Like many folks, I learned to spin on a heavy “boat anchor” low-whorl spindle. As I continued learning about spinning and trying different weights and styles of spindles, I found that I still loved low-whorl styles the best—but with lighter weights than that first spindle. They are what I always reach for when picking up a new spindle-spinning project. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy and use high- and mid-whorl spindles (though I am willing to say I reach least for cross-arm spindles), but I find that low-whorl spindles work best for me. They allow me to spin in the broadest of situations with the least fatigue to my wrists, fingers, and shoulders.
Plain & Simple
My preferred low-whorl spindle is the plainest possible—no hook or spiral at the tip to secure the yarn, no special or fancy wood, just a plain, workaday tool. The pushka, an Andean handspindle, is my favorite, and I am lucky to have several. They are made from lightweight eucalyptus wood and have simple turned whorls and rough shafts. I make a similar spindle using dowels and wooden toy wheels for my beginning spinning students and occasionally use one of these myself. They are cheap, easy to make, and easy to use. I don’t worry about losing or breaking them or giving them away.
There are many types of low-whorl spindles, but I prefer those with a plain shaft because I find that a hook or other mechanism for securing the yarn actually slows me down. A simple half hitch, once you have practiced it and gotten used to it, secures the yarn just as well as, if not better than, a more complicated solution. A half hitch becomes second nature, and it can be secured on a plain shaft without looking; this method does not take my attention away from anything else I am doing. (If I am using a spindle with a hook on the tip, I generally have to glance to make sure I am securing the yarn well and that it is catching properly.) I can tuck this simple spindle away in a bag or basket without worrying it will catch on anything, unlike some spindles that might be more easily damaged, bent, or chipped.
I like to spin whenever I can, and I find a low-whorl spindle the most versatile. I love spinning while walking, and I can do this most easily with a low whorl. Top-whorl spindles are incredibly useful, and I appreciate the high rotation speed I can get from a thigh roll (setting the spindle in motion by rolling down the thigh). However, I spin with production in mind and find it annoying to either bend slightly or raise my leg to do a thigh roll as I walk. (You can use a thigh roll on a low-whorl spindle, too, by the way.)
I find spinning with a high whorl without using the thigh-roll method hard on my hands. It is much easier for me to set a low-whorl spindle in motion with a snapping motion at the top of the spindle, palm facing down, than to twist a high-whorl at the bottom of the shaft with my palm facing up.
Low-whorl spindles can also be used as supported spindles, which adds to their versatility. Simply by resting them on the floor, my leg, a bowl, whatever I have at hand, I can use my drop spindle as a supported spindle. I most often use this technique either to draft a gossamer thread supporting the weight of a spindle or to cram the last bit of fiber onto a spindle that has gotten too heavy to use comfortably. The latter is not recommended, but it happens occasionally.
Plying with a low-whorl spindle is a joy. Andean spinners often use a roll between the palms to get a plying spindle moving speedily, which makes it much faster to ply singles that are very fine, high-twist, or both. I learned to ply this way from Abby Franquemont. I only ply with a low-whorl spindle, as I find this the most efficient method of plying. And I have to admit, I do enjoy showing off the roll between the palms and launch of the spindle, but what spinner does not enjoy showing off just a bit?
Find Your Own
Low-whorl spindles are often more difficult to obtain from modern spindle makers. They are so basic and do not require the elaborate balancing and rim weighting of high-whorl spindles. They are easy to make, however. If you get a chance to purchase a low-whorl spindle, particularly if you can find a pushka, I highly recommend it. They are economical, sturdy, and a joy to spin. For me, low-whorl spindles let me spin with the least fuss and most pleasure.
Pukhu (Supported Spinning)
“This variation on spinning with a pushka comes from the Acopia region to the south of the city of Cusco. Rather than letting the pushka drop in the air as they spin, spinners sit on the ground and rest the base of the pushka in a small ceramic bowl. While drop spinning can be done standing or walking about, pukhu is only done while sitting, as the pushka must remain balanced in the container. If a ceramic bowl is not available, spinners will use whatever is at hand, including bits of terra-cotta roofing tiles. Pukhu is only used for spinning and never for plying or over-spinning. Spinners who become practiced at pukhu can spin faster than with the drop-spinning method because they tire out less quickly in a seated position. Additionally, pukhu skips a step of the process: half-hitches are unnecessary in this technique, which means spinners can work faster.”
—Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands
Callañaupa Alvarez, Nilda, and the Weavers of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands. Loveland, Colorado: Thrums Books, 2017.
Cubicle Monkey by day, Fiber Fanatic by night, Devin Helmen has been feeding his fiber obsession since he taught himself to spin at age eight. He spins, knits, and weaves in beautiful Minnesota. Devin’s writing has been featured in Spin Off and Ply, and he teaches at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota. He has a passion for spindles and everyday textiles and blogs, intermittently, at www.afewgreenfigs.blogspot.com.