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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