Who needs it?
Well, I suppose I do. Just because I can’t do it – practising just makes me want to hurl the spindle at people, guess it would make a great projectile – doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. I’m hoping it will be like riding a bike: one minute I was falling off all the time unless Dad held onto the seat, and the next I was zooming along the quiet roads of York University campus with Dad in a wheezing heap in the background. Of course, my inability may be related to my hand injuries – hang on, that wouldn’t explain the lack of co-ordination. Hm.
One of the reasons I want to learn to spindle spin is because women have been doing it for millennia. If they could do it, I should be able to – and I’ve excavated enough spindle whorls like these
to know how universal it once was (the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme web database lists nearly 2,400 which detectorists / amateur archaeologists have picked up, and that’s just those found accidentally and which ping on a metal detector or are next to something that does).
The two above, by the way, come from an Iron Age crannog in Ayrshire; the left-hand one is in stone, and the other in clay.
(Of course the less – er, edifying – reason for me to want to spin is that other people can do it. Men can do it, for heavens’ sake.)
I devoted one of my early posts to ancient string (the logical consequence of simply twisting fibre), and yes, you can make string by hand twisting. But there’s no control – especially once you get the end beyond arm’s length, or before that if you’re me – as it tangles, bends back on itself, curls and twists and knots. It needs to stay under tension, and that’s where spindles come in. Plus, you get faster twirling. So it’s not surprising that spindles come from all over the world, and from very early periods of history – logic and human ingenuity guarantee that – and in Europe the technique probably developed in pace with the domestication of sheep (really wooly sheep only came about with domestication).
It probably started with women – probably women, rather than men – holding a stick in a rock crevice, and there are historical ethnographic accounts of spinners working like this comparatively recently in places as far apart as Scandinavia and the Sudan. But something extra gives momentum – so maybe a combination of the stick and a stone with a hole in it was the next logical leap.
And then you get clay spindle whorls coming into use too, starting with rounded and perforated pot sherds in places like the Aegean (you can almost see spinners working them into the right shape, though as one writer said ‘just because you feel you can reach out and touch the past, don’t presume you can describe its face’), and eventually metal ones.
These are lead, and are probably Macedonian going by the royal sun insignia. But I can’t track down provenance – they were in a antiquities sale. Don’t get me going on the antiq– no, not now.
But how do you tell whether the round thing you’ve excavated is a spindle whorl or just a round thing with a hole, maybe a big bead?
Well, size is a good indicator, as is the position of the hole – it has to be central. And it has to be big enough for the spindle, of course, and the whorl needs to be balanced. Context is useful too – you often get them with other wooly artefacts like loom weights or bone needles. And sometimes the spindles are preserved in place, though that’s comparatively unusual. And then there’s quantity. We tend to forget that all thread – all thread – would have been handspun, and you’d need a heck of a lot for even a short length of fabric.
Thousands and thousands of baked clay spindle whorls were excavated in the various levels at Troy, for instance.
(illustration from Barber, Prehistoric Textiles)
but only a couple were found with their spindles in place – one was carbonised wood, and still had some thread wound on it. The other was in bone.
Metal spindles have been found, though not at Troy – there’s an example from a female royal grave at Alaca Hoyuk which is about 4500 years old. But is it a spindle? It’s certainly luxurious: a ‘silver disk impaled by a silver shaft with a carefully shaped gold or electrum head’. Some people think it’s a dress pin or for ritual – after all, why would a utilitarian object like a spindle be so luxurious? – but it looks like a spindle to me (and it’s blunt). And, astonishingly, it looks like one of my spindles:
Incidentally, it was found close to one of the woman’s hands. Yup, I think it’s a spindle. And why shouldn’t a spindle be beautiful, precious and made in expensive materials? After all, Helen of Troy had a gold one:
…his wife presented Helen her own precious gifts
a golden spindle, a basket that ran on casters,
solid silver polished off with rims of gold.
Now Phylo her servant rolled it in beside her,
heaped to the brim with yarn prepared for weaving;
the spindle swathed in violet wool lay tipped across it.
That’s from The Odyssey, Robert Fagel’s translation.
Bet Helen didn’t heave it at the Bronze Age equivalent of the television, though. Well, Neil Oliver was on. That’s my excuse.