The Art of Handspinning

Learn about the ancient craft of handspinning, includes information on the handspindle, spinning wheel, setting up the spinning area and spinning materials.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
September/October 1977
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Anyone can learn handspinning, even without a spinning wheel.
Photo By Fotolia/maticsandra


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Handspinning is an ancient craft that can be done using a handspindle or spinning wheel.

Bette Hochberg springs from a long line of Amish-Mennonite pioneers . . . folks who kept sheep, and spun and wove their own wool as a matter of course. It's little wonder, then, that Bette learned to spin early in life.

But anyone at any age (you, for instance!) who has the will and the patience can learn to handspin. And you won't even need a spinning wheel: A handspindle will do for starters.

Mrs. Hochberg's book, Handspinner's Handbook (from which the following excerpts were chosen), gives simple directions for handling 20 different fibers and for becoming a fast, competent spinner. You have only to follow her instructions to see why the ancient craft of handspinning is far from obsolete, to find — as Bette says — the "great pleasure and satisfaction" that come from "reenacting an activity that's been a part of human life from the beginning".

People have been spinning for at least 7,000 years. The earliest archaeological finds of yarns were in the valley of the Nile. These were linen-like fibers, and early Egyptian wall paintings show the preparation and spinning of flax into linen. About 6,000 years ago in Babylonia and Mesopotamia, sheep were domesticated and wool was spun and traded. For 5,000 years cotton has been grown and spun. China began its silk industry about 2500 B.C. These four fibers — linen, wool, cotton, silk — supplied most of man's needs for cloth through the ages.

Spinning is holding a mass of fibers and twisting a few of them as they are pulled from the loose mass. The rhythm is, "First twist, then pull."

You can spin almost anything that is long, thin, and flexible . . . the hair of many animals and the fibers of many plants. It's even possible to sit in the woods and spin dry grasses without any tools. This is fun, but — while learning — stay with the fibers that people have spun for centuries.

The Handspindle

The first form of spinning was twisting by hand, or "thigh spinning". This is still done today by the Chilkat Indians. Then spinners discovered the handspindle: a stick with a weight which spins like a top. As the spindle revolves, the yarn twists, and is then wound around the shaft. Of the 7,000 years that we have known how to spin, almost 6,500 years were spent with only the handspindle.

There are many sizes and styles of handspindles: little needle-like slivers of bamboo weighted with tiny beads of clay, and the long-shafted Navajo spindle with plate-like wooden whorls. It is possible to spin a finer thread on a handspindle than on a wheel. The Dacca muslins of India are woven of spindlespun cotton so fine it measures 250 miles to a pound. Many cultures around the world still use hand spindles. (Editor's note: See Mrs. Hochberg's second book, Handspindles, an instruction manual for this kind of spining.)

The Spinning Wheel

The spinning wheel evolved from the handspindle. The earliest wheels were simply a long-shafted handspindle with the whorl suspended horizontally between two vertical posts. A cord encircled the spindle whorl and a larger wheel. Each time the large wheel revolved one turn, the little whorl revolved many turns. The spinner turned the large wheel with one hand and spun the yarn with the other hand, winding the strand on the spindle shaft. This style was used for centuries in the Orient, and was introduced to the West about 1400.

By 1480 the flyer was in use. The flyer holds a bobbin on its center shaft. The two revolve at different speeds and thus the yarn winds on as it is spun.

The "Long Draw" Method of Spinning

One often sees spinners hovering over the orifice of the wheel and working equally with their two hands, pulling out fibers with one hand and drawing back with the other. I call this the "push-pull" method. This is an easy way to teach beginners to spin, but you cannot become a good, fast, and uniform spinner using this method. Your left hand cannot consistently pull out the same amount of fiber, and it is necessarily a slow process that cannot be speeded up. Hobby spinners and craft books have been perpetuating this awkward and inefficient technique.

Once you become adept at the "long draw", you'll be treadling as rapidly as is comfortable, and drawing your arm back in a long sweep. Your arm will move back, keeping just enough ahead of the twist to allow free drawing out of the fibers in your right hand. This method is smooth, rhythmic, and rapid and the only feasible way to spin short-staple fibers such as cotton, cashmere, and camel down. I spin all fibers this way, except line and extra-thick yarn. I can spin a pound an hour of wool, linen, or mohair on a Saxony wheel.

A Good Place to Sit When Spinning

Your wheel should sit on the hard bare floor. (If you have carpeting, it will help to put a square of plywood under the wheel.) If your wheel is on a spongy surface, this puts a strain on the structure of the wheel, and makes treadling more difficult.

Don't slouch on a couch or soft arm chair. Find a stable, backless stool. Try a kitchen stool, a piano stool, or even a small barrel. Stand beside the stool barefoot. If the top of the stool is even with the bottom of your kneecap, it's about the right height. It will likely be between 17 and 18 inches. Sit close to the wheel and to the left of center. With good posture you'll tire less quickly.

When you're spinning wool "in the grease", it's nice to sit in the sun or by the fire. The heat warms the lanolin and the fibers will draw out more easily. Never leave your wheel sitting in a hot place any longer than necessary. If you leave your wheel by a sunny window. the heat will dry out the wood and sometimes crack it. If the wood has an oil finish, re-oil it often.

The Starting Cord and Threading Hook

Take a piece of string about two feet long (a fuzzy, hairy wool yarn works best). Tie one end firmly around the center core of the bobbin and wind it around three or four times. Now you'll need a threading hook. If your wheel doesn't have one, a crochet hook will work, or a bent paper clip. (I took a three-inch length of fancy turned dowel and inserted half a large paper clip into one end.) Take the end of your starting cord and pass it around the hooks on one side of your flyer, and hold it with your left hand over the eye on top of the spindle shaft. With the threading hook in your right hand, reach into the orifice, and use the hook to bring the end of the starting cord down through the eye and out of the orifice. It sometimes helps beginners to tie a small knot an inch or two from the end of the starting cord. (This makes it easier for the spinning fiber to catch onto it.)

The Drawing-Out Triangle

You must learn to observe what happens in the area where the fibers are being drawn out of the mass and twisted. This area usually assumes a somewhat triangular shape. The triangle must be long enough to allow the individual fibers to slide freely past each other as they're being drawn into the twist. So the length of the triangle will change when you change from one fiber to another. The number of fibers that are in the triangle at any moment determines the thickness of that portion of yarn.

Beginning to Spin

Carded wool "in the grease" is probably the easiest fiber for beginners, because "dirty" fibers are more cohesive than "clean" fibers. Try to begin with a staple not more than three or four inches long Hold a comfortable handful (or a rolag) it your right hand. Loosen a small tuft of the mass and lay the starting cord over it — overlapping two or three inches — and pinch this length lightly between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand.

Start treadling your wheel slowly clock wise. Watch the twist running up the starting cord. You can feel when it reaches your thumb and forefinger. At that instant you can both see and feel the fibers catch or the starting cord. Continue to hold the "caught" area between the thumb and forefinger. Treadle five or six times, and stop. Draw your right hand back as you re lease the accumulated twist held by your left hand. Watch the twist run up toward your right hand. Practice this, step by step, keeping your eye on the drawing-out triangle.

When you feel confident about each stage, begin to maintain a slow, continuous treadling, as your right hand move: backward as fast as the twist runs toward it. Your right hand can make a long sweeping continuous draw until it reaches arm's length.

To let the yarn wind on, move your right arm forward in a sweeping motion toward the orifice. Allow it to wind on as fast as possible while still maintaining enough tension to keep the thread straight, not slack. Twist will only run up a taut thread.

At first you'll need to use your left thumb and forefinger to control the twist and tension a bit, but don't hang on to the yarn as a security blanket. Consciously try to give that left hand less and less to do as you practice. It should be held near the orifice just to guide and smooth the yarn (I rarely use my left hand, unless I'm spinning a very thick yarn. Then I use it to assist the tug from the wheel, and to pull out any lumps.) Left-handed people can reverse these directions.

If your yarn breaks, you'll need to join the two ends.

Then overlap the fanned-out ends and hold them between your thumb and forefinger. Treadle until the twist joins them. With a little practice you can make a good join that can't be seen.

Skeining Spun Yarn

The simplest way to make a skein of yarn is to wind it by encircling your elbow and the "V" between your thumb and forefinger. However, this method doesn't allow for accurate measuring of yardage. The handiest way to make a skein is with a niddy-noddy (a stick for winding and measuring yarn). You can buy one, or make one with dowels.

If you make your own niddy-noddy, be sure that the cross arms that go through the center shaft are set perpendicular to each other. The arms are set 18 inches apart to make a skein a yard long (two yards around). You can measure yardage and weigh skeins to calculate the amount of yards for weaving, etc.

If you free the string from around the bobbin groove, you can wind off directly from the bobbin on the spindle shaft onto the niddy-noddy. Or many wheels have a built-on bobbin rack, so you can store several bobbins, and then wind off. If your wheel doesn't have a bobbin rack you can buy or make one.

Hold the niddy-noddy in the center with your left hand, and tuck the end of the yarn under your left thumb. Wind around as shown, to form two V-shapes. Use the yarn ends to tie a double half hitch around each end of the skein. Slip it off the niddy-noddy and onto your forefingers. Rotate the right forefinger clockwise and the left forefinger counterclockwise, to twist the skein tightly. Put one end through the loop at the other end and it will twist itself into the position shown.

Setting the Yarn Twist

If your yarn was spun from "fleece in the grease" or other "dirty" fibers, make suds in lukewarm water and wash the skein as you would a sweater, then rinse in water the same temperature. If the fibers you spun were clean, just dip the skein in lukewarm water. A dash of vinegar or lemon juice in the rinse water will make hair fibers shine. Fabric softener or hair creme rinse in the rinse water will give a nice feel to wool and down fibers. Vegetable fibers should be dipped in clear water.

To hang the skeins and set the twist, I use "S" hooks from the hardware, and lead fishing weights sold by the ounce. Always remove the weight as soon as the twist is set or the yarn is dry, so it doesn't deaden the resilience of the yarn. The amount of weight should be greater than that of the yarn. For instance, a fourounce skein should have at least a six-ounce weight.


A. WHEEL

B. DRIVE BAND: strong flexible cord

C. FLYER ASSEMBLY: holds bobbin and whorl

D. MAIDENS: uprights at each end of flyer

E. BEARINGS: on maidens; hold flyer assembly

F. TENSION SCREW: adjusts the yam twist and rate of wind-on

G. TREADLE: rotates large wheel

H. FOOTMAN: crank attaches it to axle of large wheel

I. TREADLE CORD: attaches footman to treadle with a snug tie

J. TREADLE BAR: metal pins on each end hold it to front legs.

DISTAFF: wooden arm to which unspun fibers can be tied or wrapped

L. FLYER: metal shaft runs through center, guide hooks on side

M. BOBBIN: turns freely on flyer shaft, spun yarn winds around it

N. WHORL: Wooden disc screws onto metal shaft of the flyer. If it has two grooves, you can spin at two speeds.

0. SHAFT: holds the bobbin and whorl within the flyer

P. EYE: opening on top of metal shaft

Q. ORIFICE: diameter determines maximum thickness of yarn that can be spun

R. STARTER CORD: two feet long; tied around bobbin and not removed when you skein off yarn

S. TABLE

T. SCOTCH TENSION: Some wheels like the Ashford have a single drive band going around the large wheel and whorl. A thin cord attaches to a spring or elastic on one side, goes over the bobbin groove, and winds onto a wooden peg on the other side. Turning this peg adjusts the yarn twist and rate of wind-on.


From Handspinner's Handbook by Bette Hochberg, copyright 1976 by the author. Published by the author at 333 Wilkis Circle, Santa Cruz, California 95060, and reprinted with her permission. Available in paperback only ($3.95) from the publisher, from any good bookstore or from MOTHER's Bookshelf.


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