The most common question I hear when I’m spinning on a drop spindle is “WHY would you spin yarn on something so slow and small when you could just go buy yarn?” It’s a legitimate question and spinning in this way isn’t for everyone, but here’s my answer.
First, I’ll give you author (and fanatic spinner) Abby Franquemont’s answer to that question. She spent some of her early childhood in Peru and when she moved there at age 5 she was immediately taught to spin on a basic drop spindle by the elder women of the town. Making yarn for the weavers of the town was everyone’s job and the children were spinning while they ran and played. Abby developed a love for not only spinning but weaving while in Peru and because it was an integral part of her life as a child, she couldn’t imagine not spinning every day.
My answer is, perhaps, less exciting than Abby’s but then I’ve never lived in Peru. I find the process of spinning on a drop spindle to be relaxing, it lets me clear my mind of the busy clutter it is buzzing with and I can just exist with my hands, the fiber, and the bit of wood spinning in the air in front of me. At that moment it’s the doing that is important, not how many yards of yarn I’m producing or how perfect it is. The feel of the beautiful fiber between my fingers, the slowly growing weight of the spindle, and the rhythm of spinning, drafting, and winding all combine to focus my senses and the timeless nature of spinning fiber.
Respect the Spindle provides a wealth of information and beautiful pictures of spindles from all across the world. Franquemont frankly shares her knowledge and expertise of the two main types of spindles: suspended (or drop) and supported spindles and their uses with different types of fibers and to create different yarns. My experience has focused on the suspended spindle which is usually called the drop spindle and includes the top (or high) whorl and the bottom (or low) whorl spindles.
Spindles in history
The origins of spinning fiber to make string or yarn are lost in time, but archaeological evidence has been dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, some 20,000 years ago. The spindle originally was just a stick twisted fiber was rolled on to, but spindle whorls appeared in the Neolithic era which add weight to part of the spindle to keep it steady and help it spin for longer periods of time. Spindles have shown up in art throughout history.
In medieval times, poor families had such a need for homespun yarn to make their own cloth and clothes that practically all girls and unmarried women would keep busy spinning, and “spinster” became synonymous with an unmarried woman.
In mythology the spindle is closely associated with many goddesses, including the Germanic Holda, Norse Frigg and Freya, Isis, Artemis and Athena. It is often connected with fate, as the Greek Fates and the Norse Norns work with yarns that represent lives.
How to make your own drop spindle
Drop spindles are very basic in structure and can be intricate or very simple, but they should work if they are balanced. Here are a couple of inexpensive spindles to try to make on your own.
- Find a wooden toy wheel and a 12″ dowel of the same size diameter as the hole on the toy wheel and slip the wheel onto the dowel, 1-2″ from the end (glue if necessary). Sand the dowel slightly to smooth the rough spots that could catch your yarn. Instead of a toy wheel you could also try clay discs or lightweight metal.
- A similar type uses a dowel, a rubber grommet, and two old CDs. Hold the two CDs together with the grommet and slip it onto the dowel. Make sure it is a tight fit!
The other books at Dewey number 746.12 are jam-packed full of information and step-by-step guides to learning how to use your new drop spindle. Wait! You need one more thing: fiber. There are locally many small farms that raise sheep and alpacas for their fiber. Find them at farmer’s markets, fiber arts fairs, and on the internet. Etsy is a great resource for hand-dyed and natural spinning fiber and AlpacaNation will give you contact information for the local alpaca farms.
Calling all wood-turners!
Not only are spindles of interest to people who love fiber arts, you can also apply wood-turning skills to spindle projects. If you are a wood-worker take a look at the many different types of spindles in Respect the Spindle and see if you can create your own custom designed drop spindles on your wood lathe. I, for one, would be very interested to see what you can come up with!
Oh, and the final reason I love spinning with a drop spindle? Tradition. I am amazed every time that a technique so incredibly old feels so right in my hands.