How Long to Spin a Thread?

When I return from the 15th century I aim to do a series of posts on the criticisms I’ve seen about methods similar to what I’ve been developing. One of the most common ones is that ‘drop spindles spinning is faster than spinning with a distaff and spindle. They had to spin every piece of thread in every cloth so needed to use a fast method.’ There’s two statements here and while I’m equipped with research to deal with the latter (would they have used the faster method or not) but I’m not yet equipped to deal with the former (is drop spinning actually faster?)

This brings us to the question ‘just how long is a piece of string?’ Ok, not quite. But if I am to spin on a drop spindle, then to spin using a distaff and spindle I will spin faster with a distaff and spindle because I’m not practiced with a drop spindle. When a person who has been spinning with a drop spindle for years tries other methods they may be slower at those because they are practiced with drop spinning.

Other than taking someone who has been drop spindle spinning all their life and taking hem back to the 15th century in Europe and racing them against the women there, there are a few things we can do to help answer the question of which is faster and for this I need YOUR HELP! Yes, you! (assuming you can spin with a spindle!)

What I’m asking is for anyone who can spin on a spindle (any spindle!) to spin their default thread weight. Time yourself from the moment you start spinning that thread to the moment you finish winding that length of thread onto your spindle and are ready to start on the next thread again. You may like to time it several times and take an average or time yourself spinning several lengths of thread and divide that time by the number of thread lengths you made. Because, you know, how long is a piece of string, you’ll also need to work out the average length of thread you spin when you spin a length.

Now, it takes less time to spin a chunky thread than a really fine one, all other things being equal, because te fine thread needs more twist to hold it together. So there’s a few other factors involved. If you can provide some quantifying measures of the thickness of your thread this would be great. It could be wraps per inch, grams per metre, or whatever. Just state how you measured and the units you used. Again feel free to give averages or measure several different ways!

Then if you could please report back to me with:
What you’ve spun (fibre and the preparation)What tool/s you’ve used (such as what type of spindle)
The average length of your thread that you spin
How long it takes you to spin it
How thick is your thread.
How long you have been spinning for (In general as well as with this spindle/technique if there is a difference)

You can report back in a comment to this post, or feel free to make a blog post of your own about it! I’m sure the results will be interesting and useful to more than myself so feel free to share the experiment with the followers of your own blog. If you spin using several different techniques then this is a great chance to examine your own spinning and see which is faster, with which you produce a finer thread or anything you like.

I understand that there are still many variables I haven’t addressed but it is a good side better than me saying ‘well, I sure can’t spin this fast on a drop spindle!’

I shall be doing my time trials in the 15th century this weekend so I shall report on my results when I return!

I’ll be putting the raw data I collect on this blog so all I ask is that if you participate you’re happy for your numbers to be shared freeley– I don’t own this idea or the raw results so I’m not going to restrict who can see it!

Thank you to anyone who will help out and in the meantime, happy spinning to you all!


5 responses

  1. From an experimental point of view, you will get much more reliable results (i.e. more correct measurements from each individual) if you ask people to measure how long it takes to do, say, 10 lengths than if you ask people to measure how long it takes to do one length and repeat that measurement 10 times. (Of course, you’d get even better results if you asked them to measure the time it takes to make 10 lengths and then do that 10 times.)

    However, I fear your experiment has some confounding issues. Namely:

    1) To make a decent comparison, you need to everyone to use a proper reproduction European medieval spindle, with a correctly sized and weighted whorl and a correct length of spindle stick. The “drop spindle” style will do far better with a whorl which is fairly light and has a larger diameter with most of the weight at the edge (e.g. a biconcave shape vs. flat-convex or biconical). This shape gives a slower, longer spin, which gives you more time to draft before it starts spinning the wrong way. However, it does not seem to be the shape that is predominant in medieval European archaeological finds.

    2) “Easy” and “fast” are relative terms and totally depend on the conditions. For a modern woman, it is “easiest” to find a modern crafter and learn to spin from them. It is “easiest” to spin with the fibre in-hand or on a wrist distaff, as commercially prepared roving or hand-carded rolags are the two most commonly used fibre preparation methods. It is “easiest” to spin inch-worm and vertically, as nobody teaches long-draw spinning any more. It is “easiest” to forgo the distaff, as there is no problem with finding clean, dry, undisturbed places to put the fibre and they are usually working with small quantities. It is “easiest” to spin woolen or semi-worsted, making fairly fat, low-twist thread, as the end-product is generally intended for knitting and will almost always be plied so there is no need for fine, resilient, high-twist singles. Under these conditions, the modern woman may think that what she does is very fast.

    However, these conditions are completely irrelevant in terms of the “average” medieval woman. Remove the quiet, leisurely hobby atmosphere. Remove the clean, dry surroundings. Remove the concept that you can chose to just sit and dedicate time only to spinning. Remove the modern spindle and the commercially prepared roving or rolags and insert a medieval spindle and long, combed fibre which *you* likely had to wash, clean and prepare. Under those conditions, the in-hand method may well be easier and quicker. One thing in particular stands out – after only about 2 weeks, with 4 or 5 fairly short sessions, I managed to spin a tiny bit whilst walking. I don’t know anyone who can do that with the “drop spindle” method, even my friend who’s been spinning that way for nearly a decade.

    (P.S. I find that although the drawing-out-and-drafting stage of the spinning takes longer in-hand than dropped, the winding-back-on stage is quicker. I suspect the drawing stage will become quicker with practice. Also, I snap the thread less when spinning in-hand and when it snaps near the distaff I just take the broken end, put a bit of twist back in and wind it on, then re-join. If I did that when spinning dropped-style, I would have to discard the entire length between the hands and the half-hitch and I generally couldn’t get the discarded length unspun enough to re-card without a lot of effort. So, I find your method less wasteful too.)

  2. Ooh! Another excuse to turn a medieval-oid spindle! I still haven’t found much in the way of documentation for the shaft shape- I think I’m going to use a shape like a more slender version of a phang supported spindle, and then add a whorl in osage orange (osage being one of the heaviest American woods, and I don’t do pewter casting yet). The phang shape out of hard maple will be shaft-weighted for a fast spin, with the narrow tip for better RPM.

    The downside is I still haven’t figured out distaff/long draw. I can spin pretty fine on my big Turkish or bottom whorls (thoroughly modern method- big diameter, long spin, fiber wound around arm). But the only drafting method I can do reliably is inchworm.

    What I may do is recruit the friend who taught me to spin- give her the medieval spindle and ask her to do the comparisons…

  3. Just wanted to leave a note to say how happy I am to have found your blog! Being a reenactor (late 14th century Scandinavia/Northen Germany), I have also thought a lot about modern spindle spinning methods as opposed to what can be seen in the contemporary images. It has annoyed me a lot that I use a hand-held distaff when I spin at events, when no medieval depictions show that being used (that I know of, anyway. Only Roman and ancient Greek images depict hand-held distaffs). I’m learning to use a long distaff now (broom sticks are very useful for many things!) and it’s fun but frustrating. The result is a lot of unusable thread at the moment (I spin for weaving, and am a bit of a perfectionist), but like everything else, it’s just a matter of practice! Thank you for your work and the inspiration it has given me to take my hand spinning a step further backwards to a more medieval method of spinning!!!

  4. After much practice since this past spring, I now can spin an arm’s length of highly twisted fine thread, using the long draw, with naturally colored cotton whose fiber length is less than an inch, with my brass Indian takhli support spindle, in less than one minute. I began last spring using an antique French hand spindle but I now feel that a support spindle is much faster, at least for my cotton thread purposes. Wool yarn is a different ball game, but for cotton I need some way to spin maximum twist quickly. It’s possible to make thread on a hand spindle but it takes far more revolutions, which on my hands means more possibility for repetitive motion injuries. The takhli gives me maximum rotation for the least physical investment. (The thread is so fine that when triple-plied, it’s about the same diameter or slightly less as commercial 10/2 weaving cotton.)

    I enjoyed Panth’s comments above. I have a friend from Finland who regularly uses her drop spindle while out walking, generally in the woods with her dog. It’s simply a matter of practice. I prefer a support spindle myself because I can do it either standing or seated, in the open or in a car’s passenger seat, even on the thigh of my jeans with no need for for the almost-ubiquitous support cup that people think support spindles require. I view this range of motions and places as a real enabler of spinning anywhere I like.

  5. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on handspindle spinning. I spin iwth both drop spindle (especially if I must be walking or staffing demo tables) and in-the-hand, and with a distaff and with fibre around the wrist. I do prefer long-draw because it’s faster, more even, and easier on the body. Spinning is winning!

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