Sarah the Spinner and the Spindle Whorl

8 October 2014 — 19 Comments

What follows is the resurrection of a blog originally made in 2011, and then lost. Part 2 will be published later.

A spindle (sometimes called a drop spindle) is a wooden stick weighted at one end with a circular whorl; it may have an optional hook at either end of the spike and is used for spinning wool and other fibres into thread. Spindles or parts of them have been found on archaeological sites; they may represent one of the earliest pieces of technology available to humankind – from Wikipedia  

 

Fig 2

The Spindle. – © John Winter

The UKDFD has many pages of lead spindle whorls, some plain, some decorated, but all with a story to tell. For many detectorists, discovering one is akin to digging up a button, too often regarded as one of the ‘lesser’ finds and placed in a box never to see the light of day again. And that’s a great pity!

Fig 3

Sarah Wroot – © John Winter

The ubiquitous whorl

Sarah Wroot, a Canadian lady now living in Hertfordshire, has always had an interest in our country and its history. When she first arrived here over vtwenty years ago she began working as an illustrator and graphic designer working with natural history subjects, and eventually became involved with archaeological interpretation

Spindle whorls are objects that have been used by people in the past. The problem facing archaeological interpretation is that when an artefact like a spindle is found, there is no one alive today (and hasn’t been for thousands of years), who made, used or saw the object in operation. Since meeting Sarah, I have a greater respect for the humble whorl and understand more about it. I have seen it used in context, realise how important it was at that time in history and will certainly treasure the next one I find.

When Sarah was looking for an authentic whorl and information about spindles she turned to the Internet and thought about metal detecting, eventually finding the UKDFD. She was directed to several pages on the database and thought, Wow! So, she registered, little realising that any member of the public could view the database. She signed up, not because she was a detectorist, but because she was a hand-spinner very interested in acquiring whorls to put back into use. But, how to get hold of one – that was the problem! She considered contacting detectorists personally, but was hesitant, being aware that every group has its own etiquette.

Fig 4

Plain Spindle Whorls. Click to Enlarge

She therefore sent an email saying that she was a hand spinner who was very interested in acquiring spindle whorls for use in making spindles. She explained that the standard re-enactors versions were clumsy children’s toys in comparison and (hesitantly) wondered if any detectorists would be interested in parting with some of their finds. She assured us that the whorls would find a good home, either with her or as a gift to other hand spinners. She had no intention of selling them. To Sarah it seemed a great shame that so many whorls might be sitting in collections when they were actual tools that could be put back to good use.

Detectorists to the rescue

I contacted Sarah, told her that I was prepared to help and would ask fellow detectorists if they would mind donating one of their finds. The notion of using whorls again seemed a positive link with the people who had worked with them every day and I guessed some detectorists would welcome the idea. And so they did.

Thanks go to members of the detectorist.co.uk detecting forum who volunteered their finds and especially Michael Smith (Muddy Mick) who sent a large decorated whorl. The latter has been sent to Sarah’s friend Georgi who is a medieval re-enactor in America. She is going to make spindle shafts for it, spin various yarns, and then publish a paper on what she learns in the process of reconstruction. So, not only will someone be using it, they’ll be passing on information to others.

I visited Sarah to see the donated whorls being used and also to find out more about her fascinating hobby. She told me how, prior to the spinning wheel’s introduction in the 13th century, everything would have been ‘ladies and spindles’. We tend not to think about the clothes we wear today and how they were manufactured, but then, they had no choice. In the Middle Ages all clothes were made by hand and the yarn was produced using a drop spindle. Children would have been experts at a very young age. This was not a poor person’s technique of making yarn – there was no other way!

Fig 6

Girl with Distaff and Spindle

Tangible link with history

The Girl seen left is a 19C interpretation by painter, Georgios Jakobides.

This could be the main reason why detectorists find so many. Lead, as well as pottery whorls have been found by the hundreds on medieval sites. Everybody was spinning! Evidence of Bronze Age and Neolithic textiles have been found in lake sediments, and as fine as anything that could be produced today. Beautifully spun, the spinners knew that the weight of the spindle depended on a heavier whorl and thus a stronger thread would be produced.

You will see from the way the whorl is held it looks rather cumbersome and difficult to operate, but for the people at the time it would have been second nature. The weight of the whorl may have had a relationship to the thickness of what you could produce with it, but ultimately it all depended on the skill of the spinner. Sarah told me that he detectorist’s find is bound to react differently when you compare it to a machined version by a modern craftsman, She described them as simple but effective primitive tools that could be regarded as the earliest piece of technology known to man, and went on to explain …

 … when I put a whorl on a shaft and use it, I get a thrill from that. It’s that direct, tangible link to some lady living many of hundreds of years ago and reminds me of how fortunate I am that I can sit here and for my leisure and just for fun, I can spin thread like fine silk. She didn’t have that choice. It is so easy to put these things back to work. As soon as I do it, I am the first person to use this whorl for its true purpose since the time it was lost. 

It’s true that Sarah’s spinning for pleasure is in stark contrast to the first lady to use the whorl. She would have been making yarn every spare moment of her life simply to clothe her family or to sell. Women would have been spinning on drop spindles everywhere; as they walked, as they talked, sitting, standing as even as they cooked. In contrast, Sarah’s purpose in using the authentic whorl is simply to find out how they worked and what sort of thread could be made by using them. I find that thrilling, she said. I need these whorls to experiment, to find out what they are capable of. Using the real thing is a completely new technique for me.

Fig 5 copy

Click to Enlarge

Albert Anker’s painting shows Reine Berthe instructing girls on spinning flax using distaffs. The distaff It is designed to hold the unspun fibres, keeping them untangled and thus easing the spinning process. It is most commonly used to hold flax, and sometimes wool, but can be used for any type of fibre.

Whittling away!

Before I met Sarah, I had a vague idea of how the whorl had been used in history, but I hadn’t realised the significance of the wood used to make the shaft or spindle. Just before my arrival, Sarah had been whittling away at a piece of stick that she had cut that very morning. Evidently there is a very distinctive tree in the hedgerows, called the spindle bush – the name reflects the straightness of its twigs. Common names also include pegwood, skiverwood and skewerwood(reflecting its use for clothes pegs and skewers). The name spindle tree was brought to England from Holland.

A warning – before you go out and source some twigs to use with that whorl in the your scrap box, I should be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the Berkshire name was death alder, so-called because folk legend had it that all parts of the bush were ‘deadly’. It’s not lethal but, according to Gerard’s Herbal, three or four berries are a very strong purgative, “if three or fower of these fruits be given to a man they purge both by vomit and stoole” – so be warned! Sorry, I digress …

It was unkind of me to ask Sarah detailed questions on the whorls she had been sent. She reminded me that she was no expert, but pointed out that the simple plain or convex whorl illustrated above are similar to those at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. They are also mounted on the spindle with the flat side up and the concave side down. However, as stated on the database, the dating of lead spindle whorls is problematic, as similar examples have been found in contexts that span the period from Roman to late medieval times. The consensus is that most of them date to the later medieval period.

“And that’s why it is called a Drop Spindle”

Decorated Whorl  © UKDFD

Decorated Whorl © UKDFD

I have concentrated here on the object known as the bottom drop spindle where the whorl is used to add momentum and stability to a swinging stick, and because that is the most common found by detectorists. The spinning stick adds twist to a bundle of fibres contained on a distaff – posh name for the stick/pole/cage/whatever holding the wool. This can be clearly seen in the image by Rene Berthe. Notice that Sarah, for demonstration purposes, simply secures the wool safely between her body and arm.

I asked Sarah why the term, ‘drop’ spindle. She smiled and said the joke was because that was what usually happened when you first started spinning. She was right on that score! I had a whorl for photographic purposes, but couldn’t resist giving it a spin. I twisted, I frowned, and maybe I swore a bit!  I also discovered the full meaning of drop spindle! Spinning brought out the worst in me. I was unusually bad even for a beginner. Funny that. I had read somewhere that spinning reduce stress and promotes well being . . . perhaps I should persevere!

Busy Bonnet Bee

I was honoured to meet Sarah and, as I inferred in the introduction, I will now treat every spindle whorl with the reverence and respect that it duly deserves. I also hope that after reading this you also will know a little more about them, their history and the way in which they were used.

Sarah admitted to me that she had a ‘small bee in her bonnet’ about putting things to good use. For example, she confided in me that she had looked at authentic Roman brooches in catalogues and thought somebody should be wearing them today! The craftsmanship of the Roman artist should still be seen and admired. But, don’t worry, she realises that it is perhaps easier to part with a spindle whorl than a brooch, so I won’t be asking for further donations!

Sarah reminds anyone who is interested and wants to see real-life spinning, there’s usually a re-enactor at any re-enactment event. If this has whetted your appetite and you want to find out more then you could contact The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to see of there are any groups meeting in your area.

Fig 7

© JW

PART 2 –  CLICK HERE

Acknowledgements

Herbal – John Gerard

Reine Berthe Instructing Girls Spinning – Albert Anker

The Spinner – Sarah Wroot

The Englishman’s Flora – Geoffrey Grigson

The Girl – Georgios Lakovidis

UKDFD

John

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19 responses to Sarah the Spinner and the Spindle Whorl

  1. Fascinating article John! Thankyou.

  2. Thanks John for resurrecting this very interesting post, I am sure that those who have not read it previously will find it to be a wealth of information.

  3. I too found it fascinating and will appreciate the ones I find much more

  4. Amazing that you should resurrect this article now John. I was passing the time of day yesterday with a neighbour. We joked about finding ‘winter’ things to do now the weather is changing. I said I’d ordered some wool, he said his wife had ordered a kit from America to have a go at spinning her own. I’ll have to give her a link to your Blog. I’m sure she’ll be extremely interested. I was. I’ve often wondered how they were used, now I know. Thanks.

    • Thanks Val.

      Your neighbour should do the same as Sarah and spurn kits. They are not the same as cutting your own spindle and using an authentic whorl … I’m sure that you have a spare you can give her. 🙂

      Back in operation after hundreds of years!
      Look out for Part 2 – has video of a lady using a drop spindle.

  5. Fascinating one of your best articles John ,a few years ago there was a heritage festival day in my own town Castleford ,there was a woman doing spinning ,i was talking to her and she said the Whorl,s she was using were on loan from York Museum ,have you none of your own i asked ,no she said ,,so i walked away got in the car drove home got about 8 Whorl,s went back to the woman ,here you are i said and gave them to her ,some of them were decorated ,well you would have thought i had given her a million pound ,she was over the moon ,so it just goes to show that a simple Spindal Whorl is in fact a little Treasure to some people

    • You made her day Pete, and it evidently brought you a great deal of satisfaction. Well done.

      • Some detectorist ,should just think for a moment ,and say to themselfs ,hey i have some Spindal Whorls chucked in the scrap box or stuck in the boxes stored away ,and contact the Lady mentioned and send them to her ,after all what you gonna do with them ,so come on fellow Detectorist ,get them donated

  6. An impressive article John! The ubiquitous lead spindle whorl often one of those detecting finds that receives little trumpet blowing. Yet socially and culturally this little object has been so important since Roman times and before that when stone counterparts were used by our ancestors.Without the spindle whorl it would have made the fashioning of clothing far less versatile.

  7. Interesting article. A few years ago I was at a Medieval day with a club display and gave a few spindle whorls of both types to a lady who was demonstrating spinning. The ones she was using were exactly the same as the ones that I gave here anyway, except a bit newer.

  8. Really interesting John I have yet to find one but will certainly value it when I do after reading this, thanks for sharing
    Alex

  9. Like Fred a few years back we saw them being demonstrated..I think it was in Somerset at an ancient crafts event.

  10. Very interesting my whorl finds are a tad more interesting now thank you.

  11. Wow John, what a great article. Kind of makes me want to take up a new hobby.

  12. Thank`s for a great article,now to find some!!!

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