“After your wool is thus mixed, oiled and tummed, you shall then spin it upon great wheels, according to the order of good housewifery; the action whereof must be gotten by practice, and not relation”
– Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (1615)
In The Beginning
The most basic form of spinning is done by holding a small clump of fibers, drawing a few fibers out with your opposite hand, and twisting them together with your fingers. Keep twisting as you continue to pull more fibers out of the clump, and eventually you will have a length of thread in your hands. A slightly quicker version of this technique involves rolling the drawn-out fibers up (or down) your leg and forming a thread in that method.
Very Basic Spinning Tools
Both of the methods described above get tiring, ultimately, and produce thread very slowly. Adding tools to the process speeds things up quite a bit.
The first tool added to the process of spinning was probably the simple rock. After a length of thread is spun, it is easy to tie a rock with that thread, and then begin spinning the rock. The rock adds the element of momentum to the spinning process, and acts as a weight to draw thread out more quickly. However, a basic problem remains — once a certain length of thread is drawn out, you need to somehow store the thread if you are going to spin any more.
The twisting stick
A plain stick is the first solution to the problem of storing thread, as the thread could be tied with a half-hitch knot to the stick to keep it from unwinding after the thread is wound on. Adding a hook at one end makes tying the thread that much easier, and provides a somewhat greater assurance that the knot will stay put on the thread as the stick is twisted to draw out new thread.
Both the rock and the twisting stick can provide momentum to enhance the twist given by the spinner, but neither the rock nor the stick are likely to be very aerodynamic, so the spin from either is not going to remain stable for very long. So we now advance from the casually-picked-up tool to a tool that is specifically designed to help with the spinning process, the spindle. Spindles are a deliberate combination of the rock and the stick into one object. They come in several variants, with many specific adaptations in each different culture.
Drop spindles are what most people envision when they think of hand spindles. The earliest drop spindles were probably no more complicated than a lump of clay pressed around a smooth stick, or a hole drilled into the center of a flat rock and fitted with a stick. The property most sought after in a hand spindle is evenness in the distribution of the weight around the shaft — the more evenly the weight is distributed, the smoother the spin that can be achieved. (Think back to the smooth spin you tried to achieve when you were spinning a toy top as a child.) The smoother the spin, the longer it will continue spinning, and the longer the thread that can be spun from any single rotation. The optimum is for the spindle to continue spinning until it reaches the floor.
Turkish spindles are an interesting variant on one of the more primitive forms of drop spindle: two crossed sticks lashed to a shaft at a 90-degree angle to each other. Most Turkish spindles, these days, have holes drilled through the center of the arms, so that the shaft can slide easily through. Starting to spin on a Turkish spindle involves taking a length of thread and lashing it around the arms of the spindle, so that they stay put in relation to each other and don’t slide off the spindle while it is spinning. The spun thread is usually wound around the arms of the spindle in some variation of a figure eight, in order to keep the weight distribution as even as possible. One advantage of the Turkish spindle that spinners point out is that by drawing out the shaft, and then pulling out the arms of the spindle, the spun thread is automatically in a ball after spinning.
Top-whorl spindles have their main weight, the whorl, located at the top of the shaft. This style spindle was popular in ancient times in Egypt, and has been used extensively throughout history in many cultures. Directly above the end of the shaft, a hook is placed to catch the thread, with the greater mass of thread being wrapped around on the lower shaft below the whorl. Commonly, the spindle is spun by rolling the shaft down the leg, and then left to dangle as the fibers are drafted and the thread is drawn out. Balance is critical in top-whorl spindles, as the rolling motion can produce very fast spinning.
Bottom-whorl spindles, on the other hand, have the main weight much lower on the shaft. They, too, have been used throughout history, and were most common in northern and eastern Europe, Greece and Rome. They are the most common form of drop spindle used in the United States, probably due to the close association with Western European culture. Balance is somewhat less critical in a bottom-whorl spindle, as it is inherently more stable in its configuration. That said, there is really no reason to say that bottom-whorl is “better” than top-whorl. To a certain extent, it is mainly a matter of personal preference and which style spindle you first learned on. I have spindles of all three types, and tend to use whichever one comes to hand most readily.
Supported spindles are another specialized version of hand spindles. Since their base is supported, either in a cup or on some other surface, the full weight of the spindle is not on the thread being spun. This allows the spinning of much finer threads than might be allowed by drop spindles — generally, the heavier the spindle being used, the thicker the thread one can produce, since the thinner threads will break under the weight. Supported spindles also allow more twist to be added to the thread, since they can be spun more before the thread is wound onto the spindle. Thinner threads need more spin to maintain their integrity, so supported spindles are usually the spindle of choice, if a fine thread is desired.
The first spinning wheel was created by someone who turned a spindle onto its side and attached a larger wheel in some manner to turn the spindle more quickly and efficiently. Spindle wheels were the result and are usually the type of wheel being referred to whenever someone asks what type of wheel Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. Spinning, as an activity, must be done in two stages when using a spindle of any type — first the fibers must be twisted together, then the thread must be wound onto the spindle as a separate step. The “modern” spinning wheel, with the foot treadle and the elaborate bobbin and flyer assembly that allows the twisting and winding-on functions to occur simultaneously, may have been first created late in our period. Most of the innovations, though are very much post-period, and should be treated as such in any documentation you may create for a spinning entry into an A&S Faire.
The great wheels that most people are familiar with could better be described as “walking wheels”, as they are usually turned by hand (not foot treadle) as the spinner walks toward and away from the wheel while it spins and takes up the thread. The actual spinning assembly may be either a sideways spindle, as in the most primitive of spinning wheels, or it may be a modern bobbin-and-flyer assembly.
Spindle wheels are somewhat different from modern wheels as the spinning process is still a two-stage process on them. Because the spindle is turned by the spinning of the separate wheel, attached to the spindle by the drive band, it is considered a “stationary” spindle (as opposed to a “drop” or “supported” spindle). The angle that the thread is held at, in relation to the tip of the spindle controls whether the thread receives more twist or is rolled onto the spindle. The tip of the spindle is free, and that is where the twisting of the thread actually occurs — when the thread is held at a 45-degree angle to the tip, it slips off the tip at each rotation, putting more twist into the thread. When enough twist is in the thread, the spinner has to stop, unwind the last bit of thread from the tip of the spindle back to the point where the majority of the thread is being stored on the spindle, and, holding the thread at a 90-degree angle to the spindle, wind on the newly-created thread. It is this starting and stopping motion that slows spindle spinning down, when compared to wheel spinning.
Because of its size, the great wheel may well be one of the easier stationary spindles to learn to spin on. The other places where spinning is accomplished by sliding the thread over the free tip to impart twist is with supported spindles and charkhas, both of which are smaller and require more fine-motor control for spinning.
Modern wheels differ from spindle wheels by solving the problem of starting and stopping to wind thread onto the spindle. Instead of requiring a two-step process, the modern wheel has a bobbin-and-flyer system (also referred to as a “Mother of All”) that controls thread uptake through differential slippage of the bobbin in relation to the spinning. This system allows the bobbin (now mounted over what we would have previously considered the spindle) to spin more slowly and allow twist to build up on the thread, or to spin more quickly and pull the thread onto the bobbin. The thread passes from the wool down to the orifice (where previously a free tip of the spindle would have been located), then along a row of hooks which hold the thread free from the bobbin until it reaches the point on the bobbin where the thread is being wound on. Because of this, the thread is no longer at risk of tangling, and can be wound on whenever the twist has built up enough, simply by releasing the pressure that is holding the thread in place.
There are three main ways to control the spinning of the flyer and the bobbin — either both can be powered with the flyer having a larger pulley wheel than the bobbin, or each can be powered individually and “lead” the non-powered one. My spinning wheel is a double-drive wheel: both the bobbin and the flyer are turned by the spinning of the larger wheel. Other wheels may be either flyer-lead or bobbin-lead, depending on their design. In the bobbin-lead, the bobbin is turned by the turning of the larger wheel, and the flyer is pulled along in phase with the bobbin by the tension of the thread. When that tension is released, the flyer stops turning and the thread is wound onto the bobbin. In the flyer-lead, the flyer is powered by the turning of the main wheel, and the bobbin follows along in phase. Again, when tension is released from the thread, the bobbin stops turning, and the flyer continues, winding the thread onto the bobbin.
Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and personal preference is more often the decider of which system works best for any particular spinner. Often, a spinner has little real choice in the matter, as cost of the wheel may be the deciding factor, rather than which features any particular system has.
Ultimately, no matter what tools you choose or which system of spinning you use, what matters most in making you a better spinner is practice. I had an opportunity to force myself to spin a lot of wool over the period of a year, and I became a much better spinner for it. I learned what the fibers felt like when they were doing what I wanted them to do, and I learned how to feel and correct problems before they became tangled messes. Whether you decide to spin with a drop spindle of some sort, or invest in a wheel, keep spinning. You can’t learn how if you are just staring at the wheel or spindle. Relax and let the spinning take over.