||Like most people in the spinning community I first
read of the Akha spindle in the Spring 1995 issue of Spin-Off
Magazine. In that
issue Lynn DeRose Mason gives two short snippets of information
about this tiny, little known spindle.
I confess that I didn't pay too much attention at the
time because of the way Lynn spun the spindle in the palm of her
hand, drafting fibers off to the side.
This was the traditional method of spinning on the Akha
spindle. I thought,
"How slow can that be?" and forgot all about it.
At the time I was interested in seeing how fast I could
get my top whorl spindles to go.
I have an overly competitive nature and was determined to
beat a spinning wheel with this ancient tool.
Drafting off a stick in my hand did not suit my agenda.
Then last summer I was doing a spindling
demonstration in Heber, Utah. One
of the guild members, Riki Darling, came up to me holding the cutest
little spindle I'd ever seen. It
was an Akha spindle. She
showed me how to spin it in the hand, drafting cotton fibers; the same
way Lyn DeRose Mason did in the Spin-Off article.
The long bottom shaft fits perfectly in the palm of the hand
leaving fingers free for twisting.
It rotated beautifully. Riki
confessed that she often "cheats" with the spindle and gives
it a fast suspended spin to put more twist on the yarn.
She had made a whole cotton vest using yarn from this little Akha
Then she let me play with it.
I was hooked. My
hand loved the feel of it and didn't want to let go.
Contrary to rumors in internet chatrooms, those five
guild members did not really
need to hold me down to get the spindle back for Riki.
I would have eventually let go on my own; really, I would
Needless to say, I rushed home and ordered two Akha
spindles of my own. Since
these toys have arrived at my house I haven't been able to put
Along with my addiction for spinning on my Akha
spindle I was also consumed by the quest of finding out more about the
people who invented it. I
started out with one snippet of information from Lynn's article - this
spindle was used by the Akha people of southeast Asia.
A search for "Akha" on my CD encyclopedias revealed
nothing. A search for
"Akha" on the internet revealed nothing.
I read up on southeast Asia; made a list of all the countries of
that area and began reading through them one by one.
Finally I found the word "Akha" in an article on
southeast Asian languages. The
Akha people were from the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand.
This was the clue I needed.
A search on the internet for Akha in Thailand found the Akha
Foundation. A search
through books in Amazon.com found several books on the Hill Tribes.
I immediately ordered the books through my local
library and emailed the Akha foundation with a plea for information on
traditional spinning by the Akha people.
Matthew McDaniel, of the Akha
Foundation, responded to me right away.
He said that he didn't know much about the spinning except that
it was important to wear a very short skirt.
The Akha women are particularly skilled at hiking up their skirts
in a provocative way as they flip the spindles off their thighs.
Matthew said, "Native women are very good at keeping the
home fires burning."
I answered back that I was looking for information
about the traditional way of
twirling the spindles in the hand, and did they use singles or ply their
yarn? I sent my message,
and then started thinking about it.
Why in the world am I asking him for the traditional way of
spinning the spindle? After all, he is in Thailand living amongst the Akha people.
He's seen it. I'd only read about it in a short article.
I grabbed my little spindle and tried spinning it up
my leg, rolling the bottom of the long shaft up my leg the way I do my
top whorl spindles. Perfect!
Better than perfect! My
Akha spindle spun better than any top whorl spindle I had ever tried.
The ultra light weight of the spindle was perfect for drafting a
thin cotton yarn. It spun
at lightening speeds. Too
bad I didn't have a short skirt on.
I could see how giving it a skin-to-skin spin would increase
friction for more speed.
Could it go even faster? I tried dangling the spindle down between my shoes and gave
it a kick-start (running my left foot across the base of the
shaft). It whizzed in
the air; I drafted like mad to keep up with the speed.
Now I was truly addicted.
Since then I have completely given up on washing
dishes and vacuuming. No
time! I am suddenly
empowered to spin every little bag of exotic fine fibers that I
have collected over the past twenty years.
I have growing basketfuls of precious little skeins and
feel I am finally doing something with my life.
Maybe someday I will knit these little skeins into
something, if I can ever put this little spindle down.
Then one day, in the midst of my initial spindling
frenzy, the library called and said my books were in. I had two books, and they had pictures! There in front of my eyes was an Akha woman in a short skirt
throwing the spindle off her thigh.
These people like to spin their spindles fast! I became enchanted with their whole culture.
By this time I was struggling with the question of
how best to ply on my little spindle.
For my first skein I tried plying them with my favorite Peruvian
method of winding a center-pull cross on my hand.
The thin cotton strands practically amputated my finger with
pressure as I wound and my plying turned into an impossible snarl
because of the tightly spun, kinky singles.
I had purchased two Akha spindles and tried spinning them both
full of singles. I put them
in cereal bowls and plied to a top whorl spindle.
It worked but it didn't feel right.
How many Akha women would have three spindles?
Once I tried putting a piece of paper on the shaft of the spindle
and removing the cops to knitting needles.
This was a worse kink disaster than the hand method.
||I was at an impasse. I couldn't figure it out by myself so I emailed Mathew
McDaniel from the Akha Foundation (he didn't have a clue what I
was talking about) and poured through my books on the Akha tribes.
I found one small clue.
It seems that the Akha women do most of the work in the
village including tending the fields.
They have a twenty minute walk to the fields each day and
use that time to spin yarn. They
carry bamboo canisters on their hips to hold the spindles and
short rolags of cotton which they previously prepared by running a
bow through cotton tufts. They
spin as they walk and when the spindles get full they roll the
string into a tight ball, toss it into the bottom of the bamboo
canister, and start another spindle full.
When they get home they throw any finished balls into a
basket and wait until winter, which is when they weave.
Later the yarn will be boiled in starchy rice water to
condition them for the loom.
I had a suspicion that, like many native peoples, the
Akha mostly worked with singles. I
also had a suspicion that they occasionally had a reason to ply and
probably had some cool way of managing the singles when they did.
I decided to try step one. I
spun a spindle full of singles and wound it off the spindle into a tight
ball. I was amazed to end
up with a little ball which fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, like
those Chinese relaxation balls you can buy in specialty shops.
Quickly I spun another spindlefull and had two balls which I
could hold comfortably in my hand and ply.
tightness of the ball prevented the singles from kinking.
I was able to draft right off these balls into a long strand.
The feel of the yarn pulling off the small balls in my hand was
delightful, verging on sinful. I
spun my spindle down my thigh now and came up with a perfect, balanced
yarn; all of this using just one spindle.
||It seemed that each time I discovered how the native
peoples managed their spindles my spindling experience increased
in satisfaction. So
why not go the whole way? My
books clearly showed short (6") rolags sitting in a bamboo
canister with the spindle. I
had been holding my beautifully prepared western roving with a
Scandinavian wrist distaff and was battling with getting it caught
in the fast twirling spindle.
I wasn't all that happy with the way it was drafting
either. So I started
pulling my beautiful roving into small pieces, rolling them up and
drafting them back into a short, thick, soft rolag.
I was able to hold these effortlessly in my left hand and
draft with no tangles. The
native way was best. It
was wonderful not to be tied to that wrist distaff.
The cotton fibers are so short and fine that the many joins
were are strong as the yarn.
Still, I wasn't willing to go all the way and
surrender to native wisdom about all aspects of my spindle.
I thought the bamboo canisters were cute, especially since the
Akha women decorated them elaborately with braids and beads, but I
didnít think I needed to carry something like that around - until the
day I went on a car trip with some friends and brought my spindle
stuffed down into my back pack. When
we arrived at our destination I pulled out my spindle to get some work
done (and to show off what a cute little spindle I had) and found the
shaft broken! I went three
days without spinning any yarn or showing off anything and learned my
lesson. Now I carry my
spindle around in an old Tupperware canister.
Someday I'll decorate it up with beads.
It turns out that one of the teachers in my small
town took a trip to Thailand in the early 70's and she had slides of her
trip and several pieces of traditional cloth which she had bought there.
The Akha women specialize in beautiful bright embroidery on a
black or dark indigo homespun background.
My friend was kind enough to lend me the cloth and slides for
this article. Fortunately
for my purposes the cloth was not hemmed on the edges and one had a
small rip so I could pull out a piece of string to see if it was single
or plied. I discovered that
the dark cloth background was woven from singles which were actually
spun a bit thicker than the singles I was making on my spindle.
The brightly died embroidery thread was a tight two-ply exactly
like the yarn I was making. It
makes sense in a very practical way.
A well-spun single is good enough for weaving with a backstrap
loom (actually they use a large backstrap-type loom which is strung out
in the street of the village), but the embroidery floss must be able to
stand up to the stress of being run in and out of the cloth over and
over, so this string was double and stronger.
I think that one of the reasons for preserving the
traditions of native cultures is because they were so practical.
Our modern civilization has a lot to learn from this and it would
be a shame to lose all the old traditions and skills.
||My enchantment with the Akha spindle has also become
and enchantment with the Akha people.
Mathew McDaniel put me on his subscription list for the
email Akha Journal. Each week I hear of Mathew's difficulties in getting a truck
to get medical care out to the villages, in saving orphans from
being turned into slave labor, in trying to raise money for
blankets, books and other necessary supplies.
I've followed his adventures in running into the gunshots
to save a head man someone tried to assassinate and in preserving
the Akha culture from the onslaught of other modern crimes
associated with the growing opium and prostitute trade.
The Akha Foundation is in desperate need of funds for
medical supplies, education and publishing efforts.
My hope is that the spinning community will become as
enamored with these people as I have and donate money, blankets
and gardening seeds to their ongoing projects.
The Akha are one of approximately twenty tribes who
have been misplaced from their traditional grounds by the forming of
national borders and the misplacements of war.
Their culture can tentatively be traced back in the region four
thousand years. About a
thousand years ago tribes started migrating towards the golden triangle
from the high mountains of China. They
are not legal citizens of Thailand and suffer the problems of minority
cultures. They still
practice their ancient animistic religion which fills the daily life
with ceremonies and sacrifices to the souls of the dead and to the many
benevolent and malicious spirits that dwell in all things.
As is the story with many indigenous people, the Akha culture and
beliefs do not translate easily into modern religious and economic
pressures. The demands of
an economic society are creating many difficulties for these people.
The women wear very distinctive head pieces with
elaborate decorations. The
headdress tells the woman's story; there is a style for married or
unmarried women. They wear
them at all times even during sleep.
The only time the headdress is removed is for combing the hair.
They carry beautiful bags which are elaborately decorated with
traditional placements of jewelry.
The Akha Foundation is working to increase medical
aid, sanitary conditions, wells and education for the Akha people.
They recently finished an excellent video, The Akha Way, which
gives an intimate look into the people and their village way of life.
The video has a short clip of an Akha woman conditioning yarn
with her spindle. I was delighted to see that she flips her left hand using
thumb and finger to gather her long strand of yarn into a butterfly and
pull the spindle up close to her so she can grab it--just like I do!
She lifts her skirt completely up to the top of her thigh and
gives the spindle an upward flick with her hand.
The short skirts are important!
The Akha villagers have recently begun a project to
preserve native textile knowledge.
They built a special hut for a looming center, planted cotton and
dye plants, and are going to begin work on a complete Akha cloth and
spinning video. They will
be growing all necessary materials for spinning and dying next to the
loom hut. They are also
carving a number of traditional spindles for sale.
Western spinning communities can help with these projects.
Mathew McDaniel tells me that the spindle is a
multi-purpose thread working machine for the Akha people.
Not only do they use it for spinning thread, but to condition
thread of color they have bought in town.
Preserving this special knowledge is an important project and any
donations from individuals and fiber guilds will be greatly appreciated.
I am very excited by the idea that our modern spinning community
could have an impact in helping preserve the spinning knowledge of our
native sisters in a foreign land.