Yesterday was a play day. I spent most of the day with members of the Meridian Jacobs Spinzilla team, learning about production spinning from Stephenie Gaustad. I am so glad they let me crash the party as a rogue spinner. I learned many things, but what I want to share with you all today is my new-found love for the weirdo fiber that we started off with: Herdwick.

I’d been reading about these guys in this paper, which has the best opening lines of any academic paper ever: “It is a sheep. You can see the photo.” Plus, the Herdwick pictured in the Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook is the darn cutest sheep you’ve ever seen in your life. I mean, I don’t know anything about your life, but this is objectively the cutest sheep in it.

singles on the bobbin
singles on the bobbin
2-ply on the niddy
2-ply on the niddy

I spun my lil’ Herdwick sample in my usual semi-worsted draft, which really highlighted the crazy kempiness. I think I was also spinning from the wrong end of the sliver, so the kempy bits were basically sticking straight out of the main line of the yarn. The pictures definitely show how hairy it is, but don’t really convey how charming it is, too. The kempy bits are crimped in this way that makes the yarn look like some kind of novelty confetti yarn or something. I think next time I might ply it with something else to highlight the novelty effect.

So it’s obviously not next-to-skin wear. It shed a lot (a LOT) while I was spinning it, so I’m a little worried that it will continue to make a big mess wherever it goes, in whatever form it eventually takes. I’m thinking to weave a little mason jar cozy…

no ideas but in things

Yeah, yeah, I know you had to write a 3-paragraph essay on that one in high school too. And you may, like me, have forgotten the exact wording of it and had to look up again whether it was Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams who came up with it. (Hint: it was the good doctor.)

But it’s also probably the best slogan I could hope for the kind of materially grounded theoretical framework I’m playing around with (hang on to your hats, it’s gonna get a lot weirder around the place from here on out).

And it’s a good spur for me to have more things on this blog. I don’t mean posting more (although I hope to) but I mean really celebrating the thingness of all the things that go into fiber arts. This will be difficult since this is, after all, a blog. It’s by definition abstract and immaterial and wordy. But just imagine you’ve come to hang out in my living room, and we’re sipping our tea, and all of a sudden I jump up from the couch and yell, “Oh! I have to show you this!” and run off down the hall to rummage through the insane den of textilic mayhem that I call my “bedroom.” And I come out triumphant, and proudly place into your hands…


…a nøstepinne. (With inexpertly wound center-pull ball of extremely overspun cotton singles.) This one came from Trif’s Turnings, the woodturner who always shows up at Lambtown with an ever-expanding array of handmade spinning tools. A couple years ago I took a lathe class in the hopes of turning my own spindles, but, uh, no. So I’m quite happy to support someone else who wants to make such lovely toys for us fiber freaks.

Shopping for a nøstepinne is the next best thing to finding yourself in Ollivander’s. No unicorn tail or powdered dragon toenails, but all different woods and weights and you really just have to play with each one and see how it twirls to know that yes, this is the Right One. And yes, I realize that I basically paid good money for a stick, but it’s a really nice stick, and a definite step up from the empty toilet paper roll I usually resort to.

Better Isn’t Always Better

(Danger Will Robinson, it’s about to get all post-colonial1 feminist up in here.)

So the Heifer International catalog came in the mail, and as I was idly flipping through the pages I stopped at this picture:


My first thought was, I bet those ladies are total badasses on the spindle and don’t need those newfangled contraptions anyhow. And sure enough, when I looked closer, I noticed one of the ladies in the back row looking on, spindle in hand. The caption and accompanying article assert that the spinning machines produce better quality yarn and faster than spindles. I call bullshit.

Abby Franquemont2, a spinner who grew up in the Andes mountains in Peru (and started spinning at age 5, woefully late compared to her peers), argues that the idea that wheels are faster than spindles is an artifact of Western/Northern/First World/One-Thirds World3 spinners mostly learning later in life. You can get up and going to production level on a wheel pretty quickly. A spindle takes more practice, but Franquemont says that a spindler who’s been trained since early childhood can put out just as much yarn as a wheel-spinner. I believe it, having seen a support spindler in the Himalayas whirl through a bump of fiber in the blink of an eye. I’m willing to bet it’s also true of the spinners in the cooperative the article describes, who live in…the Andes mountains in Peru.

Beyond just the speed of the tool, there’s also how it fits into the life of the spinner. For one thing, the article follows one spinner who lives without electricity in her home. So, how is she going to use an electric spinning machine? Will she have to do all her spinning at the workshop, which the article describes as being a 5-hour commute for another cooperative member? How is that faster than a tool that fits into the rest of her daily life, that she can use for a few minutes at a time in between other tasks or even while she attends to other tasks? A tool that, if it breaks, is simple to fix and replace, and cheap enough to have multiple lying around?

In Himachal, I saw spinners squatting by the side of the road with their takli while they watched the livestock they had brought out to graze, and out in the middle of the snow park while they waited for tourists to buy roasted corn. That’s not gonna happen with an e-spinner, or even a treadle wheel. A portable wheel is still pretty substantial (I’ve ridden my bike with mine strapped to my back, but only a mile on flat, well-paved roads, and even that was dicey) and requires a flat, clean, hard surface to sit on (not necessarily so easy to find in a rural mountain setting), not to mention a chair for the spinner to sit on. A spindle, on the other hand, can be tucked into any convenient fold in one’s clothing, and drop spindling while walking is not quite a piece of cake but pretty close.

I also wonder about how this Peruvian wheel-spun yarn is “better” than the spindle-spun. The article talks about improving alpaca breeding for softer fiber (I’ll save the softer-isn’t-always-better rant for another day; this is already getting long enough). And one spinner demonstrates how easy it is to make both thin and thick yarn on the e-spinner. Ok, news flash: you can make thick yarn on a spindle, too. These ladies don’t because it’s not valued in their society4; it’s not “good yarn” to them, only to the Western etc. consumers who want bulky knit hats.

Now, this isn’t meant to be an anti-wheel screed. I love my wheel, and have even decided that spinning on it is a crucial part of my writing process for grad school (although in jotting down this little thing, I’ve decided to go with the top-whorl drop in solidarity). I’m not even against e-spinners, if that’s your thing, although I have to say I don’t personally see the point. But I want to push back against this idea that more is better, that fast is better, that mechanized is better.

Perhaps some of those women are choosing to adopt the e-spinner, and more power to them (literally, ’cause you have to plug those things in). But it’s not exactly a free choice. It may be required or encouraged in order to work with a particular organization. In Himachal, I met a man running a hand-made textile business, who was very proud of having introduced treadle wheels to his employees. When we asked if many of the women had switched to wheels, he answered, “the smart ones did.” I sincerely hope that women who choose to stick with the spindle don’t end up labeled as lazy or stupid, or lose out on opportunities because they don’t conform to the ideas of some outsider, no matter how well intentioned.

1Apparently, pomo is so last-time-I-was-in-college. It’s all poco these days.

2Franquemont 2009, Respect the Spindle. Read it, people.

3It’s Choose-Your-Own-Hegemony!

4Abby Franquemont talks about this, and it mirrors my experience in India as well.

Wading Through the Tacky in Search of the Takli

It’s “season” now, and the hippies have arrived in force. There’s a group of Russians here to learn yoga, and always a lot of people at and around the castle (one of the attractions in this village, and pretty close to the house where I’m staying). I’ve been trying to stay out of all that mess, but the other day went along on a sightseeing day trip to Vashisht and Manali.

It. Was. So. Touristy. Outside the temples there were all these guys hanging around selling jars of saffron, and old ladies in pattu trying to get you to hold their angora rabbits and take a picture. Old Manali looked like any little hippie enclave in NorCal or Oregon–a cafe with murals of Bob Dylan, shop after shop of patchwork satchels with big OMs embroidered on them. Mall Road was more mainstream touristy, with sidewalk vendors selling wooden keychains with your name carved on it and every shop selling the same array of mass-produced shawls.

Since learning to spin the other day, Padmini has become obsessed. She was determined that somewhere in this sea of tacky we would find a place selling takli. Of course we thought, what kind of shop would carry such a thing? At one point we were in a shop full of knitted and felted doodads, and I noticed a takli in the display counter. I asked the guy if I could see it, and he took it out for me. The thing was huge, at least a foot long. I twirled it in my fingers to see how it spun, and he started to explain to me what it’s used for. “I know,” I said. “I’m a spinner. We want to buy them. Do you have any more?” No, he didn’t, he just had the one for display, but he pointed us to where we could find them for sale. So off we went, out of the main market, next to the bus stand, up the steps, where we found a few women sitting around knitting and a whole bunch of empty metal frames for small sales stands. We thought we must not be in the right place, so we went back down and inquired at some of the nearby shops, where they pointed us right back up the steps. We went back up and Padmini asked one of the women, who (as usual) at first didn’t understand our request and then expressed disbelief that city folk like us (let alone a foreigner like me) would know how to spin. Alas, the shop was closed that day. We retreated to the relative peace of Naggar, and Padmini’s husband told us he had seen piles of takli in Kullu market.

So the next day we got on the bus to Kullu. The bus did not disappoint, with beaded fringe and tassels across the front window, Hindi music blasting, and a pigeon hanging out next to the driver the whole time. We veeery sloooowly bumped along the 20 km to the end of the line.

There, right by the entrance to the market, we found a no-name hardware and weaving supply store. Sure enough, right up front were two boxes full of roughly carved but functional takli. We sat there spinning them on our palms to find the ones with the best balance and fastest spin. I also picked up some string heddles and reeds to set up a little backstrap weaving, and as we ran back to catch the last bus we found a little pick-axe to help dig up roots for our natural dye experiments. That’s my kind of shopping spree.

Support Spindle Tech Support

The other day a couple of the village women came over for a master class on the takli. I wasn’t actually their main student, but I learned a lot about spindle physics and got some good pointers about improving my technique. For one thing, I realized that my fancy expensive Tibetan spindle is actually not as good as a plain little 10-rupee takli–the whorl is fairly heavy and wide, which makes it spin more slowly. As primarily a drop spindler, I was enchanted by the Tibetan’s ability to spin for days. But you spin the takli in short bursts, so a long spin is completely irrelevant. Speed, however, is crucial. After watching me for a while, Nirmala and Kusum commented on how thick my yarn was (nobody ever says that!) because of the slow spin. Nirmala also showed me how to flick the spindle right at the tip to get a faster spin, and how to hold the fiber between my first and second fingers, using my thumb and third finger to pull excess fiber out of the drafting triangle. It will take me a while to get the hang of it. When they first arrived I had been spinning some sari silk on my drop spindle. At the end of the lesson, Nirmala asked which was faster–the drop or the takli. I had to admit that they can spin much faster than me…


Will I ever be this badass?
Will I ever be this badass?

Spindle Envy

When we woke yesterday morning, we saw there had been fresh snowfall in the night, quite a bit further down the mountains. So in the afternoon we bundled up and headed towards Rohtang. We pulled off the road and played around in a snowy field until the snow started falling in earnest again—then it was time to make our way back down before the road became too dangerous. While we were driving, some women who are interested in knitting for Nisha’s project called to invite her/us to dinner. Which meant, as these sorts of things do, sitting around a tandoor while everybody is talking around me in languages I don’t understand (if I have enough context, I can usually catch a bit of the conversation in Hindi, but when the locals are all gossiping in Kulluvi, forget it). Luckily I’ve figured out to always have a project with me, so I pulled out my drop spindle and got to work. I have to say, in the last few days since I lent my Tibetan spindle to Tripura I’ve been experiencing spindle envy—the ladies are SO FAST on the takli, and the drop, while handy for spinning while on the move, is not exactly suited to spinning while sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion. But everyone here is fascinated by the drop spindle—apparently even though we saw them in other areas, right here in this neck of the woods it’s not so common and is considered quite difficult.

Before dinner, of our hosts had to go outside to get something, so she put on a pattu over her clothes before heading out into the rain and cold. The pattu is this plaid woven rectangle that women wear here, wrapped in a manner sort of half-way between a great kilt and a peplos. It’s secured at the shoulders with 2 pins connected by a chain. (Sorry to go so fiber nerdy here, but I’m fascinated by the ways people figure out to make a rectangle of cloth fit around a lumpy human body). After dinner we found out that she had woven it herself, and then she went to the cabinet and pulled out pattu after pattu that she had woven, some with handspun wool. They had a variety of twill grounds, and elaborately patterned borders similar to the designs we had seen in Kinnaur. So beautiful! She said that she makes them as gifts for weddings, and only wears this “everyday” one herself (which was still some pretty badass weaving, just sayin’).

As the Whorl Turns

This morning I was working on one of my interminable spinning projects—some naturally dyed merino I bought a couple years ago and have been slowly converting to frog hair ever since. Ranbir decided he wanted to try, so I got him going on Nisha’s spindle. He had a bit of difficulty because it’s quite a heavy spindle, and the wool he was using has a fairly short staple. Eventually he flipped the spindle over to use as a takli, which he had learned a bit as a child. He and Brighu were surprised that we use the same name in English.

Later a “sister” stopped by for a visit and admired the wool I had. I handed it over so she could examine it more closely. She looked at my top-whorl spindle, made some comment about the hook (in the local language, so I could only guess from her gestures), and then also flipped it over and started spinning. I have noticed that the ladies here seem to think nothing of taking whatever I am working on and trying a bit themselves. I brought out my support spindle, and we both sat and spun for a bit.

In the afternoon Tripura decided she wanted to try, and by the end of the day had a nice fat copp wound on. Shabash, Tripura!


Chai. Tandoor. Takli. What more could you want? कुछ नहीं.
Chai. Tandoor. Takli. What more could you want? कुछ नहीं.

Cotton, aka “Tiny Lambs”


So, I’m auditing a class on informal learning, and our first written assignment was to learn something and write about it. I decided to learn to spin cotton on my support spindle (which, despite being a “Tibetan” spindle, looks nothing like anything I saw folks using when I was basically next door to Tibet). I had some cotton bolls that a friend had collected from the university research fields when she was out there for a pest management class. Borrowed some cotton cards from a different friend, and away we go. I was expecting the carding and rolling punis to be the easiest part, since it’s basically the same as carding wool and making rolags. I thought drafting would be tricky, because I am used to two-handed drafting and would have to retrain myself to do it one-handed. I was so wrong. Rolling the punis was trickier than I expected, and clearly the most crucial step of the process- the ones that I rolled well just drafted out all on their own like a dream, and the sloppier ones were much more difficult to manage. While reading up on cotton processing, I saw a couple mentions of a traditional Indian method of using a bow (like bow-and-arrow) to fluff the fiber and roll the punis. What?! But I can’t find any more specific information about how to do it. Grrr…and, another excuse to go back…

And then there’s plying. I realized I had absolutely no idea about plying on a support spindle. I looked up some videos on Youtube, and can I say, people, PLEASE. Let’s get some better instructional videos up there! Here were problems I had with every video I found:

1. The camera was opposite the spinner, thereby requiring me to mentally flip everything I saw. Maybe somehow position it behind you looking over your shoulder, or use a head-mounted thingy? I have seen knitting videos with a head-cam, and they’re great.

2. The camera was focused on the spindle, which had a couple consequences:

(a) The people appeared as headless torsos. It was a little weird.

(b) The hand manipulating the fiber was off-screen, so I was missing out on half the work that was happening.

3. They all started working from a wound ball of singles, so I couldn’t see how they went from the copp on the spindle to whatever they were drafting from for plying. Which seemed like an important intermediary step, and one that I didn’t do so well on my own.

So I muddled through, wound my singles into a sloppy center-pull ball (gotta work on my nostepinne skillz) and plied ’em up. They kept getting a bit snarled and also broke a few times because I didn’t put in enough twist. Eventually things got so knotty that I just decided to cut my losses (literally, and by literally I mean literally, folks). But I do have a teeny little bit of highly uneven, fragile handspun cotton yarn!


3 Bags Full (and then some)

Well, I’ve broken myself of the habit of only spinning frog-hair, and have approximately 2 pounds of bulky alpaca yarn to get busy turning into a sweater. Although a friend did come over the other day while I was plying the last bit, and asked, “Is that your bulky yarn?” Yes. Yes it is. I’m knitting it on size 10 needles, thank you very much.

So now that I’ve realized that I can in fact control my spinning, it’s time to experiment. I’m planning on tackling my stash slightly less haphazardly than usual, exploring the characteristics of the different types of fiber I’ve been stockpiling. Including…

Wool: Border Leister, Churro, East Friesian lamb, mystery sheep, Rambouillet, Shetland, Suffolk, Wensleydale.

Other critters: alpaca, angora, mohair, yak.

Silk gets its own category: caps, cocoons, Bombyx top, Tussah top.

Plants: coconut husk, cotton (roving and bolls), flax, hemp.

I decided to start with the Wensleydale, which I have in the form of batts rescued from a free pile. Fellow thrifty spinsters take note: if you find batts of Wensleydale in the free pile, it’s there for a reason. This stuff is sticky, chaffy, and full of 2nd cuts. It’s not very evenly carded, so there are fluffy sections that draft out like a dream, and then big wads of locks all gummed up together. Yet, for some reason, I persist in trying to spin it. I split it in half and am spinning one half as close to worsted as I can manage, and will do the other half woolen. My idea was to compare different drafting techniques applied to the same fiber preparation, but so far the take-home from this one is: don’t spin yucky fiber.