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Spinning and meditation

Russian style supported spindle
Russian style supported spindle


I started learning to spin yarn because I thought it might be meditative, and pleasant, and I’d had no success learning to meditate in the other ways I’d tried.  I picked up a drop spindle and some beautiful red wool from a lovely woman at the NorCal Ren Faire, and she was kind enough to gift me with some of her time and a bit of instruction.  She told me what a “leader” was and how to get started spinning.  She warned me to not drop the spindle if I could avoid it (I couldn’t, as it turns out) because it could knock it off balance or loosen the whorl.  She told me about plying.  I spent a lovely hour or so with her, talking and learning, and if I was a terrible student, she didn’t seem to mind.  Eventually, I needed to head off, and I said my goodbyes.

You know how, when you’re learning something new and you’re working with your teacher, everything can seem clear and understandable and simple, and then you get home and you can’t imagine how on earth you ever thought you understood any of it?  That was sort of how I felt about the drop spindle.  The spindle is a ridiculously simple tool.  You literally just spin the damn thing and let wool out between your fingers and it makes yarn.   It should not be difficult, damn it!  But ooooh my it was.

Upon arriving home, I had a couple of really major problems that I hadn’t had while sitting at Faire with my kind instructor.  One was named Ed, and one was named Mo; my adorable kittens thought the drop spindle was a fantastic toy, and were completely delighted that I’d brought it home for them.  I also could not for the life of me get my loose wool to attach to my leader, and my yarn kept breaking because I couldn’t keep the fiber even and thick enough, and it was slow, and frustrating and horrible.  I tried for HOURS, and was so frustrated with it that I put it aside and didn’t pick it up again for months.

Sometimes when I’m learning something new, I need time to let the knowledge sink in, like lotion on skin.  I learn the thing, I try the thing, it goes horribly.  I stop doing the thing for a few weeks, and then try again, and it inexplicably makes much more sense and is totally doable.  When I picked up my drop spindle, I had some hope that it would be like that.  That my abject failure a few months earlier would have given way to at least a little bit of the needed muscle memory and that I could maybe possibly spin a piece of yarn long enough to actually need to wind it back onto my spindle.  Or at least be less horrible at the whole thing.  I did shut my cats out of the room, and that at least made things less distracting.  That was about the only thing that had improved, though.  I tried for a couple more weeks with the drop spindle, and then I decided it wasn’t for me after all, and gave it away to a friend of mine.

I didn’t think anymore about it until several years later when one of my partners mentioned to me that he’d seen someone making yarn while sitting on a bench in San Francisco.  We chatted a bit about how one would do that, and he mentioned that the person had been using a knothole in the wood of the parklet to keep the point of the spindle from moving around.  Wait, what?  I had never heard of such a thing.  I pestered my partner until he gave me all the details he had; I hadn’t misunderstood, the person spinning had been keeping the spindle stationary, resting on the ground and spinning from it.  How weird!  I immediately went looking for what could have been going on there.

It turns out, there’s two major kinds of hand spindles: Drop Spindles, which was what I’d used before, and Supported Spindles, which are spun like a top resting on the ground or in a bowl and one moves one’s hand instead of the spindle to draw out one’s yarn.  It makes sense, of course, that if you call a thing specifically Drop Spindle, then there’s probably other kinds of Spindle out there, but it had never occurred to me.  It turns out that supported spindles are used with shorter length fibers because the weight of the spindle doesn’t need to be supported on the yarn… and I could get into the technicalities of it, but ultimately, I found several different styles of support spindle, and the Russian style were completely beautiful, and also inexpensive, so I bought one.

I turned to YouTube to learn how to use the thing, and it turns out there’s some excellent videos out there explaining how to use a supported spindle.  A woman with the user-name Fleegle offers some beautiful videos that I found particularly useful.  In very short order, I started spinning real usable yarn.  I learned the appropriate flick to make my spindle spin for ages, and it was beautifully weighted and beautifully straight, and a joy to use.

I spin regularly now.  It’s getting to the point that I need to figure out what the hell to do with all the yarn; I don’t knit or crochet, and I can only foist so much yarn off onto my sister.  I’m considering picking up a loom, because clearly I need more hobbies.  I’ve started dabbling in the dying of yarn.  I seriously considered dying some of my yarn with the blue hair-dye I was using for a while; the thought of a scarf matching my hair delights me.

It turns out that now, finally, spinning is quite meditative.  I was right, after all.  I can let my mind wander or go blank while I spin in ways that I never could when I tried more deliberate meditation techniques.  I also started practicing mindfulness meditation, and the spinning is interesting there, too.  I can lose myself in the feel of the fiber twisting and extending under my finger-tips, and the way my arms move to draw the fibers out, and the gentle tug of the spindle as it wraps the yarn around itself on its spin.

I have lost myself in spinning for so long that my hand has cramped from flicking the spindle and the muscles of my thumb were sore for days.  Spinning has become a refuge for me.  I can do it while I talk, while I watch TV, on the bus, in the car.  I can take it with me almost everywhere.  It helps me to think, or to stop thinking.  It helps me find clarity.

Spinning yarn from loose fiber is a kind of magic.  It is very nearly making something from nothing; straw into gold.  I feel as if I can spin off my troubles into my fiber and bind them into my yarn to let me get a good look at them.  Or, in cases where I can’t do anything about them, I can just spin my worries into yarn and let them become something useful, even beautiful.  I will be eternally grateful to that lovely woman who taught me to use the drop spindle.  I still can’t spin on one, but without her, I never would have looked into supported spindles, and I never would have found this peace.