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?

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.

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!