Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Spin like you're Scottish - plying on the whorl-less spindle

*****dealgan, farsadh, fairsaid*****
Gaelic names for Scottish hand spindles*

*To pronounce aloud, watch my video (below) where Dr. Wayne Harbert pronounces 3 in Gaelic: 

The history of the Scots before and after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden (1746 CE) fascinates me.  Since I am mainly interested in the spinning and weaving lives of women through the centuries, I've been re-creating and spin-testing the unusual whorl-less spindles found in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland, as well as those which went to Canada with early Scottish settlers of remote areas in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island, among others.  There is also one 'sighting' in the eastern Appalachians where the Scots-Irish settled.

What makes these more important than most historical spindles is that they are the vanishing-technology relics of a culture that was harshly suppressed by the British after the Battle of Culloden, along with their Gaelic language, dress (-think kilts-) and customs. In fact, as I started this study, much of the information about these spindles came from North America, not Scotland itself.  Like the Gaelic language, there were more surviving users in North America, where many Scots settled to escape poverty, starvation and even death in their homelands. One sad aspect of my research was that I was about 2 generations too late to find active users of these spindle types.

How does the Gaelic whorl-less spindle work?  What was it used for?

Plying on the Dealgan, Step by Step

For video instructions go to my YouTube video here.
1. Winding two singles yarn balls into one plying ball

2. Wind yarn from plying ball three times
 around dealgan

3. From top of wound section, follow yarn to bottom
 and go thru one side of cross.

4. Spin yarn in opposite direction to singles  spin to ply.
Wind plied yarn onto dealgan obliquely.
(same as for nostepinne wind on)

5. Slide cop up and off the
narrow top of the
(When plied yarn cop
becomes too heavy to rotate
the spindle quickly,
stop and lay yarn end on top

6. Cop is a firm ball that
pulls from outside or
from yarn inside.

What was the Dealgan used for?

The last remembered use for the Dealgan/Farsadh/Fairsaid is for plying two or more yarns together.  The only detailed surviving description of plying is found in an article by Mrs. Mary Red Dan Smith in Cape Bretons Magazine found here:

These plied yarns were used in knitting socks, mittens and hats.  Plied and unplied singles yarns were used in weaving.  Another source from the 1880's mentions making plied twine for fishing nets (perhaps the spindle for this is spelled 'Persaid').  When examining pictures from the late 1800's-early 1900's it is clear that some Outer Hebrides women are using carded wool rolags to spin singles woolen yarn on elongated whorl-less spindles of the dealgan type.  

How old is the Dealgan/Farsadh/Fairsaid?

The earliest museum-dated Dealgan is found in the Glasgow Museum in Edinburgh. It is recorded as being from the 1700's and was collected on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. (In my 'Spin like you're Scottish' video, you will see a re-creation of this hand-carved spindle in use.) There is a good possibility that this spindle type is much earlier than the 1700's.  I suspect the spindle shape could be a much older Gaelic type with few survivors in museums or in archaeological digs.  The search goes on for more. Many surviving dealgans were made from memory in the 1900s or are simply undateable vintage or antique examples.

The Whorl-less design and variations

The most common design features among Dealgan surviving spindles:
  1. Cone shaped body
  2. Small knob at the narrow top
  3. A cross cut into the bottom, with a small v groove climbing up the sides
  4. Weight of about 28 grams/1 ounce
  5. No whorl
  6. Yarn cop in the form of a obliquely wound ball.
This spindle shape must have the leader yarn wound on in a specific way (see above) so it doesn't slip off the spindle when snapped/rotated around.  Other variations of shape for Scottish Dealgans/Farsadh/Fairsaids do exist, but most need the typical 'Dealgan' wind-on to work as stable spindles.  The precise meaning of the Gaelic "spindle" words is not known.  These names may refer to both whorl-less spindles and spindles with removable whorls. Both whorled and whorl-less spindles are found in collections in Scotland and in North America's northern East Coast. 

Where to find modern examples of Dealgan/Farsadh/Fairsaid spindles

You will find copies of re-created Dealgan spindles for sale in my Etsy shop here:
If they are sold, please contact me THRU ETSY MESSAGES to get on the order list. I ship to assorted countries - just ask me.

If you are in the UK, Neil Whiteley is also making old-style Dealgans here:

My research is ongoing and I am always glad to hear of further information or surviving examples of these fascinating and sturdy whorl-less spindles.
Sincere thanks to the Curators and staff of:
Glasgow Museums Resource Center, Scotland; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Canada; Gaelic College Museum, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; Dr. Wayne Harbert, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Sincere thanks also to Ravelry forum group members of 'Spindle Lore' for their helpful discussions of whorl-less spindles, especially those who shared family memories of these spindles online and thru personal communications.

Lois Swales

Notes for Modern Spinners on using Dealgans / Farsadhs

Many modern spinners pride themselves on very finely spun singles.  However, our ancestral spinsters had to spin varying sizes of yarn, depending on use and type of fleece they had access to.  The dealgans/farsadhs last remembered usage includes knitting yarns, rug wefts and plied net twines.  Many of these are what we would consider medium weight singles yarns.  The Dealgan beah (little spindle) of Mary Red Dan Smith is a plying spindle and quite short.  The spinster will be able to fit 2-3 ounces of plied yarn on this short spindle, but the actual yarn ball will be grasped for the last half of the flicking to make twist as the yarn ball gains in weight and circumference.  This little spindle is fun for plying (it fits in my pocket…….) but not my favorite for singles spinning.  That is not the case for the two types of spindles that the Burnham's collected on Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada.  These spindles are far more elongated and are useful for both plying knitting yarns and for spinning singles yarns of wool.  There is one clear picture from the late 1890's taken in South Uist, Outer Hebrides where the spinster is clearly spinning on this elongated type from carded wool rolags.  When you choose to revive spinning on these sturdy spindles, you walk in the footsteps of determined Scots women who led lives of sturdy independence, often on very remote islands and coastlines, whether in the Outer Hebrides or the remote coastlines of fishing communities in Canada.


  1. Thank you very much for all your very interesting videos. You always surprise me with something new. I like to see how people from all over the world are processed wool. This spindle looks like a very helpful tool. I want to try spin with it immediately :-)
    Greetings from the Czech rep.

  2. Ok I think I need one of these - I'm now obsessed with it because 1) it's Scottish and 2) it is known in Nova Scotia the land of my heart. I love that it works like a built in Nostepine, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of twist speed on it. But then again, I find that to generally be the case on a bottom whorl...for me, top whorls spin much faster.

    Will you be putting any in your store?

    1. Yes, I'm turning more this weekend. Some of those with thinny-thin tops do get some speed to them. I have more styles to offer in my etsy store and to blog about. They were used to ply 2 ply sock yarn, heavier knitting yarns, rug wefts, fishing twine. I see they are popular. I'm looking forward to hearing back from spinsters on what they think of spinning on them!

  3. Fascinating! I might like to purchase one, as well. Thank you so much!

  4. Oh my gosh, I am so looking forward to trying this. I am so hooked. Thank you for the videos and detailed explanations. What kind of wood was indigenous to Scotland or what we're the originals made/carved from?

    1. Wood is hard to ID on the oldest spindle. Trouble with the outer Hebrides is that wood from Island trees is very very scarce, since there are few trees. All sorts of recycled wood would be used. Ships are coming and going to and from these islands. To many other countries as well, so the variety of woods and driftwoods, for that mater, is much amplified. The Glasgow Museum was unable to ID the very dark and ?dirty? Wood of their oldest dealgan. When we cross to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, the woods used are those found where the spinners lived. The type of wood influences the weight of a dealgan. I need to blog more on this topic.

  5. Another person of Scottish heritage who is interested in buying one when you restock your etsy shop.

  6. I contacted you on your etsy shop, i feel a ancient conection to your spindles. This is a beautiful functionally practical and brilliant ( like a scot mind works) spindle for plying and having a finished ball as well like a nostepine ! The design the weight seem ideal! Excited !

    1. Thanks, Jill. You all make me happy that you enjoy the historical side of being a spinner. There is more to come! - Lois

  7. These spindles fascinate me. Partially from a familial link but also from their use. Knowing how my family moved from Scotland to Australia in the 1800's, I wonder how many spindles made the journey here.

  8. A large scale operations would need the big ones of course.I’m happy that you shared this helpful information about Grab bucketwith us.You have touched some good points here.

  9. Lois, thank you for this wonderful source of spindle lore! Any chance you could post a photo of the elongated farsadh (or direct me to where I could find one)? After I read your post here and saw the video, we turned a couple of the shorter ones on the lathe, and I have been spinning some medium singles with them. I would love to try the elongated version and see how they compare.

    Keep blogging!