Learning new things – medieval style spinning

Josefin Waltin drafting wool from a distaff

I’m in a process where I’m learning new things. Learning a new skill is a beautiful experience. To be able to meet a new technique from a perspective of a beginner allows me to experiment with new tools before I have had the chance to decide which tools to get comfortable with. It teaches me to be humble before the learning process. For a moment I can step outside of myself and watch me gradually grasp the new technique.

Learning to spin medieval style

The purpose of my romance with the ever so charming process of learning is the art of spinning medieval style with a distaff. In this, there are several new things for me to learn:

  • The technique to spin on a new kind of spindle with a new technique
  • How to dress and draft from a distaff
  • How to spin and draft with the wrong hand

Medieval style spinning technique

The medieval spindle technique can be described as a third kind of technique along with suspended and supported spindle spinning. It is a grasped kind of spinning or in-hand spinning. But one of the beauties of spinning medieval style is that you can combine it with suspended spinning (long and short) and support spinning, all according to the circumstances in which you are spinning.

When spinning in-hand style, the yarn goes over the top of the spindle shaft, much like it does with supported spinning. I just love that light pattering sound of the thread snapping off the spindle tip for every turn of the spindle. Check out Cathelina di Alessandri‘s videos at 15th century spinning for great technique instructions.

The distaff

Working with a distaff is totally new to me. I have a hand-held distaff and a belt distaff. The first task is to dress the distaff. I prefer to hand-card my fleece, and so I do my best to assemble 20–25 grams of hand-carded batts on my distaff. I had lots of inspiration from Luca Costigliolo.

My hand distaff is hand turned by Caroline Hershey at Hershey Fiber arts. My belt distaff is hand-carved by my son when he was eight. He was inspired by the wizarding world and wanted to make a “magic cane”. He carved and decorated with mysterious signs and a magic gemstone on top. And when I found it a couple of weeks ago (he is 15 now and doesn’t like to throw away stuff) I saw the perfect belt distaff! A tad too short, but I can live with that. I am planning to carv myself some new ones though, in various lengths for hand-held, belt and floor distaff spinning.

Changing hands

In almost all of my spinning my left hand is my spinning hand and my right hand is my fiber hand. I tried this with in-hand spinning, but I got a cramp in my left hand all the time. The motion is the same whether you spin with your right or left hand, but if you want a specific spinning direction the motion will be different. Unless I spin for something special, I always spin clockwise. Spinning clockwise with your right hand means moving your first and second fingers outwards, away from your body. Spinning clockwise with tour left hand means moving your fingers inward towards your center. And apparently this didn’t work for me. So I switched. I know it is possible, since I have done it with Navajo spindle spinning for similar reasons.

A person holding a spindle
Learning to spin with the wrong hand

Changing an incorporated muscular pattern does take its time, though. But today I really felt progress and thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having some sort of control over my right hand muscles.

Video plans

I have plans to make a video with medieval style spinning. It’s still a little cold outside, though. The lanolin isn’t on its best behaviour in -7°C. Believe me, I have tried. Today in fact. So I will give you a short sneak peak of my learning process from a cold and snowy Stockholm. Enjoy!

The spindle is one of the spiral notched spindle shafts from NiddyNoddyUK that I unboxed the other day and the whorl is from John Rizzi. Hat pattern is Ella Gordon‘s Crofthoose hat in my handspun yarn and the shawl is my handspun and handwoven from my video Slow Fashion 2 – from sheep to shawl. The fiber I am spinning is a prize winning Värmland fleece. Wonderful to work with and it drafts like a dream. Just not in winter temperatures.

There will be more! In the meantime I will continue to practice and learn.

Plying in Mongolia

Next in our journey around the spinning world is Mongolia. I found this wonderful clip of a woman singing and plying in a Mongolian yurt.

The spindle and the technique looks similar to the ones in Nepal I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The spindle is quite long with a top whorl and she starts the spinning by rolling it against her thigh. She looks quite happy and, frankly, so would I, spinning in the coziness of a yurt.

ETA February 19th 2020: A follower contacted me today and told me that the lady is Kazakh. She is singing in Kazakh and the decorations in the yurt are typically Kazakh. Her dress is also more Kazakh than Mongolian.

Ancient spinning technique in Ecuador

First of all: Happy St Distaff’s day! I’m celebrating with some distaff spinning of my own and watching spinning videos.

I found a couple of inspiring clips of some beautiful and very old distaff spinning technique in Ecuador. The spindle is held almost horizontally in the outer end and the thread goes over the spindle tip closest to the distaff. In the first video the spinner is using wool and has a belt distaff.

In the second video the spinner is using cotton and a separate floor distaff. She is also rolling the yarn onto a temporary cop, just like I do when I spin supported. Now and then she dips her spinning hand in what looks like water, perhaps to get a better grip on the spindle.

Spindle stick and distaff spinning in Romania

A short clip of a Romanian woman spinning with a spindle stick and distaff. She is holding the spindle stick horizontally and spins it into a bulky and low-twist yarn by tossing and turning the spindle in her hand. She has arranged the fiber beautifully on the distaff, there must be over 200 grams of wool on it!

Norman Kennedy also demonstrates this technique in his video From wool to walking: Spinning wool and creating cloth with Norman Kennedy (preview of the video), available on Interweave.