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A (Very) Brief Guide to Hand Spinning: Historic and Contemporary


For many centuries and in most cultures, yarn was made by hand using the simplest of tools - a stick with an optional weight made from local materials - we know this as a spindle. While the yarn making process was slow, but it was a highly portable activity and incorporated into daily life. Depending upon the culture, and fibre being processed, the spindle was suspended or supported and the weight placed anywhere along the spindle’s shaft to aid the twirling action required to turn loose fibres into a cohesive yarn. Fibres were prepared for spinning with fingers and/or a comb.

Today’s yarn maker can dip into many cultures and fibres, and has an equally global choice of spindle styles to choose from. Possibly the most common style in the UK today, is the top whorl drop spindle; the whorl (weight) is positioned near the top of the spindle shaft, and has a metal hook fixed into the top of the shaft. The high whorl allows the spindle shaft to be easily rolled along the spinner’s body to gain speed before being suspended while loose fibres are attenuated and the twist allowed to enter the drafted portion of fibre to ‘lock’ it all together.

At Handweavers we stock a variety of spindle styles which are available in different weights, from basic to handcrafted and budget to beautiful. We also have craftsman made support spindles with their own handcrafted ceramic spinning bowls.

Spinning Wheels

It is thought that the spinning wheel was probably first developed in China as a means for reeling silk, before the driven wheel technology was applied to spinning staple fibres into continuous yarn. It steadily worked it’s way to the West, being adapted to local culture and fibres along the way. Eventually when it arrived in England it had a very large drive-wheel, rotated by hand, which in turn rotated a horizontal spindle; the yarn was twisted by the rotation of the spindle’s point (one turn of the spindle point adds 1 twist to the forming yarn) Once a length of yarn was formed and enough twist added for strength it was ready to be stored on the spindle.

The winding on process/storage of the yarn was (and still is, on this style of wheel) a separate step, just like the hand spindle. With only one hand free to control the fibre supply (the spinner’s other hand was needed to turn the wheel) a free flowing fibre supply was necessary. Brushes to prepare the wool seem to have appeared around the same time as this Great Wheel, and were used to prepare shorter staple wools into fluffy rolls (rolags) for spinning weft yarns - warp yarns were still prepared with drop spindles as these were considered to produce a superior yarn.

However, yarn for cloth production steadily became more widely organised as an industry - both cottage style and in central locations as forerunners of factory production. Eventually a flyer and bobbin system were developed so that the yarn would draw onto the bobbin as the spinner spun it. Later a treadle was added, and now the spinner could use both hands to control the fibre and twist while their feet supplied the energy to turn the drive wheel. Later, the development of power spinning quickly took over from the hand spinner in Britain and the Industrial Revolution well and truly got underway! Today there are a growing number of craftspeople choosing to produce yarn by hand.

The reasons for doing so are many ie reconnection to the past, the planet, ecology, mindfulness. But whatever the reason/s there is no denying the satisfaction of taking loose fibres, feeling them purposefully slip through your fingers, then take the resulting yarn, spun to your unique specification and turning it into a useful and beautiful item that only exists because you wanted it to be so.

Now that hand spun yarn isn’t being produced mainly for cloth capable of surviving several generations of hard use, the style of yarns produced and techniques used by contemporary hand spinners are legion, with “art yarn” entering the vocabulary relatively recently. Reflecting this rising and changing interest in yarn making, spinning wheel manufacturers have kept up with developments and produced a variety of easy to use efficient spinning wheels that fit into modern life (portable and compact), with the ability to spin anything from fine to super chunky textured yarns! We always have a variety of Ashford’s spinning wheels on display at Handweavers for you to test drive, and books on the shelves to inspire you.

Given the range of reasons for hand spinning, and choice of tools available, it is probably unsurprising that the selection of fibres now available to hand spinners is huge - alpaca to yak and banana to Tencel, the list is growing all the time! At Handweavers we endeavour to provide you with a wide choice of quality fibres suitable for all kinds of projects, and we stock over 100 hues of Merino Tops suitable for hand spinning as well as felting (wet and needle)!


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