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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.

20 thoughts on “What’s the deal with those heavy spindles marketed for beginners?

  1. Thanks for the info! I wish I would have known this before I first tried spinning on a huge top whorl. It was what everyone was recommending. Your blog is an enormous asset to us newbie spinners who have never had any formal education. Formal education by which I mean that some live person showed them how to spin. The internet, and you, Abby, are my friends.

  2. Oh… my… SOAR is just down the road… I wonder if I can make it this year, especially after going to Complex Weavers this summer. There are several folks I admire greatly at SOAR this year, but _Peter Collingwood_ is at Complex Weavers, and you can’t possibly beat that!

    Having learned to spin on a low-whorl spindle in the 1980s, I very much appreciated your take on the whole thing. I was starting to feel inferior, with the abundance of very insistent high-whorlers!

  3. I’ve been visiting your website for about a month and want to thank you so much for your informative articles and videos. I’m a newbie, high whorling for a year and wheel spinning for 5 months. Soon as I can find one I want to give low whorling a try.


  4. I have already got my eye on your class! I was so pleased to see you on the list.

    I don’t think I’ve often commented here but I loved the piece you wrote about Nilda and her new book. I told my mum about it as I knew she’d be interested and it turns out she actually met Nilda at Bothwell last year!

  5. Hee. Yes, I can see why a heavy spindle would make sense in that context. It would have made a lot of sense when I was learning too.

    I walked into the Mannings one fine day with a low whorl I’d made myself and said I wanted stuff to spin. Tom gave me a quick lesson, walked me through the pluses and minuses of the prepared fiber they had for sale, and let me pick what I wanted. He pointed out that it was pretty light (as toy wheels often are) and that it could be tricky. I made sure to get my own copy of Connie Delaney’s book (since otherwise I knew the library would NEVER get theirs back).

    I think I turned out ok *g*. I use both low and high whorls and I get yarn out of them. Sometimes I’m even happy with how even it is. I’m a bit of a perfectionist about drafting tho, even after 8 years of spinning. Still don’t really like how a long draw tends to be a bit lumpier.

  6. All my huge Louet low whorl spindle did for me was make me buy a wheel. I guess that’s something though 😉

  7. Thank you so much for the nice plug to my low whorl blog post, Abby.
    Congratulations on being chosen as a SOAR mentor!!
    Cheers, Jenny

  8. Dude, I’M excited about you being a mentor at SOAR this year already. Makin’ plans, baby. Makin’ plans.

  9. What a sweet little girl!

    My folks were among the people who learned to spin and also went to obscure steam engine festivals in the time of which you speak.

    They don’t have more than 1 real knife, though, and neither do I.

  10. Well said and very educational!

    My very first spindle was a 4.3 oz heavy bottom whorl and I managed to spin and ply on the same spindle to get a 2-ply lace-weight. Granted though, there were many breaks while spinning…and even more while plying, but I would account those mishaps to the fact that I was really new to spinning back then. 🙂

  11. will you be my room mate???

    I promise to make (good coffee), well I’ll try.

    I may, may even try to spindle spin.


  12. Heh. I decided I wanted to learn to spin back in the late 70’s. I had a copy of “The Joy of Handspinning”, and attempted to make a spindle out of a wooden coaster and a dowel. Since I really didn’t understand what I was doing (I’d never seen handspinning at that point, I don’t think), I had a notable lack of success.

    A few years later I met some REAL spinners and saw and LEARNED what to do. Our guild does demos at the local RennFest. I used to spin on a spindle there, and yes, it was a heavy, low-whorl spindle to start with. When the high whorl Louet spindles (the one with the sheep heads on the whorl) came out, I switched to that, and spun lots of yarn on one.

    I confess I still prefer a slightly heavier spindle than most of the newer spinners use. But that’s what I’m used to, and it suits the yarn I spin.

  13. And also? Great photo. And I have that Allen Fanin book.

  14. I still have my Schact and Spindle boat anchor spindle I learned to spin on (back in the day). I spun ANGORA on that thing.
    Top whorl spindles really make me happy lately.

  15. I still have my first home-made (HEAVY) low whorl drop spindle. And the extra cutouts I made if I was going to teach someone else and needed more of them. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I tried/bought my first high whorl. They each have their place. I like the amount of spin I can put on a high whorl by push or pulling it down my leg. The snap works best for me with the low whorl, but is getting harder on the hand. And I was another learn from the “Joy of Spinning” beginner.

  16. I am glad I found a reference to you from ItsJustMeghan podcast show notes. I listen to her podcast. I just purchased a spindle yesterday, high whorl. I want to thank you for your precise explaination and demonstration of the spindle as well as the fiber. Meghan suggested for me to try this method before by a spinning wheel. Thanks!!!!!!

  17. Very helpful info. I have the inner part of a wheel I thought would make a good spindle, but it’s heavy. Now I understand better the diff. between top and bottom spindles. Will try it as a bottom.

    I love your style of teaching and approach. You give us permission to be beginners. Simple, maybe, but not every teacher has that knack.


  18. Nice to see some balance in favour of low whorls and heavier spindles. My first spinning (recently) was on a Jenkins Turkish spindle, and I have tried high whorls also. I’m acquiring more Kevin Rhodes spindles that work either way, and thanks to your book, I also hope to acquire some mid-low whorls with extra shaft below the whorl. In fact, I think the only thing your book is missing is how to avoid or counter spindle acquisition addiction. But I’m not quite through the whole book yet, so maybe that’s in there also.

  19. I started on a boat-anchor bottom whorl spindle in 1972. And even though I was 13 rather than 8, my spindle got subjected to similar rough treatment, especially when I was about 21 and doing the whole RenFaire/SCA thing. I called it my “battle spindle”. It was tough and did an admirable job.

    I still like spinning, but prefer to spin on a wheel when relaxing on the couch and watching TV. That way I can put whichever leg I’ve injured most and most recently up, and treadle with the remaining “good” leg. I still enjoy spindling, too, especially finer yarns which would require the purchase of a lace flyer for one of my wheels. And oh, I love collecting spindles.

  20. […] on a post from 2008. I was researching some things and ran across this post by Abby Franquemont: What’s the deal with those heavy spindles marketed for beginners? Now, let me start out by saying that I have great respect for Abby and that there are some points […]

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