20 January 2018

Distaff spinning hints & tips: the half-hitch

There have been some questions recently from newbies on the Evangelical Church of Distaff Spinning page, so I thought I'd do some hints and tips. This first one is about the half-hitch, a common source of concern given that many of extant medieval spindle sticks do not have a notch or hook at the tip to hold the half-hitch in place.

Here are my hints and tips as to how to get a strong, functional half-hitch in place easily every time despite using a notch-less spindle.

First, let's consider the half-hitch knot itself. Why do we do it?

Well, the half-hitch is used so that we can suspend the spindle from its thread without it unwinding. So, if you are using your medieval spindle using the in-hand technique, you don't need to put a half-hitch there at all. You're never "dropping" (suspending) the spindle, so it never needs a half-hitch. Indeed, in my experience putting a half-hitch on when trying to do in-hand spinning makes it work less well (never mind that you're adding an inessential, time-wasting step).

An example of in-hand spinning.
Detail of St Elizabeth & companions spinning, c. 1511, Germany.
British Museum, no. 1895,0122.238. Source.

(As an aside, if you want to learn this style of spinning, Cathelina de Allesaandri of 15th Century Spinning is the hands-down master of it and you can see here videos here.)

However, the other type of spinning done in medieval Europe is what I refer to as short-suspension spinning. By this, I mean that the spindle is suspended from its thread but only ever for a short distance - typically within a hands-length from the non-drafting hand. This type of spinning most definitely does require a half-hitch to prevent the spindle from tumbling to the floor.

Short-suspension spinning.
Descendant of Cain, c. 1327-35, S.E. England.
BL Add. MS 47682, f. 6r. Source.
(To see how to do this style of spinning, take a look at my video.)

However, there's a little bit of a trick needed to make a half-hitch stay on your typical medieval spindle stick, which doesn't have either a notch or a hook at the tip. It's all about the angle at which you wind your thread on.

The first point is how you start winding on. Always wind down past the widest part of the spindle stick (or the widest point of your cop) and then back up again. This prevents the whole wind from just slipping up the stick and off (and means you don't have to do the "drop spindle" thing of winding the last pass of yarn below the whorl, as seen in this image).

Then, as you wind back up, you need to think about the angle at which you wind on.

The same spindle stick, two ways of winding on. The left-hand one
will hold despite the lack of notch; the right-hand one will never
hold, no matter how hard you try.
When winding back up towards the tip of the spindle, you must make many wraps in a short space of time. Put another way, the angle between the thread and your spindle stick needs to be over 45° rather than being more acute. An acute angle between thread and spindle stick, as shown on the right of the above image, will not provide enough friction between stick and thread to prevent the thread from slipping (and thus your half-hitch just falling off the top of the stick). However, the more wraps you put in (and the more horizontal they are) the more friction you are making between thread and stick and the less likely it is that the thread will slip.

My last little tip, for getting all of those wraps in place. Personally, I find it easiest to make the half-hitch like this.

How to easily get the half-hitch in place with lots of wraps below it. (Note: these images are a little awkward-looking as normally my right hand would be assisting by holding and moving the spindle.)
1) Hold the thread in the left hand between index finger and thumb (off-screen) and use the little finger to tension the thread between index and little finger plus between little finger and spindle.

2) Pivot the left hand, going from palm up to palm down, in order to bring the tip of the spindle against the tensioned length of thread running between your index and little fingers.

3) (Using your right hand, holding the spindle near its base, to control the movement of the spindle.) Tuck the tip of the spindle under the tensioned thread it was lying on, then back up to near the tip of your little finger. Note: do not remove your little finger from the loop of thread (yet).

4) Use your right hand, holding the spindle near its base, to rotate the spindle, taking up the slack yarn held by your little finger and putting in lots of twists below your half-hitch. Once you've put in 3-4 twists, you can remove your little finger from its thread loop and finish tensioning your half-hitch by pulling on the thread that is still pinched between your thumb and index finger.


So, there you go. All of my hints and tips regarding putting on a half-hitch with a traditional notch-less Western European spindle. Let me know if you find this useful.

For more hints and tips regarding distaff spinning, as well as friendly discussion and encouragement, check out the Evangelical Church of Distaff Spinning on Facebook. :)

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