Spindle, schmindle

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.


19 thoughts on “Spindle, schmindle

  1. Shadow

    …nor did Helen have the Bronze Age equivalent of the pc!! which is my excuse 😉

    your point about females vs males was proven to me just recently, it seems that men who are in touch with their feminine side can also do it! We had a 12 year old boy staying with us over the holidays, who was most definately a female in a previous life, picked up my spindle and took to it like a duck to water. A more ‘masculine’ male however would probably have resorted to throwing it around the room in frustration… he he.

    1. kate Post author

      Ok Shadow, what does that say about me, hrumpf???? Mind you, I reckon my problems are because of my hands. If it wasn’t for my hands I’d be spindle-spinning perfectly.

      Yeah right…

    1. kate Post author

      You should definitely NOT be worried. I am the only person in the history of the world who can’t do it. I’m taking my spindles and fluff along to the next meeting of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and it could get very nasty…

      (BTW, I strongly recommend joining your local branch – Abergele, probably; I’ve met several of them and they’re lovely, really skilled crafters. Check out their blog… )

      1. heikeknits

        Thank you for the tip, I will check them out after I have been on my course at the end of March. Going with 5 of my friends…if nothing else it will be a laugh!

  2. del

    A golden spindle…I’d love to have one of those and I can’t even spin yet! It sounds perfectly extravagant.

    I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it and soon.

    1. kate Post author

      Me too! I’m sure a golden spindle would really help (and if it didn’t, I could sell it and buy something more useful, like lots of chocolate)…

  3. Lydia

    I thought I would just add a few words of encouragement about learning this wonderful art. I struggled too with heavy spindles which were supposed to be for beginners – it was maddening and I really decided not to bother. Then Emma from Spunout suggested I get a fine spindle from Golding. I am so pleased I followed her advice. The Golding spindle has to be the most beautiful object and my hands just seemed to know what to do from then on. It was not cheap but worth every penny. I now prefer to spin on my little hand spindle over my spinning wheel. I love the feeling of being linked to the past through the little spindle whizzing around. For me it is rather like the Golden Spindle that you mention. I chose the Celtic Ring with brass edging. Hope this helps you too.

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – those Golding spindles are fabulous, aren’t they? But I really can’t justify spending on the offchance that it might make all the difference… or can I?

      (At least I’d feel guilty about throwing a Golding out of the window, though.)

  4. Annie

    Of course all those spinning women of yore learnt to spin at their mother’s knee, when the necessary pattern and degree of movement would have lodged deep in the subconscious. You are having to think about what you’re doing, that’s much harder. Persevere, when your hands have had enough practice that they can spin without needing direction from you’re head then you’ll have cracked it 😀

    1. kate Post author

      I think that’s a very good point indeed. I must remember that I found knitting really hard once, too, and that it took me ages to get the hang of spinning on the wheel. With that, I got uncharacteristically disciplined and did 30 minutes every day, much of which was spent swearing and producing twists and curls where no twists or curls should have been. And then I got it, and then I overdid it, and then I damaged my hands.


      (If it wasn’t for my dodgy tum, I’d try spindling after drinking a bottle of wine.)

  5. Lindsay

    As a late convert to Neil Oliver I would hate you to throw anything at the nice man (or his image on TV), but better a spindle as a projectile than a wheel, I say.
    So speaks the total wimp wedded to my Lendrum, having avoided spindles very successfully to date….!

  6. Guzzisue

    there are several wheel spinners ay our guild who say that they can’t spin on a spindle 🙂 as for men, my mate Wikkidknitter is one of those annoying guys who not only picks things up straight away but then goes on to do it better than myself!! spinning included!

    1. kate Post author

      Oh how irritating… I know a man like that, but you wouldn’t catch me a) admitting it, especially to his face, and b) naming him publicly. Happily he doesn’t spin. Yet.

      (He’ll probably read this, recognise himself and take it up. Hm.)


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