Not Just Drop Spindles!

One of the criticizms I see directed at those of us who are researching medieval spinning techniques is “here is a picture where the spindle was suspeded, therefore they are drop spindles and they are doing drop spindle spinning” or words to that effect.

My methods aren’t about prooving they never suspended the spindle, to the contary the more research and experementation I do I see the more the spindle can be suspended using the methods I’m developing, especially with wool. That, however, doesn’t mean they were ‘drop spinning’ or using ‘drop spindles’. People will look at my spindle and say “oh, that’s a drop spindle.” Really, it’s a spindle. It could be used in the drop spinning method (though is’t ideal for that style), but I don’t use it that way. I call my spindle a spindle. If I were French I might call it a fuseau or if I were German I might call it a spindel or a handspindel but, and forgive me forign speakers if I’ve missed this but I don’t see other languages calling them anyhing to do with dropping. Their names all seem to revolve around things that, well, revolve, twist and turn and spin upon an axel. I don’t see any dropping. Is it just English that does this? And what makes a drop spindle anyhow? The fact it was designed to be a dro spindle, that it is used as one, that it could be?

And back to these drop spindles in the middle ages. You see re-enactors spinning on a drop spindle at living history events. They aren’ using a distaff because yo don’t need one with wool, and they’re usually spinning wool because flax is ‘hard’. And no, you don’t need a distaff to spin wool with a drop spindle, but you know tht medieval image ofthat lady spinning wool without a distaff? No, you don’t? That one from 1453 that was painted by a monk who drew an arrow to the spindle and wrote “this is a drope spindle from ye olde shoppe?” nope? Really? Well, it doesn’t exist. I’ve never come across a picture of spinning that didn’t involve distaffs with one exception:


(which I discuss a little here)

I don’t think they’re actually spinning thread here, they might be plying or making gilt thread as in this image,


(Gilt thread-making
Lockwood Kipling, John, born 1837 – died 1911)

but I think we can hardly be calling this “spinning fluff into thread” because I don’t know about you, but I see no fluff there.

The other thing is have you heard of the distaf side? The distaff side referrs to the female sid of the family. You see a few instances where ‘disaff’ is associated with women or women’s work, and why not sindle? Or drop spindle? Who ever heard of the drop spindle side of the family? If distaffs are something that wern’t needed in spinning throughout Europe and the UK then why is spinning and women’s work so closley associated with them?

Now, I’m wandering away from my initial discussion which is “is evidence ofsuspended spinning proof of drop spindle spinning?”

First, we have to define drop spindle spinning. People jokingly say it’s called a drop spindle because when you are learning you accidently drop it when your thread snaps! But it’s not such a joke. In drop spindle spinning your thread slowly drops down as the thread is formed. Is this the full definition? If I suspend my pindle to th side and set it spinning I can drop the spindle down as i’m drafting my thread. I could not, however, do this without a distaff, as because of the length I’ve already spun I need one hand to draw my thread to the opposite side of my body leaving only one hand to arrange and draft the fibre. Every thing I’ve ever read on drop spindle spinning and the distaff says you don’t need to use a distaff when spinning wool, though you may if you wish to keep more fibre in reach. My distaff does a LOT more than keep my fibre in reach!

So, could we say drop spindle spinning is spinning where the spindle drops down as the thread is being formed and where a distaff may be ued for oranising and holdingfibe but must not play an ‘active’ role in th pinning process (ie, you could spin without it without changing your technique).

So, it’s not so much the spindle that defines the method, but the involvment of the distaff. Which means the saying “spun on the roc (distaff)” makes a lot more sense.

And I guess ll this means that if the spinning fo the 15th century couldn’t be done without a distaff then it’s not really drop spindle spinning, even when the spindle is suspended fully.

So I’m not fighting against suspending the spindle or even the dropping down of the spindle.  I’m just saying not all suspended spinning is drop spindle spinning and while we may be seeing suspended spinning in the 15th century I don’t think we’re seeing what I would call drop spindle spinning.

You might also be interested in reading my Don’t drop that spindle! and my Research Behind the Method.


5 responses

  1. A bit OT, and in fact a comment to your post “Don’t drop that spindle”: at one of my SIPs last summer I met a man from Iran. He was upset when he heard we call spindles with four arms “Turkish”. You should call them Persian or Iranian, he demanded. He had seen them in use in his country and was sure they had been used there for a very long time.

    • That’s really interesting! As humans we like to name and categorize things, but somtimes those names don’t make as much sense to others, especially when somthing is named after a place. I grew up in New Zealand and was suprised to discover “New Zealand Ice Cream” everywhere when I visited Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t anything like the ice cream commonly available back home! I called it “Sydney Ice Cream”

  2. there are so many ways to use spindles! but one thing is consistent, the thread you want to make determines the spindle, and fibre you choose to use. That is why so many spindle whorls are found in digs.Most paintings depicting textile tools are in any case not very accurate. Supported spindle techniques are common where people were spinning very fine yarns with tiny spindles ,eg cotton, nettle or other bast fibres or were kneeling or sitting on the floor. Bobbin spinning and reeling are often shown as spinning because the author knew no better. Twiddling. The current common way of using a spindle is quite tiring, holding hands up in the air above your head. Drafting across your body with the spindle by your side is very easy to do and gets that extra length.Spindle or wheel drafting with one hand will usually give you a more woolen type yarn, with flax a hairier yarn. Using the second hand to smooth the fibre does not preclude you from using a distaff either. I also understand that households spinning for their linen requirements were not usually poor. I have spun on many objects over the years, and it is a non-ending subject, enjoy your investigations

  3. You may find this interesting, where the Aramaic root word is shared for both a spindle and something that is dropped/cast/thrown

    I spin without a distaff at events because I’m spinning short staple wool. An examination of the sort of wool that was prevalent in my period (and possibly yours) indicates a preference for long staple wool, which (as you have pointed out) requires a distaff – possibly the manuscript pictures you are looking at are depicting that common use. An examination of extant fabrics indicates similar.

    I don’t object to the term ‘drop spindle’ because it merely distinguishes it from a supported spindle – the other kind (rather like I don’t object to the term ‘manual car’ because it distinguishes it from an automatic one). I’ve found a study of cultures who still have a strong spinning tradition to be quite enlightening when put in a medieval context, with regard to method – the primary drive, of course, is to produce the largest amount of quality thread with the least effort in the minimum time; for these peoples spinning is a very necessary life skill (unlike for us where it is a hobby or academic pursuit).

  4. Pingback: Weaving for pleasure | From Pyrenees to Pennines

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