My students are sometimes sceptical that you can use a spindle to spin enough yarn to make anything bigger than a coaster! But remember, before industrialisation all yarn and thread was spun by hand, and before spinning wheels were introduced to Europe in the early middle ages, all that spinning was done on a spindle. Linen, hemp, cotton, nettles, silk and wool were spun by hand then woven into fabric to make everything from swaddling for babies, all household linens, garments, uniforms and shrouds. The thread for every ship’s sail from the Greeks and Phoenicians through the Romans, Vikings and the Normans was spun by hand using a spindle. For centuries societies were dependent on the skill and labour of women for their survival and expansion. Spinning wasn’t a hobby or something picked up at odd moments; it was something that women had to do constantly, and arguably was as crucial to survival as hunting and farming. And in many countries spindles are still used as part of everyday life, usually by women and children as they go about their daily tasks.
From that perspective spinning yarn to make a pullover or a shawl doesn’t seem so impossible. But you might wonder when we have the choice of buying readymade garments or yarn, why bother making your own? For me, I like being able to make my own yarn in the fibres and colours of my choice – I choose to make my own bespoke yarn. Spinning is also a very satisfying craft, you’re magically turning fibre into yarn with a minimum of equipment. Most museums have a collection of spindles that are thousands of years old and yet still perfectly useable, like these beautiful spindle whorls in the British Museum.
My fingers always itch when I see spindle whorls like these trapped behind glass! I want to take them out and use them. All you need is a smooth stick, a spindle whorl and some fibre and you can make yarn. Making is also incredibly soothing and good for the soul: spinning can be very relaxing, almost meditative. Spinning links me back to generations of women who spun yarn and thread as a matter of course, because their families depended on their skill to keep them clad, warm and alive.
Keeping warm was very much behind my decision to make myself a pair of mittens after spending a weekend in beautiful Umbria and finding that my hands needed more than fingerless gloves in the icy winds of Perugia. I found a lovely pattern by knitting guru Kate Atherley and went online to check out my yarn options (I say online because there are few yarn shops in Italy which stock 100% natural fibre yarns – a topic for another blog post!). Then I realised I had exactly those colours in my fibre stash and I could easily spin some yarn for my mittens. And because the recommended yarn was an Icelandic lopi I could spin singles and make my fibre go a whole lot further. A single is just what it says on the tin – a single spun yarn, not two or more yarns spun together to make a plied yarn. Singles are lofty and warm, and can be lightly felted so your mittens are extra cosy against the winter winds.
Anther question students ask is how much yardage a spindle holds. To which the answer is, it depends. If you’re spinning a laceweight yarn for a shawl or fingering for socks, you will spin a much finer yarn and get much more yardage than if you’re spinning a worsted or aran weight yarn. Plied yarn takes more fibre than spinning a single. It’s always a good idea to spin a sample, just as you would knit a swatch before knitting a garment, or make a toile before sewing a dress.
Here are the two lots of fibres I’m using to make my yarn. Both are from Hilltop Cloud, an online business supplying gorgeous quality fibres and tools, run by spinner and dyer Katie Weston in Wales (I also buy my workshop spindles and fibre from Katie). The blue is 50% merino, 25% Shetland and 25% bamboo, in shade Airforce Blue, and the fiery orange is 62.5% merino, 25% mulberry silk and 12.5% baby alpaca in shade Hawaii. I’m using the blue as the main colour and the orange as the contrast – the sheen given by the silk in the orange fibre makes a perfect highlight against the soft fuzz of the wool.
This photo shows the difference that finishing makes to handspun yarn. The blue yarn has been gently handwashed in warm water with a little wool wash added and allowed to sit for about 15 minutes so the twist in the spun yarn relaxes and the yarn blooms. You can see the unfinished orange yarn is still full of unrelaxed energy and is coiled against itself. If I tried to knit the unfinished yarn the twist would make the knitted fabric warp and bias, which is not what you want in a mitten!