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The Story of Spinning
The story of spinning is interwoven with the history of man. Paintings on Egyptian tombs record it. Grecian lyres and voices sing of it. Wherever any traces of early man have been found there has also been evidence of spun thread or spinning implements.
The first human attempts at spinning probably consisted of twisting animal fibers and suitable plant materials. The mere act of twisting them into strands made them useful and strong. The coarser fibers, such as jute or hemp, were usually used to make rope, cordage, and string, while finer ones, such as cotton, flax, silk, and wool, were used for cloth. Most early spinners were highly skilled craftsmen, despite the primitive tools which were used.
Many of the earliest spinning methods and tools described in this chapter are still in use today, especially the various drop spindles, and such types as the India and Navajo spindles.
EARLY HAND SPINNING
Some forms of hand spinning existed as early as twelve thousand years ago in North Africa, and fifteen thousand years ago in Asia. There were usually several basic methods: the yarn was either spun between the palms or fingers or it was spun using two hands and the thigh.
In the first method, the loose fiber was drawn out between the hands, twisted into yarn, then wound in whatever fashion seemed most satisfactory to the spinner. Often the yarn was wound around the center of a stick, or, less frequently, around the palm of one of the hands. Each step in the process—drawing, twisting, and winding—was done separately. It was therefore a three-step operation which was rather time-consuming.
In the second method, the fiber was usually drawn out by the left hand. Twisting was accomplished by rolling the right palm along the right thigh (assuming the person was right-handed). The newly spun yarn was then wound around a stick. This time the drawing and twisting occurred simultaneously; then the spinner stopped to wind the yarn—a two-step operation, and in that respect, an improvement over the finger or palm method. In addition, the longer distance between the drawing hand and the thigh meant that more yarn could be spun at a time, and the thigh itself provided a sturdy base or platform upon which to work. This method is still employed by some spinners today.
Since early man often wound his yarn upon a stick, the next logical step was the use of this stick for spinning. By attaching the loose fiber or roving to the end of the stick and then rotating this stick, yarn could be spun. Thus evolved the hand spindle.
Later, a weight, called a whorl, was mounted somewhere on the stick or shaft. When the shaft was rotated, the weight acted as a flywheel, both stretching and twisting the drawn-out fiber. At the top of some spindles, a notch or groove was carved to hold the yarn.
It is thought that the distaff was developed along with the spindle. This was simply a stick or rod used to hold the unspun fiber. Often this was pushed through the spinner's belt, or else held under one arm.
The Grasped Spindle
The grasped hand spindle was a New World innovation. This was a large hand spindle, with a shaft and a whorl, that was held in both hands and twirled in the air. Its spinning end and whorl were turned upward, away from the spinner, who simply grasped the lower end of the shaft. The fiber was first rolled into a rope-like, continuous roll or strand of fibers called a roving, then pulled through a suspended ring, or over a bar, above the spinner's head. This tension ring or bar held the roving back slightly, stretching it somewhat and drawing it out, while the spinner worked beneath it. As the fiber was pulled and lengthened, the spinner continued to roll the spindle between the hands with a tossing movement, twisting the roving into yarn. The yarn was then wound on the spindle shaft between the whorl and the spinner's hands.
In this method, the twisting and winding required the use of both hands, and the drawing, twisting, and winding were all done as separate steps. The yarn spun at one time by this method could be longer than yarn spun by other, earlier methods. On the other hand, the yarn was often more irregular, because the roving was not drawn out as evenly.
The Navajo and India Spindles
Navajo Indians used a large type of supported spindle that rested against the thigh as the spinner sat and worked. The left hand drew or drafted the fiber, while the spindle, rotated clockwise by strokes of the right hand, moved back and forth along the right thigh. Both hands were then used to wind the yarn on the shaft of the spindle. Drawing and twisting alternated with winding. Bedouin women and other early spinners used a similar method.
Another type of smaller supported spindle either stood erect on the ground or floor, or rested in a shell or wooden cup. The shaft and whorl were made of very light materials. One example of this type was the India spindle, which consisted of a delicate bamboo or iron shaft with a disc or ball of baked clay attached near its lower end to act as a whorl. This spindle was supported by resting it in the shell or cup, so that the weight of the spindle would not pull the thin yarns apart as they were being spun. Gossamer-fine strands could be spun as the spinner sat above, drawing fiber and twirling the spindle.
With the India spindle method, the yarn was twisted more firmly than with the larger Navajo variety. Both types produced a nice, uniform yarn and a more even spindle movement than was possible with the grasped spindle method.
The Drop Spindle
This type of spindle, suspended from the yarn it was spinning, rotated freely. The weight of the spindle stretched the roving after the left hand had drawn it out. The amount of fiber drawn was regulated by adjusting the spindle whorl, or weight.
The left hand held the fiber and drew it out, while the right hand alternately rotated the spindle and helped to regulate the twist as it ran up the strand. After the yarn was spun, it was wound on the right hand and then transferred to the shaft of the spindle. In an alternate twisting method, the palm of the right hand was rolled against the thigh, and the spindle was allowed to swing out as it twirled, giving it greater momentum.
A distaff was often used with the drop spindle, and it was common practice for a spinner to sit or walk about with the distaff held under one arm, or pushed through the belt.
There were many types of drop spindles. Most had a hook or cleft on the top of the shaft. Some had the whorl or a wooden crossbar near the top; others, near the bottom. On some types, yarn could be wound around spokes on the whorl, and the whole whorl could be removed.
With the drop spindle, there was greater momentum, because friction was reduced. The yarn was delicate, strong, and uniform. The twist was closer because the spindle moved so rapidly, and it was more regular because of the tension on the yarn. Sometimes yarns were respun for firmer twist, or else plied to make them heavier.
The High Wheel or Great Wheel
The first true spinning wheel is believed to have evolved in India, anywhere from eight hundred to one thousand years ago. The idea spread to different parts of Asia and Europe, where diversity of design led to different types, and also different names, such as walking wheel, high wheel, wool wheel, and great wheel.
Arm-turned types were known to exist in parts of Germany in the thirteenth century, and in England by the fourteenth century. These early wheels were built on the principle of the supported spindle. A horizontally mounted shaft and whorl were turned by a large wheel. A driving band transmitted power to a pulley on the spindle. These wheels were used to spin flax as well as wool.
The spinner stood beside the wheel, often holding a wooden rod called a "spinner's helper" or "wheel finger" in her right hand. The roving to be spun hung from the "spindle nib," or spindle tip. She turned the wheel clockwise with her right hand or the "wheel finger" and at the same time took several steps backward, while skillfully drawing out the fiber with her left hand. The wheel was twirled again, until the fiber was twisted sufficiently; then reversed for an instant, just long enough to unwind the yarn from the spindle tip. Now moving the wheel clockwise again, the spinner took a long step to the right so that the length of yarn was perpendicular to the spindle shaft. As the wheel continued to turn, the yarn wound around the base of the spindle. The spinner could then continue spinning by attaching a new strip of fiber to the end of the yarn she had just spun.
These early wheels provided a constant and even rotation, and the horizontal mounting of the spindle made the whole process easier, even though the spinner did have to stand and walk back and forth. Mechanical winding was also a great timesaver. Although the yarn output of these early wheels was not much greater than that of an accomplished spindle spinner, the early wool wheels did pave the way for later, more efficient types.
The Treadle Wheel or Flax Wheel
The treadle or flax wheel is thought to have evolved in the early part of the sixteenth century, although forerunners existed decades earlier. A treadle type was introduced in Brunswick, Germany, in 1533, by Johann Jürgen. This wheel had a flyer which put a twist into the yarn and a rotating bobbin which automatically wound the yarn. The flyer was a wishbone-shaped piece of wood, mounted on the shaft, and attached by a pulley to the drive wheel. The flyer—not the drive wheel—actually spun the yarn. Because the movement of the wheel could be controlled by the pressure of the foot on the treadle, the spinner had both hands free to draft the fiber. Another advantage was that she could sit. All three spinning processes could be carried on at one time, with very little effort. Greater speed and increased production were possible.
Although there are plans for a crank-operated flyer mechanism in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, and there were earlier experiments with "flyer-wheels," it was Johann Jürgen who actually introduced the flyer and bobbin assembly. It is his wheel upon which all later spinning wheels with flyer mechanisms are based.
Treadle wheels were used for spinning a variety of fibers. Wheel names varied—Saxony, Brunswick, Norwegian, Old Dutch, Irish, Russian, etc. Wheel and bench designs varied, too. Some had the spindle supported on just one end, others on both ends; some had a drive wheel with just one band to the spindle and only one pulley instead of two. Although the majority of wheels had one long, continuous driving band, which ran from the large wheel to two pulleys, crossing once, some wheels had two separate driving bands.
Treadle wheels also had distaffs, which were either attached to the wheels themselves, or placed on stands next to the wheels. When the wheel was used for spinning flax, the distaffs were dressed with the flax for ease in spinning. Wool spinners usually did not use the distaff, but placed the carded wool in a basket instead.
The majority of treadle wheels were of the "Saxony type," with the wheel to the right side of the spinning mechanism, and the treadle beneath the drive wheel. "Parlor wheels," or upright types, were also popular. These handsome and beautiful wheels took up less space because the spinning apparatus was mounted above the drive wheel, which in turn was mounted above the bench and treadle. The parlor wheel was also known as the "German wheel" or "cottage wheel." On later models there were sometimes two bobbin and flyer units, that could be used by one or two spinners. These were known as "gossip wheels" or "lover's wheels."
Chair wheels were another variation. Four legs supported the large wheel and the spinning assembly. Sometimes there was also a second, small acceleration wheel. Many of these chair wheels had two treadles. Some had only one pulley located on the bobbin. The spindle and flyer were turned by the drag of the yarn as it wound on the bobbin.
As modern machinery took over the tasks of spinning and weaving, most of the lovely old wheels disappeared from parlors and kitchens, and were either discarded or stored in attics and sheds. Today, some of these treasured pieces have found their way back into museums and homes; most stand as silent reminders of our past, but a few are being used once again by the spinners of today.CHAPTER 2
Preparing the Fiber for Spinning
Before you can begin spinning, some care must be taken in selecting and preparing the fiber. Before a fiber can be spun into yarn, it often needs to be sorted or picked over, and possibly cleaned, teased, and carded so that it is free of lumps and tangles, as well as bits of dirt and straw. Careful preparation will result in easy spinning and a durable, high-quality yarn.
SELECTING THE FIBER
It will be much easier to learn how to spin if you use wool for your first attempts at spinning. Most of the instructions and techniques described in this chapter, therefore, pertain to working with wool. Once you have become skilled at spinning, you may wish to experiment with other fibers, some of which require a little more ability and experience. These techniques are described in greater detail in chapters seven and eight.
Wool grows in locks. Each lock is made up of many single fibers, and these have tiny scales on their outer surfaces, microscopic projections which overlap, pointing toward the tip of the fiber. Because of these scales, wool has a tendency to felt, or mat, when improperly handled. Sudden exposure to very hot or very cold water, steam, or even excessive handling when the wool is wet can cause this. The wool fibers actually interlock. While this felting quality is usually a liability to spinners, manufacturers often consider it an asset. They layer carded wool, and subject it to both steam and pressure. Then they put the wool through an acid bath and pound it. The finished product—felt—is used in hats and coats, as well as for many other purposes.
There are a few things you should know about sheep and wool. Sheep are given a blood grade, described in terms such as "full-blood," "half-blood," "quarterb-lood," "eighth-blood," and "braid." These terms refer to how much fine-wool blood is in the breeding. The higher the blood grade, the finer the wool. Full-blood or half-blood would be quite fine; braid would be coarse.
Spinning count is another term you'll encounter. It is a numerical system based upon the number of 560-yard skeins of yarn that can be spun from a pound of wool. Spinning count is expressed in terms such as "50s" or "64s." The higher the number, the finer the wool.
Basically, there are three categories when it comes to sheep—fine-wool, cross-breeds, and mutton breeds. The fine-wools include Merino and Rambouillet, and have a spinning count in the 60s to 100s range. They are extremely soft and fine, with a short staple length of 2" or 3", and are very tightly crimped, or waved. Wool from these types is excellent, and especially nice for fine knitting yarns.
Cross-breeds include such types as Columbia, Corriedale, and Targhee. This wool has a spinning count in the 40s to 58s range, with a staple length of about 2" to 5". The fibers are silky and easy to handle. This kind would be a good choice for those learning to spin.
The mutton breeds can be further divided into medium-wool and long-wool varieties. Included in the medium-wool class would be breeds such as Cheviot, Dorset Horn, Hampshire, Shropshire, Southdown, and Suffolk. These have spinning counts in the 50s to 60s range, and a staple length of from 2" to 5". They are easy to spin, and fine enough to make very nice yarns for a multitude of uses.
Long-wools include such types as Cotswold, Lincoln, and Romney. The wool has a spinning count anywhere from 28s to around 48s, and the staple length varies from about 7" to 12"—sometimes more. The wool tends to be coarse and wavy, or widely crimped, and is suitable for durable worsted yarns. The Karakul sheep also produces a fairly long, coarse coat. As these sheep grow older, the black or dark wool is covered with a protective coat of coarse grayish hair. Yarns spun from Karakul have an interesting texture and can be quite attractive. The fleece is darker and of better quality when shorn from a fairly young sheep. Fleece from the older Karakul is more easily spun when blended with the white wool of another breed. The result is a very pretty, textured gray yarn.
Until you are more familiar with the various breeds of sheep, and the different types of wool, your best bet is to purchase your wool from a spinning supply house, a shop, or a wool cooperative that sells wool to spinners. That way you're more likely to obtain high quality fleece. If possible, buy "grease wool," which is wool that has been recently shorn and still has the natural lanolin or "yolk" in it. You'll find "grease wool" easier to spin.
The quality of the wool varies according to breed, but also according to how well the sheep were cared for, and the area in which they were raised. Try to examine samples before you buy. For your first attempts, avoid purchasing wool that is either very short and fine or very long and coarse. A staple length of 3" to 5" is easiest to handle. If you are buying wool in fleece or lock form, the locks should be strong. They should not break when held at both ends and given a good, healthy tug. The wool should also be unmatted and relatively clean. If it's very dirty, you'll be paying for the dirt as well as the wool, since the wool is sold by the pound. In addition, if the wool is reasonably clean, you may not have to wash it at all before spinning.
Excerpted from The Whole Craft of Spinning from the Raw Material to the Finished Yarn by Carol Kroll. Copyright © 1981 Carol Kroll. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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