Spinning and balance

· craft · life ·

It had to happen eventually, I suppose. Since the start of the Covid period, I had somehow escaped catching Covid. I may have been asymptomatic, but I was testing regularly and had nothing but negative tests. Then, about three weeks ago, Mr. Bsag came back from a trip to Brighton feeling unwell. He did a Covid test and was positive, and when I started to feel ill too, I also tested positive. I’m lucky that I had escaped it for so long, and luckier still that when I finally got it, I was protected from the worst by vaccination. However, I still cannot recommend catching Covid. I felt very unwell for a long time, and even now that I am over the worst, the fatigue and loss of my sense of smell is still bothering me. My friend has suffered from Long Covid for three years now, and so I have been very wary of trying to do too much too early in my recovery. Just as when I was trying to recover from chronic fatigue syndrome back in my mid-twenties, I have tried to balance rest and exercise, and listened carefully to what my body and mind needed.

I mention this because a rabbit hole I have been exploring while recovering has reminded me that everything interesting and difficult involves this same tightrope walk between effort and relaxation, control and letting things run free.

It started with a video that Bernadette Banner made about learning to spin flax on an antique spinning wheel. I have only recently discovered Bernadette Banner’s channel, but find her videos about hand sewing historically-accurate pirate shirts or tailoring a 19th Century lady Mob Boss suit completely absorbing. Anyway, in the spinning video, she consulted with another Youtuber JillianEve, who is a spinning expert, and before you could say ‘distaff’, I was off on a rabbit hole and learning about spinning yarn with a hand spindle.

For a good few thousand years of our history all fabric, thread, rope and cord was produced on a spindle: essentially a stick with a weighted ‘whorl’ at one end. The spinning wheel was apparently in use in China and the Islamic world around the 11th Century, but it did not catch on in Europe until the mid 18th Century. That means that all clothing other than animal skins were woven or knitted from yarns spun on spindles (and sewn up with hand-spun thread), as were the fabric for sails and the thousands of metres of rope needed for rigging, fishing nets and so on, and all by women. Men built the boats to float on the sea, but without women’s labour, the boats could not have gone very far, and everyone would have been very cold!

The spindle is a fascinating technology, as it is deceptively simple, but flexible and productive because you can multi-task with it. In regions where people spun sturdy, long fibres (like the fleece of long-wool sheep or flax fibres), suspended spindles could be used as you walked, so you could spin as you walked to market, tended livestock in the field or supervised children. Other cultures spinning shorter, more delicate fibres favoured supported spindles, spun like a top on the ground, often in a shallow dish or bowl to prevent the spindle wandering off. Even though you need to be seated to use a spindle like that, it is highly portable, so you can take it with you anywhere and pull it out to spin whenever you have a moment. Spinning wheels are a bit more efficient because spinning yarn and winding it on to the bobbin is one fluid motion, instead of two separate processes on a spindle. However, there is apparently a saying that spindle spinning is slower by the hour but faster by the week than spinning on a wheel, simply because the spindle can go with you everywhere.

I knit and crochet, so I was immediately gripped by the idea that I might be able to use a cheap and portable neolithic technology to spin my own yarn for knitting. I bought a couple of spindles (a top whorl and bottom whorl, to see what I would prefer), and small amounts of prepared fleece that was ready to spin. It has been a fascinating learning process, as it is one of those things that is fairly easy to pick up, but really hard to master.

One of the things I have always found when learning a new handcraft is that your tendency as a beginner is to try to forcefully gain control over what you are doing. When I started sewing with a sewing machine, I hung on to the fabric going through the machine like my life depended on it, but this tends to result in a wobbly, jerky seam. You need to relax your grip and get the feel for letting the machine do most of the work for you. When I learned to use a hand saw, the same thing happened: gripping the saw tightly is an exercise in frustration, as the blade sticks and binds in the wood. If you relax your hand and feel how the weight of the blade can glide through the wood, you become more efficient and accurate.

Spinning with a spindle involves the same balance of control and letting go of control. Of tension and relaxation. Of listening to the spindle and the fibre and responding to what it wants to do. Spinning itself is a simple thing: you pull gently on your stock of fibre (a process called ‘drafting’) to thin out the fibres to the diameter of yarn you are making, then you use spin of the spindle to introduce twist into the fibres which gives them mechanical strength and makes them yarn. Finally, you wind the finished yarn on to the shaft of the spindle, then rinse and repeat endlessly, until you have enough yarn to weave the sails for a Viking longship, or in my case, knit a small hat. If you want to make the yarn stronger, you also need to spin two or more balls of yarn together, in the opposite direction that you spun them originally, to make a plied yarn.

It seems easy, and it is easy enough to produce lengths of something that is not completely unrecognisable as yarn. Making good yarn, and doing it reliably is another thing altogether. There are so many things to balance. You have to have the feeling in your hands for the staple length (the length of the individual fibres) you are working with as you are drafting. If your hands are too far apart, you just pull a chunk of fibre off completely, but if they are too close together or you have the ‘beginners’ death grip’, it is very hard to draft at all, as you are hanging on to both ends of one chunk of hair. You have to get the feel of pulling gently and letting the fibres slide past each other in your hands, not too little, but not too much. Similarly, you need enough twist to give the yarn strength, but not so much that it becomes kinky and stiff. That depends on the fibre you are using, the weight of your spindle, how fast you are spinning it, and how thin or thick you want your yarn (thin yarn needs more twist than thick yarn). You have to get a feel for the ‘just right’ Goldilocks combination of all these variables, and then establish a rhythm of spinning that makes that combination repeatable.

So far I have made two small skeins of yarn from the fleece of Jacobs sheep, both plied together to make 2-ply yarn, and washed to set the twist. I over-twisted the first, so while it holds together, it kinks up on itself and it feels rather stiff and knobbly, like garden twine. For the second, I tried to be more conscious of the balance of the yarn, only putting in the twist that it needed to hold together. The yarn ended up rather chunky and a bit uneven, but it actually looks and feels like proper yarn. It is soft, lofty and pliable, and it hangs straight rather than twisting back on itself. My next task is to see if I can repeat the same thing, but make the yarn thinner. My aim is to be able to make a yarn that is suitable for knitting a pair of mittens for winter, and I am already reading about how to dye yarn, so that my mittens can be a colour other than cream or grey. It is difficult and fascinating and hypnotic, and I am deeply into trying to learn how to do it better. Balance and relaxed focus is everything, just as it is when trying to recover from illness and build strength without relapsing. Just enough twist energy to hold things together…