The Art of Handspinning

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Photo By Fotolia/maticsandra
Anyone can learn handspinning, even without a spinning wheel.

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

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

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

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.


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


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

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