Note: this was going to be a single post, but when I wrote it in Word it was 5 pages of text, and I decided that was too much for 1 post. Here are items 1-7; items 8-14 are in Part 2.
I want to offer some thoughts on spindle-spinning and learning to do so, because I have some ideas that may be useful for beginners. Note that these are only my opinions and thoughts. There are many other spindle-spinners out there who are far more experienced than I, and they may disagree with what I write here. Good; please leave a comment so I can learn from you.
I have a preference for high-whorl spindles. Bottom-whorl and supported-spindle users are on their own.
In addition, there are no instructions for “how to spin”. In my life, it’s just me. I can’t spin and take pictures at the same time, and -as is true of many topics- one can write many, many words to explain something that can be shown in a couple of pictures. (And then there’s the problem that some things can’t be adequately explained in text or in still pictures anyway.) It’s best, in my opinion, to get some 1 to 1 instructions from somebody knowledgeable.
So here we go.
1) Get a good tool. There are many spindles out there in various price ranges. They vary from a drawer pull-knob on a stick to individually hand-turned and finished pieces made from beautiful wood, bone, antlers, clay, glass – you name it – nicely decorated and painted. There are beautiful and expensive spindles that are lovely to look at, but which don’t perform well. There are good, basic, plain-looking tools that perform fabulously. There’s everything in between.
Remember that you are not buying a decoration: you are buying a tool that you will use, so get one which performs well. I am not saying that aesthetics are unimportant; most spindle-makers know this and work to build well performing tools that look good. However, many spindlers have been frustrated by a poorly designed tool that looked good, for which they paid $$$. I myself have one of these that I use as a Christmas decoration.
The parts of a spindle are the hook, the whorl and the shaft. Good spindle makers think long and hard about the best shape for each of these components.
2) Whorls are different shapes, but basically fall into 2 categories: those that load their mass and weight around the rim, and those that load their mass and weight around the shaft. They perform differently. I don’t understand the physics behind all of this - -and you don’t need to either -- but the basic idea is that rim-weighted spindles typically spin a bit slower but longer than shaft- weighted spindles. Personally, I prefer rim-weighted spindles. (In fact, I don’t know why one would build a shaft-weighted high-whorl spindle; I don’t see the advantage of it. Anybody know?)
Here’s a picture of 2 rim-weighted whorls, shot from above. (click to enlarge) The one on the left has had wood cut out, so solid wood is on the outside of the whorl. The one on the right has had wood carved out of its centre, so you’re looking down into the depression created by that carving. Note that both whorls have a notch carved in the edge to guide the yarn up to the hook.
This is a side-view picture of 2 centre-weighted whorls. (click to enlarge) I was given these spindles by someone who couldn’t get them to work and gave up on them. So did I. Note that in both these spindles, the mass of the whorl is centred around the vertical axis running up through the spindle’s shaft.
3) Spindles come in different weights. There is a strong connection between the weight of the spindle and the thickness of yarn it will tolerate your spinning. If you try to spin thicker or finer, you will have performance issues: weird things happening to the spindle’s spin like wobbling or gyroscoping or “dancing”, or the single will break. The heavier your spindle is, the faster your arm will get tired from holding it up.
Choose your spindle weight based on the thickness of the finished yarn you want, recognizing that you will likely ply the yarn as well. There is, however, a range for each tool. My 1.33-ounce spindle will spin singles which, when plied, I can use for lace (2 ply) or socks (3 ply). Or, I can spin thicker and make a 2-ply to use for socks.
4) I suggest that your first spindle be rim-weighted, between 1.5 and 2 ounces. (Unless you really want to spin fine threads or heavy yarns from day 1 of your spindle-spinning career, in which case ask the vendor for advice.) It should have a notch on the edge of the whorl to stabilize and guide the yarn from the copp (where it’s wound on the shaft) up to the hook. If there isn’t a notch, the yarn will likely slip on the edge of the whorl; this is not serious, but it is annoying. It should have a good hook, and the hook should be slightly bent so it is off-vertical, or the spindle will try to gyroscope. See Jim Childs’ website for information on why this is. If you want, you can get heavier or lighter spindles later. Which takes me to…
5) How many do you need? Most spindlers have several, each a different weight, for spinning thicker or thinner yarns. If they’re really hard-core, they’ll get a supported spindle, like a tahkli, for spinning very fine threads or very short fibres, like cotton. As a beginner, you only need one good spindle to get started and for spinning your first few miles of yarn. If you are buying your first spindle and you have a choice between 2 tools which perform equally well, and one is 0.4 ounces heavier than the other, don’t get all uptight about which to get. It’s more important that you get a really well-performing tool than to worry about getting an exact weight. Besides which, an experienced spinner who understands twist, fibre preparation, drafting, fiber types, etc, will spin a wider range of yarns more successfully on a single spindle (within reason) than someone with no understanding of these matters but who has 60 spindles. In other words, before you run out and buy another spindle, buy a lesson or a good book and learn about the craft.
6) Beware the “Boat Anchor”. This is a term given to poorly designed spindles: they’re usually heavy, shaft-weighted, without a good hook and no notch in the edge of the whorl. I’m not seeing many of these anymore. I think the standards for spindles have come up hugely in the last 10 years, and we’re generally seeing better spindles available.
7) Beginning spinners should use good quality fiber when learning. Don’t make the mistake of buying inexpensive, bargain-basement stuff because you’re only learning. (Unless it’s good quality, inexpensive bargain-basement stuff.) If it’s poor quality, you’ll spend too much time and energy fighting with the fibre and you’ll get frustrated – while likely not realizing that the problem is not you, it’s the fiber.
What to start with? I’m probably not a good person to ask, because I started with dyed bombyx top – that’s combed silk. (I bought it because I liked the colours.) People tell me that silk is too difficult to learn with, but I didn’t know any better. (Cotton, apparently, is also very difficult to learn to spin with, but that didn’t stop generations of children in India.) After silk, I moved to merino top –because I liked the colours– which is also supposed to be difficult for a newbie to spin. With your 1.5 to 2 ounce spindle, some carded corriedale is probably a good place to start: I know many spinning teachers who recommend this. Top (combed fiber) is considered to be too slippery for beginners.
You want to look for fiber that is free of vegetable matter (grass, twigs). It should look relatively light and airy, and should draft easily when you test it. No felting, and if you have to tug to get it to draft, you won’t enjoy working with it. Ask the vendor how to test fiber this way, if you need to.
If you want more guidance and have no-one to ask, phone a reputable vendor, tell them how heavy your spindle is, and ask for a suggestion. Remember that they want you to have a good experience. And beginning spinners can go through a lot of fiber very quickly, so if the vendor recommends you buy a pound, don’t protest.
Continues in Part 2.
Comments on what’s here? I hope so.