Supported Spindles: Pairing Fiber & Tool

These spindles vary in size and shape across the world, depending greatly on what type of fiber and yarn they were made to spin.

Sukrita Mahon Jan 10, 2020 - 14 min read

Supported Spindles: Pairing Fiber & Tool Primary Image

A Pu Yok-style Tibetan spindle from The Spindle Shop. Photos by Sukrita Mahon unless otherwise indicated

Spindles are accessible. They are portable and more affordable than a wheel, and they provide an easy entry for the beginner into the world of spinning. Whether you are a spindle novice or avid collector, you will find that specific fibers are more easily spun with some types of spindles than others. Finding the combinations that work best for you can dramatically change the yarns you make and the enjoyment you find in creating them.

Supported Spindles

Supported spindles are used, as the name suggests, with the tip resting on a surface, usually a small bowl. These spindles vary in size and shape across the world, depending greatly on what type of fiber and yarn they were made to spin.

For example, the Diné (Navajo) and Pueblo peoples developed a large type of support spindle, known as a Navajo spindle, which is generally used to make thick wool singles for weaving rugs. A Navajo spindle rests on the ground and is rolled along the thigh to produce twist. One of the smallest support spindles is the takli, a very fast spindle typically made of metal that’s perfect for spinning cotton.

Supported spindles are usually used to produce a woolen-style yarn. The spindle can be manipulated with one hand as fibers are spun using a long draw, either supported, unsupported, or a bit of both. This makes them a perfect tool for spinning short-staple fibers such as cotton, yak, camel, and cashmere.

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A Modern Movement

Supported spindles are not as common in the West but have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Talented spindle makers create limited numbers of unique supported spindles that vanish from online shops within minutes of posting. Needless to say, support spindling is a habit-forming hobby—proceed with caution!

Most of the modern support spindles that spinners are using today can be loosely classified into four categories: Tibetan, Russian, phang, and takli styles. There are, however, many different interpretations. A spindle design might fall between two styles, or may conform to a category to a limited extent. Some makers create their own styles, which are spin-offs of an existing style.

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A few of Sukrita’s Tibetan spindles. From top: purse Tibetan, Dyavol, mini-Tibetan, and Dervish styles from the Spindle Shop.

Tibetan Spindles

This is a loose term for spindle styles that originated from the Tibetan region. They are traditionally used to spin yak, goat, and sheep fibers. In Tibet, there are several different styles of supported spindles intended for use with different fibers.

As a group, Tibetan spindles are recognized for their sustained and balanced spin, which is advantageous to the beginning support spindler. However, they become heavier and harder to spin as the cop of spun yarn grows.

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From top: Phang, Russian-style spindle, takli, and Tibetan-style spindle.

Taklis

These small spindles come from India. The word takli means spindle in Hindi, so “takli spindle” is a tautology, much like “chai tea.” (The word chai means tea.) They are small, lightweight, often made of metal, and specially designed to spin cotton. They spin very fast, efficiently inserting twist into short cotton fibers. Indian taklis are made entirely of metal and have a specific design, but many modern or Western interpretations come in a variety of materials and styles.

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Bristlecone Goddess phangs. Goddess spindles are so called because they are carved in the shape of a female figure.

Russian Spindles

Russian spindles are lightweight and have a very short spin time. Traditional Russian spindles tend to be even lighter weight than many of the modern adaptations. These heavier spindles are often made from solid woods and might have a larger whorl than traditional styles. Russian spindles spin very fast, despite needing more flicking to maintain speed. I find that they spin better as they fill with yarn.

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Sukrita started by spinning cotton on several types of Tibetan spindles.

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Phang Spindles

Pronounced “pong,” the phang is simple in shape; it can be described as a stick with a bulge. They vary a lot in how they spin: some need constant flicking, whereas others have a more sustained spin. In general, fatter phangs have a more sustained spin than thinner, lighter phangs. The popular Bristlecone Goddess spindles are phang-style spindles.

Perfect Pairings: Exploring Fiber-Supported Spindle Combinations

With a growing collection of supported spindle styles, I decided to try a few fibers with different types of spindles to find what worked well and what did not. I encourage you to do your own experimentation in pairing fibers with support spindles; my experiences are dependent on my own spinning style. You may find that you have different results or preferences, and your impressions are just as valid.

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Cotton spun on modern taklis.

Cotton

I discovered a fascination for spinning cotton when I saw a guild member and the owner of Spinners’ Cotton, Liz Woods, spin on a takli at a local show. [Read more about Spinners’ Cotton in “Spinning Cotton Down Under” by Joan S. Ruane, Spin Off Spring 2019.] This fiber, which once seemed intimidating to me, suddenly seemed within reach. I didn’t immediately purchase a takli. Instead, I first explored cotton on Tibetan support spindles.

I started by pairing my Dervish-style spindle with ginned white cotton. The fiber makes a slubby textured singles. I find it relatively forgiving to spin without further preparation, as long as one is able to accept the inevitable slubs. Initially, I found the spindle perfect for my beginning-cotton-spinner adventure. The downside was that, as the spindle filled up with fiber, it became harder to spin.

Since I had difficulty with the weight of the spindle, I switched to a lighter purse Tibetan. This time, I selected natural green cotton top to spin. The long, balanced spin made this spindle a pleasure to work with. The green cotton, which is a challenging fiber to spin due to a short staple length, felt like a breeze to spin on this spindle. As the cop built up and the spindle became heavier, I felt again that it was noticeably harder to spin. I was able to spin 7 to 8 grams of cotton comfortably. Unfortunately, when it came time to wind off the singles, I found they broke a lot; I needed a faster spindle.

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Finally, I tried two taklis from local makers. The first is a wooden one from the Spindle Shop. It is very lightweight and portable, weighing a mere 17 grams and measuring 23 centimeters from tip to tip. I was thrilled with how this beauty performed; it is a perfect compromise between a traditional takli and a modern spindle, enabling more yarn to fill on the spindle while at the same time providing for ease of use.

The second takli, a small stone bead on a metal shaft, is made by Luba Chambers of Handcrafted Gifts. Contrasted with the wooden one, this spindle is a bead style, thought to have originated in Africa. It’s a wonderful little spinner, perfect for cotton. I used natural brown cotton top, which spun up easily and quickly, filling the little spindle.

Both taklis made cotton spinning appreciably faster and easier. Although I’m pleased with how versatile the Tibetans are, particularly for a beginning cotton spinner, my taklis performed better. Both the quality of thread produced and the ease of use made the taklis superior tools in this case.

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Yak down spun on a Russian spindle.

Yak

Tibetan spindles form the majority of my collection, so I tried a quintessential Tibetan fiber: yak down. Yak down is soft, feels warmer in the hands than wool, and can be produced sustainably. I purchased a combed top preparation with fibers that had about a one-inch staple length. This preparation worked best when spun over the fold, and I tried two spindles: a medium-size Tibetan spindle and a Russian spindle.

On the Tibetan spindle, the yak was comfortable to handle and spun smoothly and easily. The short, slippery fibers in this preparation benefited from the twist produced by this spindle’s long, sustained spin. On the Russian spindle, it was a bit different. The constant flicking meant that the process was not as smooth. I suspect that this may be partly due to my spinning style, as I much prefer a longer-spinning spindle in general. In this experiment, it felt to me as though the yak practically spun itself on the Tibetan, whereas it had a less natural feel when spun with the Russian. This might be different with yak down in a less organized preparation.

Wool

There is a reason why spinners love wool—it’s a delight to spin on all kinds of support spindles. I love pairing wool with a Russian spindle or phang with a short spin time. The twist can be easily controlled, and the spinning is rhythmic and relaxing.

On the Russian spindle, I spun Tasmanian Corriedale combed top over the fold; the process was enjoyable and effortless. This spin was instrumental in helping me fall in love with Russian spindles, as I have struggled in the past with the short spin time.

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On the Goddess phang, I spun natural-colored Polwarth from Tarndie, another joyful experience. The squat, bulging nature of this spindle means that it has a slightly longer spin time than the Russian. Wool spun from the fold is a great pairing for these spindles, which become more balanced the more fiber is packed onto the spindle’s waist. The longer spin time makes for a relaxing experience; this spindle wants to spin.

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Perfect pairing: Polwarth wool and phang.

Conclusion & Findings

Tibetan spindles, in my experience, are the most versatile class of support spindle. I have found them to be a very accessible starting point into support spinning. The variety of Tibetan spindles on the market today means that there is probably a style perfectly suited to you and to your fiber of choice.

In my search for fiber pairings, I found wool to be the most versatile fiber with the spindle styles I explored. The phangs, and particularly the Goddess, are graceful and beginner friendly, capable of spinning any kind of wool or wool blends. However, specific pairings, such as a takli with cotton, are extremely satisfying.

There is a wide world of support spindles out there, and I have only gone a short way on my journey exploring them. I look forward to many more discoveries and inspirations to come.

Spindles: Timeless Technology

The handspindle is an ancient technology dating back to at least Neolithic times. Spindle whorls continue to be unearthed in archaeological digs around the world, and our understanding of when and how textile tools were used by the people that came before us evolves over time. Both drop and supported spindles of all kinds continue to enjoy a special place in the hearts of many modern spinners.

Supported spindles are still commonly used in Central Asia, Russia, and parts of Europe such as Bulgaria. Various styles of supported spindles have long been an important textile tool in parts of the world known for cotton production, including Tibet, India, Africa, and Central and South America.
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Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, open access Terracotta Biconical Spindle-Whorl.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Period: Possibly Late Cypriot I–II
Date: circa 1600–1200 BC
Culture: Cypriot [Cyprus]
Medium: Terracotta; handmade
Dimensions: Height 15/8 inch (4.1 cm)
Accession Number: 74.51.941

Resources

Cotton Australia, www.cottonaustralia.com.au

Sukrita Mahon fell in love with spinning three years ago and has been an active member of the spinning and knitting community in Sydney, Australia, and the Central Coast ever since. Her current obsessions are with natural-colored fleece and, of course, spindles. She enjoys sourdough baking and, when the weather is right, she likes to go on mushroom exploration walks. You can find her on Instagram @su.krita and on Ravelry as sukrita.

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