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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Ply on the fly on a Turkish spindle

A spindle and bowl on a chair on a meadow. Mountains in the background.

When I was in Austria with my family recently I experimented with plying on the fly on a Turkish spindle. I posted a picture on Instagram and asked if anyone wanted me to make a video about it. I got a very nice response from several of you who wanted me to go ahead. So I did. Here is my video where I demonstrate how I ply on the fly on a Turkish spindle.

The Turkish spindle

I spin a lot on suspended spindles in the summer, especially my Turkish models. They are perfect for spinning when walking. They don’t take up much room, neither for transport nor for the actual spinning. But sometimes I find spinning on a suspended spindle a bit tedious, so I wanted to learn how to ply on the fly. I have plied a lot on the fly, but so far only on supported spindles.

Ply on the fly on a Turkish spindle

When you ply on the fly you spin a section first. Then you chain-ply that section before you spin the next section. Plying on the fly is a great technique to get a finished yarn without winding the whole cop off the spindle. Well, you do actually wind it all off, but in smaller and more manageable sections. It gives the spinner variation between spinning and plying and you take advantage of the fact that the single is fresh when you ply it. This means that I always want to finish after a plied section and I don’t leave a spun cop on the shaft.

Spinning

For regular spinning on a Turkish spindle you wind the yarn onto the wings. When you ply on the fly you wind the single onto the shaft instead, just like you would on a regular suspended spindle (or the temporary cop of a supported spindle). Then, after you have plied the single, you wind the plied yarn onto the wings.

 

A person spinning on a spindle with crossed wings
Wind your single around the shaft of the spindle. Turkish spindle  from Jenkins yarn tools (Lark model).

When I started practicing plying on the fly the spindle kept dropping to the ground when I was spinning. I got very frustrated because I couldn’t figure out why. And because I was walking at the time. I couldn’t see any difference from regular Turkish spindle spinning. But then I realized that I wound the yarn on differently. Winding the single around the wings helps securing the yarn. So when I figured this out, I wound the yarn around the shaft for plying on the fly, and then under one of the wings before securing it with a half hitch. And, voilá, no more dropping.

Transferring the single

When you have spun your desired length of single, you transfer it to your fiber hand with the butterflying technique – you pick up the yarn in a figure eight with your thumb and pinkie, until you have no more single. This can be done against your belly. It will be more efficient if you do it against a hard surface (my belly isn’t) like a spinning bowl or a table. If this is your start of the yarn, make a loop. If you have already plied a section, you pick up the loop from its parking place on one of the wings. You now have all the freshly spun single on the thumb and pinkie of your fiber hand.

If you have already plied a section, secure the plied end on the shaft with a half hitch (or through the hook if that is how your spindle is constructed).

Chain plying

  • Pick up the loop with your spindle hand index finger. Do not let go of the loop.
  • Pull your single through the loop with your spindle hand thumb, keeping the index finger in the original loop. Make sure you keep all the strands tense.
  • Pick up the new loop from the spindle hand thumb onto your fiber hand middle finger and pull the loop out. This is done by letting go of one strand of yarn at a time from your butterfly. You now have three strands of yarn. Keep these taut. Keep your index finger in the original loop.
  • When you are happy with the length of the section, you can pull your index finger out of the original loop and let the spindle twist the yarn into balance.
  • Wind the plied yarn onto the wings of the spindle – slow and fancy or fast and efficient, your choice. Make a half hitch on the shaft (or put the yarn in the hook) and start the next chain.

When you are out of singles, secure the loop on one of the wings and start spinning the next section.

A person plying on a Turkish spindle
Keep the strands taut and keep the index finger in the original loop

The location

Since I started plying on the fly in Austria, I decided to make the video there as well. We stayed where we alway stay, at a B&B in the town of Mondsee in Salzkammergut. The B&B is an old convent from the 15th and 16th centuries. The owners also own a big meadow that surrounds the B&B. The town is quite crowded with houses nearly on top of each other, but with the meadow you get a spectacular and clutter free view from the B&B over the basilica and the surrounding mountains. The meadow is the place I chose for this video. I am happy to give you a glimpse of a beautiful spot in Austria.

A person spinning on a spindle on a meadow. Mountains and a town in the background.
Spinning on a meadow in the morning sun, surrounded by mountains and a general Austrian-ness. This place makes my heart sing.

Happy spinning!

Spinning direction part 1: Self-study

A hand holding a medieval-style spindle

In an earlier post about learning how to spin on a medieval spindle, I mentioned that I have switched hands for this technique. Usually my left hand is my spinning hand and my right hand my fiber hand. Since I got a cramp learning in-hand spinning I decided to try switching hands. Almost all the illustrations I have seen of medieval spinners have been with the right hand as the spinning hand. A reader, Stefanie, commented on my post, saying that she had had problems similar to mine and that switching hands had made a big difference for her. This made me think about how I spin and what role spinning direction and spinning hand play.

Blog series of spinning direction

Spinning with a spindle can be done with either hand and I don’t think anyone argues with that. You can choose to push the first and second fingers outwards or pull them inwards, with either hand. Nothing spectacular with that either. But if you want to spin in a certain direction, there will be different hand movements depending on whether you are spinning with your left or right hand. Most commercial yarns today are spun clockwise and plied counter-clockwise and it is how I have learned to spin. So, if you want to spin clockwise you will push with your left hand and pull with your right, right?

In this and some upcoming posts I will investigate spinning direction further. So let’s dig deep into the world of spinning direction and get geeky!

Testing my spinning hands

My first step is to investigate how I spin clockwise with both hands and with different spinning tools. By learning to use my right hand as spinning hand I will hopefully be able to see what it is I do. By breaking down the steps of the spinning technique I may see what is happening when and how.

In-hand spinning

As I have mentioned, I started to learn in-hand spinning my usual way, with my left hand as spinning hand. This was just before Christmas. I did get a cramp.  Thinking about the illustrations of medieval spinners with the spindle in their right hand, I knew I had to try to switch hands. Since the technique was all new to me, my muscles weren’t set in their ways and the change went fairly painless. And I didn’t get a cramp. In-hand spinning is so much more controlled than for example supported spindle spinning. This may have made it easier to learn with my right hand.

Looking at the video I notice that it looks more awkward spinning with my left hand (and I’m a leftie). The index finger looks like it’s bent the wrong way in the end of each spin. Also, since I’m pushing the spindle outwards from my hand, I have to hold on to the spindle more tightly so as not to drop it. When spinning clockwise with my right hand, I don’t have to hold on as tightly since I roll the shaft in towards the space between my second and third fingers. The space supports the shaft, and I don’t get a cramp.

Supported spinning: Flicking

I have never had any problems with my left hand as spinning hand when I spin clockwise on a supported spindle. I push to spin clockwise and it has always worked fine.  When I roll the yarn onto the permanent cop, though, I usually get a cramp. Therefore I usually need to switch hand positions several times during the rolling. I am very aware of this but I haven’t made the connection to pushing or pulling the spindle shaft.

I am currently practicing spinning with my right hand. This is a very interesting experience. It feels good to spin (pull) with my right hand and I don’t get a cramp rolling the yarn onto the permanent cop. I don’t have very good control of either of my hands yet but I think I will learn soon enough. In the beginning I felt all backwards and dizzy after my spinning practises, but now it feels more and more comfortable. The interesting thing is that when I look at my switched hands, the pattern I see is the same as the one I see in the participants in my spinning classes. I see the fumbling first attempts at handling the spindle and the uncontrolled movements of hands, spindle, yarn and fiber. And that is a lesson I will happily learn and embrace.

Compared to in-hand spinning, there is a longer pause between repetitions when I wait for the right amount of twist to go into the thread. Also, for every flick in one direction, I take a small charge in the other direction. This is clear in the slow motion section of the left-hand spinning. I haven’t got the hang of it yet with my right hand, but I’m getting there! All in all, supported spindle spinning takes advantage of the support. I don’t have to control my spindle since it is controlled between the yarn and the support. I don’t have to work as much to keep the spindle moving since the support helps me with that. The Support part in supported spinning is really a support in many aspects!

Supported spindle: Rolling

Since I usually get a cramp when rolling the yarn back onto the permanent cop when spinning on a supported spindle, I had to investigate this too.

Looking at when I roll the yarn back onto the permanent cop I see exactly the same finger movements as with the in-hand spindle. The movements are a bit smoother, though, since I have support. So, when pushing the spindle with my left hand, the shaft rolls out of my hand and I may need to hold on tighter. When pulling with my right hand I roll the spindle further into my hand, thus giving the shaft more support. I can happily say that I don’t get a cramp when I roll the yarn onto the permanent cop with my right hand.

Navajo spinning

When I started practicing spinning on a Navajo spindle, I watched lots of videos. I noticed that all the spinners were using their right hand as spinning hands, rolling the shaft towards the body. I chose to learn this way: it seemed odd and uncontrolled to roll outwards. Since rolling the long shaft along your thigh is a comparatively large movement it got quite obvious that it wouldn’t be ergonomic to roll outwards. A funny thing is, that when I made my video on plying on a Navajo spindle, I chose between rolling towards me with my left hand and away from me with my right, but somehow the latter won. I think I will have to make another video, rolling toward me with my left hand. I know better now!

Suspended spindle: Flicking

When I spin on a Turkish spindle I have always spun with my left hand as spinning hand. I tried to switch hands to see what happened.

Looking at it, it seems like the pulling movement is a bit smaller than the pushing movement. Spinning suspended may not be such a problem when it comes to pushing or pulling since it takes quite a lot of time between the repetitions.

Suspended spindle: Thigh rolling

I spin on a top whorl spindle by rolling the shaft down my thigh, using my left hand as spinning hand. This has never been a problem for me. Since I only roll the shaft by moving my flat hand downwards there is no particular strain on my hand. Since the spindle hangs in its own thread, there is no problem with spindle control (as with thigh rolling with a Navajo spindle).

I do however get a cramp sometimes when I roll the spun yarn onto the cop. So I had to try it with switched hands.

It looks like the pulling movement is smoother and smaller, but since spinning on a suspended spindle is comparatively slow and with fewer movements than in-hand spinning I would say that it doesn’t influence the spinning experience very much.

Coming up:

This was a bit of a self-study on spinning direction. I have learned a lot from it and I am amazed at how much there is to analyze from just a few seconds of close-up slow motion video. In the upcoming posts I will look at historical and contemporary aspects of spinning direction and reflect over what I have learned.

Have you had problems with your spinning hand or spinning direction? Have you tried changing hands? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section!

Happy spinning!