Hand spinning is the art, the tradition, of spinning yarn or thread from fibers using a very simple tool: the hand spindle. My own interest began with spinning cotton, but wool from sheep, llamas, alpacas, angora goats and rabbits join plant fibers such as flax and silk in the group of available fibers to spin.
Hand spinning is different than spinning on a spinning wheel, not only because of the tool used (a hand spindle instead of a spinning wheel), but also with some fibers, the way the fiber is "drafted". Drafting is the combination of pulling the fiber with slight tension and letting the "twist" of the yarn into the fiber, at the same time. With a hand spindle, the control of the draft is in the left hand (assuming the person is right-handed), while on a spinning wheel with a treadle, two hands are available to evenly feed the fibers into the twist.
There is a spinning wheel that is almost in-between the two - the Charkha. A charkha is a spinning wheel that doesn't have a flywheel or bobbin - it has a spindle, and is more similar to a hand spindle than a traditional spinning wheel. Mahatma Ghandi improved on the Indian charkha by adding an accelerator wheel between the hand wheel and the spindle, increasing the ratio of twist. He was making a political statement to encourage all Indians to spin (cotton) and to become a more independent nation, as well as improving on an age-old Indian tradition. Many of the available charkhas are from India, but other nations use and produce them as well. Walking wheels, or "Great Wheels" are also similar in that one hand turns the wheel, while the other hand is used for drafting.
The hand spindle is basically a stick or rod that has a round weight (whorl) either at the top or bottom. When the spindle is spun, that simple action twists the fiber filaments into thread or yarn. The whorl acts as a weight to keep the spindle spinning while the person is drafting the fibers. There are different types of hand spindles - the whorl can be at the top or the bottom, and the weight of the whorl generally differs depending on the fiber being spun. A lighter-weight spindle is used for shorter-length fibers such as cotton or Merino wool, while a heavier spindle is used for longer-length fibers. There are also supported spindles which sit in a small bowl or dish while being spun - these are again for short fibers, most commonly, cotton.
A basic wool hand spindle is about 9 inches long, has a weight of about 1.9 to 2.1 ounces, and a whorl of about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. A cotton spindle will be lighter, generally around 3/4 of an ounce to an ounce in weight with a smaller whorl.
Two Simply Art © basic hand spindles - weight and size is more for wool on these two.
From left to right: A Pear Tahkli support spindle (with cotton on it) with it's ceramic bowl, a light-weight top-whorl spindle with Merino wool on it, and a double-whorl spindle.
Three types of decorated spindles, made by other artists.
Below, a Book Charkha - it folds into a book-sized shape, very portable. It is used for spinning cotton. This one also has a yarn winder that sets up on the smaller (accelerator) wheel.
Below: Mohair from an angora goat named "Little Goat". The fiber is ready to be carded.
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After mastering hand-spinning, or perhaps while working with it, also keep in mind that hand-spinning practice will also develop skills for wheel-spinning. Below are photos of my two spinning wheels. One is an antique Lithuanian wheel from Lithuania from the late 1800's, and the other is my Hitchhiker wheel. I use the Lithuanian wheel for the most part, for spinning cotton, because over time I have found that the wheel just likes cotton better. My Hitchhiker wheel is a "workhorse" of a wheel in a small, portable, economical size. I use this wheel almost daily, and it stands up to the use extremely well.
Late 1800's Lithuanian Spinning Wheel. These wheels come completely apart, and could fit in an average-size tote bag. They were / are carried from friend's house to friend's house when people gather for spinning "bees".
The "Hitchhiker" Wheel. This is a small portable wheel with a wide range of ratios. I use this wheel for everything from silk, cotton, and all lengths of wool fibers. Under a thousand of these wheels are made each year by a very nice man in Vermont. I could not do what I do without this wheel.
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