Friday, November 15, 2013

More on Twisty Sticks

A twisty stick is a piece of wire 8-12" long with a hook at one end.  The Scandinavians make, big, tapered, wooden ones, but I am interested in the British tradition.

They were used for grading wool in the time of Chaucer, and it makes sense to me that a spinning tool was used to determine how fine a wool can be spun.  Anyway, Chaucer was hundreds of years after great wheels had been introduced for the fast spinning of woolen yarn, so twisty sticks are likely an old and deep tradition.

Alden Amos uses 1/8" wire and gives directions with drawings for making them in his Big Book of Handspinning. He likes them, and considers them an essential tool - the kind of thing that spinning guilds should make for every member as guild projects.  I like 2 mm steel wire and make them a bit longer (10.5" over all).  Mine weigh about 5 grams, and I use them for yarn grists that I would use a 5 gram spindle with whorl, e.g. ~30,000 ypp.  An iron hook from cheap, soft iron wire bound into the split end of a dogwood twig with a bit of linen thread and some glue makes a 2 gram twisty stick.  It works. With  half an inch of iron wire, linen thread, hide glue, and a sharp flake of chert, an iron age spinner could make one in a few minutes. It has about the same size shaft as AA's twisty sticks so it will be about as fast, but it only uses half an inch of thin iron wire. This gives us an idea as to why they are called "sticks".  A twisty stick is a drop spindle with a hook, but no whorl, and is often made entirely of metal.

I find that I can do a thigh roll with the twisty stick with one hand do a long draw draft with the other hand and quickly have a good make of yarn. The draft and the thigh roll can occur at the same time.  Then, I can drop the drafting hand, and the return thigh roll will wind on the yarn. The wind on is backwards.  There is almost no wasted motion.  Where a little more twist is required,  the twisty stick can be given an extra shove and released for a moment at the end of the forward thigh roll. Then the twisty stick will deliver a surge of twist to the yarn. The process is very fast. It is not something I have seen any other modern spinner do. It is not in the literature.  This is very odd.  The copp is built to wind off as an end feed package.

However, I do not know how to spin worsted with a twisty stick. So what I produce on twisty sticks are "weaving quality" woolen yarns. The quality would improve if I would practice. The problem is that even the best twisty stick is not as fast as my AA modified wheel, so my tendency is to spin any yarn on my wheel.   Thus, I am not likely to put the required practice time into twisty stick spinning, and I will not achieve and maintain professional competency with the tool.

Still, I have no doubt that Iron Age Brits used this method to produce woolen cloth for export.  I would not be surprised to discover that this was the "rolling on the thigh" method described for Bronze Age Greeks.  It is a concept that would allow a textile professional to produce less expensive woolen cloth.

The wire gets brittle and breaks. What the archaeologist would find a few hundred years later is a small piece of wire.  Any archaeologist ever see anything like that in a Bronze Age or Iron Age site?  Any chance that such an artifact has been found and incorrectly identified?

We have not really thought about hand spinning with a spindle on an industrial scale (e.g., ship-loads of cloth) for a long time.  Linen and hemp need a spindle with whorl because the long fibers and low twist per inch require slow insertion of twist. Thus, we see the spindles with whorls in the Egyptian drawings. Silk also has very low tpi, and want slow insertion of twist. Spinning worsted wool requires a whorl because both hands need to be free to draft, and therefore spindles for worsted spinning need whorls to store momentum and gradually transfer the twist to the yarn over a period of time . This is what we see depicted on Greek urns. Weaving wants worsted warp, so wool cloth production always set a demand for worsted thread, and we find  lots of whorls in every hand spinning culture.

However, woolen and cotton spinning just want lots of twist insertion. Woolen and cotton can absorb twist very rapidly. Drafting can be with one hand, so one hand can keep the spindle turning at a very high speed. If one hand is devoted to tending the spindle, there is no need to store momentum.  One can get the highest rotation speeds and therefore the fastest yarn production from a spindle with no whorl.  The spindle can be spun up very fast, and  all the twist energy transferred to the yarn almost instantly, rather than momentum stored in the whorl.  Over all, the process can be much  faster than modern spindle spinners using whorls think is possible.

This can be seen by the fact that the basic unit of woolen production was a hank of 1,600 yards, while the basic unit of worsted production was a hank of only 560 yards.  Yes, I think that in a world where all spinning was done by hand with a spindle, a yard of worsted was worth 3 yards of woolen. Wool yield, wool preparation, and spinning effort are all factors, but I would also say that in a given time, a woolen spinner would be expected to spin ~3 times the yardage of a worsted spinner.  We do not see this today because both woolen and worsted spinners use spindles with whorls that all rotate at the same slow speed.  Thus, woolen spinners spin at the speed of worsted spinners.   And the goal is better yarn, rather than  faster yarn.

Victorian ladies looked at the depiction of Egyptian linen spinners, Greek and Roman worsted spinners, and decided that all spindles need whorls.  Modern spinners (after 1960) took this as the wisdom of the ages. They felt that spindles needed whorls - everybody knows that, why would they stop and test this bit of folk wisdom? They did not think about spinning faster by using a spindle without a whorl.  They were spinning for a hobby, they did not care how fast they could spin.  In fact, showing off how fine and fast one can spin is considered rude.  When hobby spinners want to spin woolen faster they use a great wheel or charkha.   

I think spindles for worsted spinning need much higher moments of inertia than spindles for woolen spinning.  I find it amusing that this difference does not show up in the spindle market place.  It does not matter to me because I make my own spindles, and mostly I spin with my wheel.  

The above will raise some hackles  Any hand spinner that can sit down and spin wool at its spin count ( is very welcome to tell me that I am full of shit.  Any person that cannot hand spin wool at its spin count should be polite.  


Jane Cobb said...

Given that the average error rate for a good - please note the word "good" is around 1%, your 1 in a million statement sounds utterly ludicrous. Please would you find some proper research studies to back up your statement.

Aaron said...

The one in a million was used to set a boundary condition, not average production process. However, I have been safety officer on construction/ D&D projects that went a million man hours without a lost time injury. Thus, our safety group's error rate was less than 6 sigma (1 in a million).

When we were building the factories for making computer chips, there were ~1 million junctions in a chip. A one in a million failure rate would meant that most chips contained an error and were unusable. In fact, only one in a million chips failed, so the actual failure rate was 1 in 10^12 junctions, but we still called it 6-sigma quality.

I was a member of ASQC, and in the late 1980s, helped Dean Wolf draft ASQC EQ-4 which became the basis for EPA's RCRA quality standards. (

In the early 1990s, I shared an office at BHI with Sebastian Tindall, and we revolutionized QA/QC for CERCLA cleanups. ( We made 6-sigma quality feasible for nuclear material and hazardous material cleanup in the field, where the workers are wearing Class A personal protective gear.

The bottom line is that a stone whorl used for production spinning will not endure for a lifetime to become grave goods. At some time the whorl will get dropped and broken or lost. Even very good spinners, working carefully will drop or lose whorls in the course of production spinning. In the chip plants, our error rate was low, but it was measurably above zero.

In neolithic times, a fine (plain) whorl made from a hard stone like jade, would be a very valuable item. It would be not be used for day to day production spinning. Cheaper, ceramic whorls would be used for day to day spinning.

Badger said...

Well, I can, and you are.

Aaron said...

The way to settle this is a race.

We get together and spin some nice hanks of worsted (560 yd) at its spin count, and the first to stand up with full hanks at the right weight wins. Or, we could bet on who can spin the lightest hanks form each fleece, or both?

I propose Cotswold (36s, 20,000 ypp), Shetland (60s, 33,600 ypp), and Rambouillet (80s, 44,800 ypp)

We could have Morro Bay prep the fleece hold the contest there. It is a bit closer to you than to me, but that is OK.

Or, we could just meet and see who can spin the most hanks in a week. This would give give a more statistically valid measure of who is the better spinner.

And it the great tradition of racing, how much of a wager ($) do you want to put on this contest?

Badger said...

There you go again, Aaron, changing the rules. You still owe a friend of mine a case of brandy from your last "challenge," or have ou forgotten that? Oh, wait, you changed the rules that time, too.

Your sense of humor is quite astounding if you think I'm actually going to fly from Wisconsin to Northern California to "duel" with you. That would be a waste of both time and money. This is not the OK Corral, you are not Wyatt Earp. Go back to your Ashford and spin some more. t find it does wonders for relieving stress and delusions of grandeur.

Aaron said...

Sorry, I was thinking you were in LA.

I always said my knitting would withstand a good heavy rain. If somebody wants a case of brandy, they need to show that their will knitting will withstand a good heavy rain. Nobody has done that.

The water bottle on the floor was just a demo, not the spec. People seem not to be able to read the spec.