The scourge of the heavy “student spindle”

For the third time in as many weeks, on Saturday a would-be spinner told me of her woes trying to spin on a spindle. I diagnosed her problem: a way-too-heavy spindle.

I have been delighted recently to demo spinning and learn more about how to break down the steps and condense my tutorials down to get people spinning happily as quickly as possible.

I’ve learned that giving students the right tools can make this much faster and easier. I also do think the beauty of a spindle is part of the joy of the craft. I’m delighted to share handmade tools with beginners. I don’t think they should be relegated to using something brutally plain.

So why, please tell me, is the first spinning experience most people have (including me!) with ugly, heavy, lumbering spindles that take two twirls before they conk out?

Why so HEAVY?

I remember teaching someone spindle spinning at a show, and an hour later she came back with the dreaded Student Spindle. That brute is 85 grams? Apparently it’s not just Ashford, because Kromski also makes a heavy student spindle at 80 grams. It spins reluctantly, and the weight means it’s physically limited in the size of yarn it can spin.

Can someone explain this to me?? Great for plying, I guess? Yes, I wish they sold it as a plying spindle. Does anyone actually use this beast of a student spindle?  Even the “Maxi”plying  spindles sold by Bosworth top out at 56g. I assume it’s for making bulky yarns?

I think it’s a terrible shame to give learners such as HEAVY spindle. These heavy spindles seem to be the only spindle on offer when someone is looking for an inexpensive spindle to learn on. If a vendor is going to only carry a few spindles to help people get started, they will tend to veer towards the only “student spindle” option out there.

In fact it is the one that was sold to me on the first spinning workshop I went on.  I tried to spin when I got home without a teacher’s help, and I created some horribly over spun heavy yarn. It was awful and I didn’t touch spinning again until years later.

This great article on Knitty.com about selecting spindles gives a helpful table. They recommend you would spin a worsted weight yarn on a 70 gram spindle.  Making a worsted weight single is a challenge on its own. Mechanically this means you need to draft out more fibre to make your yarn. You need a thicker fibre supply. If you have a compacted hand-dyed fibre, then you can’t do much pre-drafting. From my experience a lighter weight spindle will mean you have to draft less fibre and you can use a looser fibre supply, and even do some pre-drafting.

I would say you want to stay in the range of 28-50 grams for a beginner spindle. This will be in the range of spinning fingering, sport and DK weight yarns.

Trying to save money?

OK I can understand if people want to give learners a chance to learning spinning without having to make a major investment. Paying £10 or so for a spindle *seems* better than buying a handmade spindle for £30. But to me, that is money wasted.

If the cost is the main issue, I think a much better student spindle is one made of materials lying about the house. Handmade and simple.

Don’t have a spindle but you have a pencil handy? Yes you can spin wool with a pencil. Abby Franquemont has proven you can pretty much spin wool with anything. But the mechanics of a spindle with a whorl makes spinning much faster and more efficient.

There are some great tutorials about making spindles. Such as with CD and a dowel or toy-wheel spindles in this Spin Off free guide on DIY spinning equipment. Though even these requires a trip to the hardware store.  (oh! here you can make a CD spindle without the grommets if you have some blu-tac!)

How about making one out of a door knob and a chopstick! Or just whip a turkish spindle together with some twigs! These homemade spindles show that you can spin with anything, and if someone is inspired they can see this can be done with a low-cost and easily with what they have lying around.

Affordable spindles

I’m so keen on getting people to spin, I’ve given away some of my spindles in the past. Now I need to get new ones specifically for teaching and demoing spindle spinning, and I want something affordable but still really beautiful.

You don’t have to get a gem-studded Golding spindle for over $150 USD. (Though if you’re trying to figure out what to get my for me birthday, the  “BLACK EYED SUSAN” would be lovely, thanks!) There are lots of really nice affordable spindles.

My search is focused on spindles in the UK. Woodland Turnery has hand-turned bottom (approx 45-60grms) and top whorl spindles (approx 30-50grms) for £13.95. Kevin Rhodes has a beginner spindle at 35-40g and it’s only £13.95. Most of Adelaide Walker’s spindles are under £20.

Luckily, the UK Spinners for sale board on Ravelry  has come through.  Buying secondhand equipment can save you about 10-25%. The nice thing is, if you keep your equipment in good condition it holds its value better than most things you buy!

I got a great deal on two Kerry spindles. Even still, brand new, they are great value. Look at this one, a beautiful wood, and a cool 30g for £20. I think that is a great spindle.

In a search on Etsy for sellers in the UK with spindles £25 and under I found several vendors. ThomasWoodandWool has a 40g hand turned beeswax finished spindle for £8.50.

You can also check out the UK Spindlers group on Ravelry for some good deals.

Find a special spindle

The best place to choose a special spindle would be at a fibre festival. Ideally you could hold the spindle in your hands to choose it.

Pro-tip: Make sure to check the vendors at the shows you’re thinking about attending. I was disappointed after trawling all over Edinburgh Yarn Fest that few vendors were selling spindles, and of course there were no specialist spindle makers. The spindles available were too heavy, poorly made or uninspiring mass produced spindles. (Nothing wrong with mass-produced, but I’m talking about finding that beautiful spindle.)  But EYF aren’t claiming to be a fibre fest per se, it’s more of a knitting fest with a few bits of other things.

So check and make sure you’re headed to a fibre fest!

I had the best experience at Fibre East with all the spindle vendors. I remember seeing these crafts people’s hands all gnarly from woodwork. They also let you have a go! I felt a bit shy about trying them, but Ian of IST encouraged me to give a tiny Turkish spindle a try. It went on spinning and spinning and spinning. And I fell in love. SOLD!

The Interweave Guide to choosing a drop spindle mentions the option of getting either a low or high whorl spindle. I’ve noticed some actually have both possibilities. With hooks to spin high-whorl and notches to spend low-whorl on the other end. To me that seems like the best option, since you won’t know until you try which suits you best. I really liked a high-whorl spindle when started, but now that I have the half-hitch down, I find it’s easier to slide my hand along the thread, and flick the top of the spindle.

However if you can’t try it in person stick to some tried and true highly recommended spindle makers:

Conclusion: Stop the spread of The Student Spindle

OK my rant is OVER. If you can explain to me why student spindles are so heavy, please enlighten me.

If you know of some great, affordable spindles, I’d also love to hear!

3 thoughts on “The scourge of the heavy “student spindle”

  1. Hey there… I have read your article and I so whole heartedly agree… I have an addiction to spindles and spinning equipment. I can not ever get enough. I am lucky as I have stumbled across some wood turners in my wool quests and these days I will let them know what I need (i.e. how heavy and top/bottom whorl or even Turkish (my favourite) I tell them the finish I want and pay postage as well and it suddenly appears on my door step. (“honey, another piece of wool paraphernalia has arrived for you”) and I am in my spinning element.
    thank you for stating the obvious and what needed to be stated – Spindles do not need to be heavy to Learn on and lets face it, if you find a pretty little thing… you are more eager to show it off in public to. there are some wonderful support spindles out there too which are great for learners as they are not so wound up (no pun intended) in trying to do too much at the one time. it is also less weight on the hands and you tire less often/

    Great article.!

    • Heh thanks for reading it! I would love to try support spindles. I always have the impression it’s for silk and very fine threads. But that must be wrong? I love my Turkish spindle too. It spins and spins and spins!

  2. Pingback: A simple spinning on a stick demo for shows | nearlythere

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