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Spinning Words

Spinning Words

Brad and Joanna have been showing off their specialized, obscure vocabulary lately, so I thought I would share some of the more obscure, specialized words that I know. Brad has focused on Scottish dialect, and, I wanted to share words that only a select group of people know.


Not the athletes pedaling madly away on their exercise bikes. I mean people who spin. Because yes, there are people making their own yarn on their own spinning wheels even as we speak. (And, frankly, if I weren’t in front of my computer talking to you, I would be sitting at one of my wheels.)

When I started spinning in 2004, I was thrilled with how many nifty, fun words there were to learn. (Because, while learning a new skill is good, learning new words is even better.) Some of these you may have heard of; some have different meanings outside the craft; and some are just purely entertaining.

  • Spindle: Also known as a Drop Spindle. This hand-held device was used for centuries upon centuries to make yarn and thread. Traditionally a stick with a circular disk or weight of some kind at one end to aid rotation. Until spinning wheels were invented sometime around 1350, every sail on a Viking ship, every bandage on an Egyptian Mummy, every thread in Chinese silk, every length of velvet came from one person sitting (or walking and standing) with a pile of fiber and a spindle.
  • Supported Spindle: Not all spindles are dropped. When spinning a particularly fine thread or particularly short or slippery fiber, the weight of a spindle (no matter how light) would break your thread before you could add enough twist to hold everything together. So some spindles are designed to spin while resting inside a bowl, while the spinner pulls the thread upward with a gentle touch, rather than letting the spindle pull it downward with gravity.
  • Copp: As you spin on a spindle, you wrap your completed thread around the shaft of the spindle. This bundle of spun fiber is called a copp (while it’s still on the spindle).
  • Whorl: The circular disk at the end of the spindle. They can be located at either end (Top-Whorl, Bottom-Whorl), and I’ve even seen them in the middle. Their main function is to add to help the spindle to rotate for as long as possible. It also helps your finished thread stay in place.
  • Twist: Obvious, of course, but this is what holds your fiber together. In spinning circles (ha ha), Twist is a noun. (“Be sure to add enough twist to keep the thread from separating.”)
  • Singles: No, not unmarried people. When you spin a thread of yarn, that is known as a Single.
  • Plies: What you get when you twist two or more singles together. Have you ever looked closely at a piece of yarn, or the nap of a rug? Most yarns are multi-plied for strength and stability. So, a 2-ply yarn is made of up two singles, 4-ply yarn is four singles, 6-ply yarn is six singles, and so on. Plying always join the singles by twisting them in the opposite direction than they were originally spun.
  • Lazy Kate: This holds multiple bobbins of singles for plying … they sit on spokes of the lazy kate so that you can feed them evenly as you ply them together.
  • Niddy Noddy: How can you not love this name? This is made up of three sticks of wood (usually wood, anyway). It’s one long piece in the center and two crossbars at either end–kind of like a double-ended T-Square, but with the “T”s perpendicular to each other. It’s used to take your spun yarn off of the spindle and into a controllable skein. There’s even a rhyme to help you keep rhythm: “Niddy-noddy, niddy-noddy, Two heads, one body, ‘Tis one, ‘taint one, ‘Twill be one, bye and bye. ‘Tis two, ‘taint two, ‘Twill be two, bye and bye.” Speaking personally, though, I always count the number of wraps as I skein my yarn. Niddy Noddies are usually a specific size so that they make skeins that are a certain number of yards or meters. If you get 100 turns around your 2-yard Niddy Noddy, you’ve got 200 yards of yarn–something I find a lot more useful than the cute little song.
  • Skein: A loose hank of yarn, laid out in one long, continuous circle and tied securely to prevent tangling.
  • Skeiner: A mechanical device to make skeining easier–it usually looks like a wheel or a cross that rotates like a wheel, gathering up the yarn as it turns.
  • Swift: Pretty much the same thing as the skeiner, except it’s used to hold a skein of yarn while you wind OFF into a ball. If you’re lucky, you’ll have one that can do double duty.
  • Spindle (wheel): The very first spinning wheels, back during the Renaissance, basically took a standard drop spindle, turned it on its side, and added a drive band so that it could be spun mechanically rather than by manually twirling it every minute or so. The spinning action was remarkably similar, though, and the yarn was wound manually onto the spindle. You can still find these wheels (like Great Wheels), but most spinning wheels these days wind the yarn onto bobbins for you. In other words, generally speaking, every picture you’ve ever seen of Sleeping Beauty touching a spinning wheel before falling into her 100 year’s sleep? She’s almost never really touching a spindle at all. If anything, it’s usually the distaff
  • Distaff: Used to hold fiber that’s ready to be spun, so that it’s easy for the spinner to reach for more fiber as needed. It’s really only used for spinning linen (flax) or cotton; it’s not really necessary for wool.
  • Flyer: The mechanism on a spinning wheel that lets it automatically wind the yarn onto a bobbin. It “flies,” or rotates, around the bobbin the wheel spins.
  • Bobbin: What the yarn winds onto. It rotates at a speed just slower than the flyer and can be easily removed from the wheel when it’s full.
  • Maiden: The piece of the spinning wheel that holds the bobbin and flyer in place.
  • Mother-of-All: The Mother-of-All holds the Maiden in place.
  • Flyer Whorl: The pulley attached to the drive wheel that spins the flyer. Most spinning wheels come with different size whorls which make the flyer go faster or slower and thereby adding more or less twist per each treadle as you spin.
  • Drive Wheel, or Fly Wheel: The “big” wheel of a spinning wheel. The yarn being spun does NOT go around the drive wheel (despite what some people think); this is what drives the flyer assembly, where the real work is done.
  • Treadle: Where your feet go to make the whole thing work. NOT pedals. The treadles turn the drive wheel which turns the flyer assembly.
  • Footman: Instead of a servant standing erect in a hallway, this is the piece(s) that connects the treadles to the drive wheel.
  • Orifice: A hole in the Flyer that feeds the yarn …
  • Nostepinde: Affectionately known as a “Nosty,” these are usually nicely carved and shaped to fit your hand, but basically look like the top of a broomstick and are used for winding center-pull balls of yarn for ease of use.
  • Spinster: One last word–originally, “spinster” identified the person responsible for most of the family’s spinning, which was usually an unmarried woman. Spinning enough linen, cotton, and wool to keep a family clothed was a full-time job and vitally important. If anything, it was an honorable title, not a derrogatory one.

And, folks? This is just the equipment!

So … was this interesting? Or boring? Should I keep going?

12 thoughts on “Spinning Words

  1. --Deb

    Glad you enjoyed it! I had a lot of fun writing it, too, and ended up sitting in my room, looking around to see if there were any obvious pieces of equipment I’d missed (grin).

    Well … I’d better go start on the next one, then … the fibers. Bast, Roving, Ripple, Scutching, Hackle …

    –Deb’s last blog post..Spinning Words

  2. Melissa Donovan

    You must have fun talking about spinning because a lot of these words are a blast. My favorites are spindle, niddy noddy, and bobbin.

    There’s another kind of spinner too. I used to see them at Grateful Dead concerts (no, not in the sixties – in the early nineties). They just spin to the music, whirling round and round. It’s pretty trippy and yes they’re hippies (but I’m not). Okay, maybe I am a little.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Top Secret Fiction Writing Exercises

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