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.

31 thoughts on “Spindle Full, Spindle Empty, Need More Spindles

  1. Great tutorial on packing a spindle full. Now I’ll be using the criss-cross method for loading my cop on. Thank you!

  2. I’m so glad you told me about winding on criss-cross and non. I was so confused, and that’s probably why my yarn kept getting all over and I couldn’t get nearly as much on. I really need to work on winding yarn on my spindles. It’s takes a lot of time for me, which it probably shouldn’t, but I haven’t heard many people talk about how to do it well.

  3. Now I get it. The fullest part of the cop is in the middle, so the problem I had with new yarn slipping out of the notch is solved, and I can get lots more yarn on. But it will be a while until mine is that fine! Thanks!

  4. Wow. I like seeing how you wound that on. I see I am going to have to study that method. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the mini lesson in this post

  5. Compared to a LOT of other things, a lovely spindle is an absolute bargain. It doesn’t take up space, it’s useful, it’s art, (oh, wait, to some that makes it craft–whatever), it looks good with and without yarn on it, it’s a conversation starter, it’s an investment (I mean, how many spindle makers that we’ve bought from in the past are no longer making spindles?), it’s highly portable, and it looks great strung up in the greenery on the mantle at Christmas. And these are just a few of it’s attributes. Buy those spindles. Does a wine or coin collector ever have enough? No. Neither do I!

  6. I love the SHAPE of your cops…beautiful. Mine, not so much. Neat trick, too, on the crossing, not crossing. I will have to try that. Thanks.

  7. What do you think is an optimal length for a spindle shaft? I made 2 spindles and then took a class that included an inexpensive spindle. The class one is 11″ in length. Mine are 17″ for the heavier one and 15.5″ for the lighter. I thought with a longer shaft I could put more fiber on it but I think I have a slight shorter spinnable length.

  8. I don’t think I’ve commented before, but I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for such a wonderful blog. I don’t spin yet, and for the longest time I would gloss over anything vaguely spinny in knitting blogs. Ever since I found your blog, I’ve become intrigued by the yarn making processes, and somewhere along the line I started to feel more and more inclined to learn how to spin. I’ve now been sitting on a beginner’s spindle kit for nigh on a year partly because Igetting started’s a little intimidating, partly because I kind of want to see/read/buy your book before I get down to it πŸ™‚ But now that summer seems to be bringing a lot of free time with it, I think I’m going to give it a go soon.

    Anyhow, I’ll stop before before I get too long-winded in my fangirling. Thank you for such an informative blog, and can’t wait to read your book!

  9. There’s a “speed of an unladen spindle” joke just waiting to be made there, but I’m going to leave it for someone else to make.

  10. Hey, that’s the spindle I traded to you!! πŸ˜€ Heee. I meant to ask you about the crisscrossing vs. even winding; I noticed one of your ‘display’ spindles (the one with the green singles you said you spun one Halloween) seemed to be wrapped parallel, but you always talk about crisscrossing. NOW I GET IT. And it totally makes sense.

    Also, in the 3rd to last paragraph, you say “At 7 times its unladen weight, the spindle performs fine β€” but differently from how it did at 11 ounces.” Should that read 11 grams?

  11. My wind-on limit on a spindle (when spinnning singles) is more related to when the weight of the spindle begins to break the than to anything else. Thanks for the criss-cross/parallel winding hint. I can use that.

    I’ve found I much prefer plying on a spindle to plying on a wheel, so I’m in search of a bigger spindle that I can really pack full for plying. I’ve learned to gauge my plying twist by looking for parallel fibers and amount of back twist rather than by counting. I feel like I have much more control that way.

    I learned the hard way that a plyed thread that hangs straight before it’s been washed is way to loosely plied.

  12. One of the many things I love about you, Abby, is that you answer questions before I even know enough to ask them! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.
    Can’t wait for the book…

  13. Haha! Yes, Abby, I’d say it helps.

    ::goes off to buy more spindles::

    I’m totally doing the criss-cross/parallel wrapping for my cops from now on. I wrap parallel because I like the tidy look (and I cram a LOT of yarn on there, too) but it does get slippery. The slipperiness is what usually makes me stop and ply, actually – not the weight. I’m sort of beyond excited to see this solution!!

  14. I thought about this for a while, and there is one more theoretical limitation besides spindle/cop geometry to what you can cram on a spindle. There would come a point where the combined weight of the cop and the spindle are more than the yarn/single can support. Practically it’s probably only a problem if you’re trying to spin thin low-twist singles, but for plying I think most yarns would support a ridiculous amount yardage/weight before breaking!

    (This would make a fun science project: get something like a plastic canister and fill it with water to desired weight, then tie a length of yarn to it and keep adding water to see when the yarn breaks. Totally geeky, too. Sigh.)

  15. Maybe I’m slow, but I don’t see HOW the criss-crossing is actually done (hmm, maybe like starting a ball on a nostepinne?). Will there be full instructions in your book?

    In any case, 66 g of yarn on a Featherweight was a real eye-opener!

  16. That may have been one of the most helpful spindle articles I’ve ever read. When I got started with a spindle I got really frustrated because I completely got the spinning part but had a hard time winding a stable cop. Also everything I read said that you could only load your spindle with as much fiber as the spindle itself weighted. At that point I did what a lot of people do and got a wheel and let my spindles gather dust. I think that you just opened up a new spindling world for me. Would you consider writing another article just about how you wind such stable and huge cops?

  17. Now you make me want to go out and buy a spindle! (my beginner one has long since been disassembled and pieces lost by my 3 year old) Thanks for the interesting read.

  18. Oh what a great post! Now, I need to learn the criss cross . . . is it like winding a NΓΈstepinde?


  19. If seems to me that you are cheating a little by using a Woolee Winder as the comparison. If you were using hooks instead of a Woolee Winder, you could fit more yarn on the bobbin. The limit would be where the yarn hits the flier, instead of flat with the end of the bobbin. The yarn would pooch out in the middle of the bobbin, just like on the spindle.

    Your main point that spindles can hold a lot stands up well without the comparison, however.

    Interesting cop building method. Is this traditional Chinchero or your own take on how you find it most efficient?

  20. A bazillion spindles. Hmm. πŸ™‚ Gues I better start hunting…2 down a few more to go. Thank you for all the photos πŸ™‚ As a self taught spinner from books from the library…and youtube videos…there are never many photos of the ‘end’ of the session/fiber. At least now I know that how I wind on isn’t too too shabby.

    Though I am curious – when you decide your done adding to the cop on the spindle – what is the first annoying sign? Is it the wobble? or the breaking of the single? For the most part I have only been able to get about 2 times the weight in fiber that my spindle weighs, and I would dearly love to get more…with out being irritated. This is supposed to be relaxing right? πŸ™‚

    Hurry up book!

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