The history of the French spindle is enigmatic and there (as yet) are no known modern authoritative sources for learning about how to use one. Most of what we know about them is from the efforts of hobbyists who have analyzed their form (reverse engineering) and made assumptions about how they could have been held and used. Some photos (antique postcards, etc.) exist which depict them being used handheld or partially suspended by their caps or spirals. Despite the lack of historical information available, they are surprisingly common – antiques can be found at swap meets in France, and also posted for sale on eBay.
Anatomy of the French spindle. French spindles are most often stick shaped, and comprise of a spinning tip (sometimes with a cap hook), sometimes a spiral groove, a storage area (the shaft), and butt. Occasionally, these spindles can be found with metal caps (hooks) attached or removable. There are a variety of shapes – torpedo like, long and narrow, heavier at the bottom, and some will have points that could have allowed for them to be used supported. For this reason, French spindles can be categorized as handheld, supported, and suspended. Some spindles can only be used handheld. The most versatile can be used all three ways.
Gripping Yarn French Spindles are commonly made to be used in all three ways. Lisa (that’s me!) has figured out how to make copper removable caps which allow for an amazing variety of configurations.
The spiral groove explained. Tips of the French spindles are varied and fascinating. Some are narrow, terminating at 2mm-3mm in diameter. And some are quite fat, terminating at 5mm or more. Not all French spindles exhibit a spiral. Those that do are generally found with a right leaning slant. Right leaning slants were probably used by the right handed who spun clockwise, and left leaning slants were used for the left handed who spun counterclockwise. However, there are many more varieties of handedness. What matters is which direction you spin singles, not if you are left or right handed.
Purpose of the spiral groove. During spinning, the spun single will tend to want to spiral up the shaft and fall into the groove. The groove provides some friction for the spinner to pull against during a draft. In addition, it can help the spinner press the spun yarn to the shaft, which may aid in the “twiddling” process and reduce compression stress on the tips of the fingers. It has also been found that French spindles being used supported can be partially suspended if gently lifted after a vigorous flick.
Purpose of the cap. Some spindles are found with metal caps. These caps (sometimes removable) terminate in a spiral pig tail or hook. A spindle equipped with a hook is uniquely suited for suspended and supported/suspended spinning. Differing from a drop spindle, the spinning tip of the French spindle is supported between the second and third fingers, the yarn is pulled out in a long draw from the fiber hand, and twist can be added either during the draw or incrementally with an eye to add the final desired twist after a single has been drawn out.
In many of the surviving images, women are seated or standing next to a distaff (a long stick to store and hold prepped fibers). Often, the distaff is charged with fiber and positioned at a height of about 2-3 feet above the spindle. The fibers are tugged downwards from the distaff by the fiber hand (twist is added by the spindle hand). This configuration would leave the fiber hand available for drafting and neatening a spun single (and free from managing a cloud of fiber held in the hand). In present day, most hobbyists don’t use distaffs but will hold the spindle in one hand and a cloud of fiber in the other. Undoubtedly, it is more productive to use a distaff. However, I have yet to try one and still find spinning with French spindles quite enjoyable.
Twiddling or handheld use. The spindle is steadied between the second and third fingers. The thumb is held to the back. Using the thumb, one will push the shaft away from the palm of the hand and let the first and second fingers pull the shaft towards the palm of the hand. In this way, the spindle will make a full rotation between the fingers without dropping. Accomplished “twiddlers” can flick at a high rate of speed, and the spindle becomes partially suspended for a moment as a high twist is introduced to the spun single. French spindles with caps support themselves and can maintain momentum and a higher rate of twist for a longer time.
The advantage of the cap. As mentioned, a spindle with a cap can be used more easily as a partially suspended spindle as there is no friction introduced by the supporting hand during a flick.
The advantage of the spiral without a cap. The size of the hook can limit the diameter of the spun single. Without a cap, one can spin light, low-twist singles of any diameter and these spindles are particularly suitable for those who would like to make bulky art yarns or singles yarn (no ply yarn).