How to Spin Yarn Without a Spinning Wheel

by Ragtimelil

Always thought you'd like to learn how to spin, but didn't want to spend the money on an expensive spinning wheel? Try learning on a spindle first.

Spinning is a wonderfully relaxing craft that produces yarn that you can’t buy in your everyday yarn shop. Your own handmade yarn can be used in a myriad of other projects for a one-of-a-kind finished product. Spinning isn’t hard, but it is one of those crafts that takes a little practice to get started.


Lap spindleThe easiest way to find out if spinning is for you is to use a hand spindle. Spindles come in all sizes and shapes. They are inexpensive enough to try or you can even make them. There are drop spindles, support spindles, lap spindles and kick spindles to name a few. I recommend lap spindles and drop spindles to start. I first learned on a lap spindle and find it the easiest to manage because it rests on the floor and can’t fall. Technically, this makes it a support spindle as well since it is supported, but I put it in a class of its own.

  drop spindle

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Making Yarn by Hand

To learn how to draft, take a strip of combed fleece or roving held between both hands. Then they gently pull the roving apart to make it as long as you can without breaking it. This is actually pre-drafting but the feel is the same.

Drafting Wool


 Twisting Yarn

 Making Yarn




Then lay the roving across your thigh. Twist the wool by sliding the other hand down over the fleece. It will twist and make a yarn. This was the technique used in earlier times for making cordage.


The Magic Triangle

The secret to smooth spinning is the pinch and the magic triangle. The pinch holds the yarn at the point between what is spun and the rest of the fiber. If the twist is allowed to run up the fiber, you’d soon have a big, thick rope and you no longer would be able to draft.

Drop Spindle


 Magic Triangle








The magic triangle is the part between the pinch and the rest of the fiber. This is where you draft and where you put most of your attention because how thick or thin you pull this determines how thick or fine your yarn is.

The Lap Spindle

I asked one spinner how she learned to spin. She said that she learned in Ireland. An old spinner there Lap Spindlehanded her a smooth stick and taught her to spin on it. The lap spindle I use is similar, but with a weight, or whorl, to keep it spinning. It’s a variation of what is commonly called a Navajo lap spindle. I’ve seen similar spindles in Europe and Scandinavian countries as well.

You will need to start with a leader. Take a length of yarn and tie it on to the spindle near the whorl. Wind it a bit up the shaft and tie or twist it to the roving. Then you’re ready to spin.

And We're Spinning

Traditionally, the spindle is leaned against your right thigh and rolled with the right hand toward your body. The wool is held in the left hand and drawn out or drafted to produce a yarn of the desired thickness. I find it more natural to put the spindle on my left and spin it away from me. I’m slightly ambidextrous and sometimes I do things backwards. As long as the spindle is spinning clockwise, it really doesn’t matter.

At first, stop spinning to draft. As you become more comfortable with the motions, you can do both simultaneously. I’m including a wonderful YouTube video of Clara Sherman  demonstrating spinning on her spindle. She does some tugging that I was never taught to do. And she doesn't use a leader either. That’s the amazing thing about this craft. There are always things to learn.

Navajo Weaver Clara Sherman

Using a Drop Spindle

A drop spindle can have the whorl either near the top of the shaft or near the bottom of the point. They are called a high whorl and low whorl respectively.The have very subtle differences but we don't need to worry about them here.

To use a drop spindle, twist the shaft so that it spins clockwise. You can "park" the spindle under your arm (or between your knees if you're sitting) and draft. As you get comfortable with the motions, you will be able to suspend the spindle from the yarn and draft as you feed the yarn down. When it gets too low to be practical, wind the yarn around the spindle in a cone shape. When you run out of roving, spread the fibers at the end of your yarn. Lay the tip of the new roving piece over the fibers, fold it over and spin that spot rather tightly. Now you’re back in business.


How to Use a Drop Spindle


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Plying and Washing

When you're done, you will have a cone of "single" yarn. Wind your yarn off the spindle in a ball. You can use it as is, although it will create strange angles if you try to knit with it. That's a whole other article in itself. Most spinners will ply two singles together to make two ply yarn. Plying is spinning two singles in the opposite direction. That relaxes the yarn so that it won't have extra twist when you use it.

Gently washing the yarn and hanging it with a weight (about the weight of an iron) will set the twist, that is stretching it slightly so that it behaves. Then it's ready to use. Your very own yarn.handspun yarn


All photos by Lana Pettey

More Fiber Articles

These are the top five books that I've read on the subject of sheep, spinning, and weaving. I would recommend these for yourself or a gift for a friend.
Now that you've got that spinning wheel, you have to learn how to use it. Here's a basic explanation of how to spin on a spinning wheel.
Have you thought of getting a spinning wheel and relaxing to the feel of wool turning into yarn? There are a few things to consider before putting out money for a wheel.
If you have your own sheep, or were given a fleece, now you need to know how to get it ready to spin.
Updated: 09/20/2012, Ragtimelil
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Ragtimelil on 07/24/2012

That happens a lot. Remember that singles are by definition overspun. Plying them is what relaxes them.

AudreyHowitt on 07/24/2012

My twist often gets too twisty! Loved this piece as well!

Ragtimelil on 07/09/2012

You certainly can make your own spindle. It was done that way for a really long time! And I love lumpy, bumpy yarn. I worked so hard for so many years to get a fine, smooth yarn, that it's hard now for me to undo all of that training. If I don't watch it, I'm back to fine and smooth. :)

2uesday on 07/09/2012

I can recommend trying this out as it is very relaxing and enjoyable. When my Shetland yarn arrived, I was so keen to try spinning it that I improvised and made my own version of a drop spindle. When you spin it is really nice to see the yarn forming as you spin. I liked having the ability to vary the colors and shades as I worked. Not sure if I could manage to spin something as smooth as is needed for knitting wool, as I wanted different thicknesses and texture in the yarn for the weaving I was experimenting with.

Ragtimelil on 07/09/2012

I do love connecting to the past. I've always been fascinated by the skills early women had and really would hate to see them die out.

sheilamarie on 07/09/2012

Nice article. When I had sheep, I tried to learn doing this. I never gave it enough practice, however, as my kids were small and I didn't seem to have a lot of time.
I like the way these activities are not only useful but connect us to generations of women through the centuries.

Ragtimelil on 07/09/2012

Thank you! I miss my fiber pals now that I've moved. It's great to find new ones. (Try the lap spindle....:)

BrendaReeves on 07/09/2012

Love your fiber articles Lil. I'm a knitter and crocheter. I wasn't too good at the drop spindel. It's good to have another person on Wizzley that likes the fiber arts.

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