Tools and Techniques of Hand Spinning | Types of Spinning Wheels

Last Updated on 11/06/2021

Tools and Techniques of Hand Spinning

Anju Singh
M.Sc. in Fabric and Apparel Science
Delhi University, India


Hand Spinning:
Spinning is an ancient textile art in which plant, animal or synthetic fibers are drawn out and twisted together to form yarn. With the exception of silk, all other natural fibers that are of technical relevance are obtained in the form of staple fibers. Staple fibers exhibit a characteristic average length. In the spinning process, fibers are entangled, for example, by rotation, to increase the friction between the individual fibers and thus build a staple fiber yarn. Different types of tools and techniques are used to introduce the required number of turns per length into a spun yarn. Generally spinning are two types; hand spinning and industrial spinning. Hand spinning is an ancient craft that can be done using a handspindle or spinning wheel. Hand spinning tools and techniques are different from industrial spinning. People have been spinning for at least 7,000 years. In this article I will discuss on hand spinning tools and techniques.

hand spinning
Fig: Hand spinning

Tools of Hand Spinning

1. Spindle:
A spindle is a straight spike usually made from wood used for spinning, twisting fibers such as wool, flax, hemp, cotton into yarn. It is often weighted at either the bottom, middle, or top, commonly by a disc or spherical object called a whorl, but many spindles exist that are not weighted by a whorl, but by thickening their shape towards the bottom.

Modern hand spindles fall into two basic categories:

  1. Drop spindles
  2. Supported spindles.

After rotation has been started on one’s thigh or any other convenient body part, allowing for a greater length of yarn to be spun before winding on. Drop spindles are commonly available in high-whorl, low-whorl, and centre-whorl versions. In a high-whorl spindle, the whorl sits very close to the top of the shaft which allows the spindle to spin very fast. A hook is placed on the top of the shaft to secure the developing yarn, and the newly spun yarn is wound around the shaft underneath the whorl in a conical shape called a cop. In a low-whorl spindle, the whorl sits near the bottom of the shaft, which makes it spin slower, but more steadily, and longer. The newly spun yarn is wound around the shaft just above the whorl. In centre-whorl spindles the cop is usually built above the whorl.

hand spindle
Fig: Spindle

Most supported spindles continue to rest with the tip on one’s thigh, on the ground, on a table, or in a small bowl while rotating. French spindles are “twiddled” between the fingers of one hand instead. The Akha spindle, a short spindle with a large centre-whorl disc, is supported by the hand of the spinner during drafting of cotton fiber, but during the adding of extra twist to stabilize the yarn, the spindle is dropped to rest on the yarn.

2. Distaff:
A Distaff is a tool used in hand spinning. It is designed to hold the unspun fibers, keeping them untangled and thus easing the spinning process. Fiber is wrapped around the distaff, and tied in place with a piece of ribbon or string.

Hand Distaffs
Fig: Hand Distaffs

There were two common forms of distaffs, depending on the spinning method. The traditional form is a staff, held under one’s arm while using a spindle. It is about 3 feet (0.9 m) long, held under the left arm, with the left hand drawing the fibers from it. This version is the older of the two, as spindle spinning predates spinning on a wheel.

A distaff can also be mounted as an attachment to a spinning wheel. On a wheel it is placed next to the bobbin, where it is in easy reach of the spinner. This version is shorter, but otherwise doesn’t differ from the spindle version.

3. Niddy noddy:
A niddy-noddy is a tool used to make skeins from yarn. It consists of a central bar, with crossbars at each end, offset from each other by 90°. The central bar is generally carved to make it easier to hold. Either one of the crossbars will have a flat edge to allow the skein to slide off, or will be completely removable. Niddy-noddies can be constructed of many different materials including wood, metal, and plastic. Wood is traditional, and most quality niddy-noddies are still made of wood. Budget spinners occasionally use niddy-noddies made from PVC pipes.

hand spinning Niddy noddy
Fig: Niddy noddy

4. Nostepinne:
The nostepinne, also known as a nostepinde or nøstepinde, is a tool used in the fiber arts to wind yarn, often yarn that has been hand spun, into a ball for easily knitting, crocheting, or weaving from. Most frequently made of wood, around which yarn can be wound. Decoratively and ornately carved nostepinnes are common.The top of the nostepinne sometimes incorporates a notch or a groove which allows one end of the yarn to be held secure while the rest is wound into a ball. The ball of yarn formed by a nostepinne is a “center pull” ball, allowing the knitter to remove the working yarn from the center of the ball rather than from the outside of the ball. This provides greater stability while knitting and prevents the working yarn from rolling around the surface the yarn is sitting on. These centers pull balls are colloquially known as “cakes” because of their short, cylindrical shape.

hand spinning Nostepinne
Fig: Nostepinne

5. Spinning Wheel:
A spinning wheel is a device for spinning thread or yarn from natural or synthetic fibers. Spinning wheels appeared in Asia, probably in the 11th century, and very gradually replaced hand spinning with spindle and distaff. Spinning machinery, such as the spinning jenny and spinning frame, displaced the spinning wheel during the Industrial Revolution.

hand spinning wheel
Fig: Hand spinning wheel

The earliest clear illustrations of the spinning wheel come from Baghdad (drawn in 1237), China (c. 1270) and Europe (c. 1280), and there is evidence that spinning wheels had already come into use in both China and the Islamic world during the eleventh century. According to Irfan Habib, the spinning wheel was introduced into India from Iran in the thirteenth century. In France the spindle and distaff were not displaced until the mid-18th.

Types of spinning wheels

a. Hand-powered wheels
Hand powered spinning wheels are powered by the spinner turning a crank for flywheel with their hand, as opposed to pressing pedals or using a mechanical engine.

1. Charkha
The tabletop or floor charkha is one of the oldest known forms of the spinning wheel. The charkha works similarly to the great wheel, with a drive wheel being turned by hand, while the yarn is spun off the tip of the spindle. The floor charkha and the great wheel closely resemble each other. With both, the spinning must stop in order to wind the yarn onto the spindle. The charkha, a small, portable, hand-cranked wheel, is ideal for spinning cotton and other fine, short-staple fibers, though it can be used to spin other fibers as well. The size varies, from that of a hardbound novel to the size of a briefcase, to a floor charkha.

2. Great wheel
The great wheel was one of the earlier types of spinning wheel. The fiber is held in the left hand and the wheel slowly turned with the right. This wheel is thus good for using the long-draw spinning technique, which requires only one active hand most of the time, thus freeing a hand to turn the wheel. The great wheel is usually used to spin wool, and can only be used with fiber preparations that are suited to long-draw spinning. The great wheel is usually over 5 feet or 1.5 m in height. The large drive wheel turns the much smaller spindle assembly, with the spindle revolving many times for each turn of the drive wheel. The yarn is spun at an angle off the tip of the spindle, and is then stored on the spindle. To begin spinning on a great wheel, first a leader (a length of waste yarn) is tied onto the base of the spindle and spiraled up to the tip. Then the spinner overlaps a handful of fiber with the leader, holding both gently together with the left hand, and begins to slowly turn the drive wheel clockwise with the right hand, while simultaneously walking backward and drawing the fiber in the left hand away from the spindle at an angle. The left hand must control the tension on the wool to produce an even result. Once a sufficient amount of yarn has been made, the spinner turns the wheel backward a short distance to unwind the spiral on the spindle, then turns it clockwise again, and winds the newly made yarn onto the spindle, finishing the wind-on by spiralling back out to the tip again to make another draw.

b. Treadle wheel
This type of wheel is powered by the spinner’s foot rather than their hand or a motor. The spinner sits and pumps a foot treadle that turns the drive wheel via a crankshaft and a connecting rod. This leaves both hands free for drafting the fibers, which is necessary in the short draw hand spinning technique, which is often used on this type of wheel. The old-fashioned pointed distaff spindle is not a common feature of the treadle wheel. Instead, most modern wheels employ a flyer-and-bobbin system which twists the yarn and winds it onto a spool simultaneously. These wheels can be single- or double-treadle; which is a matter of preference and does not affect the operation of the wheel.

1. Double drive
A single-drive wheel with the drive band around flyer and brake on the bobbin. The double drive wheel is named after its drive band, which goes around the spinning wheel twice. The drive band turns the flyer, which is the horse-shoe shaped piece of wood surrounding the bobbin as well as the bobbin. Due to a difference in the size of the whorls (the round pieces or pulleys around which the drive band runs) the bobbin whorl, which has a smaller radius than the flyer whorl, turns slightly faster. Thus, both the flyer and bobbin rotate to twist the yarn, and the difference in speed continually winds the yarn onto the bobbin. Generally, the speed difference or “ratio” is adjusted by the size of the whorls and the tension of the drive band.

The drive band on the double drive wheel is generally made from a non-stretch yarn or twine; candlewick is also used.

2. Single drive
A single drive wheel has one drive band that goes around the fly-wheel and the bobbin or the flyer. Most of the drive bands for single drive wheels are made from synthetic cord, which is elastic and does not slip easily on the wheel.

While the spinner is making new yarn, the bobbin and the flyer turn in unison, but when the spinner wants to wind the yarn onto the bobbin, the bobbin or the flyer slows down and thus the yarn winds on. The one part slows down because of the brake band, which loops over that element. The tighter the brake band is, the more pull on the yarn, because the more friction the bobbin has to overcome in order to turn in sync with the flyer.

3. Castle style
When the spindle and flyer are located above the wheel, rather than off to one side, the wheel is said to be a castle wheel. This type of wheel is often more compact, thus easier to store. Some castle wheels are even made to fold up small enough that they fit in carry-on luggage at the airport.

Techniques of Hand Spinning

a. Drafting the Fiber
Drafting is pulling a small amount of fibers from a fiber supply to be twisted. The methods for drafting fiber will vary depending on the hand spinning technique being used. Choose one hand to hold the fiber (back hand) and the other hand to draft the fiber (front hand). The front hand drafts out the fiber and pinches it to keep the twist out of the draft zone. The draft zone is the unspun fiber in-between your two hands. Spin at a momentum that will allow you to keep the twist in front of your drafting hand and out of the draft zone. The size of the yarn is determined by how much fiber is drafted and twisted. Draft a small amount of fiber to spin a thin yarn, and a large amount of fiber to spin a bulky yarn.

handspinning techniques
Fig: Handspinning techniques

b. The Inch Worm Technique
This technique is one of the first techniques learned by a beginner, because it teaches the basic skills of hand spinning, namely drafting. Choose one hand to hold the fiber and the other hand to do the drafting. Begin treadling the wheel at a comfortable speed. With the drafting hand, pull out a small amount of fiber forward, toward the orifice, from the fiber hand. Pinch the fiber with the drafting hand until the twist stores up in the yarn in front of the drafting hand. Then release the yarn and slide the hand back and pull more fiber from the fiber hand and repeat the process. This is a good technique for spinning woolen yarns.

c. The Long Draw Technique
Here is one of several variations of this technique. Before using this technique, your fibers must be well carded and carefully prepared, so that the fibers draft easily. You hold and draft the fiber using one hand. As you treadle the wheel, gradually pull your hand back away from the orifice allowing the fibers to draft out. Keep the twist in front of the hand. After extending out to a comfortable position, allow an adaquent amount of twist to set in, move your hand forward and let the yarn wind onto the bobbin. This is a good technique for spinning a soft airy yarn.

d. The Worsted Technique
This technique is used for spinning strong durable yarns for projects such as warp for weaving and outer garments. The hand holding the fiber drafts backward away from the orifice while the other hand pinches the fiber to store the twist. Then you slide down the yarn with your thumb and index finger and press out the air trapped between the fibers.

e. Spinning from the Fold
Beginners may find it easier to spin from the fold when spinning slippery fibers, like angora and silk, instead of spinning from the end of the fiber. Fold a lock of fiber evenly over the forefinger of the back hand, and keep the ends tucked in the palm of the hand. Draw a few fibers from the center of the folded area, and make the join from this point. Continue drafting the fibers from the center of the lock.

You may also like:

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  3. Basic Concept of Yarn Manufacturing Process (Machine Flowchart)
  4. Machines of Cotton Yarn Manufacturing: Working Principle & Technical Data

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