Medieval Plying Picture… Could it be I’ve found one?

Well, up until today I would have told you I know of no pictures from the late middle aes or early renaissance that depict plying.

I know many others have said this.

But tonight when I opened up pinterest I saw this picture (which I’ve brightened to help see a few details)

I have heard of plying using a hook or nail driven into the ceiling. Could this be a medieval image deicting plying?

The manuscript is this one here and here is the page this image is from

Have a good look. It appears they are spinning thread hanging down from the ceiling. Well, this rattled something in my brain. I KNOW I’ve heard people talking about plying using hooks or mails driven into the ceiling.

I’ve been sick recently and spend some time in bed half-watching Norman Kennedy spinning videos. I’m 90% sure he mentions someone taking him to an old house and pointing to hooks or nails in the ceiling and wondering what they were for and Mr Kennedy said “oh, they were for plying thread.” I’m sure I’ve hard of it from some other source too (I’m thinking a lady somewhere in eastern Europe but I’m not sure).

How plying from a hook or nail in the ceiling works, I don’t know. I’ve always imagined the threads are run up from the floor (either in the form of a single plying ball or two spindles of singles), passed through a hook together and then spun.In the picture there are no threads going up, only going down. Of course, this is a medieval picture (looks 15th century French to me) so threads going up could just not have been painted in. They often left out parts of looms too.

So, what do you think? Medieval plying picture or something else?


17 responses

  1. I think this calls for a hands-on experiment to see if the technique works. It seems reasonable that suspension from above might assist in the plying process, because it would serve as a tensioning technique that would prevent kinks. (Similarly, some people warp their looms using an overhead trapeze apparatus suspended from the ceiling.) Adding distance/height and some slight resistance would probably ensure perfect plying, but there’s no way to know without actually experimenting. Try inserting a small hook into the top of a door frame, and then let us know in a followup post whether the overhead approach works better than the usual method of plying.

    • I’m working on filling up a second spindle with singles and then I will experement. I’m thinking, like you are, that suspension would help tension the thread and help stop kinks but also when one thread wraps around the other (not sure if it has a name!)

      • You would think that drawing both singles through the same hook-eye would indeed make both threads wrap around each other before they descend to the spinner, but if they did so in an orderly and even manner, the spinner could simply monitor the evenness of the ply while she wrapped on each new length.

  2. Hmmm… without knowing the source of the picture, it’s hard to judge. It could be something allegorical and/or a fantasy image of “otherness”, as the man’s clothing and hat suggests. This is why I wish people would CITE THEIR IMAGES. *gah* Manuscript images are worse than useless if you don’t know the date, country of origin, and what’s being depicted.

    Having said that, I do vaguely recall seeing some ancient Greek vases with plying done from a hook (or possibly even a pulley system) on the ceiling. Of course, now I think of that I can’t find the image anywhere…

    Experimentation is the way forward, I suspect.

    • I actually had the source page open but I forgot to add the link in my post! (sorry, must have been too excited!)
      This is the manuscript it’s from and here is the page
      I’ve been trying to make the text out but I don’t know modern French, let alone medieval French.
      I’m sure I know the vase you mention and I actually had the photo you posted below in mind when I saw this! Yes, I’ll have to experement.

      • Oh, thank you for posting the source link. Sorry – I didn’t mean to have a go at you. I thought you had found the image via Pintrest or similar and didn’t have a proper source.

        It’s a pity that website doesn’t have little summaries of what’s happening in each image, unlike some others. The best I can make out from the text is: “Comment az(?)h?te? conqi(?)st le? ?orame? pe?se ? de mede”. Not much help…

      • I don’t know the etiquette of commenting on blogs, but I came across yours by accident ( I was looking for pictures of Eleanor of Aquitaine) and really liked it. I am a long-draw spinner and my guild has done much fund-raising and now purchased a walking wheel based on the Luttrell Psalter. I was quite interested in your picture on plying, where you said you couldn’t make out much of the French text. I’ve had a look at it and think it is the story of Arbaces. I think the red title says “How Arbaces conquered the Kingdoms of Persia and Medea”. Then with lots of gaps and guesses I think it says “In the time of Ozias, King of Judah [there was] a king in Assyria called Sardanapalus [He received Arbaces who had gone to Babylon to talk with his Lord]. He found him spinning silk with […] young ladies, and he was himself dressed in women’s clothes. “
        I think this means they are spinning silk, which I think does not have a twist till it is plied, so you could run several threads together from a hook. The figure on the right wearing the crown is the king.

        • I think the critical point is that we don’t see the ‘source’ of the fibers, silk filaments or woollen singles. Spinning silk makes much sense in the context of the story, maybe the silk spinners can tell us whether silk is spun this way, over hooks.
          However, there was an article in the spinning magazine ‘Spin Off’ many years ago about an elderly Eastern European woman who plied her singles over hooks in the wall. If anybody is interested I’ll try to find it.

  3. That’s rather exciting. Because I live in an old gamekeeper’s cottage there are hooks in our beams so I may have to experiment. The chap does look as though he’s saying ‘Ye gods what are you lot up to now?’ though. His clothing looks rather as if he is meant to be perhaps Arabic or Middle Eastern.

  4. Pingback: Plying from above video. | 15thcenturyspinning

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  6. I often use a hook to ply from, it is great! The threads to be plied meet at the hook and you carry on as usual. I find it far easier as it means less tangling and I can walk away from it if I need to.

  7. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book “Prehistoric Textiles” goes into Egyptian spinning of flax where plying was done this way. They made singles by joining a length of flax to another with by wetting with saliva and twisting the ends together. Then the singles were plied. Not saying they did this with ALL of their linen, but for really fine yarn.

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