|"Her hands take up the spindle and the distaff." (Proverbs 31)
Spinning is simply the process of twisting fiber to make thread. Twisting the fiber makes the
thread stronger than untwisted fiber would be.
After the wool is carded, it's ready to be spun. For centuries, people spun on a drop spindle like
the one shown below. Spinning on a drop spindle can be tricky. The spinner held the unspun fiber,
while the spindle hung down suspended by the twisted thread. The spinner had to keep the spindle
turning to keep twisting more thread and the thread had to be strong enough to support the
weight of the spindle.. When the spindle had spun enough thread so that the spindle reached the
ground, the spinner had to stop and wind the finished thread onto the spindle and then begin
By the way, the distaff is a tree branch or stick that held the unspun fiber.
Left: A Drop Spindle Below: A Walking Wheel
"The Princess will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die! Heh! Heh! Heh!" says Carabosse the evil
fairy in Sleeping Beauty.
Spinning Wheels appeared in Western countries during the Middle Ages. The spindle (a pointed piece of wood or metal) is
positioned horizontally on one end of the spinning wheel and is connected to the big wheel by a drive cord. When the big
wheel is turned, the spindle turns very quickly and twists the fiber into thread.
The first kind of spinning wheel, called Great Wheels, Walking Wheels, or Wool Wheels (above right) were very simple.
The spinner had to stand to spin, and she turned the wheel with one hand while her other hand held the unspun fiber. After
a few turns, the spinner had to stop and reverse the wheel to wind the finished thread onto the bobbin. Easy to make and
use, these wheels were popular on the frontier. Women used walking wheels like this to spin wool in N.E. Texas/ Western
Louisiana even into the 20th Century.
Flax wheels like the one on the right are much more complicated.. You will
often see them in illustrations of Colonial America.
This spinning wheel (back) is a modern wheel made by the Kromski company
of Poland. It has 2 treadles.
The spinner sat while spinning at the flax wheel, using her foot to work the
pedal. The pedal turned the wheel, which turned the spindle. Unlike the
Great Wheel, the flax wheel's complicated flyer mechanism twists the thread
and winds it onto the bobbin in one motion. Flax wheels also made it possible
for the spinner to use both hands to control the fiber, making hard-to-spin
fibers a little easier to work with.
DID YOU KNOW? Loki says that flax is the plant fiber that is made
into linen cloth. The Ancient Egyptians could spin (on drop spindles)
flax so fine that that the fabric was almost transparent. In the 19th
century, fine flax thread was spun in basements so that the humidity
would help the thread not to break! Some of these threads were finer
than a human hair.
After the thread is spun, it is often wound on a niddy-noddy or a clock reel
(right, in front of spinning wheel). The yarn is wound into a long hank which
can then be dyed, if desired. The niddy-noddy and reel are also crude
measuring devices, giving the spinner a rough idea of how much yarn is in
her hank of thread.
On the next page you'll get a close-up look at how the thread is actually spun.