The Research Behind the Method

As I discussed here, many living historians learn how to spin from modern resources produced for modern crafters. These resources are vast, fantastic and what you find most readily when searching. Mostly they describe how to use a ‘drop spindle’.

Before we continue, lets take a quick look at spinning on a drop spindle.


© Rita Willaert from 9890 Gavere, Belgium

The spindle is set spinning and let go. This leaves two hands to hold and draft out the fibre and the spindle drops down as more thread is formed.

I started spinning because I wanted to improve my living history impression. I’d heard a few people talking about how modern drop spindling doesn’t look at all like what’s going on in period art and how they were attempting to reproduce what the artists were depicting. Many more people pointed out that they artists weren’t painting how people actually spun, just an impression or symbol of spinning that looked graceful.

Well, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the theories people were coming up with about how people actually spun in the 15th century, but I couldn’t find any proof that what the artists were depicting wasn’t how spinning was performed either. It was a rather circular argument ‘they spun using a drop spindle technique. This isn’t what the images show because the images were just artists depictions of spinning, an impression. We know this because the pictures don’t look like drop spinning does.”

So I decided to do my own research. I looked at extant spindles and whorls, images from not only the 15th century also from later eras where the same spinning style appeared to have been depicted and modern information on spinning styles that appeared similar.  What I found was that across Europe there were many cultures that used a distaff and a spindle to spin and while there were differences in style there was a lot of similarities in the style.

Firstly, lets take a look at the images.

Here is the classic image of a medieval spinner. Left arm at the distaff, right arm extended holding the spindle. It is a very graceful point in the spinning process and depicted a lot in period art.

Here is a another. This is from 15th century France. Notice the almost identical pose, including the way she is holding her fingers.


If these spinning positions were just an artist’s shortcut to indicate a lady spinning, we would see that at some point in history the artists would begin to depict spinning done as it actually was.

Here is an image from the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and is a print dating to the mid 17th century


Notice the same pose.


Here is a close look at her spindle. It appears to be tapered with a small whorl. The thread doesn’t pass under the whorl as it does on a drop spindle, it simply spirals up the shaft.

Here is The Rest of the Haymakers, dated 1872.


Notice once again we still have the classic, graceful posture.

Once can argue that this image is romantic and idealised and the one preceding it is symbolic rather than factual. Well, take a look at these.

“They Spin Well” bu Leonardo Alenza y Nieto, dated to the early 19th century


These ladies are spinning flax, which gives a smoother thread if wet spun. Often this was done by running the thread through the mouth.


similarly, in this picture dated 1475 the lady appears to be spitting on her flax to moisten it. While these images aren’t as graceful as some, still you see the classic posture in their movements.

They say the camera never lies, and with the introduction of photographs to our pictorial evidence the fun really starts.

Have a look here, here and here.

The thing is, you still see the classic posture in the spinners.

One could still argue that many of these old photographs were just poses, but in some, especially when an arm’s length of thread hasn’t been spun, it doesn’t look like it.

But the best thing is with the introduction of film to our research.

Obviously these were filmed hundreds of years after the 15th century, but there are many similarities in the style, enough to suggest that spinning in the 15th century looked more similar to these methods than to drop spindle spinning.

If you’d like to see more of my images and videos then take a look at my pinterest page where I have over 300!


3 thoughts on “The Research Behind the Method

  1. Pingback: Research page on my new blog | 15thcenturyspinning

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

  3. Thank you very much for this collection of pictures!
    I agree with your observations and I think I can extend them a bit.
    1. Modern hobby-spinning is indeed a new tradition and separate from the utilitarian/production spinning that started in prehistory and petered out in the 20thC. There is a very real and very important discontinuity there, and skills learned in one tradition can only be useful in understanding another if one first realizes that one must look for differences rather than similarities.
    (there are a few book exploring the different spinning traditions from the ethnological point of view, and they turn out surprisingly diverse)
    2. The main difference between the modern art/hobby-spinner and the older tradition, technically, is in fiber preparation.
    Examples: “Prehistoric textile” by E.J.W. Barber has an awesome account of Ancient Egyptians spinning linnen out of elementary flax fibers, which makes all modern spinners look like fumble-fingered pre-schoolers. In my own hometown, the 16.C/17.C textile industry distinguished half a dozen jobs done to sheeps wool (by as many different people) before it was handed out to spin.
    Consequence: The spinners in your very useful picture collection all spin finely prepared fibers, arranged in order on a distaff, so that it is possible to spin them with 1 hand only. That is the point of having a distaff, and arraning the fibres on it is more difficult and delicate than the spinning itself. One the fibers are properly mounted, one fiber pulls out the next after itself automatically, with no help from the hands, just by the weight of the spindle. The fingers of the upper hand control the amount of twist, not the pull, while the lower hand provides the impulse on the spindle.
    Experiental evidence: A colleague of mine here in the Netherlands has done the practical investigation not just on drop spindles but on the earliest forms of spinning wheel, where one hand turned the wheel while the other spun.
    He confirms your observation that a short spiral groove in the top of the spindle axis can suffice to hold the yarn, saving a very significant amount of time after each rolling-up-thread step.

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