Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Wheelin' Right Along: Charkha Spinning as Yoga Practice

The intensity of teaching (or studying) at Fibre Week can leave everyone pretty tired by the time all events are over, so I've spent the past few days hiding out while I transition from my roles as teacher to that of a student.  My yoga studies are calling: there are books to read, classes to attend, much work to be done.  What better way to move from one mode to another than to haul out my charkha and spin some cotton, as M. K. Gandhi encouraged his country people to do?  (Thanks to Joan Ruane and Jill Holbrook, whose own enthusiasm for spinning cotton reminded me how much I love working with these fibres and tools.)

I started spinning cotton 25 years ago, on a tahkli spindle.  A few years later, I ordered an Indian book charkha.  As part of his programme to encourage all Indians to return to spinning cotton and weaving khadi cloth, Gandhi promoted the design of a new style of charkha, small, compact, portable, efficient and within the budget of even the poorest folk.  (Contrary to popular belief, Gandhi did not invent the book charkha and there is some discussion as to how much influence he had on its final design, but that's a discussion for another time.)  The book charkha came from this and, despite its rough manufacture and appearance, it does a bang up job of spinning fine cotton threads. I used to spin on my charkha as I sat on my front steps; my neighbour, V., who died this past winter, would sometimes visit, show me how he spun with Gandhi using the book charkha and tell me tales of life in his native India.

A few years ago, I had the chance to purchase a Bosworth Book Charkha, which is a masterfully engineered and crafted wheel.  Unlike the quirky Indian book charkha, the Bosworth needs little coaxing to work its magic.  It's also very expensive, so when one became available, at a very good price, I bought it.  My Indian charkha went to another spinning enthusiast, who can make it sing much better than I can.  Now, I work with this:

That thing to the right of the white fluff on the left side of the charkha is the spindle, as is the metal shaft holding the cone of yarn in the wheel box.  I turn the large wheel as I gently hold the fibres in my left hand, drawing the cotton fibres slightly down and to my left, at an angle to the spindle tip:

You can see the angle here.  I'm actually clutching the fibres too tightly to draft well.

The Indian charkha is designed to be used while the spinner sits on the ground.  That's how I worked with my book charkha, but the Bosworth seems better suited to be used with it sitting on a table top. Traditionally, the charkha is used to spin singles for weaving, with no need for plying.  The spindle would go directly into the weaving shuttle to be used at the loom; sometimes, the yarn would be skeined for dyeing.  Using high twist singles for knitting can be interesting, so those yarns are usually plied.  Plying with the book charkha is inefficient, so I wind my singles onto plastic bobbins to be plied at a treadle wheel later. Apart from that, I use the techniques shown by spinners in India, who know far more than I how cotton should be spun.

There are many videos available on working with charkha.  Here are a few I love.  (This is a news report from India, showing women teaching children how to spin using tahkli and charkha.  It's not in English, but you don't need to understand the words to understand the process.)

Mrs. Gandhi, spinning:

A display in the Indira Gandhi Airport, with a quote on spinning by the Mahatma:

Gandhi spinning:

As well as using spinning as a means of protest against British rule, Gandhi used the charkha as a meditative tool.  He was so enamoured with the utilitarian and meditative effects of charka that he referred to it in his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita.  Although not meditative in itself, spinning provides the pathway to concentration which is required in order to reach a meditative state.

As the thread winds through my fingers, my heart opens, my mind settles and my body unwinds from the frantic pace of teaching.  Spinning with charkha soothes my spirit and moves me into yoga, which at its core, is meditation and, perhaps a union of body and mind.


1 comment:

  1. Good Evening! My Gandhian friend Laxman Gole and I are planning to start sooth katayi/ spinning workshops. I kindly request you grant us the permission to use photographs from your blog. Also, if you are every travelling to Mumbai, kindly keep us in mind. Would love to meet you.
    Your blog is inspiring.
    Thanking you,
    Madhavi Tangella