Spindle Spun

February 5, 2016

Spindle spinning has been on my mind recently. I have been chatting with the lovely Becca, a spinner from Scotland whose spindle is her tool of choice and I have been finishing off some old spinning to leave my spindle empty for the beginning of the Spinning Certificate. The first workshop will focus on the spindle.

IMG_2352It is easy for me to forget how easy and pleasurable spindle spinning is. Amidst the knitting and the wheel spinning, it seems to get overlooked and spend most of the time gracing a shelf rather than spinning. I also forget how quickly it makes yarn. Yes, spindle spinning is surprisingly quick.

At the Bothwell Spin-In in Tasmania recently, there was a race between a spindle and a wheel for metres spun in a set time. Whilst the wheel won, it was only by a tiny margin. Over time of course, that margin would increase, set side by side. However, the special thing about spindles, that makes them efficient producers of yarn and a real alternative to wheel spinning is not their actual speed but their occupation of  a different space and set of time to that of the wheel.

The wheel is heavy and fixed. It may travel to meetings but it usually lives in a room and we go to it and spin on it for an exclusive period of time. The spindle can be with us always. You can spin whilst waiting for the pasta to boil. You can spin watching your children play sport or whilst they build a fairy house in the park. Some folks can even spin whilst being a passenger in a car or plane using a supported spindle and bowl. Because it is so portable, spinning can use bits and pieces of time that are not available to wheel spinning, adding up the yardage surprisingly quickly.

Whilst I have only spindle spun small things, some folks spin whole sweaters. Sounds surprising doesn’t it but perhaps not when we remember how the spindle clothed, powered (through sail) and carried (through bags) the Ancient World.

IMG_2346The only thing I find tricky is the plying. I haven’t really sorted this out yet. I most often ply back on the singles I have made using a centre pull ball. I have tried using the cop itself to do this and I have also used a ball winder but I find things tangle very quickly. After seeing how Bedouin spinners use a ball wound with two singles to ply from, I tried winding the cop into a centre-pull ball first and then winding both ends onto a toilet roll (is there nothing they cannot be useful for?). I could do this with less tangle than spinning them from the centre-pull ball as I could keep the distance between roll and ball short and under tension. Once I had my two singles wound up together, plying was fast and easy with no tangling problems.

The fibre was a merino and silk blend from First Edition Fibre and Yarns in Euroa, Victoria.

IMG_2392After meeting a weaver today who is a retired Steiner teacher and listening to her talk about the calming effects of ball winding on children, I got Our Dear Boy to wind the plied yarn off the cop. He wound and listened to his dad read the evening story. He was calm and proud when he finished, ready for a zen bedtime. Half an hour later, I realised I should have given his sister a ball to wind too. It is hard to share a room with a sibling who is not feeling so calm! Never mind, it is still a beautifully wound ball waiting for a wash and finish which I hope will even out the twist somewhat…I am a little rusty.

I would be very interested to hear what other methods you have tried for plying on a spindle.

Useful resources for spindling:

Priscilla Gibson Roberts, Spinning in the Old Way (2006)

Abby Franquemont, Respect the Spindle (2009 )

Craftsy spindling course From Fluff to Stuff

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  1. I usually ply with each spindle hook-down (I usually use top whorl spindles) in a coffee mug, and let the single spiral off the shaft of each spindle (works for Navaho plying too). I have a heavier spindle that I either use for heavier yarn or for plying.

    I’ve tried using an old shoebox converted into a lazy kate, but the coffee mugs work well enough 🙂

    1. Dear Anne, Thanks for your suggestion, I like it very much. I hadn’t really ever thought about using multiple spindles for the same project. Would you need to make sure that your singles were spun on similarly weighted spindles? And you use a heavier slower one for plying? I guess this works the same way as whorl sizes on a wheel. Perhaps I need more spindles?

      1. The answer to this is always yes. 🙂

        The weight of the spindle can affect the thickness of the yarn, but if they’re relatively similar, your fingers can also control the thickness enough that the differences don’t show after plying.

  2. I have been working with spindles the past three years. I have tried many and have now narrowed my favorites down to two: the navajo and portuguese styles. I too found plying a two ply yarn awkward. My solution was to purchase a second spindle each of the navajo and portuguese. When the spindles are ready I wind the plying ball directly from the spindles and then ply onto one of the empty spindles. I make an andean plying bracelet if one spindle holds more fiber. Recently I have enjoyed watching the videos Alice Bernardo from Saber Fazer has put online featuring portuguese spindlers. also RosaPomar’s website is an excellent source for info, photos, and videos on the portuguese spindles.

    1. Thank you Peg, there is so much in your comment for me to go away and research! I really have very little knowledge of navajo style and nothing of portuguese. I will check out those videos.

  3. Such beautiful color! It does look like a very meditative and zen-like activity. Looking forward to all your spinning posts – really fascinating!

    1. Thanks Alina, Yes the colour is beautiful isn’t it. The emerald and turquoise just glow especially with the silk blend. I took CD spindles into my son’s kinder class one year and all they wanted to do was spin the whorl!

  4. A spindle really is the ideal tool for working in amongst other things. (Just chatting recently about spinning with you has been encouragement to keep spinning on my Shackleton project. I tend to do small project but I know that my spindles can do much much more.)

    In terms of plying, when I was doing small quantities as a beginner I used the plying bracelet technique (sometimes called Andean plying) which works really well for small quantities of 2ply. Eventually I wanted to do more plies and larger amounts. I bought an organizing basket that has lots of holes. My spindles lay across it perfectly and I used that basket to hold a few spindles like a makeshift Kate. They are not easy to control this way but it does the job.

    Then I read about the plying ball (you mentioned it above) in an issue of PLY. I still use the basket to hold the spindles in order to make the plying ball, winding my singles together into a ball. I use a little ball of crunched up paper as a core to make the ball nice and stable at the beginning (my tools are super fancy 😉

    I’ve used a plying ball ever since trying it. It may sound like extra time and trouble to wind into a ball instead of just plying straight from my makeshift kate. However, it has made a big difference in my control and evenness. By making the ball first I concentrate on just managing the singles, keeping them evenly tensioned and keeping an eye on my spindles. Then, once the ball is done, I can just carry that around and concentrate only on the plying twist and not have to worry about managing the singles. This is ideal because my “kate” has no tension on it. It’s also really easy to walk around with a plying ball and I can totally understand why older cultures, especially ones that prized the mobility, used the plying ball technique.

    1. Dear Becca, isn’t it funny the effect our conversation has had on both of us! Talking and sharing is actually strengthening and growing our practice! Oh that is interesting to hear how you have found the plying ball and under what circumstances you would use the Andean plying method. It was the lack of tension on the singles that I was finding so tricky before I used the plying ball. The coffee cup method might put some tension in though as the singles have to unwind from the shaft rather than the whorl rotating. The mobility of the plying ball is definitely an advantage. I was able to put it in a bag and take it to the park and keep plying. Thanks so much for your advice and inspiring chat.

  5. First of all, I must commend you as I Run from spindles. FAST!
    So that means I don’t use my collections often enough…or at all…
    Having said that I read a lot and watch……..yes, I agree, wrap both singles together into a single ball and then ply. I have seen a Fisherman’s Gansey sweater done by Norman Kennedy, one ply wool, one ply silk. He said, yes, we watch a lot of Television in the winter. Woof
    My daughter learned to spin on BIG clunky heavy wooden spindles and I think she plyed by putting both spindles in a bucket and hung the strands of wool over a nail or something on the wall to give it tension! She did a great job and I think we saw this in an OLD Spin Off, in an article on the middle of Europe.
    I became the recipient of all her stuff when she moved and there were lovely finely spun 2 ply balls of blue and I asked where she got them. She said she had done them…….wasn’t sure I believed her and then I saw the big spindles with the wool on them…….how embarrassing for ME!! bad mommy bad mommy

    1. Dear Susan, I did say spindles were fast…but I didn’t think about the speed running away from them! You are funny. Thanks for the info about the plying ball and the way your daughter got some tension on her singles…ingenious! Ah! I love your doubt that your daughter made the fine spindle spun… parenthood seems to be just one long catch up with the surprising capabilities of our kids. You think you know them but they catch us out!

  6. Morning Rebecca,
    For Christmas I bought myself a lovely little rosewood and jarrah Turkish spindle from an Australian spindle maker. I keep meaning to try it out, never having spun on a spindle before. So since today is raining and your post appeared serendipitously that will be my aim for today. All the tips on plying will come in handy thank you everyone.

    1. Hi there Suzette, I do hope the rain lasted long enough to have a play with your new spindle. It sounds so lovely. Is that from a maker in WA by any chance? I did hear there was someone making beautiful spindles in WA. So glad the chat is having that wonderful enabling effect that crafty chat seems to.

  7. OH goodness, you make me want to take out my spindle and get going, what a lovely yarn you’ve made there! I have only ever used the tp roll method so these comments are very helpful. xo

    1. Dear Leigh, The spindle discussion does seem to have that effect of wanting to reach for the spindle doesn’t it! The crafty community seems to be such as special one where so many folks see sharing information generously as vital to the continuation of these craft skills. Tips and knowledge that come from years of experimentation are shared with kindness and curiosity. These comments are just filled with useful info…thank you everyone!

  8. I love the idea of the children winding the balls for you….whilst having a bedtime story, it sounds very peaceful and calming indeed!!

    1. I tried it on the wild one last night CAM. I picked the yarn carefully considering her preferences and whilst she got a little frustrated at the beginning, by the end she was instructing me on her method and for the first night in a long while she wasn’t hopping out of bed every five minutes to do stuff. Could ball winding be the magic bullet of bedtime? (I did also read a long story and then a quiet meditation tale in the dark and sprinkled fairy sleep dust and sacrificed a chicken so it might be those things too!)

  9. What a lot of useful and interesting information about spindles from you, Rebecca, and your readers. I am unable to add anything to the discussion except to say, thank you. Diana
    PS Any ideas for all the truly lumpy bumpy “yarn” of different fibres and weights (mostly off-white) that has been produced by my learning efforts?

    1. Dear Diana, Thanks for your comment…we have all been there with the lumpy bumpy beginnings of a grand passion! I was so proud I had made actual yarn I knitted with every bit of it. I made a stripey ‘textured’ scarf and a hat in the round with my early stuff. Looking back, I think that garter stitch is very forgiving of the bumps, sidesways garter stitch fingerless mitts would be a good use. If like mine, some is really thick and a little over twisted and stiff, I reckon knitting or crocheting little round bowl/baskets would be good. You could either leave them all texturey or full them in the washing machine for a felted bowl. I hope this is useful…spin on!

  10. As for plying – (like using a toilet paper roll) you can skip the roll – just wind your yarn onto the ball winder core as usual, then detach (unscrew) the core from the ball winder and ply both ends from that. I love to do this with fibers that would normally tangle because they don’t.

    Another way is to make a butterfly on your fingers with a bit of the yarn, keep a long end hanging out from the beginning, then make a loose ball over the butterfly. You can ply using both ends.

    If its a fairly small bit of yarn you can just make a butterfly, take it off your fingers (it will collapse) then ply from both ends. It sort of magically unwinds.

    Your comment is so true that when you make a ball by hand it is soothing. Just bought my daughter a ball winder, she is 30+ and has a one-year-old, so no more ball winding for her for a while.

    1. Dear Marilyn, so you know of this ball winding secret too? It is almost spooky in its power to calm the wildlings. It sounds like you have had alot more success than I with the ball winder and plying from both ends…I wonder if I have been doing it wrong. Maybe I needed to put a little tension in the singles as I wound them or perhaps I needed to rest them for a little longer?

      1. Hello Rebecca,

        Thank you for your response.

        Plying from a ball is my dominant way to ply yarn whether it is silk or wool and I have been spinning for a long time. I think you have to ply whichever way is most comfortable for you. Some spinners do not get along with ball plying at all and stick to plying from bobbins. Just whatever you get along with best is good.

        You don’t want to wind your ball too tight as it will make it harder to ply – just gently/softly wind your wool off onto the ball winder. I don’t think it matters whether you ply right away or let the yarn sit in your ball.

        I usually ply with a fairly light tension. I put a good amount of extra twist into my singles when spinning. I like a rolly/polly twist in my plied yarn and not a side by side looking ply. Sometimes I will end up with too much twist in the ply, but that comes out when I wash and set the yarn.

        Does this make any sense?

        1. Rebecca,

          I’m sorry, I think I totally missed the mark on the above answer. You are spindle spinning and not wheel spinning. I love to spindle spin but I ply on the wheel, not the spindle. Guess it is taking the easy way out. LOL


          1. Actually, the advice is still bang on regarding the ball winding, so thank you! I think plying on the wheel is quite a common thing for spindlers. My first spindle teacher did just that! Thanks for such a generous reply to my query Marilyn.

  11. I learned to spin on a spindle and settled on wrapping the spindle tightly a in firm paper (an old envelope) and sticky taping it smooth. Then–spinning the cop, and pulling the cop off with the paper tube inside. Before I became the happy owner of a Clever Kate I would slip these tubes of singles onto my overlocker in place of cones of thread, and ply onto the same spindle. There are so many ways! Other commenters and your post have described the others I have seen in common use. I had not thought of ball winding as the road to a zen bedtime, but will contemplate this! Perhaps I just need someone to read me a story?

    1. Dear Mary, the paper cylinder and overlocker is one out of the box! Genius! Being read a story is the ultimate for grownups…I fall asleep at the first paragraph it is so soothing. My kids are match fit unfortunately and could go for hours with the stories!

  12. Loved reading your post this morning Rebecca. I enjoy using my spindles too, at the moment I am spinning Shetland top. My brother who is also a spindle person bought me a Golding Lazy Kate. We both have one now. It works really well and being made of wood looks beautiful too and I am really lucky to own one….

    Your spinning looks great….. I was given a tip by Emma from Spunout who is a phenomenal spindler. With many small children around and much fetching and carrying she had set up individual spindle, fleece tins and containers in the car, around the house, near the tv etc. Wherever she was she could pick up a spindle and spin a few rounds. I thought that was a brilliant idea for busy Mums… waiting at footie games, dentists, school pick ups etc etc I have found pasta containers really handy to carry around….

    1. Thanks for your reply Lydia. Firstly, may I compliment you on your choice of brother, how delightful to have spindling siblings! Anything Golding would be a real treasure to use and i don’t doubt you put it to good use. That is a great idea about the multiple spindles in multiple places. Spunout was such a treasure to have, I am sorry it is no longer running. So glad you enjoyed the post, the spindles seem I be being out the merry in all of us.

  13. This is such an inspiring blog post and the comments are so generous and awesome and inspiring. I’ve always been fasinated by spindle spinning but i’m pretty much a novice. I’m really excited to be learning on Sunday. Its just lovely to hear about your ‘dear boy’ and the ball winding. i must try this on my nephew. And thanks for you lovely comments in previous post. (am so nervous and excited about Sunday. It will be lovely to meet you)

    1. Thanks Isabel, Yes, I am really looking forward to Sunday and the start of a grand adventure in spinning. How lucky to be sharing it with companions such as yourself. See you then!

  14. Thanks for a very interesting post. I’m a fan of the spindle, I feel more control, and I’m sure my work is neater than when using the wheel. I really enjoy the process too.

    Along with many other commenters, I now like making a centre-pull ball and plying from both ends. Note that with a Turkish spindle you make that ‘plying ball’ as you spin your singles!

  15. I’m afraid I don’t know much about using a spindle but that just makes your post all the more fascinating to read. Your photos and the colour of your ball of yarn are a treat for the eyes.

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