The spindle is the main tool used to turn fibre into thread. Spindles are found all over the world and there are many variations from culture to culture and technique to technique. A spindle is composed of two parts, the spindle shaft and the whorl. The shaft is often made of wood but other material can be used. The spun thread is wound on the shaft. The whorl is a small disk or ball that helps the spindle maintain momentum to spin. In the 15th century whorls were made of a variety of materials including clay, stone, potsherd, bone and lead alloy.
Spindle whorls are a common archaeological find. I’ve heard of people in Europe or the United Kingdom finding them when they go on walks or when working in the garden. Extant spindle whorls are easy to buy and I’ve bought several for less than the cost of a modern reproduction. Of course, a modern lead-free pewter whorl is safer to use than a lead alloy whorl.
Be they bone, metal or stone; decorated or undecorated, 15th century spindle whorls have a few identifying features.
First, they are often small and heavy for their size, the hole through the centre may be cylindrical or it may be tapered (smaller at one end than the other) and they are often centre weighted, that is thinner at the edges with more of the mass at the shaft of the spindle.
This gives a medieval spindle a fast but often short (compared to a modern drop spindle) spin.
Spindles themselves are still found in the archaeological record but they are no way near as common as the whorls. There are many reasons for this. A whorl is more easily lost (they can drop off the spindle when it is in use). Many shafts were made out of wood and wood is less likely to survive hundreds of years intact in the ground than a metal or clay whorl. A shaft without a whorl is just a stick and often might be broken (why else to discard a spindle? so they may not be identified in the excavation. If you have a broken spindle that’s not good for anything, why not use it as kindling? Many shafts may have been destroyed historically when they were no longer useful for spinning.
Still there have been spindle shafts found, and there is a selection below.
You can see the shafts are tapered which is why whorls often had holes that were tapered. This allowed them to stay on the spindle better.
This is the shaft I use for my spindles. You can buy them here.
I’ve tried carving my own from dowels but I’m not that good at it and find they break easily. These are sturdy and work very well.
Here you can see a spindle shaft with three different replica whorls made of lead-free pewter, pottery and clay. The pewter whorl has a cylindrical hole but the others have tapered holes.
I have seven whorls that I use. I’ll choose a whorl based on what I’m spinning and how fine I’m spinning it. As I spin the weight of the fibre is added to the spindle and so if it becomes too heavy I will switch to a lighter whorl or take the whorl off completely. My whorls weigh from 6 grams (o.2 oz) to 50 grams. (1.8 oz)
In the above photo my spindle shaft weighs around 7-8 grams, the metal whorl weighs 19 grams, the pottery whorl weighs 22 grams and the clay whorl weighs 9 grams.
Here is my spindle with some spun wool on. The whorl is an extant stone whorl and weighs 6 grams.