Drop-spindle spinning is a great way to make yarn. Two experts on spinning with a drop spindle, Maggie Casey and Abby Franquemont, have created great resources to help you learn how to handspin yarn and how to spin with a drop spindle in particular.
Here are basic drop-spindle spinning instructions from “Spindle Spinning” by Maggie Casey (from the Summer 2005 issue of Spin Off) and “High Whorl, Low Whorl” by Abby Franquemont (from the pages of the Spring 2009 issue of Spin Off) to help you get started:
Choosing a Drop Spindle
“Your first drop spindle should weigh 2 to 3 ounces. Many beautiful lighter-weight spindles are available, but wait before you try one, because a medium-weight or heavier spindle will spin longer while you learn to draft out the fibers. Don’t choose one that is too heavy, however, or you will learn why they are called drop spindles. A well-balanced spindle is a delight, so check to see how well yours spins—tie on some yarn and give it a clockwise twist. The spindle should turn smoothly without a lot of wobble and continue to spin for some time,” says Maggie.
“Low-whorl spindles, with the weight at the bottom, have a low center of gravity and are more stable as a result. They tend to be forgiving of minor flaws in balance or shaping, so they’re easier to make. A heavy low-whorl spindle will spin better than a heavy high-whorl. A low-whorl spindle may or may not have a hook, notch, or other device to assist with keeping the spun yarn secured to the spindle while you spin the next length. If there is no notch or hook, a half-hitch knot is used to secure the stored yarn. The cop (the yarn you’ve already spun and wound on the spindle shaft) is stored above the whorl, either snug against it or just farther up the shaft. Low-whorl spindles are most commonly set in motion with a finger flick, meaning you need only a small amount of shaft to grip to get it started and can pack a lot of spun yarn onto the spindle,” says Abby.
A trio of low-whorl spindles. Photo by Joe Coca
Abby also says, “High-whorl spindles have the weight at the top. Extremely light high-whorl spindles tend to spin better than extremely light low-whorl spindles. Build the cop (the mass of yarn wound onto the shaft after it is spun) as close as possible to the whorl. High-whorl spindles get more top-heavy as they fill, with the spinning motion becoming irregular sooner than when spinning on a low-whorl spindle. Cops are also at somewhat greater risk of becoming unstable or slipping off a high-whorl spindle, meaning care must be taken when winding a cop. High-whorl spindles are often set in motion with a rolling movement. The shaft of the high-whorl spindle is commonly rolled up or down the thigh to set the spindle spinning; this requires a greater length of shaft without yarn wound onto it. As a result, high-whorl spindles generally don’t hold as much yarn in a single cop as low-whorl spindles do.”
A trio of high-whorl spindles. Photo by George Boe
Other Drop-Spindle Spinning Characteristics
“Regardless of whorl placement, a major factor in spindle performance is whether it is rim-weighted (with weight concentrated to the outside of the whorl) or center-weighted (with weight concentrated toward the shaft).
“A rim-weighted spindle will tend to spin longer, but at a slower speed; a center-weighted spindle will tend to spin at a faster speed, but not for as long duration, and with greater variation of speed. If you want a spindle that spins fast—for fine spinning or for short-staple fibers such as cotton or animal downs—choose a center-weighted spindle. If you want a spindle that spins slower, but for a long time so you can spin thick yarn or spin very long lengths of yarn before winding on, you might prefer a rim-weighted spindle.
“If you want a very light spindle, a top-whorl spindle is probably going to perform better than a low-whorl spindle. If you’re figuring out how to make a drop spindle, a low-whorl spindle will probably be easier to make and get good performance from than a high-whorl spindle. If you want to pack lots of yarn onto a spindle, a low-whorl spindle is an excellent choice,” explains Abby.
Rim-weighted spindles from Golding Fiber Tools. Photo by Debbie Held
How to Use a Drop Spindle
Before using a drop spindle, practice drafting out the fibers. Take a handful of wool in one hand and with the other hand, gently pull some of the fibers away from the mass and then add some twist by twisting the fibers in one direction between your fingers. This is the essence of spinning—drawing out the fibers and adding twist until you have created a stable yarn. Continue to pull out the fibers (drafting) and add more twist. If you don’t have enough twist, the yarn will fall apart. If you have too much twist, you won’t be able to draw out the fibers from the drafting triangle. Spend a few minutes drafting out the fibers and adding twist—you will need to be able to maintain a comfortable rhythm when you start drop spindle spinning.
Take a piece of plied wool yarn about 18 inches long and tie it onto the spindle shaft as your leader. Top-whorl spindle: Tie the leader under the whorl, bring the leader up and over the whorl, and catch it with the hook. Bottom-whorl spindle: Tie the leader above the whorl and then spiral the yarn up the spindle shaft. If your spindle has a hook rather than a groove, catch the yarn with it and you are ready to go. If you have a groove, you will have to make a half-hitch knot to hold the yarn to the spindle.
Start practicing with the spindle. Remember that most singles yarns are spun clockwise (to the right). Most spinners hold the fiber in the left hand and the spindle in the right hand, but try both ways and see which feels comfortable to you. Hold the leader in one hand and with the other hand, give the spindle a twist. Practice until you can get the spindle to turn smoothly.
Once you are comfortable drafting out the fibers and twisting the spindle, put these actions together. Start by sitting down, because your lap will be a valuable tool.
Maggie demonstrating steps to drop spindle spinning. Photos by Joe Coca
Before you start to spin, fluff out the end of the leader. With one hand, hold a handful of fiber and the leader together. With the other hand, twist the spindle clockwise. Watch the twist run up the leader and grab the fibers in your hand. You’ve just made a join. (You will do the same when you need to add more fiber to your spun yarn.)
After you have made the join, twist the spindle and then stop it between your knees so it can’t go backward. Slide your twisting hand above the spindle, pinch the leader, and draft out some fibers. Pinching the yarn keeps the twist from running up into the fiber source. The twisting/pinching hand keeps the twist under control while the fiber hand drafts out the fibers to the correct size. Once the yarn is the right size, open up the pinching hand and let the twist run up and stabilize the fibers you have just drafted.
Continue to twist the spindle, stop it in your lap by holding the shaft between your knees, pinch, and draft. You determine the size of the yarn by how much you pull the fibers out. A few fibers make a fine yarn; many fibers add bulk. If too much twist gets into the fiber, slide your fiber hand back a little, untwist the yarn in the opposite direction it was spun, and draft out more fiber before allowing the twist to move back into the yarn.
When the yarn is longer than your arm, it’s time to wind it onto the spindle. Keeping the yarn taut, wind it on the spindle clockwise and make a cone under the whorl on a top whorl and an upside-down cone on top of the bottom whorl. The neater you wind the yarn, the easier it will be to remove from the spindle.
After you feel comfortable spinning the spindle and stopping it on your lap, it is time to spin with the spindle suspended in the air. Continue to draft the fibers out the same way, but instead of stopping the spindle in your lap, let it keep spinning. When it stops of its own accord and starts to twist counterclockwise, add more clockwise twist. If the spindle keeps going backward, the twist will come out of the yarn, it will turn it back into fluff, and the spindle will drop.
Soon you will have a spindle full of yarn. Now you can wind the yarn off the spindle and into a ball or skein.
Best of luck learning about drop spindle spinning!
Want to learn more with Maggie? Check out her videos here.
Orignally published May 7, 2019; updated June 22, 2022.