Don’t drop that spindle!

Spend any time researching spindle spinning or spinning in the middle ages/renaissance and you’ll come across the term ‘drop spindle.’ Spindle whorls found archaeologically are ‘drop spindle whorls’ pictures of medieval ladies spinning show them spinning on a ‘drop spindle’. But, what’s being dropped? Were the spinsters of old clumsy?

I’m not sure how old the term ‘drop spindle’ is but I’ve only ever seen it in modern literature in english. Even in modern writings in other languages I see it being called   ‘fuso’or  ‘fuseau’ both of which mean ‘spindle’. No drop in sight.

I have my own theory on the origins of the name ‘drop spindle’ and why many call the spinning style of the 15th century ‘drop spinning’.

Once upon a time spinning with a spindle was a normal activity. In some places the spindle remained in the hand, in some the spindle was suspended from the thread which it formed and in others the spindle was suspended on a surface. In many places a mixture of these techniques were used and it was all normal ‘spinning’ done ‘on a spindle’. Spinning was a common task passed down from generation to generation. You didn’t learn it from a book or from a school. Then spinning wheels were introduced to Europe. At first they were considered faster but lower quality but soon the took hold. The industrial revolution swept over Europe and there was a drive to be more efficient. Who wanted to do things the old, slow way? Children stopped learning how to spin. Countries such as America, Australia and New Zealand were colonised (or invaded, depending on whose side you were on) by the British and they brought the new technologies with them. People in the western world forgot how to do things the old way as they looked forward to new advances in technology and better way to do things. But people don’t look forward forever. They only look forward for so long before the past ceases to be ‘that old thing’ and becomes ‘interesting history to learn about.’ Soon Anthropologists were learning about spinning from cultures who still spun by hand and the craft revolution was beginning to take an interest in spinning. Spinning the old way was something foreign so we attempted to define it and to split it into different types. We have ‘turkish spindles.” or ‘Andean plying.’ Much of this research was done in America and in the Americas you see people spinning by suspending their spindle from the thread as it is being formed, thus the spindle ‘drops’ down as the thread gains length. Hence, the drop spindle.

Soon this style of spinning took hold in the USA as a craft and there has been much research into the method, which led to drop spinning classes, books and instructional videos. Yes, they also learned about supported spinning but that appears to have been a more recent interest in the United States craft scene. For some reason European spinning styles haven’t recieved anywhere near as much research from the Americans. They may have been researched by their own peoples, but it is the Americal litteratue that dominates the English speaking world with their many fantastic respurces on drop spinning, often with a sie note to supported spinning.  Many people today will still tell you there are two main types of hand spinning, ‘suspended spinning’ and ‘supported spinning’.

When medieval reenactment and living history began to gain popularity if someone researched how to spin they came upon drop spindle spinning with descriptions, diagrams, photographs, classes and even videos all teaching them how to do it. So they learnt. After all, they were learning the old way of spinning, people today still spun like this and they had learnt from a history of family tradition. That what they were doing didn’t look quite like what appeared in the pictures from the times they were trying to relive didn’t mater so much. It’s a well-known fact that artists would often use symbols to depict things. People didn’t actually spin the way they’re pictured spinning, artists just painted a medieval shorthand for spinning. We know, because we know how to spin. We learnt it from a book or a video based on how a completely different culture span 500 years later.


Of course, when you do spin on a drop spindle, sometimes the thread snaps and you drop it! “That’s why it’s called a drop spindle!” the joke goes.


2 thoughts on “Don’t drop that spindle!

  1. Pingback: The Research Behind the Method | Cathelina di Alessandri

  2. Pingback: Not Just Drop Spindles! | 15thcenturyspinning

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