You Spin my Head Right Round, Right Round

What should a fiber obsessed girl do when the weather turns too warm for knitting?  Spin.  Not the gym class kind of spinning, but spin fibers into yarn.

Why should one learn to spin?

  1. It feels magical.
  2. It is oddly soothing.
  3. It does not require wrapping yarn around your fingers or resting a warm knitted or crocheted thing on your lap.
  4. You can get creative with it.
  5. Spinning will give you a better understanding of the characteristics of yarn.

I know when most people think of spinning they think of Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin, and they usually picture one of these:

Elderly woman spinning

While you absolutely can purchase one of these without stepping back into 1850, I propose starting your spinning with an even older tool:  The Drop Spindle.

Why start with such a seemingly archaic tool?  Because it’s primary advantages hold as true today as they did when the drop spindle was first used:

  1. It is portable.
  2. It is simple in it’s application.
  3. It is relatively cheap (you can find them ranging from $10 through $60, or even make your own).
  4. It does not require much space.

So, exactly how old is this tool?  Archaeologists have found evidence that humans were using drop spindles as early as the late Neolithic period (10,200 BC – 4,500 or 2,000 BC).  That means the ancestors of Mary from the Bible where using drop spindles thousands of years before her, and it’s still in use today.  That’s the mark of a good tool.  The best tools are not necessarily the latest, but ones that stand the test of time.  It has also been used in nearly every culture because it’s just that damn useful.  In light of that knowledge, the spinning wheel is a relatively new invention coming out in the 11th century, most likely from Asia.  As the popularity of spinning wheels grew, many spinners continued to use drop spindles because of their portability and their versatility.  The drop spindle gives the spinner a little more control over the thickness of the yarn produced, and the amount of spin.  It is probable that Sleeping Beauty was supposed to prick her finger on this type of spindle rather than the wheel depicted in Disney’s adaptation.  Spinning would have been something every woman would learn regardless of social station.

Medieval Ladies Spinning.

Upper class women, such as Sleep Beauty might have needed to spin to cloth her family, but rather as a demonstration of her skill, industry, and compliance with societies expectations.  Even while the fruits of her spinning would have been used in creating or embellishing clothing, skills were more a mark of her femininity and education.  Now, when we read about Maleficent cursing her to eternal slumber or death at the moment she picks up a spindle, we can interpret that as Maleficent’s curse removing her from adult womanhood – either that she would die before becoming a woman, or by ostracizing her as a woman who could not do the most basic of tasks.

Different styles of using drop spindles abound rooted in cultural influences, style, and purpose.  Most drop spindles can be divided into two varieties:

  • Top-Whorl
  • Bottom-Whorl

Now, this does not mean that every spindle has a whorl (a weighted piece attached to the central rod that pulls the yarn down), but all spindles are weighted either at the bottom or the top.  Take your time deciding which one you feel would best suit you.  You can even purchase one of each to try as the spindles themselves are not necessarily that expensive.  I use a top whorl, more out of convenience than anything else (it’s what the store had when I made my purchase).

There is a least one term you should know before learning to spin:  Drafting.  Drafting is the act of pulling the fibers out of the mass of fiber before allowing the spin from the spinning spindle to come up and turn the fibers into yarn.  The first thing you want to learn when you are just beginning is how to park and draft.  After that, you can progress to drafting while the spindle is in motion, saving you time and creating a smoother yarn.

I will not go into teaching how to spin in this post, because spinning is one thing I think is best learned from a video or from someone in person.

Just remember, your first attempt will not be perfect, neither will your second or third.  The only way to get better is to practice.  You didn’t think Rumpelstiltskin learned to spin stray into hay overnight, did you?

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