Spinning yarn with a drop spindle is an important skill that was passed down from mother to daughter and father to son for centuries. All the sails for the great sailing ships were made of fibers spun by hand. 14th century courtesans wouldn't be caught dead in anything but garments made from hand spindled threads. They considered wheel spun yarns to be inferior. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the United States changed spinning from a necessity to a craft, and hand spinning dropped into relative obscurity. Today it is experiencing resurgence in popularity because it is so stinkin' cool. (OK that last bit is really just my opinon, but still very true. All the cool kids are doing it.)
Fiber festivals, spinning retreats and local yarn shops are all places where you might find artisans spinning fibers into yarn. If you look on the internet, you can find events around your area where you can contact spinners personally. If you would like to try spinning for yourself, here are some basic steps to get you started.
Before beginning to spin on a top whorl drop spindle, you must attach a string called a leader.
Tying on the Leader
1: Attach a leader to your spindle by tying the ends of a piece of yarn about 30 inches long together.
2: Use a half hitch knot to secure it onto the shaft right below the whorl.
3: Half hitch it around the shaft the opposite direction. This will keep the leader from sliding around the shaft.
4: Next, take the yarn over the side of the whorl, wind it up the shaft and around the hook a few times.
Before you start spinning, pre-draft some of your fiber.
This will make the actual drafting as you are spinning a whole lot easier. To pre-draft,
1: Pull a little tiny bit of fiber from the end of the roving. See how long the fibers are?
2: Now pick up your roving and place your hands farther away from each other than the length of the individual fibers. They need to be able to slip past each other, and if you are pulling on 2 ends of the same fiber that can't happen.
3: Now gently pull a little fiber with one hand (the drafting hand from now on) and hold the roving with the other hand. When you start to feel a little movement, notice where it starts to look like the roving is a little fluffier. You want the whole thing to look like that.
4: Use your drafting hand to grip where the new fluffiness is and pull gently again from there and repeat the process until you have a few feet of pre-drafted fiber.
If it is hard to pre-draft from the larger roving, try halving it or even pulling the roving into fourths lengthwise.
Keep the unspun fibers out of the way of the rotating spindle by either throwing the fiber up over your shoulder and onto your back, or wrapping it around a distaff or your wrist. Alternately, if you are wearing long sleeves, you could stuff the fiber up your sleeve and out of the way. You could also make a wrist bag to put your fiber in, there is no real rules about how it is done, just go with whatever works best for you.
Attach the Fiber to the Leader
Let the spindle hang beneath your hand suspended by the leader. Take the spindle in your left hand and the leader in your right hand; spin the drop spindle from the shaft in a clockwise direction. Make sure after you choose a direction, you always turn the spindle in that direction. Turning it in the opposite direction will cause your yarn to untwist and the spindle to drop.
Allow yourself time to practice making the spindle rotate. Repeat this process of spinning the spindle in the same direction until the leader begins to take in the twist.
Open the end of your leader loop and tuck the end of your pre-drafted in there and spin the spindle until the leader closes up on it. Give it a tiny tug to make sure it is secure.
Now you are ready to start spinning.
1: Hold the leader where your fiber is attached with your right (now drafting) hand and give the spindle a good twist with your left hand. You will soon feel a little “pinch” come up between the fingers on your right hand. That is energy being stored. When you feel that, bring the spindle towards your body and “park” it against yourself to keep it from spinning the other way. This is known as the old “park and draft” method. Soon you won't need to “park” anymore if you practice.
2: Now pinch right below the fingers of your right hand with the fingers of your left hand. Pinching will keep all that stored energy from getting away.
3: With your right hand, gently pull back on your pre-drafted fiber, remembering to keep your hands far enough apart to let the fibers move. You will notice a point where your drafted fibers appear to open up and get fluffier before they break away from your roving.
4: Stop just before the breaking happens, (although if it does, don't worry, totally fixable and we will address that later.) and pinch that place with your right hand. Let go of the stored up energy in your left hand. It will travel up your drafted fiber to your right hand. Congratulations! You have yarn!
If you think there is more energy still there, repeat the pinching and drafting process and see what happens. (You can draft very thinly for a thin yarn, or you can leave it thick for a chunky one. It is all up to you. Just remember, thinner yarns require more twist to be stable than thicker yarns. Have fun with it.)
You have just spun what is called, a single. Yay, go you! But how do you know if it is any good?
To check, bring your spindle hand and drafting hand together.
A: If the yarn twists back on itself and the twist hangs straight, you are golden if you want to ply the end yarn.
B: If it doesn't twist back at all, give the spindle another twist for good measure.
C: If your single twists back on itself and then contorts into a twisty knot, let some of that energy go, either by drafting out more fiber or letting the spindle unwind a bit.
If you are going for singles, slack, but not pulling apart, singles are optimal because you want relaxed yarn to work with, but if you are plying, a slack single will fall apart when twisted the opposite direction.
When the yarn is long enough to cause the spindle to almost touch the ground, unhook the yarn and wrap it around the base of the spindle next to the whorl. Leave enough yarn unwound in order to slip it back on the hook with a couple of extra inches to spare. Continue on as you were from the beginning.
Joining More Fiber
At some point, your fiber will break and the spindle will drop to the ground or you will run out of drafted fiber. This is okay and is very simple to fix. Even the best of spindlers drop a spindle from time to time. Get some more pre-drafted fibers ready and proceed.
1: Fuzz out the end of your yarn a few inches and then pinch with your drafting hand right below the fuzz and spin your spindle to store up a bit of energy behind the pinch. Switch the pinch to your left hand.
2: To add on more fiber, overlap the fuzz in your left hand a few inches over the fluff of drafted fibers in your right hand. Let go of the energy stored behind the pinch in your left hand. Let the twist run into the fibers to join them.
3: Add more twist by spinning the spindle before you continue making a new length of yarn, otherwise your join may not be secure. (It is important not to try and make a join of new fluff fibers over an already spun section of yarn.)
4: It is good practice to test the join before continuing. Give the spindle another twist, and gently tug on both sides of the join. If it holds, go back to drafting and having a ball, of yarn that is. Tee hee!*
If your yarn pulls apart, you need to add more twist. To connect the ends back together, untwist both ends again and loosen the fibers. Lay one side on top of the other and twist the fibers together like before.
If the spindle gets away from you and the twist runs up into the fiber mass, which is a common occurrence for beginners, stop the spindle and untwist the fiber mass—then start the drafting process again.
If there are "fat soft areas", known as slubs in your yarn or thick spots and thin spots, you can keep them and make a novelty yarn. You can remove them by pinching the yarn with both hands on either side of the slub (a little back from the slub) and untwisting it until the fibers draft out a little.
After you have wound off a considerable amount of singles the spindle will become too heavy and will start to wobble a lot as you are spinning it. When this happens it is time to stop spinning yarn and remove it from the spindle.
If the spindle wobbles in the beginning, try sliding the whorl up or down the shaft to find the “sweet spot”. It's all about balance.
*Sorry about that, I’m a sucker for a bad pun.
Mr. Yarn Geek Upcycled CD Spindles may be purchased online at Yarn Geek Fibers. They come with a leader already atached and 2 ounces of practice fiber to get you started. We are also happy to help you succeed and would love to answer any questions you may have.
Stay tuned for our next tutorial, "I Have Yarn on My Spindle, Now What?"