Spinning

 

Handspinning has been an ancient art for the past 5,000 years or more. As soon as man needed cloth to produce their blankets, mummy-wrappings, and clothing, people devised the drop spindle. This is a simple straight stick wedged into a hole in the center of a round weight, called a whorl. Whorls were made of clay, bone, glass, and stone.

Centuries later in medieval times, someone got the great idea to position the drop spindle sideways and turn it by the advantage of a large wheel turning the small whorl by a groove cut in it. This became the Great Wheel, also known as the Walking Wheel and High Wheeland. A while later it was reduced in size so a woman could sit and spin - this was the Low Wheel. In the 1500s Leonardo DaVinci improved spinning significantly. He invented the flyer system, still used today. This provided a difference in speed for the bobbin and for the flyer, allowing the yarn to be automatically wound on the bobbin. This is the well known Saxony Wheel, also known as the Flax Wheel because it could also spin flax to make linen.

Today spinning is a very relaxing and productive hobby that yields extremely fine custom spun yarns of any fiber or blend. The yarn can be woven or knitted. It is also a link with the past and our ancestors.

There are several good modern spinning wheels available today. They all do a great job, and there really isn't one that is better than another. However, I prefer the Lendrum double treadle for a few reasons. First, it is versitile. You can change heads to spin practically any weight yarn. It is easy to make three ply yarns. It can be treadled either single foot or both - great for any left-footers. The Lendrum folds up to make a neat package that is easily transported. Setting correct tension is easy. Spare parts are readily available. These are personal preferences and your preference is the one that counts, so try all the wheels you can before buying one.

If you are going to consider an antique wheel, I would strongly suggest that you learn to spin on a modern wheel first, then try antiques when you can spin reliably. Antique wheels are cantankerous, tension is sometimes difficult, and they may not be as smooth and reliable as a modern wheel. The wheel has to run true, the flyer has to run true and have no hang-ups on the hooks, and all joints must be tight - no wobble or looseness. There can be no wobble to the wheel as it turns. I have some antique wheels that should be dream spinners, but are more like nightmares.

I do prefer to use good antique equipment for spinning and weaving. My favorite wheel is a well made flax wheel with a large flyer, and it is dated 1801. I have never found another wheel, antique or modern, that is so smooth and reliable. For a loom, I use an old (200 to 250 year old) barn loom that practically takes up one whole room. It is a four-harness counterbalance loom found in Maine. Other antique equipment I use includes several wool cards, wool combs, flax brake, skutching knife, hetchels, several shuttles, warping paddle, lease sticks, temples, niddy-noddys, yarn winders, quiller, and a few other assorted wheels.

The best way to learn to spin is to spin and make a lot of mistakes. It's like riding a bicycle - once you do it, you will know the feel, and coordination becomes second nature. There are two things going on when you spin; you have to use your feet to keep the wheel turning smoothly at the right speed, and at the same time you have to use your hands to draft out the fiber in a controlled manner. The best way to learn is to learn these two actions separately. Treadle a wheel until you can keep it running smoothly without thinking. You won't use your hands now. Always use bare feet or socks - never shoes. This provides a "feel" and gives a feedback for proper treadling. You will learn to feel when it is right. Not too slow, and no "hiccups." Read a book and treadle at the same time; don't think about treadling.

Next, have someone turn a drop spindle slowly, with yarn attached, while you draft out the fiber from a rolag or roving. Make sure the carded wool is light and fluffy, no clumps or streaks, and uniform, not variable in its weight or appearance. A bad rolag will be difficult to spin and you will blame yourself rather than the true culprit for any difficulties. When you get the feel of the hand motions, have the other person increase the speed of rotation. When you are able to spin a uniform yarn at a decent speed, you are ready to try combining the actions. Let the other person take a break and you spin the spindle with your fingers and let it drop (Drop Spindle!). Now you can concentrate drafting out the fiber to spin it into yarn as the spindle drops. Wind the spun yarn on the

spindle, re-attach it and continue. Do this as long as it takes to produce a good uniform yarn without thinking about it. Many people love the drop spindle and that's it. They can carry it anywhere and spin during lunch break or while standing in line. Or you can go on to the flax wheel. At first it will seem awkward, but concentrate on drafting the fiber. You will have to play with the drive cord tension so it will spin easily without pulling the yarn out of your hands. You should not have to fight anything. When you release the spun yarn slightly, it should pull in and wind on the bobbin effortlessly. If it doesn't wind in the tension is too loose. If everything doesn't go smoothly, blame it on drive cord tension, and play with the adjustments until everything is smooth with no anxiety. After you get the right tension, pat the drive cord with your hand to feel the tension. Get used to that feel and you will be able to judge proper tension easily from then on without having to go through the trial-and-error.

Back to Home Page