Spinning effortlessly and naturally

The nuances of Andean spinning

Nilda shows how yarn from two spindles is wound into a ball to be skeined for washing and dyeing before plying.

It looks so simple, making yarn on a spindle. I've watched spinners in the Andes make yarn while herding sheep, climbing steep mountain paths, chasing children, shopping in the market. Toddlers begin to try their hand at it with little spindles carved by their dad. Elderly women who can no longer weave, who are crippled with arthritis and blind with cataracts, still spin—beautiful stuff. Watching them, it looks so effortless and natural.

And so it is.

When the opportunity to film a video on Andean spinning with Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez came up, my first thought was "how wonderful." My second thought was "how do we fill up a whole hour?" Silly me. As I sat by watching Nilda take wool in hand and share the knowledge that she began storing up when she was only eight years old, tending sheep on the slopes around her native Chinchero, Peru, I was struck by the nuances, the little tricks, the organic complexity of making yarn in this way. It's a very intentional process: what will the yarn be used for? Weaving? Knitting? Weaving a big manta, or a small band? Knitting a man's fancy but sturdy chullo, or a baby's soft bobble-bedecked cap? Natural colors or dyed ones? Wool or alpaca?

Linda and Nilda discuss the direction the yarn is spun.

The yarn might be spun Z and plied S, or vice versa. People who can spin easily both ways are said to have pushka-maki, spindle hands. It's a useful skill—it may even be that the S-spun, Z-plied yarn repels rain better. Yarn that's a little overspun can be unspun a bit—no worries. Winding balls for weaving yarns is different than winding balls for knitting yarns. Techniques that we tend to think of as modern inventions, such as "park and draft" and "double draft" are as old as the Andes: they just make sense, and are part of every spinner's repertoire. Likewise, every spinner has many spindles—different whorl weights and shaft lengths, depending on the project. Plying from a figure-eight skein is trouble-free—who needs a niddy-noddy or a reel?

I have a handspun, handwoven bag from Chinchero that I've been stuffing and carrying around and abusing for almost ten years, and it looks like new. I've seen mantas and ponchos of every description dating back to pre-Columbian times, and they look like new, too. It's in the quality of the yarn. That's where it all starts, and all it takes is fiber, spindle, and know-how. This video is all about know-how, and it's a great way to get to know a great spinner.

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