At the Still Point of the Turning World
Residency is over, NOW what? (While I'm waiting for the answer, I'll get some spinning done....)

Thursday, August 01, 2002


At last count, I have over 70 spindles of various shapes, sizes and woods--and I love them all. Fortunately I'm not alone in my love of these tops-turned-tools; the Spindlers group is chock full 'o avid spindle spinners, collectors, and enablers, some of whom are more acquisitive than I am.

Now that more Spindlers are starting their own blogs, I'm feeling inspired to use my spindles more, and with more purpose. Yes, I do have a wheel--actually I have three--but I still find spindles portable, effective and enormously satisfiying to use. It is possible to accomplish enough spinning on spindles to make enough yarn for a big project; witness Elaine Boaz's spindle-spun vest featured in the Summer 2001 issue of Spin-Off, and the list of projects Rita Buchanan lists in her article entitled "Drop Spindle Basics," which can be found in The Handspindle Treasury: "...I've spindle-spun enough yarn for two pairs of socks, two hats, a pair of mittens and a pair of gloves, a woven vest, a knitted vest, a scarf, a little purse, a knitted wash cloth, a woven briefcase, an afghan, and a pillow. All that is yarn that I wouldn't have spun otherwise, even though I still use my wheels a lot."

Food for thought! As for me, in the two years I've been spinning, I've spindle-spun an entire basket full of skeins, mostly odd lots of this-or-that color or fiber. This photo shows the first yarn I've spindle-spun with a specific project in mind. It's a 2-ply laceweight yarn consisting of one strand of merino and one strand of tussah silk top handpainted by The Silkworker. The photo also shows some of the spindles I used to spin the singles. From top to bottom, left to right: purpleheart mini Bosworth, madrona Nikolai from The Bellwether, cherry/bubinga Kaari from Hatchtown, mini-tulipwood and mini-rosewood Bosworths, and a custom-made snakewood spindle from Phil Powell.

I'm planning a few more spindle-spun projects, and here's a few of my recent thoughts on spindling projects and spindle selection:

Choice of Fiber: Any kind of fiber can be spindle-spun, and every spinner has a favorite fiber to work with. I'm a fan of wool, alpaca, silk...almost anything, in fact! I like to dedicate my spindles to small amounts of exquisitely-prepared fiber, such as The Silkworker's rovings or the handpainted Chasing Rainbows merino/bombyx top I showed in an earlier post. One day I'll commit myself to spindling enough yarn for a big project, like Elaine Boaz's vest...

Choice of Spindle: ah, this is where I have a lot of opinions:

1) High-whorl or low-whorl: I'm a confirmed high-whorler, although I like to use a low-whorl to achieve softly-spun, bulky singles. There are some confirmed low-whorlers on Spindlers, and I'd like to hear what other people have to say on the subject.

2) Spindle weight: Again, every spindler seems to have a favorite weight range when it comes to their tools. I like a 1.3-1.6 oz spindle for most projects, because I like a firm tug on the yarn while I'm spinning. Others like spindles in the lighter range, closer to 1oz. I haven't encountered many people who like a spindle to weigh more than 2oz; spindles in this range tend to get unwieldly as they fill up with the additional weight of the yarn.

3) Rim- vs. center-weighted whorls: Jim Child has a great info page on this subject. The short version is that spindles with most of the weight distributed at the rim of the whorl tend to spin longer, while spindles with most of the weight distributed at the center of the whorl tend to spin faster. I notice that most of the popular designs currently are rim-weighted designs, although Jim recently commented on a resurgence of interest in fast-spinning spindles, so this may change.

4) Spindle shaft length: Another area of personal preference. I divide shafts into three categories: long (greater than 10"), midlength (7-10"), and short (less than 7"). Long-shaft spindles have the advantage of having more room to accumulate yarn and seem to have greater spin stability than short-shaft spindles, because turbulence and wobble are, to some degree, dissipated along the shaft length. Long-shaft spindles are less portable than their smaller counterparts, however, and I tend to use them for plying or home-based spindling, not for spindling on the go. Short-shaft spindles are super-portable but tend to have more turbulent spin dynamics. For these reasons, I favor midlength spindles for most of my spinning, and my personal preference is for a spindle of no greater than 8-9" in total length.

5) Whorl diameter: Most spindles have 2-3" diameter whorls, with the smaller diameter whorls creating a firmer, denser quality of spin than the wider whorls, which create a more floating, airy quality of spin. I understand that a wider whorl will probably spin longer than a narrower one, but this is a distinction I don't worry too much about because most good spindles will spin long enough for me to spin a length of yarn from my shoulder to the floor. (You guessed it--I'm short!)

6) Spin quality: Now here's where I get a bit nutty. The most important determinant in spindle selection for me is the spin quality. If I don't match the spin quality to the fiber I'm spinning, I won't have a satisfying spinning experience and will probably set the project aside. It's hard to talk about the spin quality of a spindle, because when you're spinning on a good one, you tend to exclaim, "This is a great spinner!" and leave the discussion there. I've been thinking about spin quality a lot lately, and here's the main division I've made among the spindles I like: whizzy versus oomphy.

Now bear with me. A whizzy spindle is one that has a floating quality as it spins. It tends to create a whirr that is transmitted up the emerging yarn. It is a fast-spinning, generally lightweight (see discussion of exceptions, below) spindle that is well-suited to fibers that need a lot of twist but not a lot of tension, such as the merino/angora blends from Windsor Farms Rabbitry. I've chosen a few whizzy spindles to consider for this project (approx. 2oz of the blue/purple and 4oz of the beige), which is destined to become a two-color mobius cowl. From left to right: Fancy lizard high-whorl by Tracy Eicheim, quartersawn oak on walnut spindle by Steve Kundert (whose spindles are available at Grafton Fibers and Mielke's Farm), lacewood Full Circle spindle from The Bellwether, ancient oak Emily spindle from Mielke's Farm, and box elder spindle by Steve Kundert.

An oomphy spindle has a firm, balanced quality when spun. It creates a good tug on the emerging yarn, and therefore has less turbulence to its spin. They tend to be heavier than their whizzy counterparts. Their firm spin is well-suited to stronger fibers and slightly thicker yarns. Here I've shown a selection of oomphy spindles with some more Chasing Rainbows merino/bombyx top in a colorway called "Grand Canyon." From left to right: three Swans from Grafton Fibers, in cochan rosewood, ebony, and bocote; and two spindles from Greensleeves--a Kelly and a custom-made Queen Katherine's cup in cocobolo sapwood. The merino/bombyx top weighs only about 1.8oz, and will probably be made into a small neck cozy some day. Until then, it's going to be fun to spin.

Of course there are some caveats to the whizzy vs. oomphy distinction. Some relatively heavy (1.5oz) spindles can be pretty whizzy, and some relatively lightweight spindles can be oomphy (I find Lollipops suprisingly oomphy, as a matter of fact). That's why I don't rely upon the dimensions and outward design of a spindle to decide how I want to use it in a project. There are so many ineffable factors that contribute to a spindle's function, such as the density of the wood and the hook design and placement (another area of hot debate, too complicated to go into here) that the only way to know how one will work is to spin a lot of samples, or otherwise get to know your spindles well.

They are old friends, after all .