We Need to Pay More Attention to Accessibility in Handspinning

9 June 2021

Sponsored in part by:

Ad description: Cover of the book Sheep, Shepherd & Land, and the words, "THE book about Canadian Wool, by Anna Hunter. Photos by Christel Lanthier. Buy now."

Handspinning had been an activity which I enjoyed for some time. From a fluffy mass of fibre I was able to create a transition to an intentional thread, which took its place on my spindle as if that was its home all along. I found it to be comforting, relaxing, and rejuvenating. But after some unfortunate injuries to my neck and shoulder area, handspinning was less of an option for me, because I was in physical pain, and I lost the freedom of movement required to spin. In addition to the physical pain of this experience, I also felt emotional pain, in that the hobby which brought me joy and helped me cope with life was physically hurting me. I stopped spinning, and explored other fibre arts. And though I definitely enjoyed the other fibre arts, and the benefits of them, it wasn’t the same as spinning.

About two years ago, I came across a video on YouTube about woodturning. It stopped me in my tracks.  I was mesmerized by how a hardened steel chisel can carve gentle fluffy ribbons of wood. How could that be? And so I embarked on acquiring a small bench-top lathe and a few chisels. By trial and error, I put wood on the lathe, and used chisels to make shapes that looked like spindles for making yarn. I also spent time researching different types of spindles, and watching lots of YouTube (again, the YouTube), on how to use them. In short, I made spindles, and I used them. I observed how they worked, but more importantly, I observed how it felt to use them.

image description: the tools for wood-turning

The tools for wood-turning.

I found a few things while designing spindles that would work with my body. I now tend to use supported spindles over suspended spindles or drop spindles, as the spindle bowl helps to support the weight of the spindle. I still use suspended spindles from time to time, but I have found that for me, a longer, pain-free spinning session can be achieved when using a supported spindle.

In addition to the weight of the spindle, the height is also important. I have difficulty raising my arms high, and so I make a shorter spindle shaft, and have found that around 8-9 inches is my preferred height. This is in contrast to almost every piece of advice I have been given. As I am quite tall (over six feet), a taller spindle of 11-13 inches is often recommended. Using such a tall spindle is excruciatingly painful for me, though, because it requires my fibre-supply hand to be rather high, and the level of my hand and shoulder when flicking the tip of such a tall spindle triggers intense, searing, nerve pain.

Another important consideration in designing a spindle which fit my body is the presence and size of the whorl. Generally, the larger the whorl, the longer the spin, but the harder to get the spindle going. In contrast, a spindle without a whorl, or a small whorl, is easy to get spinning, but doesnt spin for very long. While making singles, I need a short spin time, and ease with the repetitive moment of flicking the spindle. I have found that using a small whorl or no whorl minimizes the effort required to move the spindle, and when this spindle design is combined with a short draw of fibre, it optimizes effort and keeps me happily spinning for a long time.

Of course, the cop size itself will create the effect of a whorl over time, and so, I tend to put a little less fibre on each spindle before removing it, to set aside for plying (the cop is the newly spun yarn, wound onto the spindle). When plying, I find that I can lengthen my draw, and so I will use a spindle with a larger whorl to keep the spindle spinning longer between flicks.

These are general findings, and different densities of wood can amplify or diminish the effect of whorl size. The densities of different woods presents a whole other dimension to designing fibre art tools. The colours and grains of different woods are undeniably beautiful, and it is wonderful that we can explore the beauty as well as the function of working with different materials.

image description: a collection of spindles, made of different woods and of different sizes

Reflecting back on this journey of designing spindles for accessibility, it seems simple to just” shorten the spindle by a few inches to remove so much pain. However, coming to this conclusion was incredibly difficult, because it opposed so much advice, guidance, direction, and authority on how to select a spindle. How our bodies uniquely move matters, and this needs to be incorporated into how we discuss and teach spinning techniques.

We need to encourage body literacy and consider how the spindle and spinning feels to us when it connects with our bodies. We need to be curious and look for solutions beyond assuming deficient technique, and look at the tools being used in context. I believe that this is one of many ways in which the larger fibre arts community can continue to work towards inclusivity.

Ed. note: We would love to explore approaches to and techniques for accessible handspinning. Are there adaptions or tools that you have found helpful to make spinning more comfortable for your body? Email us at hello@ninetenpublications.ca.

All images credit Helen Mawdsley.

Copyright © Helen Mawdsley except as indicated.
Head shot of Helen Mawdsley

About Helen Mawdsley

Helen is a fibre artist and woodturner. She enjoys being curious and exploring history, traditions, and new forms of craft. Her work has appeared in Spin Off magazine and Piecework magazine by Long Thread Media, also with Laine Publishing Oy in Finland, and at the Centre for Craft in Manitoba. Learn more at mawdsleyfibrearts.ca.

Related Posts

Learning Through a Lifetime

Learning Through a Lifetime

Designer and instructor Kim McBrien Evans on how she challenges herself to keep learning and growing. Kim shares some of her most powerful and exciting learning experiences, as well as a few of her favourite creativity prompts!

Honouring the Wound

Honouring the Wound

[For Armchair & Studio Members] {Content warning: animal death.} Sheep farmer Karri Munn-Venn tells a moving story about her Southdown Babydoll sheep Leia, one of the first sheep in her flock, and how she chose to honour Leia after the sheep’s death.

Sleeves Part 3: Raglans. (Part Two of Two)

Sleeves Part 3: Raglans. (Part Two of Two)

[For Armchair & Studio Members] Kim McBrien Evans continues her series on sweater size and fit, addressing the issue of raglan garment structure. In this second installment, she explains specific alterations – both the rationale and the calculations.

Get 10% off!

Join our mailing list to get special Studio Membership pricing! PLUS hear about new Digits & Threads content and community news.

Subscription success! Well done, you.