Handcrafted Drop Spindles for Christmas

By , December 27, 2012

Before Christmas, in discussing the value of homemade gifts, I hinted that I felt particularly proud of the gifts I’d made for Aly this year. Now that Christmas Day has passed, and she has received my gifts, I can share them with you.

My main gift to Aly this year: a pair of homemade drop spindles.

homemade drop spindles

Two drop spindles, “low whorl” (top) and “high whorl” (bottom) (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

Years ago, when Aly was a child, I read an historical novel set in the dark ages. One thing that particularly impressed me was the emphasis on constant spinning. Every woman in the story spins through most of the narrative, from the queen and her handmaidens, to the lowliest peasant. It took a bit for me, a child of the 20th century, to realize that spinning had to be a major occupation, in order to create cloth—a necessity that our modern civilization has relegated to professionals and their mass-producing machinery. I could scarcely imagine, as the author obviously had, the great sustained effort necessary to produce the most basic clothing.

This portrayal left a deep impression on me. I immediately began to ponder what we would do should mass manufactured clothing—let alone cloth—become unavailable in the future.

Aly and Michelle are avid knitters. When Aly first became interested in knitting, I saw spinning as an interesting aspect of that process, one that she would do well to learn. I knew a few people who used drop spindles, the precursor to the spinning wheel, but never managed to arrange a demonstration for Aly.

Aly eventually learned to use a neighbor’s spinning wheel, but seldom had an opportunity to practice. When Aly went to college, she joined her school’s Fiber Arts Club. Last autumn, a club member taught her to spin her own yarn with a drop spindle.

At that point, I’d still never really seen a spindle. When I looked them up, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how basic such an ancient tool would be (anthropologists suggest humans began spinning at least 10,000 years ago). I immediately saw that I could make a drop spindle for Aly.

Simply put, it’s a top with a long shaft. The whorl, often a flat disk of wood, sits at the top (for a “top whorl” spindle) or at the bottom (“bottom whorl” spindle). Her roommate suggested she’d prefer a top whorl spindle, but the construction appeared so simple, I decided to make one of each.

I made the drop spindles with whorls cut from an oak plank salvaged from a pallet. The whorls are the “waste” from using a hole saw, with the center guide hole enlarged to take a dowel shaft. I cut grooves to hold fiber by making a shallow saw kerf around the shaft with my table saw.

I shaped the shafts at each end, rounded at the butt and tapered at the tip, by padding the shaft in paper and putting it into my hand drill. I then held progressively finer grits of sandpaper against the spinning shaft at the proper angles. I also used this method to smooth the rough outer edges of the whorls. Who needs a lathe?

Once I finished the wood to my satisfaction, I treated the wood with several coats of linseed oil, then hand rubbed bee’s wax into it.

Oddly, when I’d finished, the drop spindles didn’t appear brand new, but very old. Not a bad thing for such an ancient tool.

Because I used recycled materials and tools and supplies I had on hand for other projects, I only purchased a 4-foot dowel to make the spindles. Each shaft came close to 12 inches, and the dowel cost under $2.00, so each spindle was less than 50¢ out of pocket. Quite a bargain!

Aly’s pleasure on Christmas morning was worth waiting for. We pulled down a box of animal fiber that has been in the shed’s attic since we came here (we think it’s mountain goat) and she found some of it already carded. She spent much of the rest of Christmas Day spinning yarn with her spindles. Of all the lovely gifts I received that day, watching her happily spinning away was surely the best.

2 Responses to “Handcrafted Drop Spindles for Christmas”

  1. Linn Hartman says:

    Saw your blog while looking at the Trilo boats blog. Was just getting interested in the boats when David moved off to their winter jobs and off the internet.
    I was a blacksmith at a craft village here in north Arkansas and worked with several spinners. Always thought that was pretty neat. Mostly used wheels, but would also demonstrate with the drop spindle. They had a “Shear to Shaw” day where they would actually shear a sheep, spin and do some weaving in a day.
    I live in the hills so when we get ice and snow you don’t go anywhere. Had a snow Christmas day with high winds. So far the power and propane is holding. Had over 200,000 without elctricity. Many in Little Rock. Those folks have had a hard go of it. Was 21 here this morn.
    Always glad to find folks who march to a different drum. Will keep checking your blog.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Linn, welcome! If you have questions regarding T-boats, use the contact info on the site over there. I handle sales for them, so I monitor that email account, and can answer most questions.

    I’d love to see one of these events you describe. One of my grandfather’s was a sheep shearer. I got to see him do it a few times before he passed away. it’s an art, in my opinion.

    Stay safe! Dorothy was right–“there’s no place like home!”


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