Those hands look awfully familiar . . .

Spinning cotton and cigar-box charkhas

The new issue of Spin-Off (Summer 2008) arrived yesterday. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it. One of the especially good things is Carol Rhoades’ article on colored cottons. As I was reading it, I noticed a photograph with the caption, "A cigar-box charkha is a portable spinning tool—perfect for spinning cotton on the go."

My first thought was that the cigar-box charkha looked like an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I wondered if someone had submitted a photo of a charkha built from Marilyn Sult’s instructions (published in one of the Spin-Off articles I edited a lot of years ago).

Then I thought, "That wrist bone looks awfully familiar."

The photo’s printed kind of small. But . . . "Yeah, and the hands do, too."

My daughter walked in.

I said, "Take a look at this photo."

She glanced down.

"You don’t wear that watch any more. That’s your old one."

So there I was in Spin-Off again, demonstrating Marilyn’s very own cigar-box charkha during a photo shoot to illustrate the original article.

  1. The original article
  2. The new article


Carol spun her colored cottons for this new article not on a cigar-box charkha but on a Bosworth attache charkha, a Timbertops Irish castle wheel, and a Greensleeves spindle.

They’re all terrific tools. Timbertops wheels were available in 1996. I don’t think the other spinning devices she used were.

If anyone’s interested in building a cigar-box charkha, though, the detailed instructions are in the Winter 1996 issue. There’s a series of three articles: "Cigar-box Charkha," by Marilyn Rishel Sult, and "Charkha Theory" and "The Charkha Road," which explain what I learned while building a charkha according to Marilyn’s plans with the bits and pieces I could find locally. (Marilyn had a workshop full of collected miscellanea and tools to draw on. The article grew out of a meeting at Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Interweave has Marilyn’s article online as a free PDF. The two supplementary articles are not included. There’s a lot of useful information in them.)

It was one of the most complicated, and most satisfing, tech-editing jobs I’ve ever undertaken. I spent a lot of time at Downtown Ace Hardware, sitting on the floor, looking in the parts bins for objects that could be subverted to my intentions.

1 The Winter 1996 issue of Spin-Off
2 The Summer 2008 issue of Spin-Off


If you want a challenging project and you’re at least mildly mechanically inclined, find the old issue and make yourself a charkha. It’s terrific fun and I’m proud of what I made.

If you just want to start spinning cotton immediately, check out the tools other people offer—there are many more choices now than there were in 1996.

I now also have an Alden Amos mini-T-frame charkha that I love to use.

Reading: Burundi and Kazakhstan

While appreciating the fact that I am fortunate enough to have dirt to plant vegetables and flowers in, whether that dirt is predominantly clay or not, I’ve been reading a couple of books about places where people live in harsh circumstances. Both come from independent presses: the University of Texas Press and Atlas & Co.


The copy of the University of Texas book that I found lacks the flash-and-neon of most contemporary nonfiction titles (shown on the left in both photos). Here’s a slightly more revealing picture that includes its spine:


It’s From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi: Our Embassy Years during Genocide, by Robert Krueger and Kathleen Tobin Krueger, with a foreword by Desmond Tutu (the web link shows its dustjacket, missing from the copy I read). My daughter recently sat next to Kathleen Krueger on a long plane flight  and on a call home she mentioned the book to me. Based on what she said, I requested it through interlibrary loan.

When the Kruegers were posted to Burundi, they fell in love with the people and the country even though horrendous events were occurring. Sometimes the only thing a person can do in the face of the unthinkable is bear clear witness. They did that, with humanity and wisdom, and now they’ve told the story in a format that can reach general audiences. There are pictures here in both words and photographs that I didn’t want to have to hear or look at, and that I don’t find easy to talk about, but the way the experiences were conveyed cherishes and honors some people who have not had anywhere near enough cherishing and honor . . . and also tells when, where, how, and by whom those people have been betrayed. It’s an extraordinary book by two exceptional people.

The other book is Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared, by Chistopher Robbins. Robbins is a British writer who spent enough time in Kazakhstan to be able to talk about the history and the current situation. Each chapter unfolded a variety of surprising discoveries about this complex and promising nation. It’s a book I was in no hurry to finish, because I enjoyed its company. Much of the story of Kazakhstan is problematic, especially many vestiges of its Soviet years. Yet the people are obviously by and large (and allowing for the human variability that’s everywhere, of course) intelligent, versatile, and creative. (I haven’t seen "Borat," which apparently displays almost zero knowledge of the real Kazakhstan.)

Thanks to Donna for the recommendation, and I hope the friend of mine who will be spending July in Kazakhstan will have a wonderful time there. It sounds like a culturally rich and diverse place.

And apples really are from Kazakhstan.


6 thoughts on “Those hands look awfully familiar . . .”

  1. So I guess the photo rights belong to Spin-Off in perpetuity, huh?

    I’m pretty interested in cotton spinning right now. I have an Indian charkha and a Babe Liten Spindle in addition to my flyer wheels. But I’m thinking about improvising something with an old bicycle wheel I have….

    Did it take a long time to get the mini T-frame?

  2. I got my mini-T a long time ago. I’d drop a note to Stephenie and Alden and ask about timing ( ). It’s worth a wait. Budget permitting, ANY of their cotton-spinning tools would be a treat. I’ve also spun on a Bull Pup, which has the advantage of being accelerated (higher ratios . . . cotton likes lots of twist). Stephenie is incredibly knowledgeable about cotton spinning. She got me to love it!

  3. //Psst!// It looks like the link to the pdf isn’t working properly.//endPsst!//

    What will you do with all the cotton you spin?

  4. Thanks, Ted. PDFs always seem to be reluctant to make clean links, but I think I’ve fixed it.

    The cotton I’m spinning? Just playing with a variety of kinds, mostly because I haven’t spun cotton in way too long.

  5. I haven’t spent a lot of time with cotton. Maybe I need to work at it again.
    I have books about it….maybe I should read them. Hee, hee.

    Also, how do you find time for all of the things you do? I haven’t read a whole book for myself in a long time. I don;t think the ones I read to the kids count. But I bought The Omnivore’s Dilemma months ago and have only read the first few chapters. It’s that pesky spinning and lace knitting always tapping my shoulder.

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