snàth handspun yarns and handknits

unique yarns and handknits, made with traditional skills

Spinning a yarn…

The earliest known spun fibre yarns were made from vegetable fibres such as nettle and flax.  These have been found by archaeologists, preserved from ancient times.   The fibres had been twisted for strength by hand or by using a spindle.  Early spindles were simple sticks, inserted through a hole in a whorl, a circular disc of stone, bone or later pottery or in Medieval times, cast in lead.   The whorl is basically a weight, maintaining momentum when the stick is twirled, so increasing the twist in the fibre.  Beautifully made Bronze Age spindles with carved stone whorls  have been found during archaeological excavations in the Orkney islands and elsewhere in the UK.

Buckquoy spindle whorl

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Buckquoy spindle-whorl is a famous spindle-whorl dating from probably the 8th century, excavated in 1970 in the Orkney Buckquoy,   Made of sandy limestone, it is about 36 mm in diameter and 10 mm thick.  It bears an ogham inscription.   In 1995 historian Katherine Forsyth reading    ENDDACTANIM(f/lb)  claimed that it was a standard Old Irish ogham benediction, Benddact anim L. meaning “a blessing on the soul of L.”.  The stone from which the whorl was made, and on which the inscription was written, is likely to have originated in Orkney.

As a fellow  spinner, although learning of this spindle whorl many centuries later, I find the thought very moving; that someone either carved the inscription on a whorl for a spinner or else a spinner had the whorl inscribed in thought or remembrance of a loved one.  Tibetan prayer wheels come to mind, as although spinning thread and yarn with a spindle is a thoroughly practical occupation,  the sometimes mesmeric whirling of a spindle is not without its reflections in other activities.

September 2013

During the summer  and autumn 2013 I led several workshop afternoons in our local Gaelic language centre, Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle, teaching beginning spinners.  Some of the participants had some experience of working with yarns and fibre or were already accomplished knitters, and one young woman is a textile (weaving) student at Glasgow School of Art.  Teaching has been a learning process too, thinking carefully through the whole process of fibre preparation and handspinning with spindle and wheel.  Although spinning is essentially a simple technology, there’s definitely a ‘knack’ to it and it’s necessary to first explain and describe the steps we would be working through, and methodically show that there are reasons for doing the action in a particular way.

At the workshops we started with a brief discussion about why people want to learn to spin their own handspun yarns.  It has been useful to think about why anyone living in this once-industrialised country where commercially produced yarns and clothing are readily, often cheaply available, would want to take up handspinning.

My explanation is on two levels;  that it’s always worth keeping traditional handwork skills alive as part of our heritage and traditions, and that being able to make warm garments from raw materials could yet be useful at some time.  But the main reason is that by handspinning our fibres into yarns we can make our own special yarns for knitting or weaving, so that they are, after some practice, made exactly as we would like them.   The fibres, colours and textures can all be chosen individually or blended in combinations.  We can create anything that we can imagine.  In this creative process, we are making yarns to express our ideas and our skills.

21 November 2014

Yesterday I spun my first small sample of laceweight yarn.  I used Elizabeth Lovick (Northernlace) of Orkney’s workbook for directions, as I don’t know anyone who spins laceweight and for a couple of years I’d been meaning to try it.

The first task was to get some fleece, and last summer I bought a fine Shetland fleece (or maybe two!) from Jamieson & Smith Woolbrokers in Shetland, a white fleece and a grey one.  To start with, some even-looking locks were separated from the fleece;

P1030416 Some black Shetland wool top was needed too…and then my tools that might be    needed were gathered together ready to prepare the fleece locks


I prepped the fleece locks using first the coarse black bone comb, then the purple, finer comb.  There was more short fibres and waste combed out than had been expected, but the fibre that was left was lovely and smooth and even so ready to spin, along with some of the black for a marker to show up the twist.

P1030420My Haldane Shetland spinning wheel;

P1030418   Now, time to try spinning the single.  As the fiibre had       been well prepared, spinning evenly came more easily than I had thought it would.


When a length of single was spun, I drew it off the bobbin then plyed it back on itself.  After this, the short sample yarn was skeined off ready to wash.  The black fibre shows up the twist quite well.  It might have been good to ply with a bit more twist?

P1030424  Here’s a pic of the finished, washed laceweight yarn, compared with a sample of J&S 2ply laceweight yarn.  The next challenge will be to try spinning more than a sample of a couple of metres, keeping the yarn even over a full sized skein!

P1030425And it worked!  My photos of several finished laceweight skeins are in another laptop, and I’ll be sure to share them soon.


2 comments on “Spinning a yarn…

  1. Kharis
    April 2, 2016

    Yay! real Shetland fleece from Jamieson & Smith, and a Shetland Spinny!

    • susanwriting
      April 2, 2016

      Thank you so much for your kind comment.
      I love spinning Shetland fleece and Shetland wool tops, both sourced from Jamieson & Smith. Real Shetland from the Shetland islands is much the best of its breed available, as the sheep have been kept in the native environment for which they were bred. It’s surprising how much difference it makes.

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