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.


Woolly Dionysos

My two patron deities are Hekate and Dionysos. I work with others, but those are the most important to me. I keep altars to each of them in my ritual room, which see regular use. My Hekate altar is small and simple and fairly plain, but has multiple images of the goddess on it. My Dionysos altar is large and complex and has lots of stuff, but no image of the god. (I had one. I took it elsewhere for a ritual, and it broke.) The Zati book had instructions for a doll, so I thought I’d give it a shot. At first he was too Jesusy:

Jesus does not belong on my Dionysos altar. Nope. So I added leaf and grape cluster beads to his fillet, and when that wasn’t quite enough either, I borrowed some Green Man iconography, and gave him a green cloak trimmed with leaves. (Trying to make a felt leopard skin sounded like faaaaar too much work.)

I am reasonably pleased. I want to make him a thyrsos, whenever I find my tiny pinecones. The vertical stripes are meant to represent the pleats in a bassara, the long version of the chiton, which Dionysos wore. (It was usually a woman’s garment, so D was considered to be somewhat . . . gender transgressive, shall we say?)

I’m working on a second doll, this one a Valkyrie, for the Ravelry Folklore and Fairy Tales group’s read-along/knit-along/weave-along of the Volsung Saga. I did go and reread the story, if not the longer translation, and I’d forgotten most of that, but I was surprised to see how much of the rest of the mythology I remembered in the discussion. I ended up explaining the context of the mistletoe dart, and then giving some of the reasons the Aesir lose at Ragnarok, and was able to reel off a lot of it off the top of my head.

I may, if this one comes out well, try doing a Hecateon somehow, the three-form Hecate pillar.

In other news, I treated myself to some fancy wool batts, and am having fun spinning those. I want to chain ply the yarn and send it to my Mom, who crochets, but she doesn’t do tiny fine stuff, so it’s not like I can send her my usual cobweb yarns. So I’m spinning fingering weights, and it’s more fun than I remember. And it goes so much faster! I’d forgotten how fast spinning can go! Whee!

The wool is not as soft as I had expected, which is probably the Coopworth/Romney, but it’s pretty colors. And it’s fun to spin, and I’ll get to practice my chain plying.

Doing It Backwards

I seem to do so many things “backwards,” at least by everyone else’s standards, simply because it makes more sense to me that way. Spinning turns out to be one of them.

I’m right-handed, but I usually spin singles counter-clockwise (S-twist) and then ply clockwise (Z-twist). I just sort of did this instinctively when I first started spinning (at Gulf Wars, an SCA event). I had a few people laugh at me in a friendly way for “doing it backwards” — including rolling a drop spindle up my left thigh instead of down — before I met my first spinning and weaving mentor, Ann.

I met Ann while I was doing Tarot readings for tips at a local bookstore cafe. It was a really slow day, so I was sitting there spinning, and all of a sudden there comes a voice from behind me, “Oo, is that a hand spindle!” And there was Ann, who pulled out a small support spindle to show me the silk noil she was working on. We hit it off immediately.

Ann was also pagan, and she and her husband did all kinds of remarkable things. Animal rescue, breeding peafowl (she had a peacock who threw white chicks), raising chickens who laid green eggs, raising the occasional sheep or goat for fiber (Vincent van Goat had recently passed away when I met them, and was much mourned), built a clay oven out of red clay they dug from the side of the road (this was when I lived in Tallahassee, which has a lot of it), all kinds of stuff. Ann had a cotton shirt that she had grown herself, in four shades of cotton, two off-whites and two greens (yes, cotton naturally comes in more colors than just white or off-white; it can be an olive green or even a pinkish red). She showed me her Tyrian purple yarn that she’d dyed by irritating snails in Mexico, and told me about her amusing run-in with customs on the way back.* When The Fellowship of the Ring came out, there was an article in a handspinners’ magazine about the Fellowship cloaks, and the farm in New Zealand where the special breed of sheep were raised, that had its own spinning and weaving mills, and had produced the fabric. Ann promptly sent off for some of their wool, and spent the next two years spinning, weaving, and sewing her own Fellowship cloak. She spent hours poring over stills from the movie, trying to figure out the drafting pattern, and then hours more trying to figure out the sewing pattern, but she had it done in time to wear it to the premiere of Return of the King. She even made her own leaf brooch for it, using precious metal clay.

All of which is to say that Ann’s a really nifty person, and very impressive. I fell out of touch with her after I moved to Seattle, and I miss her, especially now that I’m getting heavily into fiber arts again. I can’t write this blog without talking about her a bit.

Ann was the one who told me that S-twist thread was called shaman’s thread or witch’s thread. That started me thinking about the meaning of clockwise and counterclockwise, deosil and widdershins, and how it applied to spinning.

Deosil is the direction of the sun, the direction of life. Widdershins is the direction of stagnation, of blocking things out, of decay. A spinner who knows energy work can catch energy in the fiber, and spin it clockwise (Z-twist) to catch and boost the energy, to spin it together to make it stronger and more useful, just as spinning does with the fiber itself. Or she can spin it counterclockwise to catch the energy and damp it, trap it within the thread or yarn to keep it locked up.

But a lot of yarn is plied, and plying always goes in the opposite direction of spinning. Decay is part of a cycle. A yarn spun widdershins and plied deosil pulls energy caught into it down into decay, where it ceases to be what it was and becomes something that can be used for other purposes, and then spins it back up into new growth and new intensity, transforming it into whatever the spinner needs it to be, the way rotting plant matter feeds the new growth of other plants. A spinner can grab the negative energy in a room, catch it in fiber, trap all of it, then ply the yarn back on itself to renew and improve the energy, and release it again, even in quite short lengths.

Thread spun deosil catches and builds energy, and each length can catch a different energy. The differently charged lengths can be plied to together widdershins to lock the energy into the thread, combining the different energies into something new, and then the charged thread used in a weaving, knitting, or crochet project which is then charged with all the different energies put into the yarn.

You can catch myriad emotions in different singles and plied lengths, or the energy of every moon, full and new, for a year, and put it into a shawl or a length of fabric to be made into ritual garb. There’s magic that can be done with storebought yarn, too, in the making of whatever project you use it for, but the earlier you start working your materials with your hands yourself, the more layers of energy and magic and meaning you can put into it.**

*True Tyrian purple used to be made from the shells of sea snails in the ancient Mediterranean. The color was very difficult to obtain, and involved killing the snails. It was incredibly expensive, and is the origin of purple as an imperial or royal color. The snails were driven to extinction. There is, however, a species of snail in Mexico that produces the same dyestuff, and you can get it without killing them. You just irritate the snail until it pukes on your fiber. Unfortunately, the stuff stinks. And with modern dyes, there’s no reason other than historical interest to use it. But Ann was into historical textiles — indeed, when I last saw her, she was working on a degree in the subject, and worked at a local living history site, making sure they had period costume — so when she and her husband went to Mexico, she had to take a side trip to annoy the snails. Coming back, she wrapped the yarn in multiple layers of trash bags to keep the stink off her stuff. Of course, the customs agent then selected her bag for a random search. When he found the bundle of trash bags, he was quite naturally suspicious. Ann warned him that he didn’t want to open that bundle, which of course only made him more certain that there was smuggling going on. So he opened it up, got a whiff of the snail puke, quickly confirmed that there wasn’t any illegal substance in there, and sealed it up again as fast as he could. “You’re right, I didn’t want to open that.”

It was about five years later that she showed me that yarn, and it still smelled bad, although I was assured that it had been far worse when it was fresh. And I believed it. Ugh.

**Yes, that means that if you grow the cotton or flax, raise the caterpillars and harvest the cocoons, shear the sheep or goat, and process the fiber for spinning yourself, you can put even more into it. And many spinner do, at some point.