LabradoodleI spin mostly on an Ashford Traveler, a small, upright spinning wheel made in New Zealand, but I have spun on a Great Wheel, or Walking Wheel, and I often spin on drop spindles, just for the fun of it. I now own a Saxony wheel I believe was handmade in the 1960s or so, which took some work to make it run and is a bit, well, eccentric (yeah, yeah, I know!) but it works and I like it.

I’ve spun wool, llama, alpaca, mohair, angora, camel, silk, cotton, flax, buffalo, dog hair, and qiviut (the belly fur of the Alaskan musk ox, and the finest, softest, and warmest animal fiber on earth!). Lately, I’ve been spinning a lot of dog hair for a friend who owns a Labradoodle, a new breed which is half Labrador and half standard Poodle. Because of the woolly, non-shedding nature of the poodle coat, Chutney’s luxurious coat is wonderful for spinning, not as allergenic as much dog hair is, and no “doggy-smelling” even when wet. It spins much like alpaca, but is a little coarser. The most recent projects were two plaid handspun, handwoven scarves which were donated to two fundraisers. The pale color is Chutney’s fur, and the brown is alpaca.

More about spinning:

Before you can have a fiber craft, you have to have fiber. Every thread in the world was once a fluff of fibers, whether cotton, flax, wool, plastic, nylon, or whatever. And once upon a time every blanket, tent, sail, curtain, fish net, tapestry, and article of clothing on the planet was made of thread, yarn, or string spun by hand on a spindle. There are several types of spindles, but in general, a spindle is a stick put through a hole in a whorl – a disk or a round object, such as a stone or a blob of clay. A leader, a piece of string already made, is tied to the stick and the spindle is twirled, maybe by hanging it in the air at the end of the string, perhaps by rolling it down the side of your leg, maybe standing it in a little dish and spinning it like a child’s top. Fibers are attached to the end of the leader and twisted by the spinning stick and whorl into new thread. Not the most efficient and quick way to make thread, but you’d be amazed how productive a spindle can be in the hands of an experienced spinner. I myself can do about 40 yards an hour this way, and I am by no means an expert. I understand some of the women in the Andes can run two spindles at once – on donkeyback!

You can try this yourself, either by purchasing a spindle or making one in any number of ways. One popular way is by putting a rubber gasket obtained at a hardware store in the middle of a CD or DVD, and sticking a dowel rod in the middle of the gasket. You can even put a knitting neede, or better yet, an afghan hook, through an apple! Email me if you’d like to learn more. I am now offering individual spinning lessons in Berea.

Deb in Costume

Even if you know me, you won’t recognize me in this picture! I am in eighteenth century costume, spinning at a craft fair/reenactment in Indiana.

Once upon a time, somewhere long ago and far away, some smart person looked at a spindle and said, “If I turn this sideways in a holder, and attach a really big wheel, like maybe a cart wheel, putting a string for a drive band around the big wheel and around the whorl, then when I turn the big wheel the spindle will turn very fast, all by itself! I will have both hands for spinning, except when I stop to give the big wheel another twirl.” And so the Great Wheel, or Walking Wheel, was born. You tied your leader around the spindle, just as before, spun the big wheel, attached fiber, and walked backward, away from the spindle to make the thread. Then you walked forward to wind the new thread onto the spindle, or a bobbin put around the spindle, such as a piece of goose quill. (This way, the bobbin of thread could be removed without unwinding it from the spindle. It has been said that a spinster could walk 20 miles back and forth beside the Great Wheel in one day.

Important note for those who like to be up on their history: This is the type of wheel Sleeping Beauty had – not the wheel you see most often today, where the spinner sits and treadles. Those didn’t come in for a few more centuries, and don’t have any sharp places to prick your finger, anyway. The spindle sticking out sideways from a Great Wheel could get rubbed pretty sharp by all that wool and flax, over time. So unless you happen to know a Prince Charming, be careful when spinning on a Great Wheel!

Leonardo da Vinci is credited, whether correctly or not, with coming up with one of the greatest advances in spinning. He is supposed to have invented the flyer mechanism that has its own brake tension around the bobbin, causing the bobbin to spin slightly more slowly than the flyer, and thus take up the thread and wind it on automatically. I tell children who are watching me spin that it’s like when you put down your foot to stop your bike. The friction slows things down, and so does the brake band over the end of modern bobbins. This is a marvelous thing, since it means that the spinner can sit down now! Since the 1600s or so, spinners have most often sat and treadled their spinning wheels. All we have to do is try to feed (or “draft”) the fiber evenly. The wheel does all the real work.

Of course, there are lots of other innovations, such as Ghandi’s charka, which is a small wheel that is laid on the ground in front of a cross-legged spinner and spun by the foot while the spinner uses his or her hands to draft the fibers. Today there are electric spinners, and naturally, now the thread in your clothes, carpets, curtains, sails, rugs, and so on is spun on giant machines in huge factories. Likely as not, the fiber is made from byproducts of petroleum. But it’s all still fiber, twisted together to make thread.