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.