Tell me a bit about Andean spinning!

I’ve answered a few questions in various places over the past several months about Andean spinning, which is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I first learned to spin in the Peruvian community to which my family moved when my sister and I were little, and spinning in the Andean way is totally second-nature to me. So, first, let me give you a little bit of background.

My parents actually met doing fieldwork in Peru as undergraduate students in anthropology and archaeology during the 1960s. My mother had grown up skilled in all manner of handwork, as all the women in her family have been since time immemorial; it was all just a fact of life for her. My father had no such background, but shortly after my parents married, he underwent then-experimental knee surgery, leaving him with restricted mobility for over a year. His mother-in-law, my grandmother, loaned him one of her several looms and got him started learning to weave during that year. By the time I was born, he’d become obsessed with the fiber arts. Some of my earliest memories are of crawling under his loom, watching treadles and heddles and sheds and shuttles.

In the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t an awful lot of information around about Andean textiles. You could find some stuff about pre-Columbian items, archaelogical stuff, and a few things which were largely conjectural — technical and academic studies of textiles performed largely by means of deconstructing textiles and theorizing how they might be made with Western methods. My mother being a brilliant ethnographer and my father being an eclectic anthropologist, one of the questions which occurred to them was simple: “Hey, you know, when we were in Peru we saw people doing this. Has anybody gone and asked them how?”

The answer turned out to be “sort of.” The bottom line, though, was that there was definitely lots of room for extensive and in-depth research, which really needed skilled textile people to conduct it. And so it was that my family moved to Peru in 1977, and joined the community of Chinchero. Over the years, my parents wrote numerous things about Andean textiles. Of these, my personal favourite is probably “Learning to Weave in Chinchero,” in the Textile Museum Journal, 1987. Perhaps more widely read and easy to find is my father’s spring 1985 Spin-Off article entitled “Andean Spinning,” reprinted in A Handspindle Treasury and quoted for its line about Andean spinners being slower by the hour, but faster by the week, than a wheel spinner. And of course, if you’re quick right now, the current issue of Spin-Off features an excerpt from Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez’s new book!

Recently, folks have pointed me to a few videos around the web showing Andean spinners in action. In fact, it’s because of some of these videos that folks are asking questions! The questions have been great for me, because Andean-style spinning is so second-nature to me that it’s hard, sometimes, to know where to start describing it. It might be something like trying to decide how to describe American cooking. “Well… stoves are used. Oh, and microwaves! Ummmmmm, hrmmm, is eating meat typical? Are there regional variations? How do stoves work? Oh, that depends what kind… yeah, there are several kinds… uhhh, also there are backyard barbecues, except that’s really grilling and the word ‘barbecue’ can mean different things depending where you are, and… okay, some people say pizza is like that, but others don’t agree…”

For me, Andean-style spindle spinning is as commonplace and ordinary event as ordering pizza. More ordinary, in fact, because even though I have a fourth grader and consequently “pizza” is requested for every meal, I’ve spent a lot more time spinning than ordering pizza (to his chagrin, perhaps). I learned to do it exactly as described in my parents’ writing, and Nilda’s. For the Andean spinner, producing yarn is (as Nilda says) a lifelong pursuit. You start early in childhood, with an expectation that you’ll be doing it at a production level by the time you’re 8-10. Basically, your spindle is always with you.

In a thread on Ravelry’s Spindlers group, someone asked about a quote in that Spin-Off article by my friend Nilda, excerpted from her recent book. The quote, from 80-year-old Emilia Yana of Pitumarca, saying “Only when I die may I be done with spinning, although when we die we take our spindles… so perhaps we will continue to spin in the other world…” The poster asked if it was traditional to bury spinners with their spindles. Here’s what I said:

Well… it’s not uncommon in indigenous Peru for folks to be buried with some grave goods – some of their daily things and/or best loved things or gifts from loved ones. Much of this harkens back to Inca beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the ability of the living to interact with the dead and vice versa. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it and all in all I think that a lot of what ends up going with folks depends on the folks who survive them. I think those urges are fairly universal when you’re looking at a dead loved one, but the American ways of dealing with death tend to shunt some of that stuff aside thanks simply to logistics.

In the rural Andes, there aren’t any morticians or what have you; your family gets you ready to be buried. Caskets are generally borrowed (yes, borrowed) from the church, and used in a funeral ceremony and procession; at the graveyard, the dead are buried without a casket. There is an 8-day mourning ritual undertaken by the bereaved, which includes all manner of things intended to make sure that the beloved dead are settled comfortably in that other world (such as the ritual washing of their garments at a fork in a river, various specific types of feasts and gatherings, and so on). Anyway, most likely anybody who has ever been part of the process of getting a loved one’s body ready for burial or what have you can relate to the desire to send them off with grave goods; it is quite primal in my experience. So, it’s not just spindles – I can remember childhood friends of mine being buried with treasured toys, and my comadre (like a godmother/grandmother, a complex relationship but a very very important one) we buried with a spindle and some of her very fine weaving, but there were tools she cherished that she wanted the rest of us to have and keep using, and I wove my coming-of-age stuff with her equipment.

Textile production capability is a huge, huge, HUGE part of the identity system for traditional Andean textile producers. I can’t stress enough how huge. Traditionally, you would literally be raised from birth to engage in it. As a stage of life thing, the spindle is both the first, and the last, of the textile tools to be taken for granted; it is everpresent. Peruvian spinners do not usually think of themselves as spinners primarily, unless they are truly exceptional at it in some way (I, for example, am somewhere in about the 50th percentile of spinning capability, by Andean standards – adequate, but a long way from being “a spinner”). Instead, spinning is a simple fact of life. Everybody does it, or if they don’t do it now for whatever reason, can do it.

Well, or so it was, but started to shift away from being, in the past 30 years or so, with the advent of new roads and modernization and lots of things. For a woman of Emilia Yana’s generation in most textile towns, though, it was totally true; she would have been born and wrapped tight in swaddling and bound with handspun, handwoven belts, carried on her mother’s back a year or more while her mother had little time to weave but only time to spin. By the time she could sit up she’d have had fiber in her hands; by the time she could toddle, a spindle; by the time she could talk, fiber to pick and clean, and by the age of 5 or so, weaving would have begun. By age 6-12 she’d have been a production spindle spinner; in her teens, she’d have mastered more weaving; by her mid-to-late teens and entry to motherhood, she’d be back to doing lots of spinning again, and as her children grew a little older, eventually more complicated weaving, on until old age starts to make that hard and then back once more to spinning.

But, you know what’s interesting? Odds are she’ll have identified herself not as a spinner, but as a weaver. Why? Because “weaver” includes all those other things, in the traditional Peruvian definition of most towns (who does what can vary from town to town; there’s no real firm and absolute gender role about it, necessarily).

The Spin-Off article is an excerpt from my friend Nilda’s new book, which in my admittedly non-neutral opinion, does a great job of showing what the traditional Peruvian textile life is like. It is part of your identity, what you do, what you wear, what you are.

In a thread on Knitter’s Review, French spinner Klara tells about a documentary she saw which included spinners in the background of footage from the Andes. This is, indeed, a ubiquitous piece of footage to include, partly because the sight of spinners is so commonplace. Andean spinners, who walk a lot, spin anytime they’re on the go, or doing things which may require them to be interrupted periodically. They spin in every moment of possible downtime — they’re just always spinning. Well, and plying.

The Knitter’s Review thread includes a link to a video of Patabamba women spinning and plying (okay, the video says it was shot in Q’enko, but the women are in Patabamba clothes, which is nearby.) The video is set to music, and the words to the song are “Hey, spinner woman — you teach me to make thread, and I’ll teach you to fall in love!” Anyway, here’s what I said in that thread:

Andean spinners use low whorl spindles exclusively. Within that, they’re generally referred to as a pushka (or Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco spells it phusca — one of the fun things about working with things in a language that has been entirely unwritten until quite recently is that you just don’t know how to spell it) and a canti. Pushkas are smaller and lighter than cantis, and are for spinning as opposed to plying; neither is “light” by modern standards. You might use the same spindle (in a medium weight) for both purposes, but the words for doing it remain the same: pushka is the verb to spin, canti is the verb to ply.

There is essentially no low twist Andean yarn; low twist yarn does not wear well and Andean spinning is still a living tradition dealing with the production of textiles intended to be used, a tradition which until recently had little interaction with the industrialized world’s acceptance of lower-grade, less-durable textiles. The amount of twist in Andean yarn far exceeds what modern first world standards will generally accept — for the entire life of the yarn, no matter how it’s washed and so on, plied yarn will kink up on itself when not stored under tension. However, fabrics woven (or knit) from this yarn wear incredibly well: I have daily-use items over 20 years old which need only minor repairs, and textiles which have seen many generations of wear (such as a child’s lliclla or manta which is about 60 years old).

Fiber prep consists of hand-teasing, and pulling cleaned fiber into a roving. This is often a task that children are put to work doing. The majority of the action, however, is in the spinning stages. Typical spinning technique is a very fast double-drafting method which uses an initial long draw followed by subsequent slub correction. Spinners will spin varying lengths of yarn per draw before winding on, but they’re generally much longer lengths than modern first world spinners think is feasible with a spindle. By storing spun yarn via walking it up into a butterfly on your hand, it’s possible to control very large lengths of yarn — limitless, basically.

For spinning, the spindle is generally started with a flick of the fingers akin to snapping them. Yes, you may run out of spin, but if you do, you walk yarn up and give the spindle more spin again, and keep going before you wind on.

When you have a full spindle, you will either spin another full spindle (thus arriving at a point where you have two full spindles), or, if you only have one spindle, wind off into a tight, coursed outer-feed ball (I tend to refer to these as Peruvian style balls to differentiate them from the loose, non-coursed balls commonly wound by hand in the modern first world, but they’re not the only place such balls are wound). Once you have either two balls of singles, or two full spindles, you then wind these together in turn. If you plan to dye the yarn, you wind them into a skein — typically by planting the two spindles in the ground, standing next to them and then using your arms to wrap the skein. This particular trick is a lot easier to do than to describe, although it’s not exactly easy until you get the hang of it.

When you get to the end of one spindle, this is where some spinners make use of what Americans now call “Andean Plying,” after my father’s article entitled “An Andean Plying Technique,” in Spin-Off a while ago. Folks with an interest in the cultural aspect of things will perhaps find it worth note that not all spinners use this technique, and those who do use it only sometimes. While clever and convenient in various settings, it is not widely viewed as a production technique; and even where it is used, it tends to be used to wind a two-stranded ball most of the time.

Most significant, in my opinion, is that this technique, and many others like it, are obvious and throwaway things to the Andean weaver (who is by nature a spinner as well), and whose comfort with all things textile-related allows for all manner of tricks such as this to facilitate the completion of textile tasks with simple tools or even no tools at all beyond your own hands. I believe this to be the most significant difference between the Andean textile producer’s mindset, and the mindset of modern first-world producers who tend more towards creating tools to handle specialized purposes.

Yarn is dyed in this two-stranded, unplied state — because if you tried to dye it after plying you’d have inadequate penetration due to the amount of twist in both spin and ply which gives Andean textiles the resilience and water resistance they posess (an Andean poncho will shed rain for quite a long time, becoming wet on the outside but not soaking through to the inside, literally for hours).

Experienced spinners then drape the dyed, double-stranded skeins over their arms — inserting one arm through the center — and ply straight from that as it hangs there. I don’t recommend this technique to people who are not comfortable with working directly from loose skeins, especially loose skeins of extremely fine, extremely high-twist yarn. Instead, I recommend doing what kids do: rewind the skein into a tight ball that feeds from the outside, with those courses for various other clever reasons I won’t get into here, and go.

Neither the pushka nor the kanti has a hook or notch; both have a simple shaft, and a plain round whorl near the bottom of the shaft. The very bottom of the shaft is tapered to a point, so you can easily stick it in the ground to wind off from and so that it reduces the drag when your spindle gets really full and you’re in semi-supported mode, as may happen. While a lot of low whorl drop spindle aficionados in the modern first world use a wind-on method which involves going under the whorl and then back up to the top of the shaft, leaving a chunk of yarn floating in midair, Andean spinners simply twirl the yarn up the shaft and secure with one or two half-hitches. This is essential to the real Andean plying technique that allows you to get the speed you want to get the job done.

To start the spindle for plying, place the shaft flat against the palm of one hand, lightly holding it there with your thumb if you need to. Put your other hand flat aginst it, fingertips basically where the spindle is. Put your elbows at about waist height or so, and then take that second hand and push forward, rolling the spindle shaft down the first hand as you go. When it gets to the end, let go, and let double-stranded yarn feed out, stopping it before it hits anything. You can now use that first hand for all manner of manipulations on the yarn if needed, including making a big upside down L out of the yarn so you can control really staggering lengths of yarn doing this… or, as I showed folks at SOAR last year, do the thing we did as girls showing off and goofing off: ply off an Inca terrace or a balcony or what have you.

That trick, incidentally, requires a fair amount of confidence in your yarn, your plying, and your ability to feel the yarn to gauge how much twist is still going at a great distance, because you can’t see it. And also your half hitch. Screwing it up when we were kids would mean the spindle would go flying and there’d be a lot of teasing. It was one of a number of silly tricks kids would do.

The most important spindle behaviour required to make this type of production spinning possible, btw, is sustain. The spindle needs to spin for a long, long time. How fast it spins is not necessarily relevant; you can get a spindle spinning faster than most people (outside the Andes and being raised to it from birth anyway) can draft, and what becomes a bottleneck to productivity is if it *stops* spinning.

It doesn’t take 20 years of practice to learn to do these things, however — in fact, it takes about a half an hour. But, they’re much easier to learn in person, and I find they’re sometimes easier for people who have not already learned other spindle techniques which they’ve then got to set aside a little bit.

Andean spinners get most of their spinning done while on the go — walking from town to town, walking places in general, etc. Indigenous Andean mothers also carry their babies with them pretty much all the time (like, unless their big sister is carrying the baby or something — in the third world, there’s often not a good place to put a baby down). Babies are swaddled tightly, and carried on the back in a kheparina, which is like a manta (a square carrying cloth). When babies are awake, they’re perched such that they’re watching over mom’s shoulder. When asleep, the kheparina is relaxed so they’re laying down flat. When they’re nursing, it’s swung around to the front.

Let me know if you want to hear more about knitting; this is already long. Or, of course, if you have questions about what I’ve said.

One other comment that I neglected to add is that in that video, most of the spinning is actually in slow motion. This actually gets to the heart of one of the challenges involved in learning some of these techniques in the Andes — incredibly tricky things (if you don’t know how to do them) happen at very high speeds, and the cultural belief is that the burden of learning is on the student more than the teacher. Really, the best way to learn these things is to be a child growing up with them… or, as my parents have been wont to say, be trained anthropologists with a child to send out into the mix, and then be prepared to learn from children.

As an aside, I once commented to an anthropologist that I’d been raised by anthropologists. “How does that differ from being raised by wolves?” she asked me. “Well,” I told her, “I think those raised by wolves are less likely to feel that they’re engaging in participatory observation within what’s nominally their own culture.”

Okay, maybe you have be an anthropologist to find that funny. But I assure you, if you are, it’s a knee-slapper. I promise! Just try it out at your next anthropologist party (and, if you’re looking for the good anthropologist parties, ask for the ethnomusicologists — they’re like professional party researchers).

Anyway, there’s a little bit to ponder about Andean spinning. There’s tons more stuff to think about, discuss, and show — but as I say, for me, it’s a little like answering a question such as “So, tell me about food.” I’m always thrilled to discuss the subject, show how it’s done, and answer questions. I’d love to have Andean spindle techniques more widely known — they’re extremely fast, extremely productive, and, well, they’re cheap! They’re not tool-dependent; you could leave an Andean weaver on a desert island with a few sticks, one sharp object, and some potential fiber animals, and come back a year later to find her thriving with clothing, shelter, and the roots of civilization.

Historically, there’s a reason for that: the high Andes are not a forgiving and easy environment. Near the equator at high altitude, the sun burns but it’s still chilly; it freezes many, if not most, nights. Many crops won’t grow; there are few trees. Livestock, too, is somewhat limited, as even the grasses are coarse or very short. The extreme mountainous terrain makes things like the wheel of marginal use. The only metals around in any quantity? Gold and silver — pretty, but too soft for tools and weapons. In the rural Andes, everything is stone and clay and textile, and the textile is the key to survival.

But even though that’s true, the Andean weaver — who of course spins — doesn’t view production as drudgery or anything like that. It is high art, and play, and social activity. As little girls, my friends and I compared ourselves to the big girls we wished to be like, gaining status in our social circle by acquiring new skills, showing off to each other with them, challenging each other. These trends persist throughout one’s entire life, and are important even after death — my late best friend’s younger sister commented to me that she thought her sister had died before ever mastering a particular pattern, and I vehemently stated that wasn’t the case… but couldn’t resist saying I learned it first. I remember who taught me every pattern. I remember racing to out-produce my friend Maruja weaving belts for sale to tourists, and who all came to sit with me in the plaza while I worked on my first big weaving. I know how to quietly reinforce a young girl watching me warp, who figures out what pattern I’m warping for. I have spun for the extended-family stash of yarn, and taken my withdrawals from it for my projects over the years. I’m secure in my identity as a human being, the master of my surroundings and my destiny, and I can feel all of that with every toss of the spindle, with the twist in my hands, and the production never stopping, no matter where I am.

I tell people it’s like a fidget that’s productive; but it’s much more than only that. But it’s also… nothing at all, and totally ordinary. Yes, I spin (and ply) while I’m walking places, or standing around, or on the phone, or in meetings, or riding in the car, or in a waiting room. I hate dead times when I can’t do it; I will always try to find a way to spin, and I’m certain this is because of the Andean upbringing. So this is part, in my opinion, of why Andean techniques work the way they do — every spinner is like that, and every spinner finds ways to be able to spin during all the possible moments one might do so. So imagine if you spun with the time you might spend biting your nails, doodling on a notepad, waiting to stir the soup, waiting to pick up your kid from school, waiting for the bus… you would be surprised what you get done, and how easy it would become!

23 thoughts on “Tell me a bit about Andean spinning!

  1. Abby, the local sheep, are these are similar in fleece to the Navaho-Churro or had a lot of “improvment” been done crossing them with breeds with high percentage of merino blood?

    The Bolivian pushka I have that has wool on it feels like Navaho-Churro.

  2. Hi Abby,
    Thank you so much for sharing these amazing insights into Andean spinning with us. So much of what you write about resonates with me, having also been raised by an anthropologist (in nature if not title–my dad’s a linguist, among other things).
    There’s so much here in this post–life, death, the making that defines us, the spinning that makes us.
    I want to say more–but can’t find the words–so I’ll just say, thank you again.
    Amy

  3. I want more of these articles! There is much more to say, but I wanted to tell you one thing before I need to run. I laughed when I read that spinning is a productive fidget, I often describe knitting as a fidget that makes socks :)

  4. Hi!

    Thanks for a great article. I’m going to ask a non fiber question ;-) My daughter’s nearly 5 months old now and she wants to be carried everywhere but doesn’t like to be in the sling on my hip and I’d prefer her not to be on my front (can not get back up once I’m kneeling down with that heavy kid in front). Can you point me in the direction of some pictures/descriptions of how Andean babies are carried properly? I can’t imagine the women taking the time to unwrap the “sling” every time they reposition the kid and I’d like to learn that. Maybe I’ll even get some more spinning done then ;-)

    cu
    nicole

  5. man oh man, hearing your stories never gets old for me.I could read (listen) you all day.
    I do want to know about the burial stuff. Do they use some kind of burial shroud or something?
    (Why does Denny need to know about the sad stuff all the time.)
    I guess the last few years my babies have grown and it’s time to learn about how to handle the issues around sending the loved ones off.
    I’m not morbid. Really I’m not.If you want to emale me thats o.k
    Not everyone needs to know this stuff. I don’t mean to harsh on peoples mellow.

  6. I knit in many of the same situations that you describe spinning in (doctor’s office, kid’s function, airports, sometimes in lines). Of course not all knitting is suitable & portable, but quite a bit is. Do you think spinning is even more portable? Or do you not knit small, mindless projects? Or are they about the same for keeping your hands and a small part of your brain occupied? And do you get any spinning done or do you spend all your time telling people what you are doing?

  7. Abby, thank you for these long, fascinating posts. I love them, and if you can spare time to describe any of the spindle spinning techniques in more detail I’d be grateful.
    I started ‘spinning in public’ about 6 months ago. As a new spinner I wasn’t very good, but the only way to learn is by doing and as you say, these tiny chunks of time add up. I’ve improved a bit, and now spin in public more than I knit. It’s more convenient, for one thing, less chance of dropping stitches, no need to check the pattern. Out of the corner of my eye I watch people watching me: many are fascinated by the repetitive movement, and I’m beginning to suspect that for some it’s much more than that. It’s a link to something very important, the ability to make an essential for life from ‘nothing’. And some of them are delighted by the chance to try their hand, and a few of those are entranced.

  8. Abby! These posts make it live for me. Oh, oh, you were/are so fortunate.
    When I saw the woven bag you had at SOAR in KR, I almost fell off the chair. Breathtaking!
    And the people..they have touched my heart. Reading about how they send their loved ones off after they have died really got to me. That is the way to do it, imo, but not really possible here. I have instructions to carry needles, fiber, spindle with me into the fire.
    As an extreme spindle noob, I have tons of questions..so I will stick with a couple. Could you describe the butterfly motion? Do you use the actual method of spinning for all your fiber and change the amount of twist,etc for whatever results you want? How heavy are the spindles they use?
    You need to write a book with DVDs to go with your written words…just saying… And until then..how about a workshop at MDSW …
    Now to dig out my spindles! I’m off!

  9. Abby, as you know I’ve wanted to hear about this for a while, and I find the post fascinating. I’d love to see a YouTube video of you doing some of these things, and describing/explaining them. (The book/DVD idea is also excellent).

    And to answer your question somewhere in the post – Yes! More about Andean Knitting, please.

  10. This:

    “I’m secure in my identity as a human being, the master of my surroundings and my destiny, and I can feel all of that with every toss of the spindle, with the twist in my hands, and the production never stopping, no matter where I am.”

    is so incredible, it resonates deeply with me. Wow.

    I was planning to knit tonight but now I think I’ll spin.

  11. I’m so glad that Elizabeth pointed out that powerful sentence. Resonating…perfect word for what I feel too. Thank you both.

  12. I agree with Meribeth, Abby…you really have a book inside you, and it very clearly wants to get out almost as much as the rest of us want it to!

    I’m signed up for your workshops in Michigan in March…cannot wait!

    Greg

  13. I’m with Elizabeth, I was planning to quote that same sentence :) I have some fiber on my wheel right now, and I think I’ll knit until it gets dark, then spin the night away.

    Thank you for a beautiful post.

  14. Hey Abby, your blog always makes my day. You’ve been given a blog award. Check out my blog to see it.

    – Janel

  15. “I tell people it’s like a fidget that’s productive”

    I tell people that knitting and spinning are socially acceptable fidgets. Sometimes I add that they’re less disruptive than standard fidgets, although I don’t say that if I’m wheel-spinning, because of the hypnotization factor.

    Three-quarters of my team at work, including me, brings Rubik’s cubes to meetings. I am tempted to bring spinning or a simple knitting project, both of which are quieter and less distracting than cubes, but I’m reluctant to open up that gendered can of worms. (I am a young female software developer. Some days it feels like breathing opens up a gendered can of worms. Sigh.)

  16. Abby,
    Hope you see this,im late
    With this comment.
    I loved the video!!!!The dress of the people and their culture.
    Your Blog is wonderful.Not trashed with Gossip,but wonderful things.
    Yes,i too would love it if you would write a Book.

  17. In the book, dreaming is in the title, but the only mention I could find was a painting of a woman dreaming patterns. I really am interested in this phenomenon. Could you post some about how the women perceive this process?

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