Medieval Hand Spinning

whorls

Textile production was a very laborious process in medieval times. All the yarn required for weaving had to be spun by hand and although the spinning wheel we now know as the 'Great Wheel' had been invented it was not popular and most yarn was spun using a hand spindle.

Unlike the drop spindle of today with its fixed whorl the medieval spindle had a removable whorl. Many spindle whorls were made of lead, which is easy to cast: pottery, bone and glass were some of the other materials also used to make spindle whorls. The picture on the left shows a group of extant lead spindle whorls which date from Roman to Medieval times.

The medieval spindle stick was also slightly different to today's spindles, having a distinct 'belly' which tapered towards either end of the stick. Many spindle whorls have a tapered hole to accommodate the taper of the stick. Because they are usually made of more perishable materials than spindle whorls they rarely survive but a few, made of wood or bone, have been found. The spindles in the picture to the left are modern reproductions, some with modern spindle whorls and some with extant whorls.

To prepare the cleaned fleece for spinning a pair of wool combs would be used. They may have been hand held like the ones in the photo below, but more commonly they would have been larger and one comb would have been fixed to a post as can often be seen in medieval illustrations. The wool was combed from one comb to the other until all the fibres were separated and aligned smoothly. They would then be gently pulled off into a continuous 'top' and put onto the distaff ready for spinning.

The hand spindle and distaff are very portable tools and medieval women would not have gone far without them. It would take a spinner many hours to spin enough yarn to keep a weaver going for just one hour so every spare minute of the day was utilised for spinning. Medieval illustrations show women carrying their spindles and distaffs as they go about their daily tasks: as they travel from place to place they would spin as they went whether on foot or on the back of a mule. Noble ladies are often shown spinning and even the Virgin Mary has been depicted with her distaff and spindle.

In an age when obtaining new clothes can be accomplished with a few clicks of a 'mouse' it can be difficult to appreciate the sheer volume of time and effort which went into the making of garments in the past and we do well to remember that the innovations of the Industrial Revolution are relatively recent, while the evidence for hand produced textiles dates back thousands of years to at least the Neolithic period if not earlier.

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