Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Tool Talk: The Ashford "Student" Handspindle.

Ashford is a New Zealand company that is well known for its spinning wheels, and I have heard quite a few people rave about said wheels. They also offer a small assortment of drop spindles, both bottom whorl and top whorl ones.

These spindles are... well. Very simple in form, with a wooden disc (that may be partly hollowed out) as a spindle whorl, attached permanently to the spindle shaft, which features a hook at the whorl end in case of the top-whorl or dual-purpose spindles. The spindle shaft itself is just a ramrod straight rod.

I've seen pictures of these spindles before, but I had not seen one in real life, or held one in my own hands. That, dear reader, changed this last weekend. One lady who was at the Kreativ fair brought her spinning, done on an older model of the Ashford Student spindle, and I was really, really shocked. Not about the spinning, or I should rather say I was shocked in a good way about the spinning.* The real shock was the thing they had sold her as a spindle. FOR BEGINNERS. It looked like this:

As you can see, it's a tree trunk glued into a wagon wheel. This is not a spindle. It's very, very far from being such a thing. It's even less a spindle than the specially designed spindles that I used during the spinning experiment back in 2009, and I haven't yet heard the end of how horrible those things were.

After recovering from the first shock, I put the thing onto my scales. The spindle weighed a whooping 118 g. One hundred eighteen grams. That's about three of my normal spindles together. (There was a bit of wool on it, but not more than 2 or 3 g at the most.) The spindle shaft was about 1.5 cm thick throughout, even at the top, and the whorl was probably about 3 cm in thickness.

This is like handing a sledgehammer to a child to learn how to hammer little nails into a little piece of wood. It's like handing a blunt-edged sword to someone and expecting that someone to cut neat filet pieces from a mouse carcass. It is that unsuitable to learning how to spin. Firstly, there's biomechanics: You need to get the spindle into motion. That is usually done by flicking it between your fingers. Have you ever tried to flick a tree trunk into motion? Seriously, it's a big deal how thick or thin your spindle end is - the thicker, the less effective your flicking motion will be.
Add to that the sheer weight of the thing attached to the tree trunk, and you need serious muscles to get that thing going. Once it turns, it will go on for a bit - but that is only if you actually managed to get it going. (I didn't. I failed miserably at trying to produce a thread on that thing. This is the first thing that calls itself a spindle that I did not really manage to spin with. Granted, I only tried for about 30 seconds because it was just so much not a spindle that it was very not-fun to use it.) Oh, and because the shaft is not tapered, the spindle will have a serious wobble: the thread attached with a half-hitch is a good bit away from the centre of rotation of the spindle, which obviously goes down the center of the tree-trunk-and-wagon-wheel contraption. Result: An ungodly amount of wobble.

In addition, the sheer weight does what spindle weight always (and exclusively) does: It gives you a realtime quality control. Your thread will break if it cannot support the weight of the spindle. That, per se, is not a bad thing - you don't want your spinning to break on the loom, for example, and then it's much better to find the weak spots during production of the thread. However, to spin a thread that will support 100+ g of weight, you need a serious amount of fibres. Even more if your spindle doesn't deliver twist fairly quickly... which, guess what, this thing doesn't, as you cannot get it to turn quickly.
Theoretically, now, you could use a spindle that is too heavy to spin supported. Which only works if the bottom of the spindle shaft is... pointy enough so you don't lose too much momentum to friction. The bottom of that thing was exactly as tapered as the top: not at all. There you go. Producing anything vaguely yarn-like on that is no mean feat and deserves a lot of respect.

How on earth can anybody recommend that thing to a beginner?** I know that there's an inclination to hand indestructible boat anchors to beginners, but this is even worse than the least appealing of boat anchors I have seen before. Much worse. It is suitable to pound nails into walls, or to cook a three-course meal over an open fire using only one of the spindles as fuel, but not for spinning. You can probably learn better how to spin if you stick a stroopwafel*** onto a pencil, or a grape onto a toothpick. Spindles like that thing are the reason why competent wheel-spinners say that they cannot use a hand-spindle. They are probably also the reason why people who want to spin very quickly buy a spinning wheel.

If you are an aspiring spinner, find yourself a spindle that turns reasonably fast and is reasonably easy to set into motion. If the spindle seems too fast and you can't keep up with drafting, you can always park-and-draft. Don't go above a weight of max 70 grams - that is plenty to learn with, will result in a sturdy enough thread and still allow you to spin a little thinner than rope. (You can as well start with a weight of 30 to 50 g - still enough.) Make sure the spindle shaft tapers enough towards the top so you can twist it easily, and the spindle won't wobble too much. If you like to have options, look for a taper at the bottom of the shaft too, so you can spin supported. And if you like to have even more options, get a spindle shaft without permanently attached whorl, then you can randomly stick all kinds of roundish objects with a hole onto it and see what you like best.

If you have tried to learn hand-spindle spinning with a similar inappropriately named object, but have given up? Please give it another try. Take a round chopstick and fix a 30 g bead to it, or something similarly roundish and in a weight range of 30-50 g. A few round cardboard coasters, glued together, are a more slowly turning alternative. Don't let the tree trunk glued into a wagon wheel keep you away from that wonderful and wonderfully portable technique.

* The spinning was fine. I'm still amazed at the sheer tenacity it must have taken to spin on that thing. She went away with new spindles, by the way. And with a much happier look!

** To be fair, Ashford have since changed their spindle form and weight a bit, though only slightly, and I would not recommend the more recent ones for spinning either. Especially not for a beginner spinner.

*** A stroopwafel is a round, thin, sticky-sweet Dutch speciality: a wafer filled with syrup (stroop).

****Hint: the first makes for a very wobbly spindle, but also for a good snack; the second one is very small and will fall apart as quickly as the first, but is a healthier snack.


Anonymous said...

I once spun on an Ashford wheel and it was real fun. (but I still prefer spindles).

The only Ashford spindle I ever tried is the turkish spindle, weighing in at about 60 grams. and with a shaft longer than any other spindle shaft I encountered by now. The bottom end is slightly tapered.
I didn't like spinning with it very much, but it's nice for plying. I can sit on the couch, put the spindle on the ground and use it supported.
The biggest advantage of using it for plying is that you can fit a full 200 m/100 grams of plied yarn onto it.

Harma said...

My 1970s Louet spindles are about the heaviest spindles I have and even my big Golding spindle with the celtic knot is only 43 gram. All of those are only used for plying, since someone I will not name ;^)) infected me with the bug of spinning fine threads.

Although I'll always keep on teasing you about the spindle from hell, you know I want another try with it. Great learning experience, like everything at the Forum.

One small advantage of learning a technique in not the most perfect circumstances, it makes you stronger. Klaas had no wool when he finished his spinning wheel and started out spinning drugstore cotton balls. Took a lot of swearing, but his spinning was right away a lot better than mine was back then.

Harma said...

Forgot to state the weight of the Louet spindles. They are about 60 gram.

Anonymous said...

So, when can I have a go...?

C'mon, I gotta get to compare with with the stroopwafel! :)