Cathy Leffingwell: Drop Spindle Spinning and Knitting Artist

Cathy Leffingwell was first exposed to fiber arts as a girl growing up in Wauwatosa, outside Milwaukee. “I learned to knit when I was seven,” she says. She didn’t learn how to spin until years later, after she and her husband moved to Eau Claire. In 2003, the Wisconsin “Spin In” happened to take place in Eau Claire, and she signed up for the beginning spinning class. “It was just a three hour class,” she says. “I  made some really strange ugly yarn. I thought ‘Oh, what do I do with this?’ Well, you don’t do anything with your first spun yarn because it is bizarre stuff.”

Still, the process of spinning yarn intrigued Cathy. “The first time I saw somebody spinning I really thought, ‘Oh, wow! That is so cool and that is just beyond anything I  . . . wow!’” She couldn’t afford a spinning wheel, so she bought a drop spindle instead.

What exactly is a drop spindle? “It is called a ‘drop spindle,’” Cathy explains, “but actually a more accurate word for it is a ‘suspended spindle’ because it’s suspended in the air—a suspended spindle. It is an ancient tool. It has been around for fifty to sixty thousand years,” she says. Spinning wheels have only been around for about a thousand years, and in Europe for even less time.

Whether using a spindle, a spinning wheel, or a spinning jenny, yarn spinning was a widespread activity until quite recently. Cathy knows this history. “You don’t have to go back that many years where everybody knew how to spin. If people needed clothes, needed blankets, needed household articles, you had to make them. And it is something everybody needed to know how to do. Little kids learned how to do it. This country really got away from that.” Spinning is still important in some parts of the world. “I saw a video of the person who started the Interweave magazine,” says Cathy. “She was in South America, and the people there . . . don’t sit on their iPhone or their tablets or in front of the TV at night. They are sitting around and they are spinning—actually accomplishing something with their time.”

Cathy is now quite accomplished herself. But it wasn’t easy. “Just in practicing it and doing it a little a bit over many days that I finally got the hang of it. But there is a learning curve.” About the learning curve, she jokes, “It is called ‘drop’ maybe because it does drop to the ground, . . . especially when you are learning.” 

Spinning yarn of course requires fiber to spin. Cathy uses wool, which comes off sheep as fleece. It takes several steps to get fleece ready to spin into yarn, and there are different ways to do it. Cathy explains the basics: “When fleece comes off the sheep typically it needs to be washed. . . .  Once you have a clean fleece, you can put it on a drum carder which gets the fiber into bats, and you can just spin from the bat or you can put it on combs (dangerous looking tools) with sharp spikes that can be anywhere from 3 to 6 or 8 inches tall. . . . That straightens out all the fibers. It is called ‘dizzing’ it off. You take fibers off the combs and then that fiber almost spins itself. You spend a lot of time prepping it.”

Unlike some people, Cathy doesn’t spin yarn with particular projects in mind. “Normally I just spin because it’s fun,” she says. “I have a lot of fleece, but I have yet to take a fleece and make a project out of it.” She does have plans for the future, however. “I would really like to spin yarns to put on my looms and weave. . . . I want to weave blankets that maybe in retirement years I would sell. My future plans are to be more focused on doing things with fibers.” But for now, Cathy says, “I’m still in the phase of collecting fleeces. I call it my fiber 401K.”

(Interviewer, Gretchen Siedling, December 10, 2015.)

Recording and preserving Cathy Leffingwell's artwork and artistic story funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board.