Who is Kate and Why is She Lazy?

The “lazy kate” on my Louet S10 looks like this:

S10 Louet and the lazy kate with bobbins

Lazy kates come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the brand. Many spinners make their own lazy kates from dowels and plywood.  The lazy kate is simply a way to store bobbins holding spun yarn, or to help in plying the yarn.

Singles on bobbins held by lazy kate, ready for plying

So I am wondering what did Kate do to earn such a bad reputation?  But I can’t find much information in the Google searches I have done.  I did find a poem by a young British poet named Kirke White, writing in the early 1800’s, and who died tragically young. His poem,  “Description of A Summer’s Eve” depicts what various individuals might be doing on a summer night, and in the poem’s second section, he writes:

“…And little Tom and roughish Kate are swinging on the meadow gate…Now they chat of various things…”

“…The mistress sees that lazy Kate, the happing coal on kitchen grate has laid–”

These lines are the oldest references (1809) I can find to Lazy Kate–though it might be just that the rhyming of the vowel sounds in “lazy” and “kate” are all that was needed to create this persona–poor Kate!

If any of you spinners out there know any other history of how Kate came to be so lazy, let us know!

From "Description of A Summer's Eve" Kirke White, 1809

Distaff Side of the Family?

Roman woman spinning yarn with a distaff and drop spindle

It can be hard to grasp the fundamental importance of the act of spinning for our ancestors. Nobody currently alive in virtually any family in a developed nation has a memory of mother or grandmother spinning yarn for cloth to be used in their own household. Since people tend to gather in communities and develop trade, the practice of spinning your own yarn for cloth may have become a very distant memory. Even the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth (1620) depended on the next ship to bring them cloth as they did not have room for spinning wheels (though wheels did arrive on subsequent ships).

Yet, daily spinning in homes was so important to the family for thousands upon thousands of years that the practice affected our very language. “Distaff” is an Old English word, originating at least as early as the 5th century in what is now England and southern Scotland. People, we are talking the 400’s here. We got Visigoths invading Italy, we got gladiators killing war prisoners and Christians, Augustine is writing The City of God, and women in homes are spinning, spinning, spinning the yarn for their household’s clothing.

Distaff & Fibers

Spinning was a daily task, unless you were very rich and bought your cloth or hired your spinners, or very poor, and couldn’t afford the wool or flax.

Oh, by the way, all that spinning was done on a hand-held drop spindle, as the spinning wheel wasn’t invented for another thousand years.

The word “distaff” is of course a replacement for whatever word represented the task in the previous language, because though the words may differ, the woman in the household spinning yarn remained a constant.  She was just represented by different words as the cultures and their languages moved around her.

Twisting Spindle

All of that is to say that women and spinning were so synonymous, that between the 5th and 14th centuries (400 AD to 1300’s) distaff was used to represent female-ness, as we use maternal today. The distaff side of the family is the maternal side (the spear side of the family is the male side).

This representation of maternal stayed with our modern English language well into the 1700-1800’s.

Image taken from:  William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875., p. 565.

How to Ply Singles


Two-ply yarn

When I had finally spun some yarn I was proud of and discovered I was only halfway through the process, I was a bit alarmed. Darn it! Watching the spinners in my Wednesday class left me feeling that plying might be harder than spinning. More twist to control, more yarn to feed, and all while treadling in the opposite direction (that is, if I could remember to!) But, like spinning itself, we seem to know what to do with this action called plying. In time, the brain and hands coordinate, and we are plying away.

A single is just what the name implies–a single strand of spun yarn. Yarn is spun either with a Z-twist (your wheel spins clockwise) or an S-twist (your wheel spins counterclockwise). Both “twists” perform the action of locking

Two bobbins of singles on a Lazy Kate

the wool fibers together into a stronger, now usable, strand. Singles are most often used in weaving, but rarely in knitting. Once you’ve spun two bobbins of singles, you can ply them from a lazy kate onto a third bobbin.

The important thing about all this is that you must ply in the opposite direction from which you have spun the singles. This is because the act of plying the singles in the opposite direction from which they’ve been spun “balances” the twist between the two singles. Plying in the same direction will just “undo” the twist and give you less stable yarn.

The singles twist together to make a 2-ply strand

Lastly, you must ply singles that have been spun in the same twist direction! Plying a Z-twist strand with an S-twist strand will just give you a big mess!

Arabella advised me to spin all my singles with my wheel spinning clockwise (Z-twist).  With this as the only standard for my singles, I can ply away without undoing the twist, or creating a mess!

Controlling the twist of the ply with your hand

Ancient Spindles

I’m not sure how long it will take me to get over being flabbergasted at the discovery that the spinning wheel is modern compared to the length of time humanity has been wearing clothing.  Which of course means that prior to the 14th century (12th in China) every length of thread or yarn on earth was spun with a spindle and a pair of human hands. Though trade centers probably developed very early in human history for cloth as it did for other necessities, still somebody had to take that wool or flax and turn it into usable thread and yarn.

Two Egyptian Spindles and a Net Needle

Pictured here are two spindles and a netting needle from ancient Egyptian finds. This is the tool that wove history! (Honestly now, aren’t you amazed??) I read recently that the Egyptians didn’t wear much wool; they mainly spun flax into linen cloth for clothing. But the tool remained the same across all cultures, whether you spun from sheep, goats, camels, buffalo or flax or silk.

Notice the notch in the top of this spindle. This marks the place where the magic happens in spinning. Loose plant or animal fibers are held in one hand, and fed onto a device that “spins” the fibers, which causes them to grab onto each other and basically lock together. That is an astounding bit of physical science and physics all its own that we’ll get to one day!

Notice the notch!
Ancient Egyptian Spinning Tools

This photo was taken of a case in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt and shows an ancient carder, spindle, and two whorls (those round disks at the top). Carders were used to pull the fibers in the same direction to make spinning more efficient. The whorls were used on the spindle to change the thickness of the thread/yarn being spun by increasing or decreasing the amount of “spin” added to the fibers.

Hey, now the political practice of spinning makes a lot more sense! The aides are the “whorls” that control how thick or thin the cover stories need to be!

And Then….

MonChere arrived on Sunday with a giant bag of roving that had  been sitting in her closet, unspun, for 12 months.  Her gift to me is not the roving itself, it’s the spinning of it!!  I warned her that I am still a beginner, but she seems okay with that.  I hope to give her back yarn as gorgeous as this roving.

I love this gift!  I can’t wait to start spinning.

Spinning is Brain Work

The first few times I spun with Arabella and the spinning class for 2-3 hours at a time, I was so utterly exhausted that I had to lie down when I got home.  Spinning is a very sedentary activity, so how could I be this tired?  It was my brain!  My brain was exhausted!

Probably because while spinning, the brain is working at several different tasks at once, and you have your fingers, hands, feet, and eyes active in the

God's beauty revealed in the small flowers
Flowers from Jacob's Reward Farm

process.  Your brain is processing, your eyes are carefully watching the fiber, your foot is treadling not too fast and not too slow, and you are drawing the fiber out between your hands and allowing or not allowing twist with your top hand, and then stopping the twist so you can feed the yarn onto the spool…..whew!  It takes a while just to get the coordination down! But like riding a bike, spinning seems to be movement that our bodies intuitively know how to master.

So now, after a dozen or so collective hours of spinning, I am beginning to “get it.”  Instead of just a jumble of actions and slippery wool moving or not moving through my fingers, my brain has started to isolate and understand each of the various tasks. I think this process is what will improve my spinning going forward.  Isolating, and then focusing, on the different actions will produce different results in the yarn.

Here are some of the beginning actions to isolate:

  • speed of treadling
  • amount of twist allowed in the yarn
  • drafting the wool

I’m going over to Arabella’s to practice on her Louet spinning wheel.  She says what I need now is “time at the wheel.”

History Has Been Woven by a Stick — The Astonishing Drop Spindle

As mentioned in the previous post, I am completely flabbergasted by the importance of the drop spindle in over 10,000 years of human history.  The spindle was the only tool for spinning threads and yarns to make everything on earth ever made from fabric or cloth, up until recent history (read more here about the history of the spinning wheel).

WOW! This is the tool that spun the world!

Here is a picture of a drop spindle and some beautifully dyed bamboo yarn that MonChere purchased as her first experiment into spinning.

She spun amazingly well, as I’ve hear that bamboo is not easily spun!

But now you can see how basic and simple the spindle is, and if you weren’t flabbergasted before, I hope you are now.  Otherwise, you might be completely overtaken with the mundane-ness of buying your clothing at the store and need a shake up. Or you might be dead.

MonChere gave the unspun bamboo to Arabella to spin on her wheel, and here is the delightful result (Arabella is quite the spinner).