Crafty Magazine and Drop Spindles

31 October 2013

A drop spindle with some pastel-hued yarn wot I have made.
Huzzah! Another publication in print! In this instance it's a short piece in Crafty Magazine (Issue 7, p. 14).

Crafty Magazine, Issue 7. Turn to page 14...

... and ta da! There's my article.

The topic? The drop spindle classes that Rachael Matthews teaches at her shop, Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green.

Rachael Matthews

But what's a drop spindle? It's a pretty simple bit of kit that involves a couple of bits of wood and a hook or two. It turns fleece into yarn by a combination of gravity, rotation and a fair bit of hand-eye coordination. Here's a picture of a spindle doing its thing.

A drop spindle in action.
These beauties have been around for millenia and the yarn that women have produced has been woven, knitted and crocheted into all sorts of things.

On an aside, of course it's been women making the yarn. The drop spindle is the ideal thingamybob to pick up and put down in and amongst other responsibilities like children. Or cooking dinner. Or chatting with your chums. Or tending the sheep. It's about feel, technique and muscle memory rather than linear thought and intense focus. It's the perfect tool for a multitasker.

For the chaps who defined Antiquity, the drop spindle was probably not so useful a tool when out hunting things or doing battle with the neighbours. I mean, could you imagine Leonidas, king of Sparta - or even Gerard Butler for that matter - drafting a laceweight yarn in a manly way whilst glaring down the roaring hoards of yet another set of foes?

Nope. I didn't think so.

But back to the textiles made of these yarns. For centuries these textiles drove economies, created markets and forged transport networks that stretched across the Mediterranean world, Northern Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. And may even have been amongst the economic and political factors that caused the wars in which the chaps were too busy to be drop spindling. 

And imagine how these yarns helped define agricultural practices - "Whut? They want more woolly jumpers in a part of the Antique world that I've never heard of? We'd better farm a few more sheep then" - with the resulting effect upon landscapes and the environment.

However, shuffling on from scantily-clad and worryingly oiled-up chaps of Antiquity, let's hop along to the Medieval period. This was when someone clever in China or maybe Iran or Iraq got all technical and created the spinning wheel. The wheel resulted in a considerable speeding up of the spinning process, a leap in efficiency that wouldn't find compare until the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the Spinning Jenny.

The Spinning Wheel. A technological leap in the production of yarn and a useful narrative tool for many a fairy tale.
From 1764 onwards spinning became more and more of a hobby with yarn and textile production turning into the preserve of factory production lines. The craft faded but was not entirely snuffed out. Today cool, hip groovy and arty types like Rachael are leading a revival. Look around and you'll find the most amazing range of dyed fleeces - have a peep at Porpoise Fur for some magnificent neon combos - to create bespoke yarns in any weight you desire. There's also something very therapeutic about the spinning wheel, for both body and soul. I'm not sure if it's the whirring of the wheel, the rhythm of your foot combined with the teasing out of the fleece but when it all comes together, you quickly find yourself reaching a meditative and contemplative space.

Oh, and you're making something. Which is always satisfying.

What is interesting is that spinners today encourage beginners to get to grips with a drop spindle first. If you can tease out the fleece - a technique known as "the draft" - at a decent enough pace to keep up with your rotating spindle and create an even yarn then you're set for a real spinning wheel.

So, a pretty simple bit of kit. But with profound economic and social impact.

Simple bit of kit. Profound implications for humanity.
The more I write about this woolly, textiley malarky the more worried I get that someday I might have to write another thesis about it all. A very interdisciplinary one that includes art, history, economics, development, agriculture, gender and social studies.

Yea gods.

On the plus side, there would be a lot of pretty pictures. So that's nice.

A spectrum of the yarns that Rachael and her colleagues spin on site at Prick Your Finger.

(Images: Zoë F. Willis, Crafty Magazine)

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