Spinning and the Parameters of Power

The book charkha is a mobile, affordable spinning wheel in a box.
The book charkha is a mobile, affordable spinning wheel in a box.

A few months ago I got the itch to spin again. Out of nowhere, that memory of fibers twisting up from an undifferentiated mass into the start of something useful. As a teenager, I spun wool from the fleece of my single sheep. The yarn was thick and uneven, the spinning wheel big enough to qualify as furniture.

This time around, after a bit of research, I stumbled across the Indian book charkha (“book”? I’m hooked). It’s meant for spinning thin, light fibers like cotton and silk. When closed, it’s no bigger than a hardback bestseller. In an increasingly complex world, I love its simplicity. With so much of my life relying on digitization and virtuality (evidence this blog), my charkha is pleasantly analog and physical.


The book charkha (and larger briefcase-sized version) is more properly known as a Yerwada charkha, a design Mahatma Gandhi and his associates developed and used while imprisoned in the Yerwada jail in the early 1930s. Gandhi was behind the re-engineering of the large household spinning wheel into a portable, affordable tool.

Why did Gandhi care about the charkha? Indian cotton was being exported to Britain and then imported as finished cloth, a relationship that enriched Britain economically and politically, while making India dependent at both ends of the textile value chain. Against this landscape, Gandhi realized that spinning could be a symbolic act of independence.

First he began spinning cotton, making “women’s work” into everyone’s work. Then he began wearing only kadhi, cloth made from homespun cotton. In these simple and perfectly legal gestures, he revealed the politics of cotton and cloth. When he encouraged everyone to spin—men as well as women and in public whenever possible—spinning became an act of political defiance, symbol of national self-sufficiency and also pushed social politics forward. The charkha became a weapon in India’s nonviolent war for independence. All that from a spinning wheel in a box.


It took me a few tries to feel the rhythm of spinning on the charkha, but soon I was winding thread off the spindle to make room for more. It can be quite meditative, but one day I put my laptop nearby to watch video of the CalArts conference “The Politics of Parametricism”. The fascination running through my fingers was about to get a new dimension.

Charkha Monument, Mumbai, India, a beautiful parametric sculpture
Charkha Monument, Mumbai, India, a beautiful parametric sculpture

Parametricism describes design that takes multiple parameters into consideration, a complexity powered by computational algorithms. If you’ve ever wondered how those fluid, organic, futuristic-but-here-now buildings are possible, that’s parametrics. See some masterful examples at Zaha Hadid Architects. Watch this for an introduction.

Parametric design soars and inspires more organically than those higher-than-high, straight-to-the-sky structures. It’s easy to get lost in those curves.

But today, parametric architecture is also status architecture. The CalArts conference exposed the problem: Is parametricism for everyone, or is it computational power for those with power? Can it be used to empower local neighborhoods and small scale economies or must it always inscribe the signature of status and wealth? Is it part and parcel of our current capitalist orientation, or can it be used to transcend that worldview, benefiting a broader base? These are no small questions for architecture and every other industry and discipline being recast through the heady possibilities of Big Data and computational power.


So how fitting that the low-tech charkha and high-tech parametricism come together in Mumbai’s Charkha Monument, an abstract design that “represents the ideology of the spinning wheel and India’s sustainable progress through its visual motion and construction.” It embodies modernism’s signature parallax view, with every vantage point revealing a different sculpture. It references political history while looking forward through the lens of a design “developed using a digital applet, the spiralling gesture of a spinning wheel explored with multiple parameters in play: diameter, density, speed, and geometries.”

I came across the Charkha Monument after watching the CalArts conference. It’s the spring of 2014, some 85 years after Gandhi reminded Indians of the power in their own hands. Meanwhile, American democracy bows to corporate power and care for the commons becomes more rare. It’s the era of experts (as .expert becomes the latest URL extension) that reminds us that some things are better left to the grownups.

As cotton runs through my fingers, I wonder how we will negotiate this “hands off” approach to our own future. Computational power is being embedded across the built landscape and in the devices of everyday life. This will supposedly do more for us, making life easier. But as net neutrality teeters on the brink of extinction, the future is indeed not looking like it will be evenly distributed. Will this Internet of Everything be good for all or only for some? When no one needs to drive a car, how will our inherent longing for control be satisfied? What new fantasies will we agree to in order to keep the machines running?

Another view of the Charkha Monument in Mumbai, India.
Another view of the Charkha Monument in Mumbai, India.

I draw out more cotton and turn the handle on the charkha, working out unevenness and testing the strand before winding another yard of thread onto the spindle. I don’t quite know myself anymore, this woman asking political questions. I wasn’t raised to be political. Politics was for politicians, but whenever I hear someone say, “I’m not political,” I hear my own fear. “I’m not political” means “I’m not ready to wield my own influence.”


For those years on a Montana ranch, I felt I had no influence at all. Everything happened somewhere else. But I did learn the tools of self-sufficiency (too well, at times). I did learn to expect answers of myself before seeking answers from others. As I spin, I’m aware of this fundamental orientation. It creates a turning together of the countless small things I’ve learned and experienced over the years. Now they’re overlapping and catching, twisting up into a directional strength. This might be a rope to tie a boat or thread to weave into a material with new properties and possibilities.

The impulse to spin, literally and figuratively, is deep in the bones of culture. It’s how raw material becomes material that matters. Look to the double-helix; spinning is in the very shape of our DNA. Politics—the art and science of power—is also with us everywhere, making the worlds where we live and shaping what we grow, make, buy, and build. More than ever, computational power and algorithmic design are shaping those outcomes. But make no mistake. It begins with our own grasp and what we choose to take in hand.

* * *


The Politics of Parametricism: Digital Technologies and the Future(s) of Sociality, CalArts conference at REDCAT, Los Angeles, November 15-16, 2013

LIVE Architecture: Charka Monument, 11-meter tall outdoor Installation in Cross Maidan, Mumbai, India

The Charkha Movement

An introductory video on charka spinning by Ritesh Singh

I bought my charka and cotton fiber from New World Textiles.

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