Monday, February 2, 2015

Spinning Wheel Got To Go 'Round

After the Storm
In my last post, I discussed getting fiber ready to start on its way to becoming cloth. Today, we're going to take the next step on that path, and look at what it takes to spin fibers into thread or yarn.

Producing a strong, resilient filament of interconnected fibers is essential to producing a long lasting cloth or rope of any sort. From thick yarns used to make comfortable, warm sweaters, to ultra fine thread used to sew cloth into a wearable form, all of it goes from the preparation stage to the spinning stage.

While the methods of spinning fiber into useable thread are many and varied, there are only three primary types of spinning technique:
  • Hand twisting
  • Drop Spindles
  • Spinning Wheels

Each of these methods has had its moment in history. Each of them has evolved from their earliest forms into their current form and usage.

Hand Spinning

The most basic means of twisting together the fibers of wool or cotton is by the simple expedient of your own fingers. Twirling the strands of fiber together by simply rubbing them between your hands, or rubbing them along a leg, and then adding more to the length as you go, has probably been in use since long before humankind settled down in agricultural settlements and became "civilized."

It's time-consuming, it's tedious, and unless you've practiced it for a long time, it doesn't offer much in the way of consistent results... all of which no doubt played major roles in the creation of simple tool assists in the form of spindles.

Drop Spindles, the longest-used spinning tool

A drop spindle is, other than a knife or hammer, perhaps one of the oldest tools mankind still uses. They are simple and elegant, consisting of little more than a straight shaft which is weighted at one end, with a small hook at the top end, and sometimes a small notch at the top of the shaft as well.

There are 3 distinct styles of drop spindle, and they are differentiated by where the weight is placed.
    A Top Whorl Spindle has the weight placed at the top end of the shaft - the end closest to your hand while in use. Weight placement at the top means this spindle turns very rapidly, but has a short spin time in relation to its speed.

    A Bottom Whorl spindle places the active weight at the bottom of the shaft, away from your hand while in use. These spin much slower than a top whorl, but the duration of their spin is significantly increased and I've found them to be more stable.

    A Center Whorl spindle places the weight in the middle instead of either end. This one has the speed and relative duration of the top whorl, but slightly better stability during spin.
      All 3 types work in the same manner, utilizing centrifugal force - just like spinning a toy as a child. Top and bottom whorl spindles are both fairly common, but I haven't seen many people utilize a central whorl.

      Once a small piece of thread (referred to as the leader thread) is attached to the shaft, the other end of the thread is attached to the beginnings of your bundle of fiber (called roving). The old thread works as a guide for the new thread, helping to keep it in place as you twist the fibers together and then wrap it around the shaft as it accumulates.

      The techniques for learning to use a drop spindle are easy to pick up. Moderate proficiency can be gained in very little time; it took me about an hour to learn how to use a drop spindle originally, and within two months of rather hit-and-miss inconsistent practice, I had gained enough proficiency that the yarn I produced no longer looked like a misshapen collection of thick and thin with oddly placed bumps and spacing. Had I been more diligent in practicing with my new drop spindle when I acquired it, it would have taken a lot less time to get any sort of decent consistency from it.

      I've used both bottom and top whorl spindles, and found very little difference in the two other than how frequently I needed to set it spinning again after it slowed down to a stop. Whichever you end up using is a matter of personal preference. My preference is for the bottom whorl spindle, simply because that's what I originally learned on, and therefore have the most practice with.

      The concept is actually very simple. Fortunately, there are several professionals who have posted videos on YouTube as instructional videos to get people started. I'm not going to confuse you by trying to explain the whole process; instead, I suggest you watch this video from a true professional instructor in fiber techniques. She makes it clear, concise, and simple in a way that I simply can't accomplish.

      Taking a Spindle to the Next Level

      Beyond the basic drop spindle, we have larger mechanical aids to creating thread in the form of Spinning Wheels. The introduction of the spinning wheel during the early middle ages was important because it increased a spinner's production rates by a factor of 10 or more. Suddenly, one person could produce the same amount of thread as 10 people, with the same consistency in quality. This meant that fewer people had to be working on the same project. Thread could be produced faster, which meant it could be turned into cloth faster, and subsequently prices came down.

      Today there are a variety of wheels produced for the fiber arts community by several companies. Some of them are large enough that even moving them inside a single room isn't very practical, while others are light and compact, meant to be portable and use anywhere.

      The basic concept is the same as using a drop spindle: centrifugal force is utilized to assist in twisting the fibers together to provide strength, durability, and lengths that are practical to use. The roving is fed slowly into an already twirling mass, thinned out as it goes along, to produce a single tightly wound but very elongated group of fibers.

      I've had only a bit of experience with a wheel so far. A close friend in the fiber arts community has allowed me to use hers a few times so that I could see the differences between using a drop spindle and using a wheel. Eventually, I'll have the money saved up to invest in a wheel of my own. They are significantly more expensive than drop spindles, however, and much more difficult to produce, so it's one of those items on the wish list for now. Taking a class - or even watching something like this video - will give you a better idea of how a spinning wheel works than I'm capable of explaining.

      I understand that investing anywhere from $500 (for a good used portable wheel) to $4000 (for a brand new great wheel that will become a permanent installation where you put it) is not lightly undertaken. I wouldn't suggest it for anyone who didn't already know for certain that it was going to be lovingly cared for and used on a regular basis. For those wanting something to keep "just in case", a drop spindle can be made from any straight shaft of wood or metal with a weight to attach to it to keep it spinning.

      Next time, we'll take a look at methods of dying your fiber, whether it be spun yarn or already woven cloth, and the pros and cons of synthetic dyes versus natural dyes.

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