Spindles are one of the earliest spinning tools (right after ‘the stick!), consisting (generally) of a shaft with a weight (known as a ‘whorl’) somewhere along its length.
Many spinners start with a spindle because they’re relatively inexpensive (a spindle is usually tens of dollars, where a wheel is generally hundreds), and can even be improvised with things one has around the house. (Some people have been known to spin with a pencil stuck into a potato!)
Many wheel-spinners keep spindles around for portability - it’s a lot easier to tuck a spindle into a knitting bag or your vacation luggage than a wheel - and for spin-anywhere fun. I’ve spindled in the car, in airports, on a hike, while camping, in the lunchroom at work… in many places it would be inconvenient to carry and set up a wheel.
Some people speak of spindles as a poor relation of the wheel, unsuitable for spinning truly consistent or fine yarn - don’t be fooled! Before the invention of the spinning wheel, every piece of thread, every bit of woven fabric- yes, even the translucent linen cloth of ancient Egypt - was spindle-spun. Because of the control you have over a spindle, maybe people still choose to spin exclusively on spindles rather than wheels.
How does it work?
Like any spinning tool, a spindle’s job is to get twist into fibre, and keep it there until the spinner can do some kind of finishing (but more about that in later lessons!)
The spindle spins or turns around the center of the shaft. The end of the fiber is attached to the shaft, and, as the spindle turns, it inserts twist into the fiber. The weight gives the spindle momentum, and helps it to keep turning longer. How heavy the weight is, and how close it is to the shaft will affect the speed of the spindle (assuming the spinner always gives it the same kind of shove to get it going!) and how long it stays spinning. Since the spinner winds the finished yarn into a smooth bundle (called a ‘cop’) on the spindle, that will slowly change the weight and the weight distribution during the spin, changing the way the spindle operates.
Types of Spindles
The weight can be at or near the top of the shaft (a ‘top whorl’ or ‘high whorl’ spindle), at or near the bottom of the shaft (a ‘bottom whorl’ spindle) or somewhere in-between (a ‘mid-whorl’ spindle). In most cases, the weight is a visibly distinct disc (or square, or star, or other flat shape) or bead (or other orb-like shape), but sometimes, the weight is just a thickened section of the shaft.
Some spindles are designed to be used ‘suspended’, that is, they spin while dangling from the yarn that is being spun. These are also called ‘drop spindles’. (Not because you often drop them when the yarn breaks - but don’t be alarmed if that happens!) These are the spindles you will most often see around the spinning community these days. These may be top whorl, bottom whorl, or mid whorl. Suspended spindles have been used traditionally to spin almost every kind of fiber (including short-staple fibers like cotton or cashmere), but, when spinning very fine threads or very delicate (low-twist) yarns, a light-weight spindle may be easier to use.
Others are designed to be used ‘supported’, that is, the bottom of the spindle rests on a solid surface - often a smooth, low-friction surface like a dish or a smooth stone - so the newly-forming yarn doesn’t have to hold the spindle’s weight. Some supported spindles are tiny and very light, but the largest of all spindles I’ve ever seen - the Navaho and Northwest Coast First Nations spindles, with shafts as long as my leg, are also supported spindles. Some supported spindles are meant to be spun on a surface like a child’s top; others are intended to be held in the hand that is not managing the fiber and turned continuously by the spinner. Most supported spindles are bottom or mid whorl spindles.
Some spindles can be used either as suspended or as supported spindles, depending on the user’s preference.
Picking a Spindle
So many choices, and we’re still just looking at spindles! How could you possibly choose?
Like many other tools, different spindles are often particularly good for different kinds of work.
There are supported and suspended spindles.
Some are lighter, some are heavier. (Drop spindles commonly range from around 15 grams/0.5 oz to 85 grams/3 oz or so! Spindle weights usually refer only to the weight of the whorl, or weight, not including the shaft.)
You can get a top whorl, mid whorl, or bottom whorl. Or a Turkish spindle, which looks completely different! What’s the deal with that?
Some people will tell you you ‘can’t’ spin fine thread on a spindle over 15 grams or some other arbitrary limit. Or that you can only spin cotton supported. This is not true - I can and do spin 2-ply laceweight on a relatively heavy Turkish spindle, and I’ve spun cotton on it, too… but it is definitely true that some things are much easier when the tool is working with you, doing work for which is it best suited. Especially when you are a beginner.
It’s like pouring a cup of tea from a china teapot with an excavator - a really skilled operator can make it work, but if it’s your first day? Maybe use a potholder instead of heavy equipment. I’ve been spinning with that Turkish spindle for well over a decade - my tool of choice may not be yours.
Back to our story!
Supported or Suspended?
Why would you want a suspended (drop) spindle? You can use them while you wait in line at the pharmacy, or while you hike your favourite trail, or lounging in a lawn chair in the backyard, or leaning up against the wall, waiting for a friend. You can generate long pieces of yarn (called a ‘make’) before stopping to wind it in the spindle. If you’re standing or sitting up high? You can spin that yarn alllll the way down to the ground! (But remember - if your yarn breaks, you’ve got to go run and retrieve your spindle. And if it’s delicate? Maybe don’t do that over a hard surface.) The speeds you can get a drop spindle spinning, especially with a thigh-roll or palm-roll technique makes for faster twist insertion than most supported spindles. If you’re looking for smooth, dense, organized (worsted-style) yarn? The drop spindle is your best friend.
If you would like to spin while laying in bed, or you have issues with hands, shoulders and wrists that make holding weight difficult? A supported spindle is a great option. They’re also a good plan for people who want to spin in the passenger seat of a car, or on an aeroplane, or in other positions where there isn’t a clear drop from the spinner’s hand to the floor. Do you love fluffy, light, lofty (woolen-spun) yarns? Are you interested in spinning very fine yarns, or very short staple fibers, like cashmere or cotton, most frequently? These can be easier to do on a supported spindle.
A light spindle, 0.4-0.9 oz (or a smaller, i.e. not Navajo, supported spindle) is good for spinning very fine yarn or very short-staple fibres. If you are interested in low-twist (very fluffy) fine yarns with short staple fibers, you might be interested in a light suspended spindle or a supported spindle. If you have always wanted to knit or crochet cotton or cashmere with the finest of yarn? Look for lighter weights.
Cons: A very light spindle doesn’t have much momentum - it won’t keep spinning for long! This can make it a hard spindle to learn on for a beginner - it doesn’t give you much time to figure things out before you have to fiddle with it again. Because it’s so light, it can be very susceptible to minor disturbances (like an unevenly-wound cop). That can make it harder to spin smoothly. Usually, it’s harder to pack a lot of spun yarn on a light (and thus small) spindle, so that can mean smaller finished skeins. It may also mean that you need a different, larger spindle for plying.
A heavy spindle (2-3 oz) is great for worsted-weight, sport or DK yarns. It’s also often considered good for beginners - these spindles usually spin relatively slowly, but they generally spin for a long time. This is great if you’re still figuring out how to draft! They are, if reasonably well made, usually very stable, which is not only an advantage for beginners, but for anyone who likes to spin outside in the wind or while they walk. Even people who usually prefer lighter spindles may keep one of these for plying, because they can hold a huge load of finished yarn without growing unstable..
Cons: These spindles often spin slowly - that makes them relatively slow producers once you’ve figured out how to spin. The weight of them can be very tiring for some spinners, especially with a full cop, and spinning them can be hard on hands and wrists. The weight of the spindle can make it hard for a new spinner to make a yarn strong enough to support the spindle’s weight at first, leading to more frustrating ‘drop’ events. Many spinners who start out on a heavy spindle trade it in for something lighter once they get the hang of spinning (though they may keep the heavy one for plying!)
Medium-weight spindles (anything in-between) are good middle-of-the-road spindles. If you are looking for a flexible, do-anything spindle, this may be where you want to look. (Mine’s 44 grams, around 1.5 oz.) Depending on the weight distribution, they may be quicker or slower spinners, and depending on how well they are balanced, they may be more or less stable.
Cons: Have you heard the saying ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’? That may be your middle-of-the-road spindle. If you have a solid preference for a specific yarn weight? You might want to find a spindle that works really well for you when spinning that weight.
Drop Spindle Configuration
Why would you pick a top or high whorl spindle? They’re the easiest to get going FAST - the ‘thigh roll’ or ‘palm roll’ techniques are usually easiest with a top whorl, at least until you have a cop built up. That can make these among the fastest ‘production spinners’. If you’re looking for a spindle that makes a lot of yarn, as quickly as possible? A fast-spinning top whirl might be your choice. These are the spindles many people think of when they think ‘spindle’, and there are many beautiful kinds available. You can see the top of the whorl when you’re spinning or winding on your yarn, and many are beautifully decorated.
Cons: These are the least stable spindles - if they’re unbalanced, they tend to get strong wobbles that can make it hard to spin. There’s nothing under your cop to keep your yarn from slipping off the shaft - you have to wind it very well (and in a balanced way!) or you might end up with a tangled mess. Your yarn has to come up over the edge of the whorl and into a hook in the center of the top to hold your spindle. This can cause more stress on delicate yarn, and if the hook is a little off, which can happen if it gets bumped around, the spindle may get wobbly. (Don’t despair- hooks can usually be bent back into place easily!) If you’re looking for a top-whorl, check the balance before buying if you can - with the vendor’s permission, hang it securely from a loop of thread or a length of yarn and spin it - see how it spins like that!
Bottom or low whorl spindles are generally more stable when spinning (their weight is in a more stable location). They may have a hook, but they don’t need one (one less thing to have to fiddle with!), as the yarn can be held in place with a half-hitch around the shaft. The yarn comes straight up the shaft from the cop to hold the spindle, instead of bending sharply out and back to cleat a whorl, so that can mean less stress on your yarn. The whorl is under the cop, so it holds the yarn in place on the spindle.
Cons: It’s trickier to thigh roll or palm roll some bottom whorl spindles, so it can be harder to get them moving fast (if this is important to you, but you think you want a bottom whorl, look for one with a relatively long shaft). If the whorl is beautiful, the image is usually facing the floor, where you can’t see it while spinning or winding on.
A word on Turkish spindles: people tend to either love or …really not love turks. Instead of a round(ish) bottom whorl, Turkish spindles have cross-arms that fit through each other and are locked in place by slipping the shaft up through them. You wind your cop around the arms - over two, under one. (People often refer to the cop of a Turkish spindle as a ‘turtle’.) The magic comes when you’re done spinning - you slip the shaft out the bottom, slide the skinny cross-arm out one side, and pull the fatter cross-arm out the other. You’re left with a center-pull ball. I usually ply from the outsides of two or three of these balls (depending on how many plies I want), rather than plying from the inside and the outside. (If you spin fine singles, they can turn into a tangled mess when you empty out enough of the middle of the ball.) But it’s a great bonus to not have to wind off onto a bobbin or a straw or something.
Weight Distribution - A Quick Word
I’ve mentioned ‘weight distribution’ a few times. We’ve probably all seen those videos with the figure skater doing a spin. She extends her arms and slows down. She pulls her arms in tight to her body and she speeds up.
Spindles work the same way.
If the weight of the whorl is mostly towards the outside - if it’s ‘rim-weighted’ - the spindle will spin more slowly, but it will spin for a longer time. This will give you more time to ‘draft’ (we’ll talk about that soon!) and more time to make yarn before you have to give the spindle another spin.
If the weight of the spindle is mostly towards the shaft - if it’s ‘center-weighted’ - the spindle will spin more quickly, but it will stop spinning sooner, and you’ll have to give it another spin.
The initial ‘shove’ you give the spindle (assuming other things, like spindle weight, are equal) will give you the same number of spins (they have the same momentum), they’re just portioned out differently, depending on where the spindle weight is located.
Aside: And, yes, you can alter the weight distribution by learning different ways to wrap your cop, but that’s an advanced skill, and you never need to worry about it unless you want to.
Improvising a Spindle
I want to try spinning but I have no spare cash/ my area is locked down/ I’d like to play a little before spending too much!
Okay. You can improvise a spindle! Remember, though, that a more balanced spindle of a decent middling weight is going to be easier for a beginner to manage. I will also suggest making a low whorl for your first try, since they’re less sensitive to minor problems with balance.
If you really just want something that will work, you can stick a nice, spherical lump of clay or play-dough over the end of a pencil or chopstick. (If your stick is tapered, put the skinny end up! That’ll help hold the whorl on.) Let it air-dry. If the whorl is now loose on the shaft, shim it in place with a rubber band wrapped around the shaft below the whorl, with a little fiber shoved tightly in between the whorl and the shaft (wrap the fiber all the way around the shaft and scootch it up into the space) or with a little more clay poked up in there from below. Tah-dah! Spindle!
If you're looking for a perfect wool breed to try on your drop spindle, we recommend our Corriedale wool. While our Merino and Cheviot are also great options, Corriedale has been the preferred choice by beginner and advanced spinners alike!