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Information on the Akha Spindle and its people.

 

Akha Spindling

by Connie Delaney

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 spindle.

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 have. 

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 them down.

 

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.  Perfect.  The 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.

 

Information on spinning yarn, drop spindles, fiber types and more.

- The Akha Spindle  - Make an Akha Spindle - Sources

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Connie Delaney is the author of:

Spindle Spinning: From Novice to Expert

The premier book for learning to spin your own yarn. Starting with a drop spindle is an inexpensive, and easy way to start spinning your own yarn. If you like it, you can graduate to a spinning wheel any time!

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