- Home -
Fibers
Spinning
Dyeing
Weaving
Netting
Braiding
Japanese
SCA A&S
Meet AnneLiese

Anne Liese's Fibers and Stuff

Spindle and Distaff: An Historical Overview

In the SCA there is a general feeling that if one is spinning on a drop-spindle, one is spinning in a "period" manner. However, once I started looking carefully at pictures of Medieval and Renaissance women spinning, I realized that just using a spindle is not enough. Medieval spinners used a distaff and did not suspend the spindle directly in front of them as modern spinners tend to do.

Written Evidence

References to spinning in literature point overwhelmingly to the fact that spinning was women's work. There is ample evidence for male spinning workshops, but in the average household all the women spun, even if they were wealthy enough to afford to buy some of their cloth in pieces. Survival of terms like the "distaff side" (refers to the female side of the family) reinforce this. Eve is often pictured spinning while Adam digs as in the old saying "When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?"

The distaff was the more noticeable and referenced spinning implement than the spindle. This may seem odd because the spindle is in actuality the necessary tool for the spinning. By contrast, in ancient Greek literature the spindle or wool basket is mentioned in the context of women spinning. 

The term "rock" seems to have possibly referred to the distaff (because it is unmoving) or the spindle (whorl) and while I have seen examples of both uses, it more often seems to mean distaff. "Reel" seems to have referred to the spindle because it spins and holds the yarn.

Pictorial Evidence

Take a look at a modern drop-spinner - especially one who learned how to spin on a wheel first and then picked up a spindle, and you will probably see a very different picture from historical images of spinsters. Modern drop-spinners tend to hold both hands centered in front of them. Those who have done extensive drop-spinning often evolve their hand positions; hands end up one over the other to make a vertical drafting zone, and sometimes the level of the hands comes up so that the drafting zone is right in front of the eyes. Amazingly enough, this mimics the Classical Greek and Roman spinning pose. One would think this pose would have become universal; however, it is markedly different from later illustrations of spinners.

In general, images of spinners (not counting spinners at wheels) throughout Europe from the Medieval era on, have the following elements:

  • distaff 
    • off to one side (tucked into belt or in a hole in the bench, or in Russia & Eastern Europe a bat distaff with L-shape to sit upon)
    • In front (between knees, or in a separate holder like a stool)
  • the hand closest to the distaff drafts the fibers off the distaff
  • thread/yarn stretched between the hands across front of the body
  • the other hand lower and on the other side of the body, holding the spindle or with the spindle suspended a few inches to a foot below the hand

There is a rough correlation between fiber and spindle use; flax fibers tend to be pictured more often with in-the-hand spindles and wool fibers with suspended spindles. Of course, it is often difficult to tell which type of fiber is being depicted, especially since long wools were allowed to grow for a whole year rather than half the year, as modern sheep husbandry dictates.

In looking at the spindles themselves, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they have a whorl because the cop of yarn is larger than the whorl or perhaps covering it. I have found a few close-ups of spindles from the 15th and 16th centuries that show a large oblong cop of yarn, a small rounded whorl, and a spindle that tapers to small points at both ends. 

I have not personally seen pictorial evidence of a hook on a spindle. Some argue that the mere fact that a spindle is depicted suspended necessitates a hook or notch, but I disagree (having successfully suspended my spindles many times with a half-hitch or two). Pictures where the spindle is shown thrust top-down into a distaff's fibers for storage indicate to me a lack of hooks because I can guarantee those distaves would be in no good condition for spinning after being tangled by the passage of a spindle hook a few times. Notches, maybe, but only if they go completely around the spindle without leaving an edge to catch fine fibers.

Archaeological Evidence & Lack Thereof

Whorls are everywhere, and extremely common archaeological finds. Characteristics of whorls:

  • Heavier, denser materials such as stone and lead are more common than lighter materials like wood and bone (that's not to say that wood and bone are UNcommon)
  • Shapes varied - general trends over time seem to be more related to "fashion" than the physics of the whorl shape (see next section)
  • Shapes tended to have a large amount of mass at center

Spindles, however, are a bit more problematic. Such slender pieces of wood tend to decay easily or be mistaken for unimportant sticks. Some that have survived may appear to be notched at one or both ends, but it is sometimes difficult to tell if the "ends" of the extant spindle are really the original ends, or whether they have broken off or gotten damaged.

My favorite spindles narrow to a diameter of about 2mm at the top. I have broken several through use, and they probably wouldn't survive being buried and dug back up without losing their narrow tips.

Therefore I don't trust that we will ever get an accurate view of exactly what Medieval and Renaissance spindles were like based on the archaeological evidence. The best we can do is combine pictorial evidence with information about the extant whorls.

The Physics of the Whorl

I do not claim to be a physicist, but here are some general principles from which we can draw conclusions:

  • heavier mass imparts more inertia to a rotating object than light mass
  • location of the mass relative to the center affects the duration of the spin; mass closer to the center will make for a shorter faster spin and mass farther from the center will make for a longer slower spin
  • a wheel with mass farther from the center has a slightly gyroscopic influence to stabilize spin

I arrived at many of my conclusions about Medieval whorls by defining what they are NOT meant for. Modern spindle makers pander to a modern drop-spinning customer base that wants a very smooth, stable, long-lasting spin. As a result, they make whorls that are very wide and flat, often with more weight at the outside edge than in the center. Homemade spindles with CD's for whorls are very popular because they feel "stable" and the light, wide CDs make for a relatively slow long-lasting spin.

Drop-spinners who pick up a spindle outfitted with a reproduction Medieval whorl generally find that the spindle "wobbles" too much, is difficult to control, and spins too fast. Back-spin is a common problem; the twist builds up in the yarn quickly, and even the fastest drafter has trouble getting enough fiber out before the spin dies. The extant whorls don't have any of the characteristics a modern drop-spinner looks for in a whorl.

So why did our foremothers (and fathers, in some cases) use such ornery whorls? Because they spun in a way that took advantage of the properties of a small, dense, heavy-towards-the-center whorl. If one is spinning the spindle in the hand more often than suspending it from the yarn, backspin and stability are not important. The whorl's job is to keep the spindle vertical and spin as quickly as possible to enable the spinner to get the maximum use out of each twirl of the finger and thumb.

Yarn and Cloth

Cloth fashions varied through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, but in general the cloths being produced were not the thick clunky fabrics we might imagine. Yarns were finely spun and strong and not at all "primitive". I conclude from this that the spinning techniques used to produce them must have been very reproducible and time-tested. Other things we can tell from yarn are listed below. 

Direction of spin:

There are of course exceptions, but in several studies of extant fabrics I've seen warps and fine worsted warps seem to generally be Z-spun and soft fluffy warps seem to be S-spun. This could indicate a difference in spinning methods. After the introduction of the spinning wheel, soft fluffy warps were generally produced on a wheel while warps were still produced on a drop spindle if we are to believe regulations that restricted the use of wheel-spun yarn in the warp. I have often wondered if before the introduction of the spinning wheel soft fluffy yarns were produced with a completely different spinning method from smooth worsteds. One possibility would be the hand-held distaff pictured in ancient Greek images of spinners. There are also many other little-known spinning methods that survive in ethnic pockets of the world to look to.

The majority of linen yarns were Z-spun even though the "natural" spin direction of linen fibers is in an S direction. Amazingly, the Z-spun trend seems to be fairly consistent throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods in all of Europe. That leads me to believe that the direction of spin for linen was determined by the spinning method.

Spinning in the hand produces a Z-spun thread if done by a right-handed person, and an S-spun thread if done by a left-handed person. The ratio of Z to S linen yarns seem roughly comparable to the proportion of right- to left-handed people in the average population.

Introduction of the wheel and regulations:

Regulations around the time of the introduction of the spinning wheel indicate that wheel-spun yarns were not to be used for warp. This shows that the spinners who were still spinning with distaff and spindle were probably very economically powerful, and that the yarns themselves were not trusted, at least at first (there were some regulations of what percentage of the warp could be wheel-spun before the disappearance of such rules). 

I have heard it theorized that drop-spun yarn is superior in strength to wheel-spun yarn because it bears the weight of the spindle. However, this assumption is slightly problematic in that the suspended spindles in illustrations generally are only suspended from about a third or less of the yarn coming from the distaff, leading me to believe that not all the yarn was "tested" by the weight of the spindle. 

My theory is that in-the-hand spinning allows the spinner more control; she can speed up or slow down depending on how the fibers are coming from the distaff. With a wheel, one can't just stop easily to pick out neps or tease apart fibers. It is also very easy to underspin yarns on a wheel, such that they go onto the bobbin fine but fall apart as they are drawn off.

Conclusion

Spinners who really wish to be "authentic" need to go beyond trying to use the appropriate spindle. Learning appropriate techniques and using a distaff in recreation spinning should be the next step. There is still much research to be done into medieval and renaissance spinning.

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created August 4, 2001

Last updated September 10, 2004