Colonial Williamsburg Weaver Karen Clancy Taught Me Drop Spindle Spinning in the Shake of a Lamb’s Tail

At the Taliaferro-Cole Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, you can see one of the prettiest gardens in the Historic Area. You can also meet Karen Clancy, one of Colonial Williamsburg’s weavers. As she interprets what her trade might have been like in the 18th century, she shows and tells visitors about carding, spinning and weaving wool and other natural fibers.

During my recent visit to the shop, Karen demonstrated carding, then sat down at her spinning wheel, explaining that spinning was seen as pick-up work when 18th-century women had a few spare minutes in their day. Stepping on the treadle to make the wheel revolve, Karen explained the purpose of the three carved round sticks that pointed toward the ceiling. The two small ones are the maidens, which hold a bobbin of spun yarn between them. The tall pole at the end holds either a sword or a birdcage distaff, which holds a cone-shaped bundle of fiber. 

Pulling and twisting the strands of fiber together as she pushed the treadle with her foot, Karen created a fine thread that wrapped around the bobbin as it spun. As the wheel turned, her fingers kept drawing out strands from the distaff and pinching them together so that they became one long, continuous, strong and smooth thread.

Using patterns that she has copied from 18th century weavers notebooks in archival collections, Karen turns that spun thread into authentic reproductions of a variety of woven fabrics, including one red-and-white cloth with a bird’s-eye pattern that will be used to make a new 18th-century outfit, complete with stays, for her to wear to work.

I’ve been wanting to learn to spin, but space is too tight at home to accommodate a spinning wheel. Colonial Williamsburg reminded me that there’s more than one way to shear a sheep. Late last Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Secretary’s Office in the Historic Area and joined five others to take a drop spindle spinning class from Karen.

As we took out our wooden spindle and roving from our Colonial Williamsburg shopping bags, Karen told us a few historical details about drop spindle spinning. Although there are records of spinning upon a rock taking place in the 14th century, and women spun fibers while walking behind wagons in the 19th century, drop spindle spinning in 18th-century Virginia hasn’t been documented yet.

Karen explained that our spindles were known as suspended, low-whorl or drop spindles and are used for spinning almost all types of fiber. A low-whorl spindle consists of a shaft and a weight (called a whorl) placed at or near the bottom of the shaft. The shaft has a notch near the top to make it easier to hold spun yarn on the spindle. The spindle spins as it hangs from the yarn it is being used to produce. 

First, we drew out a piece of roving, or wool that has been brushed and combed, that was about as wide as our finger. We separated and fanned it out just like Karen did at the spinning wheel, and looped it around a piece of string tied onto the spindle, just below the round wooden disk, to get started. This technique was a lot like a cast-on in knitting.

Holding on to the wool that we looped around the string with our “pinching” hand, we let the spindle dangle in the air and set the spindle spinning clockwise with our free hand. The weight of the whorl kept the spindle twirling like a top. As it turned, it twisted the wool into one tight piece of thread. When we developed kinks in our thread, Karen showed us how to slide the roving upward to let the twist travel up the thread. Standing up to spin the spindle was easier than sitting down with it, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to walk while spinning.

After we had spun an arm’s length of thread, we wrapped it around the base of the spindle, just above the whorl. We drew out new strands of wool and started the spindle spinning again. Sometimes the thread broke and the spindle fell, but we looped the thread onto the spindle again and kept spinning. When our thread got thick in places and developed some little fuzzy patches, Karen encouraged us that with practice, we’d learn how to keep it smooth and even. She said that when the spindle gets too heavy with yarn to use, we could take the yarn off and roll it into a ball.

When I told Carissa about my trip during lunch one day this week, my friend reminded me that drop spindle spinning appears in Little House in the Highlands. This is the first in a series of four books for young readers written by Melissa Wiley about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother, Martha Morse Tucker, who was born in Scotland in 1782.

In the book, six-year-old Martha wants to spin like her mother and sisters, but she’s not big enough to operate the spinning wheel successfully. She visits Auld Mary, who gives her a spindle and shows her how to spin with it. Auld Mary tells Martha that after practicing the spindle for a month, she’ll be spinning yarn just as fine as anything that can be made on a wheel. Then, by the time she’s ready to take up the spinning wheel, her fingers will know exactly what to do and she’ll be spinning “in the shake of a lamb’s tail.” 

Respect the Spindle: Spin Infinite Yarns with One Amazing Tool, by Abby Franquemont (Interweave Press, 2009) is a great resource for spinners who want to learn to make yarn with a spindle. The book provides information about the science of spindle spinning, instructions for using a spindle, techniques for creating a variety of yarns with a spindle, and four knit and crochet projects for handspun yarn. It’s keeping my drop spindle and roving company until I practice my new craft again.

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