Tag Archives: Respect the Spindle

Neolithic technology stands the test of time

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Neolithic technology stands the test of time

The thought recently occurred to me that I am extremely easily amused. A stick, or sticks, and some fibres will keep me entertained for hours on end. A hooked stick and twisted fibre: crochet. Two pointy sticks and twisted fibre: knitting. Add a weight to the stick and start with raw fibre and you’re ready to spin.

It really is that simple. The drop spindle, made typically from a wooden shaft and a spindle whorl, is an ancient tool which has been in continuous use since at least neolithic times. It is a cheap and easily available way to try spinning your own yarn. You can even make your own spindle (a length of dowel and an old cd will do it).

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The drop spindle is a beautifully modest, stunningly effective tool. When I received my first drop spindle I hit youtube for some guidance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I struck gold. The first video that seemed worthy of investigation was by Abby Franquemont. Her clear tuition got me started, and I didn’t look back.

I did, however, look further into Abby Franquemont’s work, and bought a copy of her book “Respect the Spindle” [1]. I think the title tells you everything you need to know. The drop spindle, humble though it may be, is no poor relation of the spinning wheel (a relative newcomer, not in general use until the 16th century, or thereabouts). I do a lot of spinning on my wheel, but my drop spindles are not neglected. They are fine tools. I especially admire the craftmanship evident in my Schacht Hi-Lo spindle. I love the portability of a drop spindle. I never leave home without some kind of fibre project to hand, and a bag containing fleece and spindle fills that niche perfectly.

But the thing I love most of all, amongst the wide vista of possibilities involved in making your own yarn, is the meditative experience of spinning on a drop spindle. Flicking the spindle to set it in motion, the feel of the whorl spinning, angular momentum in your hands, the balance of drafting fibres through your fingers just in time for the twist to bind them together into a thread strong enough to support the weight of  the spindle. And seeing the classic “cop” of spun fibre build up around the spindle shaft as an undeniable measure of what you have achieved, of what you have made with your own hands, during this day. I lose all sense of time when I spin on a drop spindle, and what flows in is a profound sense of peace.

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[1] Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont. Interweave publications, 2009.

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Process

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Process

It’s not just about the spinning, there are a number of stages involved in creating yarn.

Let’s assume we’ve selected and prepared our fibre, which in itself is a whole other set of processes. When I started spinning I took advantage of the fabulous selection of fibres sold by Wingham Wool Work [1] and worked from there.

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1. Spinning the singles. I didn’t know much about the making of yarn when I started. But my years as a knitter taught me that yarn was usually plied from several thinner strands. What I learnt from my early drop spindle experiments, and from resources provided by the marvellous Abby Franquemont [2], was that you spin the fibres in one direction – let’s say clockwise – and then ply two or more of these “singles” together by spinning them in the other direction – anticlockwise.

So spinning the singles involves starting from the prepared fibre, drafting it out into the desired thickness whilst adding the twist that will hold the fibres together.

2. Plying. Now, if you stop at that point it’s likely you’ll end up with yarn that resembles silly string! The singles contain active twist. They want to coil up on themselves. They’re like a taut spring, full of potential energy. It is certainly possible to make useable yarn from singles, but the thinner they are, the more twist is needed to hold the fibres together, and the more likely you’ll have silly-string yarn unless you ply it.

Plying in the opposite direction to that in which the singles were spun balance the twist, so that the yarn no longer wants to coil back up on itself.

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3. Skeining. You now have a bobbin full of plied yarn. To turn it into a skein you use a niddy noddy (the most amusingly named tool in my collection.) Cleverly, you can measure (or look up the manufacturer’s information) the length of one complete wrap on the niddy noddy. My Ashford niddy noddy is 5′ or 60″ per wrap. So, count the wraps, multiply by the length per wrap and Ta Da!! you have the yardage and/or meterage of your skein.

4. Washing. At this stage we really want to turn these plied singles into yarn, so we set the twist. The advice I follow here comes from Jennifer Beamer of Expertly Dyed: Art by Science [3], who publishes excellent blogs and vlogs about yarn-making. To set the twist I like to wash the skein and then soak it in water with a little conditioner, just to pamper the fibres a little bit after all those times they’ve run through my fingers and the flyer on my wheel.

5. Fulling. Fulling is a process of ever so slightly felting the fibres so that the yarn becomes a unified structure. Taking the yarn out of its final rinse I squeeze excess water out, but leave it fairly wet and then it’s time to be a little rough with it. I tend to beat the skein against the side of the bathtub, moving the skein through my hands after each strike. Sounds weird, looks odd, works out great.

6. Hanging. finally I hang my skein to dry, and if my plying hasn’t quite managed to balance the twist – you can see this because any residual active twist means the skein doesn’t quite hang straight – then I hang a little weight from the bottom of the skein, to stretch it out as it dries and finish with a beautiful,  soft, balanced yarn.

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7. Labelling. Any knitter or crocheter wanting to use your skein for a project will need a bit of information about it, so I make sure to record

Composition – what fibres are included, and the percentage of each.

Weight, or WPI – WPI stands for wraps per inch and tells you if your yarn is aran, dk, ‘4ply’, etc.

Meterage – essential for planning your project!

Care instructions – hand wash? machine wash? dry flat?

So, as you can see, there’s a lot that goes into your final skein. And the very last stage is once again to create something beautiful:

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[1] Wingham Wool Work: http://www.winghamwoolwork.co.uk

[2] Respect The Spindle by Abby Franquemont. Interweave publications, 2009.

[3] Expertly Dyed: Art by Science: http://expertlydyed.blogspot.co.uk