what is it?
It’s creating yarn from fibre; it could be fleece straight from a sheep, or fibre that you’ve bought, dyed or undyed. As well as sheep’s wool, the fibre could be silk, alpaca, mohair, cotton, flax, ramie (nettle fibre), hemp – anything that can be spun. The yarn can then be used in a range of ways (depending on how it’s spun): gossamer lace for a shawl; novelty or chunky yarns for knitting, crochet or weaving; or rope from flax or hemp.
You use a spindle by twisting a bit of fibre around it, then holding the fibre and spinning the spindle – by hand, by foot, or by rolling it off the thigh. Then as the twisted yarn is produced, you attach more fibre to the end of it, and it is twisted and rolled onto the spindle. The twisting is what holds the yarn together.
You can spin using a hand spindle whilst you’re doing something else. You can be in a meeting or socialising, or even feeding chickens etc; and you’re mobile. With a wheel, you have to be sitting in your house. So in traditional societies, the hand spindle is still popular.
The ‘great wheel’ and charkha are examples of point of contact wheels; they are faster than traditional wheels and tend to be used for finer threads. Gandhi used a charkha – a good wheel for spinning very fine yarns like cotton. In Britain they used the great wheel, which worked in a similar way, but was much bigger than the tiny charkha.
The spinning jenny was invented towards the end of the 18th century. The operator turns a handle that rotates 12 spindles simultaneously. Large factories sprang up in the north of England producing huge amounts of yarn, and almost all home workers using single-spindle wheels were put out of business. Most yarns nowadays are made on massive modern versions of the spinning jenny.
what are the benefits?
what can I do?
Maybe try spinning using a hand spindle first to see if you enjoy it. Traditional wheels cost from £300 new, and £90 second-hand (sometimes available from spinning groups or via the Spinners, Weavers & Dyers Guild website). Attend a spinning course (for practical experience) or read a book or two.
After you’ve obtained your fibre, you usually have to card it (although alpaca, angora and some wools don’t need to be carded). Carding means aligning and separating fibres by combing with special brushes (carders) which produces a much smoother fibre to work with. You can buy fibres ready-carded from online suppliers. The main 3 fibre types are vegetable fibres such as cotton or linen; silk, which stands alone as a unique fibre spun by the moth of the silk worm; and animal fibres such as wool or alpaca. If you know someone with sheep, you can get fleeces very cheaply; and they are often given away. Then you can card it yourself and start spinning.
As a rough guide, once you’ve learnt to spin, it takes around 10 hours to spin the yarn required to make an adult’s jumper. But when you’re spinning, you can also be reading a book, watching a movie or listening to the radio. Blind people can spin, as can old or infirm people. Spinning and weaving have been used in therapeutic ways such as in occupational therapy. It’s not used so often nowadays (partly because there are not so many occupational therapists who can spin or weave).
After you’ve made your yarn, you can weave with it, or knit or crochet. If you want to make something special, you can copy a type of yarn you’ve seen somewhere, or spin something unique. You can dye your fibre, yarn or finished item. And you can even spin your cat’s or dog’s hair (or other pets), as long as the hair is long or fluffy!
Thanks to Janet Renouf-Miller for information.
a range of home-spun yarns, clockwise from top left: camel & silk; bamboo; merino & silk; shetland & alpaca; jacob's sheep
'chair' wheels were originally made from old chairs turned upside down; made of oak and held together with pegs, this one has 2 wheels linked together with a belt, to save space
a small 'notebook' charkha, that can be folded up and carried like a small briefcase