There is evidence of spinning by hand dating back around twenty thousand years. Throughout the centuries and across cultures, tools and techniques were developed to produce yarn for the making of textile goods. Many people worked in their own homes as spinners, which continued to be done by hand until the spinning wheel was developed approximately eight centuries ago and gradually replaced hand spinning.
The invention of technologies such as the spinning jenny and the water wheel during the eighteenth century meant that production of yarn was increasingly industrialised. Spinners and other workers began to be employed in large factories, powered first by water and later electricity. However, the growth of movements such as arts and crafts has ensured that there are still crafts people spinning yarn by hand.
In addition to fibre to be spun you will need either a drop spindle or a spinning wheel. A drop spindle consists of a wooden shaft, with a hook and a weighted disc called a whorl at one end. They can either be purchased or you could make your own. Spinning wheels come in various sizes and are traditionally powered by hand using a great wheel or by foot using a treadle wheel, although you could use an electrically powered wheel. You have a wide range of fibres to choose from, however as a beginner you might find it easiest to work with roving, which is wool from sheep that has been washed and combed ready for spinning.
Natural fibres are derived either from plants such as cotton and flax or from animals such as sheep, which are sheared of their woollen fleece, and silk, which is produced by the larvae of some insects, most commonly the silkworm. There is a wide range of synthetic fibres in use that have been developed to have particular properties when compared to naturally occurring fibres, such as greater strength and suitability for certain environmental conditions. The first synthetic fibres were invented during the Industrial Revolution, using chemical processes which continue to be researched and developed and have led to the production of commonly used fibres such as nylon, polyester and rayon.
Begin by tying lead thread onto the spindle shaft, just below the whorl and roll some of the lead thread onto the spindle and then over the whorl and around the hook, leaving approximately fifteen cm of leader. Take some of your chosen fibre and pull it out, to ensure it is all in the same direction and twist one end of the fibre onto the leader thread. Hold the fibre firmly, so that you can begin to spin the spindle in a clockwise motion. This will cause the fibres to wrap together and you should continue the process unto you have used all of the fibre that you initially picked up. Take some more of the fibre and join it onto the end of the fibre you have just spun and repeat this process until you have spun all of your fibres into yarn.
Although drop spindles can be purchased from arts and crafts suppliers, it is also relatively easy to make your own. To do so begin by gathering together the following items. A small wooden disk approximately one cm thick and about six cm across, which will form the whorl, a piece of dowel cut to a length of about thirty cm and a small metal hook. Screw the metal hook into one end of the dowel and drill a hole into the wooden disc, through which the dowel should just fit, so that the whorl stays in place about three cm from the end of the dowel with the hook. You can now attach the leader thread, ready to begin spinning.
A wide range of yarns are available to purchase from arts and crafts suppliers, so it seems reasonable to ask why you might prefer to spin your own yarn. You might want to save money, as it is generally cheaper to spin your own yarn and you might even raise your own sheep to provide wool. As an artist or craft maker you might want to weave your own textiles using particular colours or textures of yarn that are either not commercially available or cost more than you want to pay for them. You might feel that spinning your own yarn brings you closer to the traditional crafts or you might find the process a relaxing and therapeutic pastime.