Introduction: Spin Yarn With a Mayan Blade

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A Mayan blade is a hand spinning tool that's a lot quicker and easier to use than a drop spindle but just as portable. Want to learn to spin but can't justify the cost of a wheel until you know whether or not you'll enjoy it? Fed up with the tedious process of using a drop spindle? If so, a Mayan blade is for you, and you can make one in an hour or so from scrap materials that you may well already have. If not, you can probably beg them from a woodworking friend or neighbour.

This spinning device was apparently developed by the Mayans, hence the name. It can be used to ply two yarns together as well as to spin. Making enough for a jumper would take an age, but you should certainly be able to spin sufficient yarn for a hat or mittens in a reasonable length of time. The Mayan blade is very portable and, unlike a drop spindle, can be used in a relatively small space, such as when sitting on a train, meaning you can spin just about anywhere.

You will need

A piece of wood that is about 2" by 6" - 7" (5cm by 17cm) and no more than 3/8" (1cm) thick - see below

A 6" - 8" (15cm - 20cm) length of dowel or broom handle - see below

A 1.25" (3cm) nail or a cocktail stick - see below

A medium sized wooden bead

Basic woodworking tools - a hand saw and a hand drill will do, plus G-clamps

A 3/8" - 1/2" (approx 10mm) spade bit

A drill bit that is slightly bigger than your nail or cocktail stick, and a smaller one to use for pilot holes

A hacksaw, Dremel tool or boltcutters if you're using a nail

Sandpaper, wax polish or oil for finishing

Glue (may not be needed)

Paper, pencil and compasses

2 steel or nylon washers (optional)

The wood for the blade

The blade needs to be stiff and non-warping but not too heavy. It must also be capable of taking a smooth finish. Plywood is stiff and thin but it's hard to get the edges smooth. Thin MDF may be suitable. A fine-grained hardwood is best, and looks nice too. I cut a slice off a piece of scrap timber from a window manufacturer.

The dowel and nail

The bigger your hands, the thicker the dowel handle that will be comfortable to hold. Go with the smallest size that you think will be suitable, to keep the weight down. You can always slip some pipe insulation over the handle if you find it is too slim to grip for long periods.

A nail should make a more robust and long-lasting spindle than a cocktail stick, but if you use one then it must not be too thick relative to the diameter of the dowel, or it will split the wood when it is hammered into the end. A spindly dowel needs an equally spindly nail. Also, choose a nail made from non-galvanised steel with an even, cylindrical shaft.

Step 1: Make a Paper Pattern

The size of the blade isn't critical. A large one will hold more yarn but is heavy (especially with all that yarn on it), a small one will forever need emptying, so you need to compromise. 6" or 7" long by 2" wide is about right, you can always make a differently sized blade later if you feel it's not right once you've used it for a while.

Draw a rectangle of the required size on a piece of paper and add a line down the long central axis. Mark a point about a third of the way along this centre line - this is where the spindle hole will go. I'll call the one-third end of the blade the short end.

Referring to the diagram, taper the short end to a blunt point and draw a circle on each side with its centre about half way along the taper line and just outside it. The blade needs to be symmetrical, so make sure the centres are the same distance from both the short end and the centre line. The diameter of the circles should be the same as your spade bit.

Step 2: Make the Blade

Transfer the outline you have drawn, and the position of the centres of each of the 3 holes, to the piece of wood. If it already has a couple of straight edges, make use of them by positioning the paper pattern in a corner. The easiest way to transfer the markings is to cut around the paper outline and then draw around it with a pencil, pushing the point through the dots that mark the centres.

Before you saw the wood to shape, drill the two large holes with a spade bit. Drill the small hole too, while you still have some excess wood that can be clamped without marking the finished piece. The hole needs to be big enough for the nail or cocktail stick to fit through it quite loosely. If you have a chamfering bit, use it on both sides of the holes for a neat finish.

Saw along the outline. When you have done that check that the central hole is still in the centre. If it isn't, you'll have to take a little material off one side of the blade to even it up. Then smooth all the surfaces with sandpaper and/or fine steel wool - you can bevel the edges first if you like. The blade needs to be really smooth or yarn will catch on it.

Finally, give the blade a couple of coats of a hard wax polish or rub teak oil into it, wiping off any excess after a few hours. Or you could paint a design onto it and finish with a couple of coats of varnish.

Step 3: The Handle and Assembly

Saw the dowel or broom handle to a suitable length. It needs to protrude from your fist by an inch or so when you grasp it, with some clearance at the top too. 6-7" (15-18cm) is about right unless you have especially large hands. Sandpaper one end until it is perfectly flat, smooth and perpendicular to the long axis. This will be the upper end. You can round off the other end if you like, but at least make it smooth.

Now you need to hammer a nail part way into the upper end of the handle, to act as a spindle for the blade. It's easier to get it in straight if you drill a small pilot hole first. It's not vital that it goes in the exact centre of the circle, but it does need to be perpendicular to the surface.

Leave enough of the nail sticking out for it to go through both the wooden blade and the bead. Then cut off its head using a Dremel tool, boltcutters or a hacksaw, whatever you have available. Cut it just below the head.

Alternatively, drill a hole down the centre of the handle to take a cocktail stick. Glue it in place before trimming the protruding end to the right length. (The photos show a spindle made from a length of glass fibre rod rather than a wooden stick.)

It's possible that the hole in your bead isn't big enough to go over spindle, in which case you'll have to drill it out. I did this by clamping the bead in the jaws of one clamp and then clamping that clamp to the bench with a second clamp, but a bench vice would do it more easily. Drill only about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the bead. If you want an easily disassembled Mayan blade then you must aim for a push fit onto the spindle, so start with a drill bit that is only slightly bigger than the existing hole and work your way up the sizes, trying the bead onto the shaft each time. Alternatively, just drill a hole that is big enough to take the spindle and it can be glued on later.

Put the blade onto the spindle with the bead on top of it to hold it on. If you have washers of a suitable size, you might want to use them under and over the blade. Since the bead has not been drilled out to its full depth, there is likely to be a gap between the top of the blade and the underside of the bead. This should only be small, just enough to give clearance without allowing the blade to wobble as it spins. Trim any excess length off the spindle to give the right amount of clearance.

Try spinning the blade, holding the handle horizontally as well as vertically. Glue on the bead if it looks like it is going to fly off.

Step 4: Using the Mayan Blade to Spin Yarn

A full description of how to spin is beyond the scope of this I'ble, but if you already know how to draft fibre and spin then you will soon get the hang of your new tool. There are no rules as such, but you may find the following tips helpful:

  • Hold it in whichever hand feels more comfortable - that may be your dominant hand, or you may do better letting your dominant hand deal with the drafting. (Drafting is the process of controlling the fibres, producing a thin, even sliver that will spin into an even yarn.)

  • Whirl it like a football rattle, but with a tighter, less vigorous action. Move your lower arm from the elbow rather than waggling your wrist. Once you get the hang of it, very little action is needed to keep the blade whirling.

  • If you are struggling to get the blade to spin smoothly, try spinning it in the opposite direction.

  • You don't have to hold the device with its axis vertical, you can spin with it horizontally or at any angle between, whatever feels comfortable. Changing position helps to avoid fatigue.

  • Once you can whirl the blade successfully, add some fibre. "Spin" a short length by twisting it with your fingers, sufficient to tie around the neck in the short end of the blade. Then start whirling with one hand as you draft with the other.

  • Hold the drafting hand about 12-16" (30-40cm) away from the blade, or whatever distance feels comfortable, and pinch the fibres between thumb and fingers to prevent the twist travelling beyond your hand into the undrafted fibre.

  • No matter how you orientate the device, the drafting hand needs to be in line with it so that the drafting hand, the bead, spindle and handle are all in a straight line.

  • After you spin each length of yarn, you'll need to stop whirling for a moment to wrap the yarn around the longer, un-notched end of the blade. When the blade is full of yarn, wind it into a ball before continuing.

  • The yarn needs plying to be usable. Feed yarn from two balls while whirling the blade in the opposite direction to the direction of spinning. (I.e. S-twist yarn needs to be plied as Z-twist and vice versa.) You may find it easier to do this using the other hand.

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