What do they look like?
Galina Khmelva describes the Russian spindle as a lady. The round portion at bottom is the lady’s head, then she has a neck, and her shoulders. In class, Galina taught us to “never wrap the thread around her neck, you’ll strangle her.” The truth is, if you wrap your thread around the “neck,” it unbalances the spindle and won’t spin correctly.
Like the Shetland Isles, Russia has a tradition of beautiful lace shawls fine enough to fit through a wedding ring with patterns passed down through oral tradition. Instead of wool, spinners used super fine down from local mountain goats plied with silk strands.
Dehairing the down for these beautiful shawls was a family activity. A Russian support spindle was used to spin the fine down. Then the strand of goat down and silk were both wound onto a plying spindle and spun together. Later, silk was often replaced with viscose, a cheaper alternative. Often now, shawls are sold as “Orenburg lace” which have been machine made. The patterns in these fake Orenburgs are usually simpler and the quality is lower. As a result, one must be careful when purchasing Orenburg lace. The internet is wrought with fakes.
How do they work? What are they best for?
The Russian spindle with its weighty, narrow head is a fast-spinning support spindle. The singles are stored on the shaft, but not on the neck of the spindle. Most Russian spindles can hold about an ounce of fiber, with most shawls taking 4-6 spindles full of singles. A second spindle, a plying spindle is used in addition to the main spindle. Once the singles are done, they are wound onto the plying spindle at the same time as the lace plying thread. Then they are spun off the spindle, creating a 2-ply lace yarn.
Russian spindles excel at super fine lace and luxury fibers. Goat down, cashmere, qiviut, angora, yak and camel all work well with Russian spinning techniques. The high speed of these spindles makes them perfect for short stapled fibers.
If you are interested in learning more about the Orenburg lace traditions, I highly recommend Gossamer Webs.