The memory in the hands

Last week I streamed a live breed study webinar on Gestrike wool. One of the participants asked me why I carded by hand instead of using a drum carder. My answer was about the memory in the hands. Today I will elaborate on this topic.

I replied that I want to work with my hands in the fleece. Every time the fibers go through my hands I get to know them. Every time I make a stroke with the cards I feel how the wool resist the cards, I feel how the fibers behave. All the information I get from working with my hands with hand tools is information that helps me when I spin it. So I what to work as much as possible with my hands.

Ancient and modern spinning tools

A spindle is a simple tool, usually consisting of a stick and a weight, sometimes the stick alone. And yet it can do basically the same things as more modern and elaborate tools like the spinning wheel and the e-spinner. Why is that?

Before we elaborate on that we will go back in history to the time before the first mechanized spinning tools when yarn for all cloth was spun with spindles alone. This took time. A lot of time. Yet, spinning was essential to clothe and feed families. When the first mechanized spinning tools like the charkha and later great wheels came they freed a lot of time. Still, for a while in the European medieval times only weft yarn was spun on the great wheel. The warp yarn needed to be strong enough and the wheel wasn’t trusted when it came to quality.

So, back to the question: Why can the spindle and the wheel/e-spinner do the same things while looking so different? Well, as we have established, the Spindle takes a lot of time. The spinner needs to do a lot of things that are built in and sometimes even accelerated in a mechanized or electrified spinning tool. This is where the time factor comes in. The wheel is faster than the spindle in itself. Furthermore the wheel can accomplish things like tension and take-up simultaneously.

Where are the mechanics?

So, while the mechanized spinning tools have, well, mechanics. How come we can get the same result (or even better) with a spindle? The Tasks that the spindle spinner needed to do consecutively were removed and placed in the spinning wheel to speed up the process. To me this means that the mechanics of spindle spinning is in the spinner.

Read that again: The mechanics of spindle spinning is in the spinner.

So, while the mechanized spinning tools save time, they also place the spinning a little further from the spinner through those very mechanics. Consequently, the simpler spinning tools place the mechanics in me. I become part of the spindle. The same goes for a backstrap loom versus a floor loom – the backstrap weaver becomes a part of the loom, controlling warp tension, rhythm and the changing of the sheds.

The nifty thing about spinners and weavers is that they have memory. In this case – muscle memory. When the mechanics of the spindle or the loom are in me my muscles remember the motions they need to accomplish in order to get an expected outcome – yarn or fabric.


Placing the question in the webinar in this context, I as a carder will have the carding mechanics in me and I become part of the carding. When I make the strokes with the hand cards I feel the resistance of the fibers between and through the cards in my hands. Through just simple hand tools my hands get an understanding of the length of the fibers, their capacity to hold on to each other, their elasticity, strength and loftiness.

Hand carding wool gives me an opportunity to understand how the fibers behave. Photo by Dan Waltin

Placing the fibers in a drum carder I save a lot of time. But I don’t get the sensory feedback from the fibers. I also don’t get the same chance to tailor the wool preparation to each batch.

Time: Quality and quantity

Generally speaking, the simpler the tools the longer it takes to use them. A mechanized tool does have time on its side – it’s faster. I can get more done in less time. However, slow is a superpower in my book. Slow is what makes it possible for me to see and understand what is happening in the spinning process. In spindle spinning I can notice the details in a way I can’t in wheel spinning.

A few years ago we were on a hiking trip. Dan’s mother was with us and her balance isn’t always reliable due to MS. It was kind of a rocky path and we needed to stop and help her navigate between rocks and roots on the path. The pace was a lot slower than it usually was on that hike. But suddenly we were able to see the details. The cushiony moss on rocks and tree stumps, the intricate patterns of lichens and the beauty of dew drops in the blueberry bushes. It gave the hike a completely new meaning. It took a lot more time, but we gained so much in experience and depth. So much more made sense.

Spinning on a spindle gives me time to understand what is happening.
I choose simple spinning tools and invest in my quality bank. Mittens in handspun Värmland wool.

When I spin on a spindle I give my mind the time to understand what is happening and on a deeper level. Time isn’t wasted but invested in a quality bank. So much more makes sense.

Simple and complex

Simple hand tools give me a direct connection to the fibers. The more complex the tools and the more of the functions that are built in to the tools, the further away from the fibers I get. Consequently, the closer I am to the fiber the better I will get to know and understand them. I get information from the fibers via the tools or directly in my hands.

At the moment I’m spinning raw Icelandic wool straight from the cut end of lightly flicked staples on a suspended spindle. My hands and my mind are there in every step of the process, in a pace that allows me to lean in and listen to the wool.

With my hands in the fibers in all the steps of the process I get to know the fibers on all possible levels – as staples, in the processing, in the spinning, plying and as a yarn and textile. With the information in all the steps it will be easier to troubleshoot. My hands come closer to the wool and I can walk myself back through the process and find the missing link. I own the process. I know the wool in my hands better than anyone else.

Thank you Marilyn for your important question!


Here are a few resources where you can read more about my thoughts on the memory in the hands:

Happy spinning!

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6 Replies to “The memory in the hands”

  1. I would also like to thank Marilyn for her question as your answer is so deep and thoughtful. You are helping me to incorporate spinning mindfully into my spiritual journey.

  2. This was beautiful! I so want to learn spinning, but I can’t seem to get the hang of it. However, I do a lot of knitting and I experience much the same thing: my hands know the in-and-out of each stitch, the feel of the needle going into the stitch, the tension of the yarn as I pull it. It’s what makes knitting so enjoyable, the rhythm and familiarity, the click of the needles, and watching it grow steadily in my hands.

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