I first learned to spin on a drop spindle made of a wooden toy wheel and a dowel with a cup hook. It was cheap and taught me to spin but I soon wanted to make my own spindles. The first one I made had an awful polymer clay whorl and a broken wooden arrow for a shaft. Then a friend got a lathe and invited me to try it. It was pretty frightening at first and I was sure it was going to spit splinters at me or grab my hands and shred them. I soon learned that a lathe is a fairly safe tool, as power tools go. I was off and running.
Wood is just as addictive as fibre. I love the different colours and grains and can get carried away in a wood store just like in a fibre or yarn store. I use both local and exotic wood – cedar left over from building a canoe, bird’s eye maple from a friend’s firewood pile, or expensive tropical woods like purpleheart or ebony.
As I work with wood I discover the differences between species, just like the properties of different breeds of sheep. Maple is hard and strong; African blackwood is extremely heavy and can be turned with fine details; cedar is soft and easily worked with a knife and plane.
Each of my spindles is one of a kind. I don’t make standard models. Each one just grows as I turn it on the lathe and I specially love doing intricate bobbles on the shafts.
The whorl and shaft of a spindle is glued together before I start on the lathe to guarantee that it is perfectly balanced. The hooks are individually made of stainless steel and each spindle is tested and the hook tweaked for best performance. It is important that the hook is slightly off centre so that it is the yarn, not the hook, that is positioned in the centre of the spindle, making for smooth spinning.
Spindles are pretty and many people collect them for their beauty and hardly ever use them for actual spinning but my spindles must first function as excellent tools. The weight of the whorl, the shape of the whorl, the length of the shaft, and the type of hook all influence how a spindle spins.
I started making support spindles more recently, curious to find out why they were so popular. Support spindles are used with the tip resting in a bowl so there is no weight hanging on the yarn as it is made. My first Russian spindles were too heavy, too long and the shape tapered so the spun yarn just slid off the top. Each spindle I made got a bit better until I was happy with the shape and size. I use my Russian spindles to spin short fibres like qiviut and cashmere.