Book Charkha

Many, many years ago, at least ten now, my mentor-in-all-things-fiber, Ann, gave me a book charkha. I never really learned to use it well, and it’s been in the back of the junk-room-that-was-supposed-to-be-a-craft-room for years.

Wait. Back up. What’s a book charkha? Well, a charkha is an Indian spinning wheel with a very high drive ratio, operated by hand, and suitable for spinning very short staple-length fibers like cotton. (If you need definitions for any of that, ask.) A book charkha is a portable charkha built into a folding case that can be anywhere from the size of a hardcover to the size of a briefcase. Mine’s about the size of one volume of my Absolute Sandman collection. (And a lot lighter.) So, an oversized hardcover.

Charkhas became a tool and symbol of the Indian independence movement, re-popularized by Gandhi himself. Cotton was one of the most economically important crops in India, but under British rule, it was shipped to England for processing, spinning and weaving. Gandhi strove to take back the means of production and put it in the hands of the Indian people. Traditional floor charkha, while lovely wheels in many ways, aren’t terribly portable, which Gandhi thought important, so he held a competition for a more portable design. The book charkha was the winning design. Charkha are very easy to use, and also meditative to use. He recommended that every household in India have one, and that everyone in — adult or child, of any gender — use the charkha for at least an hour a day, often in public, as a form of passive resistance. This would mean that India would spin its own cotton, and so could begin weaving it again for use and sale.

Ann had a friend who went to India, found a cheap, tourist-grade charkha, bought it and gave it to Ann. Now, Ann already had a very nice book charkha, so she said thank you very nicely, fiddled with it long enough to get it working smoothly (shimming this, tweaking that, making new drive bands, adding nylon washers, etc), and then stuck it in a corner. When she started hanging around with me a few years later, she was kind enough to give it to me.

After her hacking, it works perfectly well, I’m just not very good at it. It relies on a long draw technique, which I’ve never been good at.

But! The Tour de Fleece, in which spinners on Ravelry spin every day the Tour de France rides, is coming up in about six weeks, and I’m planning on joining in this year. My first goal is simply to spin every day, because I’ve gotten out of the habit again, and I don’t like that. But you’re also supposed to set goals for “challenge days” — the days when the cyclists are doing really hard shit, like climbing mountains twice — and I decided to make mine using my charkha, which should provide me plenty of challenge, since I am strictly a spindle girl, and the charkha is the only wheel I own.

So I dug into the junk room and found it (and feel terribly accomplished) when I went in there to dig for fiber (and also discovered that I have two whole totes full of felting fiber, which I will have to find something to do with at some point).

And here are a bunch of pictures (please excuse the remains of the mawata painting earlier in the evening):

The closed case of the charkha. It’s about 16″ long.

Opened, not yet set up.

All set up. On the far right is the drive wheel. The small wheel is the accelerator. The second band leads from the accelerator wheel to the spindle held in the mousetrap.

Close shot of the wheels. Under them, you can see a spring. The accelerator wheel sits on a metal spoke mounted on that spring. It’s used to create the tension between the two wheels.

The little triangle knob on the drive wheel is for turning it. This will become slightly more interesting later, if you care about histories of wheels.

That spring and mount.

Front of the mousetrap, so called because of its appearance and spring. And because it does, indeed, snap. The spring in the mousetrap provides tension for the accelerator-to-spindle band.

My nails are not dirty, they’re stained with dye.

The back of the mousetrap, with the slots that hold the spindle.

The spindle itself, about 7″ long, and sharp enough to draw blood. No falling asleep!

The sliding top box that holds the small bits and pieces when not in use, as well as a fold-down thread guide/tensioner for use with the skein winder.

Skein winder? It has a skein winder? Where?


There it is! Those two pieces fit in around the wheel when the box is closed.


And some cotton top and thread spun by Ann that she gave me with the wheel.

Now, I had thought that the charkha was maybe fifteen years old, but it may be at least thirty. Several things about it are considerably less streamlined than the current standard design, which you can see in detail over here. In particular, it lacks the dedicated slots for the spindles, the arm to steady the box while spinning, has the wooden crosspiece skein winder instead of a hub with metal arms, and the mousetrap is clunky and has only bare wooden cutouts to hold the spindle, and has no metal handle for turning the wheel, only the little triangle knob. At first, I thought that the handle was just missing, so I contacted New World Textiles to ask about a replacement, and also some more spindles as mine has only one. The owner, though, heard the rest of my description of the thing, and told me that it was very unusual, and that the current design had been the standard for at least thirty years, as long as she’d been working with them. It’s also possible of course that mine is just a cheaply-made knockoff. Still looking around for more information.


2 thoughts on “Book Charkha

  1. Ah, terminology. I remember talking to you over the phone, and asking if it was a book charkha. It is not, so we were talking about two different things. This is actually a box or “small briefcase” style, not a book style, and everything you show is standard for this style. They do still make these in India, you can get them online from, but the smaller book charkha is more popular.
    Also, the strings on the mousetrap are bearings that get pushed into the groove. The spindle sits on top of them to keep it from rubbing the wood. Oil the bearings often.

    • Yeah, eventually I learned all that, by speaking to someone semi-local to me, who set me straight.

      Thanks for all your help, then and now. I still want to get some more spindles from you (if you think yours will still work for a briefcase?) and one of those shuttles. Eventually. When someone in my household is employed, and we have money to spend on something other than essentials.

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