Russian style spindle from Pumpkin Hill Farm
Russian style spindle from Pumpkin Hill Farm

So I promised a post on spindles a week or so ago, and I thought it would be a fitting first blog post over here, given that spindles are quite new to me.

First things first; what is a spindle?  What’s it for?

Well, a spindle is a tool used to create yarn from loose fiber, like sheep’s wool or cotton fluff.  The cream colored blob that the spindle above is resting on is undyed wool.  You make yarn by pulling a long thin strand of your fluff-of-choice, called roving, and twisting it to make it stay together.  Rope is made in a similar way, just on a larger scale.  This pulling and twisting is called “spinning”.

A spindle is basically a stick with a weight, or whorl, near one end.  Today, we often see drop spindles with either a top or bottom whorl, and a hook to help keep your yarn in check.

We’ve been spinning yarn using various methods since neolithic times.  We’ve been using weighted spindles like the one above for nearly as long.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, this results in quite a number of different spindles and spinning methods across various cultures.  Well, I suppose, it *should* have been unsurprising, but it wasn’t.  I mean, I’ve seen drop spindles before, and there’s top whorl and bottom whorl, and that’s all well and good… but there’s so many more than that!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that he’d seen someone spinning yarn by hand in San Francisco.  I asked him what kind of spindle, and he replied that it had seemed like the person was using a crack on the deck to support the spindle and keep it upright.  I had never heard of such a thing!  So I started looking.  Mostly, I was looking at pricing for drop spindles; I had owned one previously and remembered them being fairly inexpensive.  I just wanted to verify that thought before I suggested my friend acquire one.  But as I was looking at spindles, I started seeing oddly shaped ones; they were neither top whorl nor bottom whorl, and there was no hook!  How would the spindle not fall to the ground?

I found several types of these odd spindles including Russian, Tibetan, and Indian, called Takli.  The information I found about them called them “supported spindles” or “support spindles”.  And there was my answer.  The spindle isn’t suspended in the air the way a drop spindle is (and suddenly I knew why we call them drop spindles instead of just spindles), it’s spun supported in a bowl, or cup, or, apparently, a crack in the deck.  There are special bowls that you can buy to support your spindle, including ones with a long handle that is held between the thighs and which looks like the cup portion of those cup and ball games.  I’ve also seen people using little condiment bowls, or teacups.  I’m currently using a candlestick with a conveniently shaped bottom.

So why the different types of spindle?  Well, a drop spindle is suspended in the air by the fiber you’re spinning.  If you’re spinning short fibers, like cotton or some kinds of wool, or if you’re spinning very fine yarn, you risk breaking your yarn with the weight of your spindle.  It’s better, then, to have the spindle supported and you can choose how much tension to put into your yarn.  Drop spindles are better for thicker yarn; the added weight allows for more twist to be added to the heavier yarn, making it stronger.

In addition to the top whorl and bottom whorl drop spindles, there’s Turkish spindles, which can be folded down flat. There’s also kick spindles, which differ from spinning wheels, but I don’t know how because I’ve never used either one.

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