A handspindle is defined as any implement that can be twisted or rotated by hand to twist fibers together into yarn. Handspindles can be divided into two general categories: a dropspindle, in which the thread is formed as the spindle spins while gravity pulls it to the ground; or a suspended spindle, where the spindle is spun on a set surface like a top and the thread is created by pulling the fiber away from the spindle. Spindle spinning is an art form – whereas modern spinning mills can produce large quantities or yarn in short periods of time, the types of yarn that can be spun are limited by the mechanics of the machines themselves - they cannot rival handspun yarns in delicacy and versatility. At one point, handspinners in India were able to spin almost half a million yards of yarn from a single pound of cotton (Hochberg). In handspinning, you can design the exact kind of yarn you desire with any variations in texture or color or thickness that you wish – your only limitation is your own skill level in spinning.
Most authors agree that the practice of spinning fibers to form thread and yarns has been in existence for over 10,000 years. The spinning wheel, the tool most commonly associated with the art of spinning, was not introduced to Europe until in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance. Thus, the dropspindle was the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.
Whorls from hand spindles have been dated back to 5000 BCE in Middle Eastern excavation sites. Bette Hochberg in her book Handspindles puts forth the theory that, since the wheel is generally agreed upon to have been invented somewhere around 3500 BCE, it is possible that the use of dropspindles helped man to discover the wheel. By observing the process of rotation as it applied to the whorl of a spindle, early man might have made experimented with that rotation by placing it upon a vertical plane instead of a horizontal one and thus created the wheel.
Spindles and spinning are also an integral part to the mythology and folklore of many cultures. Plato likens the axis of the universe to the shaft of a spindle with the starry heavens as the whorl end of his Republic. The Bible mentions spindles and spinning. Spider Woman, a Goddess in Navaho culture, taught them the art of spinning. Arachne challenged the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and was turned into a spider in Greek mythology. In Germanic and Teutonic cultures the three Fates spin, measure and cut the threads of life of mortals. Even our modern fairy tales mention spinning, as in Rumplestilskin, Sleeping Beauty, and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
But despite the myriad stories and myths involving spinning and the numerous archaeological finds involving spinning implements, scientists have not been able to determine the location and time period in which hand spindles were first used. Most believe it was somewhere in the Middle East, but no definitive evidence can place the craft before the Neolithic period. Whorls made of clay and stone have been found dating as far back as this period, but the spindle shaft itself has not – leading experts to believe that most shafts were made of wood, and thus disintegrated over time. The earliest whorls were made of soft stone like sandstone or limestone that could be shaped without metal tools, but later whorls could be ornately carved and decorated out of materials from bone, porcelain, glass, precious metals and semi-precious stones and came in all shapes and sizes. However, it is very likely that other objects were used to spin fibers into thread before the creation of the handspindle itself.
Spinning fibers into thread was initially accomplished without the use of any tools at all; however, this method was more time-consuming. The fibers were held in one hand, and the other hand was used to pinch off a portion of the fiber. The fibers were then twisted by hand between the fingers while simultaneously being pulled out to create longer lengths of thread. Thread made in this manner is referred to as twisted yarn, rather than spun yarns. A figurine carved from the tusk of a wooly mammoth wearing a loincloth made of twisted threads was carbon dated back to 25,000 BCE, but it is difficult to determine if the threads in her garment were twisted or spun (Hochberg).
The oldest actual “tool” used for spinning thread were common rocks. Archaeologists theorize that this tool was in common use by primitive peoples, but do not have good supporting archaeological evidence for this theory. As the first spinners were nomadic tribes from pre-agrarian societies, it is unlikely that they would have carried their rocks from camp to camp, and would use stones found at each new site for their spinning. A leader thread would be spun by twisting the fibers between the fingers to a desired length, then the resulting thread would be tied around the rock. The rock could then be rotated to spin the fibers as they are played out between the fingers. Spinning with rocks is still done in remote parts of Asia among the nomadic tribes.
A hooked stick is another ancient “tool” used for spinning. Whereas the rock would be used more like a dropspindle, a stick cut from the branches of a tree would be used to spin the fibers by rolling the stick horizontally along the length of your thigh to put twist into the fibers. The first sticks may have been straight, and were a natural outgrowth of rolling the fiber along the length of their leg to twist the fibers. As with the rock, the time and place of the origin of this spinning tool is unknown.
Eventually, man hit upon a way to combine both the rock and the stick to create a tool that could provide greater twisting momentum for improved ease in spinning the yarn. A whorl, often made of clay, bone or a soft rock, was attached to the spindle. The spindle could then be twisted by hand with the weighted end of the shaft suspended on the ground, or rolled along the thigh. It could also be used as a drop spindle, where the whorl could be placed at the top or bottom of the spindle. A variation of this style, the bead-whorl spindle, is considered to be the most widely-used style of spindle throughout history. It is specifically designed to spin fine yarns which require a lot of twist, and was in widespread use throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa where short-staple fibers such as cashmere, cotton and camel were used. These spindles often had slim shafts, a pointed end to reduce friction with the ground, and hooked or pointed tops so that it could be used for either suspended or drop spinning. The bead is usually an inch or less in diameter and made of a dense material like stone or metal so that it rotates quickly to provide a lot of twist. Some styles of bead-whorl spindles place the bead in the center of the spindle, so that the yarn can be spun both above and below the spindle.
Another type of weighted spindle that was commonly used was a cross-arm spindle, where a piece of wood or bone was attached to the bottom of the hooked spindle instead of a rounded whorl. These types of spindles were used exclusively as drop spindles, either twisted by hand or rolled along the thigh to start the rotation while the yarn is pulled out from the fibers. Eventually the cross-arm style was expanded upon to create a double cross-arm spindle, commonly known today as a “Turkish” dropspindle. This style was used across the Middle East, and is formed by two arms that interlock (often at right angles) at the bottom of the spindle to allow for more balanced spinning than the single-arm style. Some sets come with two sets of arms, so that you can use one set for thinner yarns and the second set for thicker yarns, and others come with arms of two different weights, allowing you three possible weight combinations for spinning on the spindle.
The most common form of dropspindle used today is known a hooked high-whorl spindle. This spindle has the whorl located less than half the length of the spindle, with a hook at the top. This type of dropspindle has been used since the twentieth century BCE in Egypt, where wall paintings depict spinners spinning and plying their yarns on hooked high-whorl spindles (Hochberg). Some spindles of this style have two whorls, one above the other, with a space to wind the yarn between the whorls. This type of spindle was in common use throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Another variation of this style is the carved one-piece spindle, in which the spindle was made of lathe-turned wood with a wide top to act as a built-in whorl. These were most often used among European nobility of Italy, France and Spain in the 19th century, once spinning was taken up as a pastime instead of being a daily chore, and were often decorated with gilt and colored enamel.
Whereas high-whorl spindles were in common use in the East, drop spindles where the whorl was placed at the bottom of the spindle predominated Europe and Greco-Roman areas. These low-whorl spindles were most commonly used to spin longer-staple fibers such as linen, silk and wool, and are still in widespread use in India, Indonesia, Peru and the Philippines. Low-whorl dropspindles are second in popularity today to high-whorl spindles for most modern day spindle spinners.
Medieval spinners often used a distaff, (a stick with a fork or ornate comb on the tip used to hold long-staple fibers while spinning) to hold their fibers while they were spinning with a spindle. This stick was usually held under the left arm according to most pictures – meaning that the spinners would have had to set their spindles in motion with their right hand, and feeding their fiber with the right hand. In fact, the term “drop spindle” wasn’t common during that time period – you either spun “on the distaff” or “on the wheel.” In fact, use of the distaff was so common that the term “distaff side” of one’s family indicated relations on the maternal side of the family. Wool and flax were most commonly spun with distaff and dropspindle, even after spinning wheels became the popular tool of choice for spinning shorter-stapled wool and flax tow.
Unfortunately, there are no surviving examples early medieval spinning wheels, so one must look to artwork and historical records for evidence of their existence. Evidence of spinning wheels themselves do not appear in any historical records and artwork of the 13th century. In her book Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines reports of written evidence to the presence of spinning wheels in Persia in 1257; and linguistic evidence that suggests they came to Persia from India, so it is entirely possible that they were in use prior to this time. The earliest known artwork depicting a spinning wheel comes from China around 1270 and depicts a “wheel” with long bamboo spokes. This wheel, as well as the Indian styles known as charkha wheels, were not rimed wheels at all, but rather had a string running through holes in the tips of the spokes connecting them in a zig-zag fashion, thus supporting the drive band. The drive band was connected to a spindle turned on it’s side where the whorl might be, and powered by a hand crank. The spinner would turn the hand crank with one hand and spin off of the end of the spindle with the other hand – thus the term “spindle wheel.”
While these rimless spindle wheels were in use in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Italy and Switzerland, they did not reach Europe until the late 13th century. Baines reports a mention of spindle wheels in Speyer (now Germany) dating from 1298 that forbids the use of wheel-spun warp threads in weaving. Spindle wheels, as they can spin fibers with less gravity and twist, created a softer yarn that would not hold up to the warp tension as well as strong-spun warp threads. Baines notes: “The need for such a regulation surely indicates that spinning on the wheel was an established method by that time.” Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence in the document to define what fibers were being spun and what kind of wheel was being used.
Devices similar to spinning wheels with a conventional rim are pictured in windows of several French cathedrals dating back to the 13th century in Amiens and Chartes, areas known for their woolen goods in the medieval era. The pictures appear to show them being used as bobbin winders for finished yarns, as opposed to wheels for spinning yarns; but the use of a spinning wheel to spin wool seems to have developed in France and Flanders (Baines) Wheels used to spin wool appear in documentable evidence in Britain in the early 14th century as pictures in the Decretals of Gregory IX, a manuscript that was illustrated in England, and shows a woman carding, combing and spinning wool on a wheel. The Luttrell Psalter written and illustrated in East Anglia sometime between 1335-1340, illustrates wool carding and spinning on a wheel.
Oftentimes, these spindle wheels (with the exception of the small charkha wheels used in India) are called “great wheels.” This is not a medieval term, as smaller spinning wheels for comparison did not come into use until more modern times. These smaller wheels, like the ones made by Ashford, Louet, Majacraft and others, were developed late in the medieval period to allow spinners easier handling of the longer staple fibers like linen and combed wools. Baines speculates that the silk reeling and throwing mills of 13th century Italy may have inspired the development of these wheels, as flyers were used to load spun yarn onto bobbins. The thread was twisted as it left the bobbin, rather than being twisted and then loaded onto the bobbin as seen in modern flyer wheels. The first published discussion of these machines doesn’t appear until 1607, yet there is documentation that the technology for these reeling machines was brought from Lucca to Bologna in 1272, and to Florence and Venice in the mid 14th century. Apparently the weaving Guilds made every attempt at keeping the existence of these reeling machines a secret. (Baines)
The earliest known record of a flyer wheel appears in the form of a picture from southern Germany, dated from 1475-1480, and shows flax spinning. Other pictures from the Low Countries dating from the early 1500s show small flyer wheels being used to spin wool. Leonardo da Vinci himself even worked on the mechanics of creating a flyer wheel, as evidenced in his notes of 1490, but he did not invent the flyer wheel itself. (Baines) Just as with the spindle wheels, these flyer wheels were turned with a hand crank. The foot treadle present on most modern spinning wheels was an even later addition, but there seems to be little agreement as to their era of origin. In her book A Weaver’s Garden, Rita Buchannan refers to “the development of the flyer and the treadle-driven wheel in the 15th and 16th centuries.” However, Patricia Baines states that “There still seems to be no definite evidence (for foot treadles) before the 17th century.”
Regardless of the method and device used, as long as you are twisting fibers together to create yarn, you are spinning. You can get a good quality dropspindle for as low as $5 that will give you yarn just as good as you can get on a spinning wheel, which usually starts around $300. No matter how much you spend on your tools, or how historically accurate your methods, as long as you are creating yarn and enjoying yourself, you are keeping this once vital part of our history alive.
Baines, Patricia. Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning. McMinnville: Robin & Russ Handweavers.
Buchannan, Rita. A Weaver’s Garden. New York: Dover Publications, 1999 ed.
Hochberg, Bette. Handspindles. Santa Cruz: Bette & Bernard Hochberg. 6th printing. 1993.
Vester, Paula. Textile History. Stone Mountain: World In A Spin. 1995.
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