DIY Charkha

According to my reading, the oldest evidence of spinning with a wheel (as opposed to with a drop spindle or supported spindle) dates to about 1500 years ago in India. In its simplest form a spinning wheel is just a sharp spindle connected bicycle-style to a drive wheel. The drive wheel is large, the spindle is small. So when the drive wheel turns once, the spindle turns many times to generate lots of twist. Small Indian wheels of this driven spindle type are called charkhas. They are well suited to spinning short fibers that need lots of twist in order to hold together–namely cotton. I figured this would be the easiest sort of wheel to build, and it actually was pretty easy to build a usable one. Here’s Rhianna checking out the finished(ish) product:

The main drive wheel is a 12 inch circle cut from 3mm thick birch ply wood. I used a coping saw and did this at my desk. If one had a scroll saw and a work bench it would be much easier.

The spindle is a smallish knitting needle, probably  a US2 I think, but I don’t remember. The “whorl”, whose only purpose is to keep the cop away from the maidens is a 1″ disc cut from a lasagna noodle box. The maidens themselves are 6″ lengths of 3/8 inch dowels with small eye hooks screwed in about an inch from the top. The drive band would slip if it ran directly over the needle so I fed on to the needle a piece of 1/4″ dowel. I just drilled a centered hole the same diameter as the needle. To put a groove for the drive band into this drive pulley, I mounted the needle (with the dowel on it) into a drill. I ran the drill while holding the edge of a file against the center of the dowel. It’s a poor man’s lathe, probably not the safest thing to do, but I was careful. You can see the groove in the dowel more clearly here:

The drive band itself is a piece of gimp, a.k.a. craft lace, a.k.a. Rexlace–that stuff that you make boondoggle keychains out of at summer camp. I recommend using either “Nite Glow” or one of the glitter colors because they have a grippier texture. I went with the “Nite Glow” because how could I not? It glows in the dark! How many spinning wheels in the world have glow in the dark drive bands?

Now back to those 12″ plywood circles. I noticed in several photos and music videos(?) that many traditional charkhas have zig zag or criss cross lacing between two discs like this (15 seconds into the video):

Notice btw that she does not have a glow in the dark drive band, but that paint job and mirror bedazzling treatment is pretty sweet. I might have to pimp my ride that way, too… Anyway, to lace up the drive wheel I used a compass and some geometry-class-style fun to lay out 24 equally spaced holes 1/8″ in from the rim of the 12″ discs. I drilled the holes simultaneously through both discs, stacked with their centers aligned. Then I separated the discs using a 1″ wooden spool. The spool sits centered in the wheel. I drilled a 1/4″ hole through the two discs and spool then hammered some 1/4″ copper pipe into the hole. The axel itself is some 3/16″ cold rolled steel rod:

This metal-on-metal arrangement makes for fairly low friction and fairly low noise when spinning the wheel. The axel itself does not turn. I used a needle and some lace weight cotton to lace up the wheel:

It took some experimentation to figure out how to do the lacing. In this scheme, the lacing never goes over the edges of the wheels, but if I did it again, I’d probably just do it the simpler way that shoes are usually laced up. Here’s the spindle in action working on some cotton punis that I carded from cotton balls.

The drive ratio is about 48:1.

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6 Comments on “DIY Charkha”

  1. Scott Says:

    Never having spun, I’m trying to figure out what this is all supposed to achieve.

    It looks like you orient the strand of wood parallel to the spindle. Is the idea that the strand will be simultaneously twisted and pulled towards the spindle so that, when it gets close enough to the spindle, it wraps around like a normal spool of thread? Or do you have to periodically spool the yarn somewhere else.

    Am I making any sense? (This is a question I had after reading your last post, too)

    • bpatricksullivan Says:

      As long as the fiber has some component parallel to the spindle, twist will go into the fiber. It wouldn’t work super well at 89 degrees, but anywhere within 30 or 40 degrees of parallel to the spindle works well. It’s kind of like how a Foucault pendulum works at latitudes other than the poles–the pendulum just takes longer than 24 hours to swing through 360 degrees.

      On a modern, western spinning wheel, there’s a mechanism that allows fiber to be simultaneously twisted and wound onto a bobbin. That mechanism is called a flyer. With a charkha, or any other driven-spindle type of wheel (such as the earlier western wheel called a great wheel), you have to interrupt your spinning to wind the spun yarn or thread onto the spindle. This is done by moving the fiber from being nearly parallel to the spindle to being more like perpendicular to the spindle shaft. Often you unwind a little bit before winding on in order to keep the wound fiber in a nice organized cone called a “cop.”

      On a charkha you spin about an arm’s length of cotton then shoot your arm over to an overhead position to wind on. Here’s a little video of Gandhi doing it:

      Here’s a modern video in which the action is much clearer.

      This man, S.V.Govindan, has been spinning since 1943. He hand spins 90 kilometers of cotton a year! That’s enough to weave all his own clothes.

  2. roberta mosenfelder Says:

    have you found this home made spinner could be used for wool also..maybe lace weight, thin yarn?

    • bpatricksullivan Says:

      Hi Roberta,
      I think I would have a hard time drafting wool fast enough on this wheel, even if I were trying to spin lace weight. However, if it were a relatively short staple wool, prepared as mini rolags (similar to cotton punis) for long draw spinning it might work.

  3. shabas Says:

    this makes my knowledge great


  4. […] Charka Eigenbau […]


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