These days in the modern world, where spinners have access to a wide range of tools, plying on a drop spindle is sometimes rejected and thought of as slow or cumbersome. We also sometimes tend to think of plying as very tool-dependent, seeking out lazy kates, tensioning devices, and so forth. While useful (and in the case of some plying techniques, all but indispensable), these tools can also be limiting, and nothing equals the freedom of being able to take your plying with you.
In the Peruvian Andes, traditional spinners use drop spindles exclusively, achieving very high levels of productivity with very simple tools, including at times no tools other than hands and existing yarn. All spinning, and all plying, take place on drop spindles, commonly while walking from place to place. As a girl, I learned numerous yarn management techniques which can greatly speed up — and liberate — your spindle plying. Even though my modern life in the United States includes a wide range of tools, there are plenty of times when I choose a heavy plying spindle over anything else. Sometimes, this is because of unparalleled portability; other times, it’s because I don’t want to be limited by bobbin size. And at times, drop spindle plying has saved me tons of work, or outright disaster, on a yarn I didn’t think was ever going to see a spindle. You can read about one such incident here: http://www.abbysyarns.com/wordpress/?p=14
Making your plying portable starts with freeing yourself from the bobbin or full spindles. Without needing to ply from bobbins or spindles, you no longer need a tool to manage those, such as a lazy kate. The well-accepted technique of plying from both ends of a center-pull ball is one way to do it, but many spinners agree this doesn’t work ideally for all yarns, and isn’t ideally transportable. The solution for a 2-ply yarn: simple! Just take both ends of the center-pull ball, and rewind them together into a new ball. You could do it as a center-pull ball, or as an outer-feed ball. I like to use Peruvian-style ball winding techniques, which produce a firm ball that keeps active singles under tension and, having courses, allows you to secure a ball to your clothing with a safety pin (for example) for worry-free transport of your unplied yarn.
Traditionally in the Andes, when a spinner has a full cop on a spindle ready to be plied, one of two things happens: first, you actually have two full spindles. Due to the design of the Andean Pushka spindle, with a pointed shaft bottom, the most traditional thing to do is plant those ends firmly in the ground, spindle shafts vertical, and take both ends from the spindles and wind them into a 2-stranded ball. Yarn slips neatly off the end of the shaft without issue. Although Andean weaving yarns are all traditionally 2-ply yarns, you can use this technique with any pointy-bottomed spindle… so long as you have some ground you can jab pointy sticks into, of course! If you live in the rural Andes, you likely do; in the modern first world, you very well may not. In those cases, I do what I’d do if it were raining in Peru and I couldn’t find a good patch of ground: take off my shoes, and put one spindle shaft bottom between each big toe and its immediate neighbour, and use my feet to hold the spindles to wind off of together.
When you get to the end of one of your spindles full of yarn, this is where Andean spinners actually use what US and European spinners now refer to as “Andean Plying” — the bracelet is actually viewed as nothing more than a yarn management technique to simplify finding both ends of a longer length of high-twist yarn than you can reasonably handle without some sort of trick. You then take the end of the fuller spindle, splice it with the end of the shorter one, feed out your “Andean Plying Bracelet,” and finish winding your 2-stranded ball. The bracelet technique is never traditionally used for really full spindles — it is fairly impractical for the volumes of yarn typically packed onto spindles by Andean spinners (commonly several thousand yards of very fine, high-twist yarn). While a very handy trick, it isn’t really viewed as a production technique.
So, what if you only have one full spindle? If you’ve wound your cop well and firmly, and you’re careful, you can slide it off the end of your spindle, find the leader yarn at center and the spun end at the outside, and basically treat it like a center-pull ball. If you are less daring, though, this may be a place to use the Andean bracelet winding technique to wind your 2-stranded ball. It could also be a good time to simply wind a single-stranded ball, very tightly, holding the spun yarn under tension, and then proceed to spin more. I do this if I’m spinning on a spindle that is very lightweight, producing a medium-twist fine yarn or spinning from down fibers; in that case, the added weight of spun fiber can dramatically change how the spindle acts. I also do it if I’m traveling and have only one spindle with me. Eventually, this way you end up with a few single-ply balls stored under tension; and at this point, you can wind one of those together with the yarn that’s on a spindle, together with each other, and so forth.
Next: what if you don’t want to make a 2-ply yarn? No problem — you can wind a ball with as many strands of yarn as you want (though I don’t think I’ve ever done more than seven, and don’t routinely do more than 4). The down side to a 3-ply is that you don’t have a handy trick like the plying bracelet or center-pull winding to easily find 3 ends; so in this case, you need to either work from three spindles or balls or bobbins, winding all at once, or else wind a 2-strand ball and then combine that with a third. You can, of course, for a 4-ply yarn, simply repeat your first and second winds: say you wound a 2-strand center-pull ball — now take both ends of that, in turn, and wind a 4-stranded one.
Okay, so why would you do all this winding and rewinding? Well, consider plying directly from spindles and bobbins, and the yarn management issues you can run into with tension and so forth; and consider what you may have encountered if you ever put down a yarn you were in the middle of plying from a center-pull ball. Winding and rewinding separates the yarn management from the actual plying, and allows you to focus on one at a time. You eliminate problems like uneven wind-on causing uneven wind-off and backspinning bobbins or breaking yarn. You have an additional opportunity to correct any undiscovered flaws in the single, with quick splicing and so forth. Lastly, you wind up with something you really can put down, carry around, throw in a bag, and so on.
That said, there are some things to be aware of when winding a multi-stranded ball. The first is what Quechua-speaking Andean spinners refer to as a ch’oro — a Quechua word for something which is off-center, out of balance, or uneven. If one of your strands is looser than the other(s), you get an uneven ply — sometimes even with a little tag hanging off the side, where one ply has corkscrewed up on itself! You have to be vigilant, as you are winding, to be sure you’re winding fairly evenly. But it doesn’t generally matter if some twist sneaks into the yarn as you’re winding — after all, you’re getting it ready to be plied, and most of the time, you can just pass by that and keep winding without any real unevenness happening. Just watch (and feel!) for the real ch’oro, and fix it as you are winding your ball.
With your multi-strand ball wound, simply take the end from which you plan to ply (I use the outside of a tightly-wound Peruvian-style ball), attach it to your spindle as you desire, and ply away! You can put the ball in a bag, a loose pocket, a bowl on the floor if you aren’t going anywhere, or (assuming it’s a Peruvian-style ball), put a safety pin through the ball several courses below the working outermost course, and pin it to your clothing — I routinely do this by pinning to a belt loop on my jeans. You can feed quite a bit of yarn from courses outside of the point where the safety pin is, and then simply move to a newer, more inward course when you reach the pin. And with a Peruvian ball, when you get down to the very end, where the ball is light, you’ll be able to slip the loops of it over your wrist and ply the last little bit from a bracelet without worrying about the lightweight ball bouncing all over the place.
It’s also not uncommon for Andean spinners to wind 2-stranded skeins of yarn, dye the yarn unplied, and then ply it afterwards — often straight from the skein, with the arm of their supply hands through the center of the skein, and the loose skein simply hanging there. Me, I like this method less — it is a little finicky to put down, and unless you’re really careful, it’s too likely to present you with a great opportunity to practice your skein untangling skills (there’s probably an entire article in that subject alone, too!). It’s a common enough sight, and the folks who like to do it that way sure make it look easy, but take my word for it: it’s not easy.
Andean spinners have several more tricks that speed up plying and spinning both — and several tricks generally thought of as silly kid tricks, which are entertaining and sometimes even useful to a degree. The first thing to master is walking your yarn up on the fingers of your supply hand — this allows you to control a longer length of yarn than your armspan, keeping it under tension. The more you can spin or ply between wind-ons, the faster you’ll be. The second, verging on the silly kid tricks, is to ply off a ledge. I used to stand on a balcony, and drop the plying spindle all the way down to the sidewalk below. Girlhood friends and I would ply off Inca terraces. Mind you, with the silly kid trick element here, make sure your half-hitches are good, or you could be chasing your spindle a long way, much to everyone else’s amusement.
You can move twist past your forward hand while plying, with relative ease — simply slide your forward hand back and forth along a foot or two of the yarn you’re plying, and you’ll see twist move past it more than you might have thought! This, too, is key in allowing you to spin or ply longer lengths between wind-ons.
The final speed trick for plying — you could do this for spinning as well but it is riskier in terms of breakage — is to get the spindle spinning by rolling it between your hands (see video). It’s not unlike the popular thigh roll, often used with top whorl spindles, but between your hands. You can spin the spindle in either direction this way, of course — starting with your left hand at the back, and pushing it forward, you will cause a clockwise spin, whereas if you start with the right hand further back and push it forward, your spindle will spin counter-clockwise — same difference as if you were to thigh roll up vs. down your right thigh, or down vs. up your left.
If your plying spindle is not heavy enough to have sufficient momentum to keep spinning long enough to get your desired amount of twist in, walk the yarn up on your fingers, and repeat — you can basically drop the yarn all the way into the spin. Mind you, if you are plying off a balcony, terrace, or substantially raised surface, have a strong yarn if you’re going a long way — otherwise, you can snap it.
I love plying on low whorl, hookless drop spindles weighing upwards of 1.5 ounces / 50 grams. The heavier a spindle, the better it is for plying (taking into consideration other spindle physics premises, of course). Plying on a drop spindle is a terrific way to teach brand new spinners the motions involved in keeping a spindle in motion, how to wind on, and so forth.