A Basic History of Spindles

Spinning Alpaca fiber on a support spindle: image by Grace Boto

Spinning Alpaca fiber on a support spindle: image by Grace Boto

[ Written by Justin Near  ]

The princess will pierce her hand with a spindle and die of the wound.

...[the king] immediately issued a public edict forbidding all his subjects to spin with a
spindle or to have spindles in their house under pain of death.

...after arriving at the top of a tower, she entered a little garret, where an honest oldwoman was sitting by herself with her distaff and spindle.

“Oh, how pretty it is!” the princess responded. “How do you do it? Let me try and see if I can do it as well.” No sooner had she grasped the spindle than she pricked her hand with the point and fainted...

~ written by Charles Perrault, 1697, The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, English
translation by Jack Zipes [note that the Grimms’ version appears in the early 1800s]

So what exactly is a spindle, or fuseau?

The modern visual version of Sleeping Beauty brings to mind a spinning wheel and some sort of thing attached to it that is sharp and pointy. There is, in fact, sometimes a pointed thing on a spinning wheel that is called a spindle, which would make sense given that the wheel in the movie is similar to, though smaller than, a Great Wheel. (Great Wheels, or at least a variation of them, came to Europe in the 1400s and 1500s). However, the one in the movie doesn’t have a horizontal spindle like the Great Wheel (and its Indian cousin, the charkha ) but rather a vertical pointed distaff. And sharply pointed distaffs, which hold all of the fiber, would be really kind of silly in practice unless you were in need of a quick spear. Tchaikovsky’s ballet version of Sleeping Beauty , however, which holds to the tradition of carrying a standalone spindle on stage, is probably more accurate.

A spindle, one grasped and spun in the hand, makes the most sense with Perrault’s text. Most traditional French spindles have a rounded bottom and a spiral indent or metal spiral cap on top, made for drop spinning.

Sylvie Damey’s French spindle collection      http://chezplum.com/vintage-and-antique-french-spindles/

Sylvie Damey’s French spindle collection  http://chezplum.com/vintage-and-antique-french-spindles/

But supported spindles were quite common throughout all of Europe, had been for centuries, and supported spindles have a sharp point, or flick, at the top.

The Spinning Sow, 1673,      https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-spinning-sow-1673/

The Spinning Sow, 1673, https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-spinning-sow-1673/

Though Dutch, and though they are being used as drop spindles, you can see the points on both ends of the spindles in these amusing 1673 “spinning sow” engravings.

https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-spinning-sow-1673/

https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-spinning-sow-1673/

So back to what a spindle actually is .

Spindles, in their most basic form, are sticks, or shafts, often with points at both ends (though sometimes only one point, and in more modern times, sometimes without a point at all). In many cultures and time periods, spindles consist of two parts - a shaft and a whorl.

Spindles are simple tools, but not dumb tools.

The spindle is a simple tool. It is a hammer, a straight saw, a chisel, a source of heat, a pot or pan, a knife, a pen. Where the spinning wheel is a printing press, a spindle is a pen. Both require skill and training to operate, and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other.

~ Abby Franquemont, Respect the Spindle: Spin Infinite Yarns with One Amazing Tool

Franquemont lives and breathes modern spindling. She grew up in South America, in Peru, where she learned to spin as a child on a bottom-whorl spindle with a whittled eucalyptus shaft and a hand-carved wooden whorl. She talks about spindles rarely leaving the hands of young girls - for them, it was “social,” “a game,” “competitive.” And yet, “...even the completely average spinners among us became capable of production spinning.”

But the spindle is also old...very old. Much older than Middles Ages/Renaissance-old. So old that hard data is difficult if not impossible to come by. Like a sewing needle. Like a blade.

So do we know how far back the tradition of spindling goes?

There are some very early examples of woven textiles/cloth, sewing needles, dyeing, cordage, baskety, etc from the Paleolithic period (2.5 mya to approximately 11,000 years ago) in widespread locations such as Slovenia, Russia, China, France Japan, Siberia, Czech Republic, South Africa, and Georgia. (see this Article for more info)

 
Personal collection of spindles in various forms: image by Grace Boto

Personal collection of spindles in various forms: image by Grace Boto

Spinning was not necessarily required for early clothing (leather, for instance, can be sewn together and thicker materials can be woven without being spun), but cordage, netting, and basketry do suggest at least some element of spinning because of the strength lended to spun fibers, all kinds of fibers, simply by adding twist to them. But even woven cloth, which does tend to require spun thread/yarn, appeared as early as approximately 27,000 years ago, still well within a Paleolithic timeline. (see this article for more info)

So yeah, old.

As we move closer to the present, other evidence begins to appear, in the form of crops and domestication of animals. Though sheep were domesticated around 9,000 BCE, they were primarily used for meat and dairy. Wooly (as opposed to hairy) sheep began to be intentionally bred closer to 3,000 BCE. But in between those two time periods, there is evidence of hemp being grown in Turkey around 7,000 BCE; flax in Egypt around 6,000 BCE; cotton in the Americas around 5,500 BCE; and silk in China around 5,000 BCE.  (see this article for more info)

But what about the tools? How were these fibers, all of which have vastly different characteristics, spun?

We may never fully “know.” But there has been lots of speculation. How can one speculate? Well, I would ask, what would you have used?

With strong archaeological evidence, we “know” that woven textiles and other spun fibers existed at the latest at some point in the latter Stone Age (the Neolithic time period, 11,000 BCE to 4500 BCE). We also know that fibers were produced on a large scale between 7,000 and 4,500 BCE in all parts of the world. All parts of the world.

So what would you use? Whatever was available to you. A stick and a rock. A shaft and a whorl. Or perhaps a stick or a rock.

One speculative narrative that can’t be proven is that a long bit of fiber would be handspun with one’s fingers or on one’s leg. That spun thread could then be tied around a rock, and the rock could be spun. As more length is spun, you keep wrapping around the rock. (I’ve seen some interesting modern attempts at this that involve tying a stick to the rock and wrapping the thread/yarn in weird ways, but I’ve wrapped enough presents to know that it could potentially be tied with just the thread, with the right rock and the right amount of skill). The rock would be the earliest version of the “modern” whorl.

Improvised support via a piece of tree bark: image by Grace Boto

Improvised support via a piece of tree bark: image by Grace Boto

Another thought, one that has modern, practical equivalents, is just the stick. Traditionally made French (like the one in Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty), Orenburg, and Russian spindles don’t have a true whorl. In other words, the whorl is not a piece separable from the shaft. Nowadays, these types of spindles are often mechanically wood-turned, but they could have been carved or turned in other ways. Instead of a whorl, the wood itself is curved and bulges in different places along the shaft to create the same physical effect as a whorl.

A modern, Russian spindle, hand-turned by The Dancing Goat

A modern, Russian spindle, hand-turned by The Dancing Goat

There are archaeological problems with both of those, however - it would be difficult to “prove” that a specific rock was used to spin yarn, and wood decomposes very easily. But once whorls started being used (non-wood ones), we have something quite a bit more tangible to grasp.

Stone whorls were probably the first types of whorls to be used with any sort of regularity. And they are relatively easy to spot because they would have been formed during the Stone Age to be smooth and balanced, and they often have some sort of carved decoration on them. There is evidence of stone whorls at least as early as around 6,500 BCE.

Stone whorl, 2,400-1,600 BCE, Minoan (Crete) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/252327

Stone whorl, 2,400-1,600 BCE, Minoan (Crete) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/252327

Bone whorls were also probably common. However, like wood, unless under the right conditions, bone will disappear over time. It’s also much less dense than stone, so its physical benefits would not be as desirable.

Bone whorl, 1,600-1,050 BCE, Cypriot (Cyprus) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art   https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/244066

Bone whorl, 1,600-1,050 BCE, Cypriot (Cyprus) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/244066

Ceramic and terracotta whorls existed at least as early as 3,000-2,500 BCE.

Terracotta whorl, 2,500-2,075 BCE, Cypriot (Cyprus) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art   https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/240529

Terracotta whorl, 2,500-2,075 BCE, Cypriot (Cyprus) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/240529

Ancient Romans even used glass whorls in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, probably because they were pretty. (Glass spindles are generally very lightweight and don’t spin nearly as well as some of their counterparts).

Glass whorl, c0-200 CE, Roman - The Metropolitan Museum of Art       https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/239925

Glass whorl, c0-200 CE, Roman - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/239925

Metals were also used - iron and copper, for instance - from at least 500 CE and on.

Copper and ceramic beads/whorls, 1200-1470 CE, Peruvian - The Metropolitan Museum of Art   https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/309223

Copper and ceramic beads/whorls, 1200-1470 CE, Peruvian - The Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/309223

Tahkli spindles, from India, are entirely made of metal. The earliest spinning wheels, called floor charkhas , likely were created using these spindles, and evidence suggests they were invented between 500 and 1,000 CE.

Personal Modern tahkli spindle

Personal Modern tahkli spindle

And modern spindles? They are made from all of the above and more. Plastic 3D-printed spindles are quite common now. One can throw together a CD and a pencil at home with some washers and wing nuts - voilà, spindle. And my favorite story to share was told to me by a friend a couple of years ago - in the modern Americas, you can still find someone spinning with just a stick, sharpened at both ends...and a potato (the whorl).