Fred Jaicks  Written and compiled by Fred Jaicks.

Spinning is the art of pulling together fibers to form yarn which is then used by weavers to create anything from clothing to household decorations. In the nearly 20,000 years it has been in practice, the craft has evolved from spinning by hand using a rock to large factories and heavy machinery. Spinning materials into yarn is a hobby for some and was one of the leading catalysts during the Industrial Revolution. Although being a weaver or spinner is no longer a common profession (unlike in the Middle Ages), there are still many people who have taken up spinning for fun in their free time.


There are different materials, each with different working strategies and end products. Fibers can come from plants (flax and hemp), animals (wool from sheep, goat, alpaca, etc.) or man-made synthetic materials (nylon, polyester). Historically cotton has been the most popular material as it was a definitive characteristic of economy and culture during the 17th and 18th centuries, but other materials such as wool and the recent synthetic yarns have been popular as well. Choosing the right material(s) depends on how much practice you have as some are harder to use than others, and what you want the end product to be will also make a difference. What may work as a decoration may make for an uncomfortable sweater!

Hand Spinning

For thousands of years, spinning has been performed by the spindle and the distaff. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the spinning wheel was invented which sped up individual contributions dramatically. Spinning wheels gradually replaced slower tools like the spindle and distaff, and eventually the spinning jenny and spinning frame became popular and were considered the best tools. Later on, the spinning jenny became the go-to tool for making yarn.

In the first (and most primitive) method of spinning, chunks of animal hair or plant fibers were rolled down the thigh with one hand, with additional chunks added as needed to increase length. Eventually the fiber was attached to a stone which is spun around until the yarn was effectively twisted. Later on the spindle was invented – a stick eight to ten inches in length on which the yarn was spun after twisting. The material was held with one hand while the fibers were pulled out a few inches and attached to the top of the spindle. All while this was done, the spindle was twirled around as the process was repeated in a cycle of spinning and reattaching the yarn to the spindle.

Industrial Spinning

In 1764, carpenter and weaver James Hargreaves created the spinning jenny – the first spinning machine improvement since the spinning wheel. The spinning jenny allowed weavers to work with up to 120 spools of material at once. Later on the spinning jenny was combined with Richard Arkwright’s water frame to become the spinning mule which increased the speed and ease with which materials could be spun. Eventually spinning machines went from single, stand-alone stations to becoming entire factories housing hundreds of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Today, technology has enabled us to create new types of fabrics like polyester.

Contemporary Hand Spinning

Although spinning is largely done by machines presently, hand spinning is still an important skill or hobby for some cultures and societies. By choosing to spin by hand, weavers can often obtain a level of quality not doable by machines, which in turn can lead to monetary benefits, enjoyment, and a higher sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment. There have been many recent innovations ranging from improvements to the craft with new techniques and dyeing procedures, to the ability to find more tutorials online. Some of these modern improvements have been electric spinning wheels which make the entire process fast and easy.


Standard hand and industrial spinning both have some different techniques involved to create unique results. The inch worm technique is great for beginners because it teachers the most basic skills of hand spinning and drafting The worsted (short draw) technique is great for spinning more durable yarn which is primarily used for making good suits. On the other hand, long draw spinning is done to make lighter, softer spun yarns and is often a good technique for knitting yarn.

Spinning has changed substantially since it was first created over 20,000 years ago. Crafters no longer have to tie fibers to a rock and spin them by hand, and now people with no experience can find tutorials and videos online to aid in their learning process. Spinning wheels and other tools now have electric, modern versions to make the craft easier and faster than ever should one want the convenience. Now it’s time to pick up some fibers and tools to enjoy your new crafting project.