Half Hitch For Low Whorl Spindles (Video)

Years ago, I did a static-image blog post about how to use a half-hitch on a low whorl spindle. Thing is, I did it really quick, after finishing up a dye day, and I was never happy with it for a million reasons, not least among them that my fingertips were stained from dye.

What’s more, over the years, I’ve refined the way I demonstrate the technique — putting on half-hitches quickly using the spindle holding hand, which is advantageous for several reasons. First, it doesn’t matter how much yarn you have between your fiber hand and the spindle — you can maintain tension and put on half-hitches without risk of tangling, especially once combined with being able to wind your yarn up in a butterfly as you spin. Second, it doesn’t take much practice to get very fast with this, partly because you don’t need to look at what you’re doing. Third, well, you don’t need to watch what you’re doing, so that makes it pretty foolproof.

So, with all of those things in mind, I chose to make a video about half-hitches the start of a series of new short technique videos I’ll be posting much more frequently. Without further preamble, then, here it is! I’d love to hear thoughts about videos you’d like to see, by the way — feel free to share them.

Spindle Full, Spindle Empty, Need More Spindles

There’s a lot to say about filling up a spindle. I often hear from folks who have been told that a big problem with spindles is that you just can’t put a lot of yarn on them, and that’s one of the reasons why wheels win out.

The thing is, it isn’t true. Flyer wheels have absolute limits in terms of how much you can put on there: once the yarn on your bobbin is rubbing the flyer arms, you definitely can’t get more on there, no matter how much you want to. Let’s roll back the clock to 5 years ago or so…

I had a WooLee Winder bobbin full with at least 500 yards and 5 ounces of 3-ply yarn, and there was just no way to get the last bit on there, but it was completely mandatory that this be one skein because I had planned out this whole colour sequence thing in overly elaboraqte detail. I was seriously annoyed; “If I were doing this with a spindle,” I said, “it would have been no problem at all to just get the last 30-40 yards crammed on there. Grrr.” So that’s what I did:

I wound all three singles together into a butterfly, then plied from the other end onto my Peruvian canti (plying spindle) and the problem was solved in no time at all… other than that I had to pull the stuff on the spindle off through the orifice and closed-ring hooks on the WooLee Winder, so I could skein the yarn off the bobbin.

I still remember sitting there thinking, “I so would not have had this issue and waste of time if I’d just been using a spindle to ply this from the start.” Any time that I arguably saved with the wheel and WooLee Winder combo had been eaten up in dealing with this limitation. I knew from experience that I could put at least 8 ounces onto that spindle and it was a real shock to come up against the hard limitations of fancier equipment.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean you have to cram a spindle insanely full all the time. It can be a great way to work with thread and small quantities.

This is an impossible to photograph project that I’ve been poking at here and there for a few years. It’s some merino/cashmere top that I split up carefully and wound into small packages to preserve the colour sequence, and I’ve been gradually spinning little bits, winding it off onto another spindle, then winding it back onto a pair of matched spools for electrical wire that… well, it’s a long story. But this is one of those funny little extreme frog hair projects I constantly have in the background. I do the rewinding when I get to the point that I’ve used up one of the small colour-sequenced pieces. Someday when I get to that point, these two electrical spools will be full of super delicate merino/cashmere thread ready to be made into a carefully-controlled 2-ply thread with enthralling colour shifts.

I’ve got a similarly sized-spindle sitting by my slothing chair in the family room right now, and I’m periodically, carefully, meticulously spinning the yield of my first cotton crop: two precious bolls worth. This is intended for a SOAR project, because the cotton seeds came from Phreadde, and it’s a miracle that I grew plants without killing them, and cotton actually happened. Some seeds have been replanted this year, and if all goes well I’ll have at least 4 times the yield, and gradually, as time goes by, I’m going to get to where there’s a meaningful amount of cotton, from the half-dozen seeds Phreadde originally gave me at SOAR 2007.

I guess we can also take a sideline here and talk about why it is I really do desperately need more and more and more spindles, even if I keep getting spindles that seem incredibly similar to ones I already have. Here’s one reason.

I can’t remember, until I wind off, whether this was half of the singles I was doing for a specific project which explained managing colour sequences… or all of them. I have to wind off this spindle neatly and track the colour changes so I can remember, because I lost my notes. But I do remember that I was winding the cop with an eye towards showing the colour changes, and I took all these pictures along the way, and… yeah. Great. So I have to spend an afternoon going through those photos and winding that yarn off carefully, and then I can remember what I was gonna do next.

This one isn’t done yet. I just have to remember where I put the rest of the fiber.

I can’t wind off this one until I get a good picture in the right light, because in real life, it’s insanely pretty. But all my pictures keep not coming out. This spindle was Divine Bird Jenny’s, but we swapped some stuff. I love it that it was hers so I want to take pretty pictures of this yarn on it.

And then there’s this one, also plagued with the same problem, which is that I really want to take pictures of it as it is, because… it’s pretty, and something else (I’ll get to that). It’s my prettiest Bosworth in my opinion, and I spun this cop for exhibition purposes. I wanted to show something specific.

Can you see it in this picture?

I think it’s easiest to see in this one. The top part of it — closer to the whorl — is wound criss-crossing, and the lower part of it is not. Why would I do that? The answer is first of all that switching between these methods is part of what lets me build a stable, dense and full cop (the cop, remember, is the spun yarn you’ve stored on your spindle). Winding around and around packs the yarn tighter, but it gets slipperier and sloppier more quickly. Winding in an X holds it more stable and winds on more yarn per twirl of the spindle, but the packing isn’t usually as dense. Combining these methods allows for the best of all possible worlds in packing a spindle.

This was my carryaround spindle for about a month, then my sit-in-the-kitchen spindle for a week or two. It’s an 11 gram Bosworth featherwight, and it’s got 66 grams of merino/silk singles on it. For me, this is pretty much a functional limit with this spindle. The spindle still spins totally fine and would work for ages more, but I’m out of space for the yarn to go without compromising the shaft pace I need to set the spindle in motion, the stability of the cop, or the ability to keep the spun yarn securely in place when I start spinning the next length. More than this, and it would start to get annoying.

Allright, the truth is, it started to get a little annoying in the last few grams. But — and this is where I was going at the outset — it got a little annoying. It didn’t get impossible. I wanted to get the whole batch onto that spindle, so I decided to, and it went on there. There are ways — which there aren’t when you hit the hard limits of a bobbin and flyer.

At 7 times its unladen weight, the spindle performs fine — but differently from how it did at 11 ounces. I’d be lying if I said a brand-new spinner could do this. It takes time and practice, knowing the tool, knowing the yarn, knowing your own habits and tendencies.

I won’t know for a while — until I’ve wound it off, plied it, and measured it — just how much yarn there was here. But I’m reasonably sure it’s, well, a lot. I’m going to hazard a guess I’ll get around 600-800 yards of 2-ply yarn from this when all is said and done. I’m tempted to skein it and measure it as singles, for science, but I’m just too lazy right now and besides, I want it in plying ball form for an impending project that requires demonstrating that.

In any case, don’t let anybody tell you spindles don’t hold a lot. It isn’t true. On the other hand, what does appear to be true is that you need about 8 zillion spindles to have enough. I truly hope this helps.

Spindle Positions

Wow, I want to thank you all for the terrific responses to the question about spinning standing up vs. sitting down! I would urge anybody who hasn’t to read the comments — there’s some fantastic food for though there.

Here’s why I asked: over the past few months, I’ve heard lots of people say lots of different things about spindle spinning positions, some stated very authoritatively and completely contradicting each other. In some cases, when I’ve talked to folks about these things, they’ve told me they were told in no uncertain terms that you really couldn’t spin sitting down, or standing up, or without reaching your hands way up over your head, or without using your whole body, or all kinds of things. So I started to wonder: first of all, who’s hearing these things, and second of all, who’s telling them?

What’s interesting is that if asked, a lot of people can’t remember where they heard, say, that you can’t spin standing up; others say that it just never occurred to them that they could sit down; so there really doesn’t seem to be an elite cadre of misinformation ninjas out there telling people untruths about the spindle or anything. But things that seem obvious to some of us, it turns out, are totally not. And some of the things we assume may even be mistaken.

I, for instance, assumed it was obvious you could just sit down. Or stand up. But then someone told me she’d found a particular video helpful learning to spin (which I thought was interesting since the video didn’t actually cover what most of the world has considered to be “spinning” for thousands of years), and I asked her what she’d found helpful about it — after all, I’m always looking to improve on my toolkit for getting folks started and reducing the time it takes them to be able to be hands-on trying it in ways that lead to rapid success. “Oh!” she told me, “Mostly it’s that the lady in that video is sitting down. All the other ones, people are standing up. I want to learn a spinning method that can be used sitting down, not one that requires me to stand.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I made a mental note to add “And of course, you can sit or stand as you prefer,” to the things I make sure to say when teaching a brand-new spinner.

You can spin, or ply, standing up.

You can spin, or ply, sitting down.

You can spin, or ply, while walking around. Heck, you can do it while dancing.

Something else to remember is that when it comes to spindle ergonomics, we’re all different and spindles are largely different from each other, and this is one of the great strengths of the spindle: you can figure out what works best for you personally. With a wheel, you’re restricted to some extent by the shape and size of the equipment — but with a spindle, your range of motion can be anything at all.

So if you’ve only felt you could do it one way, how do you get to be able to do it other ways? You’ll all hate me for this, but the answer is simple: just give it a try. At first it may feel awkward, but that’s normal enough. It takes time for a new movement to feel comfortable. And if you’re just starting out, I would urge you to vary your position a lot, and try lots of different things. You might be amazed what a difference it makes to be able to spin comfortably in any position at all.

So here’s a question

I’m hearing two questions asked a lot lately, and I’m intrigued about them, so I figure it’s time to Ask The Blog. Are you ready? Okay, the first question is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re standing up?”

and the second one is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re sitting down?”

So I’d love to hear from you: how do you do it, and why? When you were starting out, did you strongly believe you had to do it one way or the other? Do you remember why you may have thought that? Has your opinion on the subject changed over time?

Introduction To Spinning: 2 New Videos

A couple of years ago I made a video called Drop Spindle Basics to demonstrate, well, the basics — the most elementary parts of spinning.

Since it’s been up, I’ve gotten all kinds of feedback on that video, ranging from “THIS IS AN AMAZING VIDEO. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the world. This information and wisdom will go far in my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” all the way to “Details of what you’re doing would be nice – I can’t follow what’s going on with just frantic motion.” (I admit, that latter one pushed my buttons, and it took great emotional reserve on my part not to reply with “Have you tried listening to what I’m saying? Turn up your sound,” or “Come over here and say that to my face and I’ll show you some frantic movement!”)

I’ve also spent a bunch of time watching other videos, thinking about them all, and of course, engaging in a wide variety of teaching activities. Over the past 6 months, I’ve been saying, “If I had it to do over again, I’d change this, or that, or the other thing about that video, to speak to this, or that, or the other concern.” And of course, the funny part is that obviously I do have it to do over again any time I feel like it, right?

Well, any time I can steal a minute or two and a camera operator who knows where to zoom in, perhaps.

So what issues did I end up having with the first video over the past couple of years? Lots! I still like the video and think it’s a solid demo with enough information to get you started. But there were things I hadn’t anticipated. For example, I specifically chose low-cost materials so as to be very approachable, and show that even without fancy equipment, you can do all kinds of spinning. I tried to tailor the video to the lowest common denominator in terms of tools — to the simplest, cheapest spindle option likely available to a majority of folks who’d watch the video. This choice turned out to have unintended consequences — like people reaching the conclusion that the video’s only for spinning with a low whorl spindle with no hook. It isn’t — yes, it tells you how to do that; but drafting is drafting, spinning is spinning, and the same basic technique applies. Yet, people got caught up in what was, to me, just one fairly superficial thing about the video.

Also, I wanted more “spinner’s eye view” stuff. When I teach, I often stand next to a student, instead of in front of them; I wanted to create something closer to that effect. While a video still lacks the interactive nature of being there in person, I wanted to do something closer to my ever-evolving 5-10 minute basic spinning lesson on the quick. And I wanted to answer questions that people seem to often be left with.

On the other hand, I also didn’t have it in me to spend a ton of time, or, well, any money at all on something to throw on YouTube. There’s a limit to what I’m willing to do in that context, after all. So without further ado, here you go: Intro to Spinning Part 1 and Part 2.

Enjoy!

What’s the deal with those heavy spindles marketed for beginners?

From time to time, the question arises: Why are there so many heavy spindles marketed as being “Great for beginners!” and so on? We’re talking about spindles weighing 3-5 ounces (85-140 grams), with big fat dowels for shafts, and generally low whorl. “Would you ever use this thing?” people ask. “Could you?”

Well, sure.

That was a great spindle, and I used it all the time. Its primary purpose was plying, but I spun on it too. I used pretty much no other spindle between the ages of 7 and 10 (I’m 8 in that photo). During that time, I mainly spun weaving yarn — fine, high twist weaving yarn. I’ve no clue what it weighed, but it was probably right in that 100 grams-ish range.

Let me tell you, that spindle was indestructible. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d give to a kid who’s constantly on the go. That spindle knocked around in bags, got crammed into backpacks, dropped from extreme heights (you know, doing stupid yarn tricks), tossed around like crazy, used to thwack sheep, jabbed into the ground, used to pry rocks out of dried mud or dig up a pot shard that looked interesting, used to doodle in the dirt, sift through smoking hot dirtclods to stab a potato baked in a dirt clod oven, oh, I’m sure the list goes on. If you can think of a potential use for a stick, that spindle probably did it. And still got used to spin yarn.

In the USA at that time — let’s say the late 70s and early 80s — spinning yarn was a fairly fringe activity, engaged in by a very small number of people, most of whom either had some fiber animals and were living a farm-type lifestyle, and a few of whom had some sort of academic interest in the pursuit. Knitters were in the closet in those days, crocheters were all about the granny square afghan from Red Heart, and weavers occasionally spun, but mostly didn’t. If you wanted a spinning wheel, and you found one, it was an antique, or it was most likely a kit-type wheel from Ashford or Louet. As for spinning fiber, well, it came from someone you knew with a fiber animal.

Think about it. There was no Spin-Off; if you were lucky you could find books by Mabel Ross, Allen Fannin, and Peter Teal, and if you were lucky they were about objects you could find, but they generally really didn’t touch on spindles at all. Sometimes you might see a spindle demonstration, but rarely were there classes. I think there were literally four or five dudes who made spinning wheels. You’d hear that in Europe, you could buy fiber and equipment. And all in all, spindles were an afterthought, a curiosity, something that you might use to get started, maybe. If you were getting started at all, in a pursuit that had so few people doing it. I mean, there are probably more people who build fully functioning 1/18 scale gasoline engines, hand-machining their parts, than there were spinners in the USA at that time (and I’ve seen one of these engines at a car show one time, and it blew my mind, but my google-fu fails me. Which clearly points out how few of these hobbyists there are… which is my point). Seriously, nobody spun; and if they did, they didn’t do it with spindles, by and large.

But anyway, without a doubt, most of the 2 dozen or so spindle spinners in the US at that time spun — and taught — with large, heavy, low whorl spindles. There are lots of reasons for this; and first of all, I’m going to send you off on a jaunt over to Jenny’s blog, to read her Ode to a Low Whorl, which eloquently covers many of the fabulous things low whorl spindles offer. Without reiterating too much of what Jenny says, all of which I totally agree with, I’ll present a quick list of benefits of the low whorl:

1. Stability. With the weight at the bottom, low whorl spindles are less vulnerable to interrupted spin than top whorls. A low whorl, if it wobbles, generally keeps spinning; a top whorl with a wobble is more likely to stop sooner or feel really jerky.

2. Sustain. Low whorls are more prone to spin for a long time than high whorls.

3. Slop tolerance. Because of 1 and 2, it’s easier to build yourself a low whorl spindle that will get the job done, than a top whorl. I know I’m not alone in having stabbed a potato with a stick and used it to spin. That works with a low whorl; it doesn’t work so well with a high whorl.

So if you’re building your own spindle — as you would have been before the ready availability of fabulous tools we have nowadays — you’re going to have better luck with a low whorl. It’s also easier to make a low whorl that doesn’t need any other hardware (like a hook) than a top whorl with no additional hardware required.

So what about weight? Well, here’s another interesting thing. What most of the folks who taught anybody to spin with spindles were running into as a huge problem back in ancient history like the 1980s was that spindles would backspin in nothing flat, students wouldn’t catch it, drafting on the fly was giving folks problems, and so anything with more momentum was a help. People weren’t really teaching park and draft then so much. So you needed a spindle that would keep going even if you were spinning chunky thick and thin beginner yarn — and that’s a heavier spindle.

Fast forward a little bit, and there started to be some great information about spinning, much more readily available, and more tools, and a wider range. I personally think Priscilla Gibson-Roberts’ High Whorling is an exceptional book about spindle spinning, filled with technique and real useable how-to info; the new edition is called Spinning the Old Way. It’s an excellent book, and really makes spindle-spinning accessible… but it focuses on high whorl spindles! Sometime in the past 10-15 years, we’ve started to see tremendous improvement in the availability of information about how to spin with spindles… but most of it has just not talked about low whorls at all.

What’s more, in that same span of time, suddenly we started being able to get a wide range of fabulous fibers, prepped, dyed, totally ready to spin (again, not something we had back in ancient history like the 70s and 80s). The world of the beginning spinner, and beginning spindle spinner, and heck, spindle spinner or spinner at large, has really changed. What’s available, where, and at what price… much of this is a matter of fashion in the spinning world as it is elsewhere.

So, would I say the heavy low whorl spindle is still the ideal place to start? Well… yes and no. It depends. In a perfect world, you’ll start with some loving handspinner shoving tools and fiber into your hands, demonstrating, taking you shopping, and shepherding you on your way. In an almost-perfect world, you’ll start with something that just speaks to you and makes you want to use it, want to fiddle with it, want to play around. But in reality, you’re probably going to start with whatever it is you first get your hands on. Admit it. We both know it, and it’s okay.

If, then, you find yourself with a heavy low whorl drop spindle in your hands, and folks are telling you it’ll never work, don’t despair! It can; and the truth is, chances are you’re going to feel clumsy and awkward no matter what kind of spindle you have in hand. But down the road, you’ll find yourself acquiring more skill, and as you do, you’ll start to develop your own tastes and preferences. As you spin, too, these will evolve and shift. Eventually a time will come when you likely have a collection of spindles in varying weights and configurations, and you’ll have different feelings about them, and choose from them at will. It’s sort of like having kitchen knives. Do you need a cleaver? Maybe. What about a filet knife? Depends. But I think you need a chef’s knife, a paring knife, carving knife, and a bread knife at a minimum… and learning to use those tools effectively involves different things for each one. So it is for spindles.

What do I start people off with? Honestly, I give ’em fairly heavy, somewhat imperfect low whorl spindles with lgreat durability, explain what makes the spindle work, and tell ’em where to find materials to make variations, and point ’em to local fiber shops or festivals to shop for more, of various kinds… which these days tends to mean “high whorls.” I don’t worry about people finding good info about high whorl spinning, or finding great high whorl spindles; but decent (or any) low whorls and good low whorl technique are harder to come by, so I like to make sure those are things I provide, in addition to the in-vogue high whorl stuff.

So summing up, don’t discard that boat anchor! You may find you really like it down the road. Seriously. I’m not making this up.

Oh… and lest you thought I’d forgotten about the sock yarn series, I have not! Colour is coming up, but I’m waiting on some skeins to dry so I can swatch them and take pictures. Bright, colourful pictures. Why? Because it’s March, by gum, and we could all use a little colour. With or without a U. Hi, Sara.

For those of you coming to Beth’s place in Michigan later this month, I’ll be bringing the upcoming sock yarns, along with fiber for them, and you’ll learn how to reproduce them (among other things).

One last piece of news to report, also: I’m delighted to tell you I’ve been selected as a mentor for Interweave’s 2008 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat! I absolutely can’t wait (but yeah, I know, I have to). It promises to be loads of fun and I’m hoping to see lots of you there. I’ll be teaching a 3-day workshop called Spinning For A Purpose, and four half-day retreat sessions on maximizing spindle productivity. I feel deeply honored to be included in the lineup this year — what a lineup it is! It’s hard to believe it’s barely March and I’m already looking forward to fall.

Debates: Wheel vs. Spindle

Here we go with round one of my series tackling some of the classic debates in the handspinning arena. A few of you laughingly commented this might be an odd choice of timing to go picking fights, what with absurd heat waves going around and how that affects temperaments — but then again, perhaps a little productive debate serves as a constructive outlet, eh?

In emailing with folks a bit following last week’s On Opinions and Disagreement, one of the things I found myself talking about was, “Why?” Why get into the arguments at all? And you know, it comes down to something Deborah Robson said in her comment:

Abby, at the first SOAR I attended (not “participated in,” I’ve never done that) just after I became editor of Spin-Off I was given the job of moderating a panel “discussion” on woolen and worsted.

I am a profound introvert (occasional appearances to the contrary) with an entrenched ability to see most sides of nearly any question (may have been my saving quality).

The panel consisted of between six and eight of the most knowledgeable and opinionated handspinners the English-speaking world has ever produced.

Let’s just say (1) I was still standing at the end of the evening (miracle) and (2) there were no definitive answers, although there were a *lot* of opinions expressed and most of the folks in the room (which was packed) thought a lot about yarn while the conversation(s) went on. Whew.

So: Are you going to add “woolen/worsted” to your list of topics?

At some levels, it’s quite straightforward. . . .

That’s exactly it. Even when you sit down a panel of undisputed experts and ask questions that seem straightforward, odds are you won’t come away with definitive and absolute answers; and experts won’t always agree (in fact, they might argue heatedly). But if we listen, and argue, and are invested in the discourse, then odds are we’ll walk away from it all with lots of food for thought, and perspectives we hadn’t considered before.

I told Deb that part of why I want to do this series is to point out that when you go looking for good, solid information, the sources you find don’t have to agree with each other in order to be authoritative. Like Perl programmers always say, TMTOWTDI. Er, excuse me, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

And yes, Deb, I do plan to cover woolen vs. worsted in this series!

Right, then — moving along. One of the questions that newer spinners often ask — and it tends to start debates and sometimes ruffle feathers — is “What’s better, a wheel or a spindle?” Or sometimes, it starts out simply enough with someone stating an assumed perspective such as “I’ve gotten a spindle, and am starting to learn, and I can’t wait till I’m skilled enough to move up to a wheel.” Then someone says “You aren’t required to get a wheel! It’s not necessarily moving up!” and someone else says “Well, since I got my wheel, I sure haven’t spun on spindles,” and the debate is on.

So let me tell you about my own preferences.

I started out with a spindle. A low whorl spindle, fairly clunky and imperfectly balanced, I suppose. I’d guess it must have weighed in around 1.5-2 ounces (or, say, 45-60 grams). The spindle consisted of a fairly straight, smooth-whittled eucalyptus stick (fairly round), and a wooden whorl that had been carved by hand. This was a typical spindle to give to a child, but also a pretty typical spindle for an adult to use. Children and adults alike, once accomplished spinners, would use these spindles for production work.

Now, this isn’t to say that some weren’t better than others, or nobody had favourites, or anything like that. Of course that kind of thing happens — some tools just seem to be better or more comfortable than others, and then too, with use and wear, many tools break in and get better at being tools.

So, too, do spinners. I think this is a key thing in the wheel vs. spindle debate, one we’ll come back to shortly. Well, insofar as “shortly” is something we can ever say about my writing, eh? But seriously, what made it possible — makes it possible — for Andean spinners like the ones from whom I learned to produce fine, spindle-spun high-twist warp yarns in quantity, at the rate they do in the Andes, using only the humblest of tools? The answer is practice. Just as the spindles break in, so do the spinners. It becomes reflex, instinctive. That doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen — though, perhaps, in years rather than weeks or months.

Indeed, it took me about three years, or three years and change, to reach the point of being an adequate spinner. I started shortly after turning five years old, and it was the year I was eight when people in the Andes first deemed my spinning acceptable in quality, if slowly produced. It was later that same year, back in the USA, when I encountered my first spinning wheels. One was a Shaker-made great wheel that my parents had found who-knows-where, which still resides in my mother’s house and which I covet. The others were wheels that I tried out during the time when my parents were demonstrating Andean weaving at the Sunapee Craft Fair, which our family attended routinely for such purposes for a number of years.

Having finally been deemed a near-adequate spinner by Andean standards, my reaction to the flyer wheel was one of scorn. Its usefulness in producing yarn that qualified as good yarn by Andean weaver standards was almost nonexistent (certainly for such examples as I tried then, which were older Ashfords and Louets, none of them fast wheels). The people spinning, as well, were spinning thick, floppy yarn (often thick and thin) — yarn which my Andean teachers would never have accepted as functional. In a classic display of 8-year-old arrogance, I concluded that the only real purpose for flyer wheels was to make it possible for people who couldn’t really spin to produce any yarn at all — and certainly, no real spinner would stoop to doing it mechanically like that.

The great wheel, on the other hand… ah yes, the great wheel. Spinning with it was hard, for one thing. It was a kind of spinning I just didn’t know how to do yet — you only had one hand to do all the fiber wranging, and the other was used turning the drive wheel. In short order, I came to absolutely love plying on it; in no small part because my parents had started teaching workshops in Andean weaving, but no millspun yarn could readily be found that stood up to the wear and tear of warp-faced weaving where the warp is a structural element in the loom itself. As a result, my parents purchased millspun coned weaving yarns, and added plying twist to them to make them wear better for those classes. This was tedious for certain — and a great opportunity to put a willing kid to work with an incredibly fast means of twist insertion.

By the time I was 10, I had learned to use hand cards, produce rolags, and spin long draw woolen yarns. I did enjoy that, but the problem was that I couldn’t use those yarns for Andean weaving, absolutely my fiber art of choice. The woolens made great weft (but who cares, if you want to weave warp-faced fabric?) and knitting yarn (but knitting is boooooooooring!) so again, I mostly stuck with spindles, which I viably could use to produce the yarns I wanted to use.

Indeed, it wasn’t until my late 20s when I decided that I wanted to spin “gringo yarn” for crochet and, later, knitting. When I did, reluctantly at first, I eventually concluded that I was going to need a spinning wheel to do it, if nothing else because I’d spent decades with my spindles producing yarn for Andean weaving. I needed a small flyer wheel too, because space was at a premium in my life then, and I ended up with one of those very Ashfords that I’d scorned all those years ago. There I was, working on spinning thick, loose, low-twist, floppy yarn on purpose. I never would have imagined it possible when I was a kid, but it was true.

Then, I set out to try to spin Andean weaving yarn to my satisfaction with a flyer wheel. UGH! What an exercise in futility and boredom — yet it was a trifle to do with a spindle. I felt like I simply couldn’t do it fast enough. And in the long run, you know what? The truth is that I spin Andean weaving yarn faster with a low whorl spindle than anything else. That simplest of tools is truly the best one for the job.

The thing is, it might not be the best tool for the job for everyone. I’m not an objective judge; I have the experience of being trained from early childhood to produce that yarn in that way. While I learned other spinning methods and so forth as a child as well, they’re not what I was steeped in. I’ve got a level of expertise with the Andean spinning that I will most likely never achieve with any other kind of spinning.

Trying hard to be as objective as possible, though, one thing I can definitely say is that being a hard-core production spinner with a spindle requires more of someone than producing that volume with a wheel. There is a longer learning curve. Once you commit to it, and once you achieve the comfort level the tool requires to be used in a production capacity, you can do tremendous things with it, and indeed, even outperform more technologically advanced tools in many cases. But the more technologically advanced tool will allow you to reach higher production levels more quickly, with less time invested in training.

In watching some one of those many history channel type shows, one time I saw one that was talking about weapons development, and the English longbowman. These were dudes who were trained for lifetimes to be able to deliver a deadly sustained rate of fire on a battlefield. They were terrifying, and extremely valuable because of the time involved in training one up. But then the firearm entered the world, and the same sustained rate of deadliness could be brought to a battlefield by someone *without* a lifetime of training. Suddenly, the same level of deadliness was available to people who were investing money in firearms rather than time and related resources in training for the longbow. Instead of that military force being something you could only get through lifelong training programs, it was now something you could get thanks to machinery.

Exactly the same thing is true for textile production. In the Andean town where I spent so much of my childhood, tremendous levels of productivity were achieved thanks to training up from childhood on, and everybody being involved in it. In the more modernized world, however, the need to produce textiles is solved more by mechanization than by lifelong training.

Let’s take a side trip for a moment, and consider too the John Henry story — no matter how good he was at driving spikes, he couldn’t beat the railroad-laying machine. Then, too, Paul Bunyan was defeated by a machine in the end. The same holds true for textile production: no human, no matter how amazingly skilled, can beat the mill in the end.

The implications of these historical events and these folk tales is worth pondering. Is it in fact the case that a peasant with a gun does exactly what a longbowman does? Are tracks laid by John Henry indistinguishable from those laid with a rail-building machine? Can we detect any difference between Paul Bunyan’s logs and the logs cut by a logging machine? I would say that some people can, and some people can’t.

For some, there’s clearly an art to the longbow that’s different from, and unrelated to, simply putting firepower on a battlefield. There’s a mythos to the figures of John Henry and Paul Bunyan that speaks to people — an allure in the capabilities of humans who seem larger than life because they can perform amazing feats. And so in some cases we glamourize the longbowman, mourn the defeat of John Henry or Paul Bunyan — even as we avail ourselves of the advantages of greater speed, availability, and lower cost. Eventually, we mourn the loss of whatever it was that we might have learned from these archetypal figures — but we don’t stop to think, what did it take to defeat the longbowman, the John Henry or Paul Bunyan? It required that we create machines to do so, because the capabilities of these highly-skilled humans was such that their accomplishments seemed impossible.

The spinning wheel is a machine. It is one of the machines upon which civilization is built. And mechanization isn’t bad; it’s essential to our lives and those of our forebears going back aeons. Machines are invented, by and large, to do things that people do and do them faster and cheaper, or to do things people can envision doing, but can’t quite.

The spindle, on the other hand, is a simple tool. It is a hammer, a straight saw, a chisel, a source of heat, a pot or pan, a knife, a pen. Where the spinning wheel is a printing press, a spindle is a pen. Both require skill and training to operate… and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other, and that goes both ways.

My son sometimes contends that there is no reason to write longhand, given computers and typing, which are faster. Some say there’s no reason to memorize multiplication tables if you have calculators (or, heck, the table itself written out to refer to). Most of us would reflexively disagree, though, and say “Sure there is!” And much of that, I believe, is because we’ve memorized our multiplication tables, learned to write longhand, and the skills are second nature. But will they be generations from now?

Consider: if one has not spent a lifetime writing longhand, one has not developed the skills in it of a person who has. Someone who has spent that lifetime possesses a facility with the tools of paper and pen which can’t be matched by someone who’s spent little time with it. For that person — like my son — typing is just faster and writing doesn’t seem worth it. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe the thing I find magical about putting pen to paper and making marks is really… nothing, or nothing universal.

If we were to look carefully at children now, we would likely find that many of them can’t tie their shoes — something that people in their 30s and older would assume is an essential skill. But in this era of high-tech fasteners like velcro, is it really? It isn’t, if you never get shoes that must be tied.

But now let’s go back over all of these examples. While the first gun-armed troops to take the field may have been less skilled, less trained than a longbowman, now, there are skills and arts and highly refined practices that go with firearms, too, and people who spend lifetimes perfecting those. There are things achieved because railroads could be laid, or lumber could be brought in, faster, safer. There are things written and published thanks to typing, which never would have been if written longhand. So it’s not like these technologies are bad. They just do things a little different, and what we get from them is a little different, and in general, the technological approach appeals to most humans — at the very same time as there is a romance to thinking about the humans who have so excelled at what they did that the only way to outdo them was by building machines.

The down side to mechanization is that we do lose a little, sometimes. Where, now, are the longbowmen, the superhuman railroad-layers and loggers, the illuminators of manuscripts? They’re gone; and with them, perhaps, the facility with a bow, hammer, saw, or pen that those folks must have possessed to do what they did.

If they aren’t gone, they’re few in number. Certainly this is true for those who can do production work with spindles — and that’s part of why I think we now believe, and accept so readily, that wheels just are faster. It’s true that they are, for some things. But not for all. However, most of us never have the chance to develop the real spindle speed that made spindles so ubiquitous a tool for most of human history. We tend to move on quickly to things that get us results faster, and perhaps not explore the results we never really knew were possible with the simple tool.

For this reason, I do urge spinners not to simply eschew the spindle altogether, and not to view it as only a low-cost starter tool that will help you to decide if you want to do this enough to spend the money on a wheel. Spinning on a wheel and spinning on a spindle are the same, and not. They are related, and they’re totally different.

Lately, truth be told, I do more spinning while sitting around; and I do more knitting than anything else. So I’m spinning more on wheels than I am on spindes. But I never leave the house without my bag that carries, among other things, a spindle and some fiber. Spinning on the go is easy for me, being a skill I learned in early childhood. I can do it while I’m doing almost anything else. It’s more portable, more forgiving, than knitting projects (though maybe if I ever knitted anything that wasn’t lace…) and spinning on the go is really just part of my way of life.

Summing up, if I want to spin very fine or short-stapled fibers, I do it on a spindle. If I want to spin on the go, again, spindle. If I want to spin super high-twist yarn, spindle. If I want knitting yarn, thicker yarn, or to spin while watching TV, then I opt for the wheel.

And lastly, don’t assume — like I did, about flyer wheels as a child — that a tool you scorn or dislike now will never be one that you find useful. It may take decades for perspectives and wants and needs to shift, but they can; and being open to that can be very rewarding.