So, I’ve come to the decision to start what I’ve wanted to start for a while. Spinning. 1480 style. How am I going to learn this? Well, I’ll combine a little experimental archaeology with pictorial research and reference to more modern peoples who spin in a similar style.
Why all this effort? Drop spinning is undergoing a bit of a revival (especially in America) and there are countless tutorials on how to do it.
Well, take a look at a modern person drop spinning and you’ll notice a few things. The spindle is usually dropped in front of the spinner and as it drops and spins more fibre is drafted to be turned into thread. A good modern drop spindle is perfectly balanced and often has a whorl weighted on the outer rim so it can spin a long, slow spin. This long and slow spin is perfect for spinning with a drop spindle.
Now, take a look at some paintings of medieval folks using a spindle to spin.
Many people look at pictures such as these and notice that none of the spinners are actually spinning. Some surmise that this was because they were painted winding the thread onto the spindle. There are images that depict this action so other surmise that they are simply holding the spindle and thread out gracefully. I have seen it suggested that they are actually spinning in these pictures but I have just as often seen this scoffed at by spinners as you “can’t” spin in this position. But take a look at this picture.
You can see here that the spindle has left the spinner’s hands, suggesting that she’s not just holding the spindle out to wind the thread on. The other explanation I’ve seen to explain why the spinners are painted like this is because it was simply an artistic convention and that nobody really span like that. This is possible, there were many artistic conventions at the time, but what is the proof that this was an artistic convention? The proof is that you “cant” spin like that, therefore they didn’t. They didn’t spin like that, so you can tell that it is an artistic convention. How do we know they didn’t spin like that? Because it’s an artistic convention. How do we know this? Because they didn’t spin like that. You can see where this argument is going and it’s going in circles.
First, lets start with the only external evidence—that people can’t spin like that. I have seen photos from Portugal,Russia, Romania and other countries of women from the 18th, 19th and 20th century all spinning in a similar manner. You could argue that these woman were all just posing and copying the pose they had found in medieval pictures but that is getting a little far-fetched. Furthermore I’ve seen videos of woman from these countries actually spinning and their hand positions are very similar. Take a look.
So can you spin like that? Yes.
Did they in the 15th century? Well, it could still be an artistic convention, but if so then why did every artist paint something he saw being done every day in a way in which he had never seen it before?
And why did painters continue painting women spinning this way through the 16th, 17th 18th and 19th centuries and why when the camera came about did photographers pose their subjects in this position to imitate not what they were doing but medieval art. And then what, when video came around women suddenly started trying to spin in the way they’d been pictured? You know what, it’s possible. We have no written descriptions of how to spin in the 15th century so who knows. To me, however, it isn’t likely. Not at all. For me the proof for the 15th century ladies spinning how they were pictured far outweighs any proof that it was just artistic convention.
So if we’re happy with the conclusion based on this research we’ll move onto some experimental archaeology, where applying practical skills and cross referencing these with the material culture from the archaeological record will yield yet more proof that women could have spun this way and did (at least some of the time).