‘Keep the maids at their spinning…’

Every so often it really hits me. While I spin for pleasure (which I sometimes forget, especially when I’m up to my arms in daggy fleece), throughout most of spinning history that would not have been the case. People may have got pleasure out of it, but it was a job. And it could be a wearisome one, too.

I know it’s obvious, but it’s just slapped me in the face again. Before industrialization every thread for every textile had to be spun. Every thread – and before the spinning wheel, that meant spindle-spun. And not just clothing or household textiles. Sails for Viking longboats? Made from handspun.

But it doesn’t often get much of a mention; spinning and even textiles tend to crop up as a footnote or an aside, even in original sources. And once these have passed though the filter of an academic historian (often a bloke, and/or someone uninterested in domestic history), they are even less likely to leap out of the past. But sometimes they still do. In the records of St Bartholemew’s Hospital in Elizabethan London, for example.

Taken over by the City following the dissolution of the religious orders, there were twelve ‘sisters’ there: nursing staff (the name ‘sister’ was a hang over from the earlier, religious-order days). Their duties were documented and not that different in some respects from how you would hope nurses behave now – helping their patients, giving them food and drink, making sure they were comfortable. But in their spare moments (!) wool and flax was issued by the matron (‘the chief governess … of this house’) for them to spin up. It was woven, but by an outsider, into blankets and sheets for the hospital.

On a smaller scale, households were expected to produce their own textiles, even if they were actually woven, sometimes, by a specialist. I knew about this truly domestic spinning (the ‘domestic system’ was something else entirely). For instance, it often crops up in fairy tales, even local folk tales like the story of Eilian, where the unusual new maid doesn’t join her colleagues spinning by the fire but prefers to go out and spin in a field where the Fair Folk dance. In my mind, though, I’d somehow thought that this evening spinning would be sociable and pleasurable – and it may well have been a great opportunity for gossip and chat – as well as a time when the maids could spin thread for their own use.

How naive of me…

I’ve been reading – not rereading, to my shame – Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett. For anyone who is in the same position as I was and who hasn’t read it, it’s essentially the story of a journey around (contemporary) eighteenth-century Britain undertaken by Squire Bramble and his family. It’s told in a series of letters, and it’s a hoot.

Some of the letters are ‘written’ by Tabitha, the Squire’s maiden sister, and their target is the housekeeper back in Wales. Tabitha repeatedly urges Mrs Gwyllim to ‘have an eye to the maids and keep them at their spinning – I think they may go very well without beer in hot weather – it serves only to inflame the blood and set them a-gog after the men’. (Oh, all right, the latter part has little to do with spinning, but I couldn’t resist it.)

But it was later on that it hit me. The maids weren’t just sitting around the place spinning, drinking beer and chasing after men. In their ‘free’ time they were producing the household textiles:

‘I hope there will be twenty stun of cheese ready for market by the time I get huom, and as much owl spun as will make half a dozen pair of blankets…’

Tabitha’s eccentric spelling is deliberate, but that’s a hell of a lot of thread those maids were expected to produce; no wonder she didn’t want them distracted by alcohol and the opposite sex. In the ‘domestic system’ (of which, doubtless, more in a later post) it could take several spinners to keep pace with a single weaver; Tabitha Bramble’s maids wouldn’t have had much time for beer and boys if she wanted her ‘half a dozen pair’ ready for her return. Industrialization, just gathering steam (literally) when Smollett was writing, must have made an immediate difference to the life of the spinning maids. But their employers would undoubtedly find something else for them to do with their time – something that didn’t involve ale and unsuitable men either, no doubt.


14 thoughts on “‘Keep the maids at their spinning…’

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you – when I can’t knit or spin as much as I’d like because of injury, I do enjoy doing both vicariously – by blogging about them….

  1. Deb

    Oh my. How quickly we forget that this was the only way to get fabric long ago. It floors me to think of it. Especially your comment on the Viking sails! Me back then: Need a sail for the ship of yours? Oh you need more than one? Let me get started on that. Come back at the beginning of the next century and check on my progress. I just might have a small portion of the jib started. Now pass me that sheep. Or pile of flax.

    As a graphic designer and type-person I am also floored by the typesetting back then. It mostly makes me cringe but it is always interesting!

    Thanks Kate. I shall have to peek at the book you mention. For a hoot. xo

    1. kate Post author

      WEll quite – and I’d have been hopeless on the Viking female front, because I can’t spindle spin. Tried, tried, tried, given up…

      (I quite like the typesetting – and I’ve had to deal with manuscripts that look a bit like that from authors today, which is really alarming.)

  2. Heather Hawley

    Let’s not forget that Vikings did not have spinning wheels just drop spindles to spin the thread that was used to weave their sails.

    1. kate Post author

      Exactly – and can you imagine how long that would have taken? I suspect people would have been spindling all day as they did other things, as they still do today in some parts of the world. It does make you realise how precious textiles were, doesn’t it?

  3. Lydia

    Yes, interesting indeed… we don’t have to pick fleece off fences in order to clothe our bodies….or whittle a spindle or two to spin said fleece… or undo old jumpers to have some yarn as there was no other available … a long thread unravels.

    1. kate Post author

      Quite – we’re very privileged, really. Even if it was bought at an often terrible price, industrialisation (I’m just thinking of the textile industry here, really) has freed up people to do lots of other things. Of course it also condemned other people to misery and altered the fabric of society and the economy of the whole world…

  4. knitsofacto

    They’re still at it in parts of Peru … carrying a spindle where’er they go that is. For me the Smollet would be a reread, and maybe I should because the first read was a good while ago.

    A joy of a post Kate, thank you 😀

    1. kate Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      You should definitely reared that Smollett. Can’t think how I’d missed out on it… I only read it because I heard it being discussed on Radio 4! (Ever the intellectual.)

  5. Beth

    Novelist Nicola Griffith (asknicola.blogspot.com) once posted that doing research for her next novel, Hild, set in 7th century England, she had discovered that women of the time spent at least 65% of their time on textile production, more than either childcare or food production. Here’s the blog post where she talks about that: http://gemaecca.blogspot.com/2008/01/why-gemcca.html
    65%! Not even sure if that includes sails…

    1. kate Post author

      That’s really interesting – and I must admit I’m not surprised once you think about it. Kids can get on by themselves (!) but fibre won’t spin itself into thread, or weave itself into fabric. I’m surprised it’s more than food production, though. Maybe – as in S. America toady – the two often went hand-in-hand. You can do a lot while you spindle.

      (I can’t – I’m crap at it!)


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