certain characteristics in the way we prepare and spin the yarn.

Combing wool

We also needed some wool to spin with, so we spent the next lesson combing. Some had combed before but hadn’t really got the hang of it and some had not combed at all. We used mainly a very dense Swedish Leicester wool that was a challenge to separate.

A person combing wool outdoors.
Don’t rush your combing. It needs your love and attention just as much as the spinning does. Combs from Gammeldags, wool from Värmland sheep.

We also looked at desired characteristics of hand combs – Tine length, sharpness, tine rows and distance between the tines. All these aspects will have an impact of the yarn we spin. As a spinner I need to adapt my combs to the wool I use and the result I want.

Suspended spindle

Most of the students in the class had spun on a suspended spindle before, some for a long time. They took the time to focus and practice. Some of them had never set the spindle in motion by rolling the shaft up the thigh before and were amazed at the speed it induced.

A person spinning on a suspended spindle
A lot of speed is inserted in the spindle when the spinner sets it in motion by rolling the shaft up the thigh. The spindle was made by the student.

The most experienced spinner played the game “how long can I spin before I need to roll the yarn onto the shaft” and set the spindle in motion with her feet.

A person rolling a spindle between the feet to set the spindle in motion.
You don’t need a spinning wheel to use with your feet for spinning! Spindle by Forsnäs Hemman.

Beginner spindler

There was one student who had no prior spinning or wool processing experience. It was my responsibility to meet her at her level and find the right step size for her to make progress and shine. And she did! It was wonderful to see how she worked with the wool with determination and dedication, how she understood the concept of drafting and found the point of twist engagement.

A person drafting yarn from a spindle she is pinching between her knees.
A new spinner is born. With dedication and determination she approached the suspended spindle and made impressive progress. Here she is parking and drafting. Towards the end of the day she started to skip the parking part.

Changing hands

When I teach spindle spinning I encourage, no, I make my students change hands. I want them to be able to use either hand as spinning hand or fiber hand. All hands in my class need to learn and be comfortable with how to control the fiber and how to control the yarn. I am a firm believer that you understand more about the spinning process and spinning mechanics if both hands know both tasks.

All the students did as I told them and they were amazed at how it actually worked after the initial learning process.

Day 2: Floor-supported spindle

On the second day all the students were beginners again, none of them had any previous experience of the floor-supported spindle.

A spindle from above
Navajo spindle by Björn Peck

A floor-supported spindle is, obviously, supported by the floor. It is thus a long spindle, somewhat longer if you sit on a chair than if you sit on the floor. We focused on the Navajo spindle where the spinner spins longdraw from hand-carded rolags.

A spindle with white and brown bulky yarn on it.
Practicing bulky singles on a Navajo spindle. Spindle by Björn Peck.

Carding rolags

With Navajo spindle spinning there are no short cuts – you need to make hand-carded rolags and they need to be even. The quality of the rolag will have consequences for the spinning process and the yarn you are spinning.

A person carding wool
There are no shortcuts – Navajo spindle spinning requires even and consistent hand-carded rolags!

Most of the students had experience in carding, but they all realized what difference dedicated time and thoroughness can do for the result. They learned quickly, though, and were amazed at their own progress – after a few loose and uneven rolags came concentric and even ones that made the teacher very proud.

A grayish-brown skein of singles yarn.
A thick singles yarn spun from hand-carded rolags on a Navajo spindle. The wool comes from the Värmland sheep Viola.

Let your hands listen to the wool

With a Navajo floor-supported spindle your hands need to communicate. Those of you who have watched the beautiful video of Navajo weaver Clara Sherman spinning on a Navajo spindle have heard her talk about the hands knowing and feeling what to do. This is very true when it comes to Navajo spindle spinning. The spindle hand is rolling the spindle shaft up the thigh and the fiber hand is holding the rolag ever so lightly. No hand is on the yarn to control it. The yarn is created in the cooperation between the hands, like a choreographed dance. The hands therefore need to listen to the wool to know when more twist needs to be added and when to add more length to the yarn or to open up the twist.

A person spinning on a floor-rested spindle
Learning to spin on a Navajo floor-supported spindle. Spindle by Björn Peck.

Being a beginner in a known field

The students I teach are generally experienced spinners. But when they come to my classroom they are beginners again. This can cause lots of frustration. As intermediate and experienced spinners they have so much knowledge. They know how wool behaves, how to draft and what they need to do to the yarn to get it where they want. They just don’t know this particular tool. I need to remind them to be patient and have respect for their own learning process.

A person spinning outdoors on a floor-rested spindle
The weather wasn’t always spinning-friendly, but when it was we took the chance to spin outdoors. Navajo spindle by Björn Peck.

Day 3: In-hand spindle with distaff

Mid-week we are tired. The students have been stuffed for two days and their brains need time to process all the things they have learned. And that’s ok. Sometimes we need to stop and listen, take a break or a step back. Still, they managed to take in and flourish in a new spinning technique and a new way to handle the fiber.

In this section of the course we also looked at some historical aspects of spinning. How did they spin in Central European medieval times? How did the Vikings spin? We also looked at French, Portuguese and Balkan spindles, which are all spun with a similar technique and with a distaff.

Twiddling

For the in-hand (or grasped or twiddle) spindle, the spinner holds the upper tip of the spindle between their fingers and turns the spindle in the hand. After some practice you can let go of the spindle and allow it to spin freely for short periods, still in the hand, always ready to grasp again. This was a challenge to the students. They thought they would never be able to control the spindle in the hand, but before lunch they all did!

Handling in-hand spindle and distaff is not a walk in the park.

Managing the distaff

The next step was to add the distaff. That too was a challenge – to hold the distaff while at the same time draft with the fiber hand, twiddle the spindle and keep an eye on the yarn going diagonally over the chest. They managed that too.

A person walking while spinning.
We’re taking our in-hand spindles and distaffs for a walk.

In fact, we even went for a walk with our spindles and distaffs. Now, that’s progress!

Day 4: Supported spindle

A person spinning on a supported spindle from a rolag.
It’s Supported spindle spinning Day! Supported spindle and puck by Björn Peck.

This is my game. I have taught lots of classes in supported spindle spinning. I know what to do, I know my course outline and I know the most common challenges the students face.

This time I was dead wrong.

These students have, step by step and in other contexts, become acquainted with most of the skills needed for supported spindle spinning, and they didn’t need much of my assistance before they were spinning away on their supported spindles. They didn’t have to start with a leader to practice the movements and angles, they had already practiced them the previous days with the other techniques.

People spinning on different kinds of spindles
Learning supported spindle spinning after suspended, floor-rested and in-hand spindle spinning turned out to be a smooth process.

Old skills in a new package

This is the thing about new skills – even if you are totally new to a thing, you always have some older skills you can apply to the new ones, albeit in a new package.

  • They know from the floor-rested and in-hand spindles how to change the angle between spinning and rolling onto the shaft.
  • With the in-hand spindle they have practiced fine-motor skills for twiddling the spinning tip.
  • Early on the first day we talked about opening up the twist to achieve a more even yarn and they have practiced it ever since.
  • Since day one they have practiced wool preparation and know what consequences it has for the quality of the spinning and the yarn.
  • For nearly every question they have asked I have encouraged them to analyze and find the answer themselves. They have started to analyze more themselves now and understand more why things happen the way they do in their spinning.
  • They know how to pack a mean permanent cop.

All I had to do was to coach them in flicking and encourage them to analyze even more.

I’m so proud of them!

A person spinning on a supported spindle from a rolag.
Spinning on a supported spindle from high quality hand-carded rolags. Supported spindle and puck by Björn Peck.

Day 5: Wool tasting

The fifth day was only half a day, so there was no new spindle. Instead the students put their new skills to the test in a wool tasting.

Testing new skills

They got five different wools and a chart. For each wool they were to make an initial assessment of the wool – what was their immediate feeling of the wool?

A person filling in a chart. Yarn samples are attached to the chart.
A lot of dedication was invested in the wool tasting.

They prepared and spun the wool and made a sample, taking notes of preparation method, spinning technique and spindle type. For every wool they got fifteen minutes. The room was quiet and the air thick with concentration. They were all dedicated and knew exactly how they wanted to prepare and spin the different wools and made thorough notes. It was a joy to observe!

A filled-in chart with yarn samples attached to it.
Want to know the wools in the wool tasting? From the left: Norwegian NKS, Dalapäls wool, Svärdsjö wool, Gute wool and Huacaya alpaca.

So much of what they had learned during the week came in use in the wool tasting. They had been provided with lots of tools and in the wool tasting they proved that they knew how to use them.

Spinning meditation

The last thing we did before lunch and journeys homeward was a spinning meditation. I hadn’t planned it, but one of the student had taken one of my previous courses where we had had a spinning meditation and asked if we could do it again. And it was a very suitable finale of a wonderful week.

A woman knitting on a bench. A meadow in the background.
A bench, some yarn and a meadow. The simplest things in life can be the most powerful.

Spinning, especially on spindles, can be truly meditative and is one of the superpowers of the craft. For me, a spindle a day keeps me balanced and focused. Perhaps it also keeps the doctor away.

Happy spinning!


You can follow me in 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! You can also check out my course page for courses in Sweden.
  • 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!

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!


My course page is down at the moment due to a less successful app update. You can go straight to my Online school for online courses. In Sweden I have a five day summer course at Sätergläntan.


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.
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  • 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.
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Spinning on a viking spindle

Josefin Waltin spinning on a Viking style spinning with a distaff

The outdoor video recording season hasn’t begun yet, it is still a bit too cold. But I do have some material left from last season. Today I give you a video I shot in the beginning of August: Spinning on a Viking spindle.

Spinning on a Viking spindle

How did the vikings spin?

The tools

We know what tools the vikings used for spinning – the finds of spindle whorls from the viking city of Birka are endless. The soil hasn’t preserved organic material, so there are basically no finds of spindle shafts or distaffs from Birka.

Spindle whorls from Birka and Gotland
Spindle whorls at the museum of History in Stockholm: Finds from Birka (20 and 22) and Gotland (21). Whorl 22 was made of amber, the whorls 20 and 21 of burnt clay. To the right you can see a glimpse of whorls made of stone.

Finds of spindle shafts and distaffs have been made in another viking city, though – Haithabu, where the soil has ben more beneficial to preserving organic material. Similar items were also found in the Oseberg grave. There were also finds of weaving tablets, needles, looms and loom weights.

Textiles and context

From finds of textile tools and textiles we know that the vikings spun yarn for clothing, household textiles and sails. To provide a family with the necessary textiles people had to spin. All the time. Clothes, ribbons, carpets, bedding, blankets and sails. I can’t even imagine the amount of yarn needed to weave a sail for the boats. I imagine the whole village cooperated in preparing, spinning, weaving and sewing the giant woolen sails. They must have weighed a ton.

To be able to spin every second the hands weren’t occupied with children or household work you needed to bring the fiber with you. That was what the distaff was for. That way you could spin whenever time allowed without having to runtime to get new fiber.

The technique

We don’t know how the viking spun their yarn. There are no written sources or illustrations from this time period. We can only see a few pieces of a puzzle. The rest is just more or less qualified guesswork.

While we have information about the tools, the textiles and to some extent the way of living in this time period, we need to look into the future to learn about the spinning techniques.

Back to the future…

If we go to the European medieval times we can see the same models of whorls, shafts and distaffs in both illustrations and archeological finds. The illustrations can also give us a clue to how the spinners used their tools. In fact, the same spinning method has been used later on as well, all the way into the 20th century. Take a look at spinning on French or Portuguese spindles, just to take a few examples.

Several medieval spinning images can be found in the blog 15th century spinning by Cathelina di Alessandri (alter ego). She has also made substantial research about the spinning method in the European medieval times.

The typical medieval image of a spinner is a woman sitting or standing. She is holding a belt/floor/hand distaff in her left hand and a spindle in her right hand. the yarn goes diagonally over her body from the distaff down to the spindle. The spindle shaft has a bulk in the middle and is thinner towards the ends. The whorl is placed just beneath the bulk. The whorl has a cone-shaped hole to fit the shaft.

Josefin Waltin spinning on a Viking style spinning with a distaff
The typical spinning position for spinning in the European medieval era. Perhaps also the Viking era.

… and back again to the past

As I wrote earlier, the tools look the same as the tools found in the Viking era. As I also wrote, there are no illustrations of spinning from the Viking era, only the tools and their context. With the finds of shafts, whorls and distaffs looking the same as in the medieval period, I have no reason to doubt that the spinning technique also looked the same: The yarn going diagonally across the torso from the distaff to the spindle and the spindle grasped in the hand.

Because of these pieces of the puzzle, I have chosen to interpret the Viking spinning method the way I have. It is up to you to agree or disagree.

A 21st century Viking spindle

I have a reenactor friend who spends a month each summer at Birka to show the visitors the way of living at Birka. She asked me to come and give a class on period spinning.

Just after she had asked me I saw a Viking style spindle in the NiddyNoddyUK shop , and I quickly bought it. The Viking spindle shaft and whorl I bought are reproductions of finds from the Oseberg grave.

A Viking style spindle and whorl
A Viking style spindle and whorl, reproductions of finds from the Oseberg grave.

I love going to Birka (it is just a boat trip from our home), and I was very excited about the opportunity to teach Birka reenactors spinning. I told the spindle maker Neil of NiddyNoddyUK about my excitement. Neil was as excited as I was and threw a few similar spindle shafts in the parcel. Such a sweet thing to do!

I had plans to make a video of the class, where the students at Birka would wear period costumes.

The day before we were going to Birka I got a message from my reeanctor friend saying that she had fel and got a concussion and we had the cancel the whole thing. Fortunately she is well now, but we both missed out on a longed for event.

The setting

So, the setting of this video is not a very Viking one. Instead it is a bench in a hidden corner of out allotment area. I shot it on a very hot day and I was happy to be quite still in the shadow.

Kent’s bench

The bench has a story, though. One of the founders of the allotment area was Kent. He was once an active gardener in the allotment, growing lots of potatoes and Japanese lanterns. Lately, though, he hasn’t been there for more than the spring and fall cleaning days. His allotment turned into a jungle. He kept very much to himself, but he seemed to love that garden bench. Every fall cleaning he removed the sitting boards to protect them from the winter and every spring cleaning he brought them back.

One year ago he passed away. His allotment was taken over by a new and enthusiastic gardener and someone else made sure the boards were taken care of during the winter. His Japanese lanterns have spread and shed some sweet orange light in the fall. And the bench is now called Kent’s bench. I’m sure he had something to do with the stubborn insect that bothered me in the video shoot: He didn’t want me to be there.

Josefin Waltin spinning on a Viking spindle, ducking from an insect
Insect attack at Kent’s bench.

Happy spinning!


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!