Spinning Experiment- We Need You!

Tell a bunch of spinners that the output of a medieval spinner could be no more than 20 metres per hour, and they’ll want to prove you wrong. As such, the folks over at the Evangelical Church of Distaff Spinning are conducting a spinning experiment, looking at the production rates of modern spinners. The experiment collects a wide range of date, from spinning method, years of experience to fibre spun, tools used and more. Collecting all of this data means that we can use the results for different things. For example, we could compare grasped spinning production rates to that with suspended spinning, or we could look at how years of experience affects production.

I encourage you all to take part, here is the form you need to complete and you can take part multiple times.

When you are filling out the form, pay attention when it asks you to enter in the amount spun- just do that! There’s a slot for time spun also so your production rate per hour can be calculated. Don’t be clever and work out the average you spun in an hour, otherwise you’ll confuse the results:



At least it gave me a laugh! The preliminary results (without my mistake) are up on the facebook group so if you’re not a member, join to check them out. But we need more responses, so please take part!



How Long to Spin a Thread?

When I return from the 15th century I aim to do a series of posts on the criticisms I’ve seen about methods similar to what I’ve been developing. One of the most common ones is that ‘drop spindles spinning is faster than spinning with a distaff and spindle. They had to spin every piece of thread in every cloth so needed to use a fast method.’ There’s two statements here and while I’m equipped with research to deal with the latter (would they have used the faster method or not) but I’m not yet equipped to deal with the former (is drop spinning actually faster?)

This brings us to the question ‘just how long is a piece of string?’ Ok, not quite. But if I am to spin on a drop spindle, then to spin using a distaff and spindle I will spin faster with a distaff and spindle because I’m not practiced with a drop spindle. When a person who has been spinning with a drop spindle for years tries other methods they may be slower at those because they are practiced with drop spinning.

Other than taking someone who has been drop spindle spinning all their life and taking hem back to the 15th century in Europe and racing them against the women there, there are a few things we can do to help answer the question of which is faster and for this I need YOUR HELP! Yes, you! (assuming you can spin with a spindle!)

What I’m asking is for anyone who can spin on a spindle (any spindle!) to spin their default thread weight. Time yourself from the moment you start spinning that thread to the moment you finish winding that length of thread onto your spindle and are ready to start on the next thread again. You may like to time it several times and take an average or time yourself spinning several lengths of thread and divide that time by the number of thread lengths you made. Because, you know, how long is a piece of string, you’ll also need to work out the average length of thread you spin when you spin a length.

Now, it takes less time to spin a chunky thread than a really fine one, all other things being equal, because te fine thread needs more twist to hold it together. So there’s a few other factors involved. If you can provide some quantifying measures of the thickness of your thread this would be great. It could be wraps per inch, grams per metre, or whatever. Just state how you measured and the units you used. Again feel free to give averages or measure several different ways!

Then if you could please report back to me with:
What you’ve spun (fibre and the preparation)What tool/s you’ve used (such as what type of spindle)
The average length of your thread that you spin
How long it takes you to spin it
How thick is your thread.
How long you have been spinning for (In general as well as with this spindle/technique if there is a difference)

You can report back in a comment to this post, or feel free to make a blog post of your own about it! I’m sure the results will be interesting and useful to more than myself so feel free to share the experiment with the followers of your own blog. If you spin using several different techniques then this is a great chance to examine your own spinning and see which is faster, with which you produce a finer thread or anything you like.

I understand that there are still many variables I haven’t addressed but it is a good side better than me saying ‘well, I sure can’t spin this fast on a drop spindle!’

I shall be doing my time trials in the 15th century this weekend so I shall report on my results when I return!

I’ll be putting the raw data I collect on this blog so all I ask is that if you participate you’re happy for your numbers to be shared freeley– I don’t own this idea or the raw results so I’m not going to restrict who can see it!

Thank you to anyone who will help out and in the meantime, happy spinning to you all!

Video of me spinning.

It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally got a video of me spinning wool.
Sorry for the low quality and angle etc. Hopefully I’ll do a better one soon!

When I’m spinning a fine thread I use a combination of techniques– grasped spinning and suspended spinning.


First I draft the thread out holding the spindle between my third and fourth fingers and spinning it with my thumb and second finger.


Then I put a couple of half-hitches on the top of the spindle and spin suspended. This gets extra twist into the thread and I lengthen it at this stage. I then butterfly the spun thread up on my left hand, wind it onto the spindle and start again.

If I’m spinning a more coarse thread then I don’t need to do the suspended stagg, the thread has enough twist from drafting it out.


At the end of the video you see I don’t do a suspended stage, I just rest the spindle against the couch for a few spins instead and this works well if you are sitting. It also means I don’t have to fuss with a half-hitch.


So, what does everybody think so far? Any questions?


So what IS just so great about a distaff?


I’ve asked this question once before in my entry What’s So Great About a Distaff but now I have a bit more spinning time with a distaff under my belt (do you see what I did there?) I feel I have more to say.


In my last entry I talk about how a distaff is great for spinning when you are active, watching flocks and going to the market. I wrote about how handy it was to have the fibre just THERE to grab and how you didn’t need to keep joining on more fibre unless you broke your thread.

What I’m finding the most beneficial now, however, is that using a distaff gives you another hand and it’s something I’d never had discovered without attempting to re-create the spinning methods used in the 15th century.


If you are drafting worsted (not letting the twist travel into the drafting zone) it is very useful. You have your right hand holding the spindle, your distaff holding the fibre, and your left hand pulling the fibre away from the distaff and stopping the twist from entering the drafting zone. Without a distaff your left hand would have to hold the fibre, draft it out and control the twist because your right hand is always at the spindle. With drop spinning you let go of the spindle and use both hands to do the drafting etc so it’s not so necessary to have a distaff.


With woolen drafting (when the twist enters the drafting zone) I find if I get things just right my left hand does very little work, I just use it to monitor how much fibre is getting pulled into the thread now and then. But again it’s nice to have the distaff to hold all that fibre and to provide something to pull against.


With drop spindle spinning you don’t have to worry about that other hand. You set that spindle in motion then you’ve got two hands to handle the drafting and holding the fibre. With the style of spinning used in the 15th century you have one hand constantly at the spindle so you really need that distaff.


In short, a distaff isn’t just to hold fibre, it plays an integral part in the spinning technique.


My distaff is still just a broomstick. It would be great to at least have a nob on top to tie my ribbons around but I eventually want one with a small cone on top.


For now I’ve been using commercially prepared wool. I’ve just been laying lengths over the top of my stick , tying them tight at the top, crossing ribbon down the length and tying in a loose bow. It works well and I can move the ties up as I go.

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I had a go at dressing a distaff for more woolen spinning. I carded some of my wool into bats. I then laid the bats out and wrapped them around my distaff and tied with a ribbon. Seemed to work quite well though I haven’t spun much from it (and I only used a tiny amount of wool).



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New Whorl and the Half Hitch

So I’ve been working on my spinning. I’ve managed to suspend my spindle with the wool a couple of times now and also managed to take a chunk out of my whorl. That chunk actually happened when I was making the whorl and I just plastered some more clay over the break so it’s not surprising it broke again. Need to make a new whorl for it.

I’m still sure there’s a trick to suspending the spindle. I’ve got the knot down pat, a visual is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1l3tAMFu3c  It sounds silly to need a video to learn how to do a half hitch, but my version of a half hitch was something different and I always wondered how people could be doing that with one end attached to the spindle and the other to the distaff. The reason my half hitches sometimes don’t hold is because the downward pull pulls the thread up off the cop and up the spindle shaft which then means the knot pops off the top. I’ve noticed spinning tends to help stop this—as in it’s more likely to happen if the spindle’s hanging rather than spinning fast. I’m sure there’s a trick to do with how you wind the cop. Need to trial and error to find it I think.

I’ve started reading through my copy of the Museum of London Textiles and Clothing book.  According to the glossary Woollen is a yarn made of carded wool fibres and Worsted is a smooth thread spun from wool fibres which have been laid parallel by combing. I’m reading a bit about the different preparations and the technology available and the spinning weel and so on, so hopefully I’ll have more to say about that next time!

Clay Whorls and Spinning Wool

So I finally took off my hairtie whorl and replaced it with one made of clay. Here’s a photo of it with my current spinning on it. To celebrate the new whorl I’ve been practicing suspending the spindle from a half hitch at the top. It works not to badly. I think there’s a trick to how you wind on your cop to help the knot not fall off the top. Sound gross but a bit of spit on the top helps as well, makes it stick a bit better. More practice at this is needed I think!

While I was making my whorl I made another spindle (with a clay whorl) and because my beautiful organic wool arrived I took my flax off my distaff and had a go dressing it with wool. Because I still don’t have a period correct distaff (remember the “I don’t do woodworking” thing?) I put a curtain rod end on my distaff to secure my ribbon and woo onto. It actually worked pretty well.

Then of course I had to have a go at spinning it…

What can I say? Spinning wool is very different from spinning flax. It’s easier to keep a consistent thread width and if I draft too thick I can easily stretch the thread out thinner before adding more twist. I also don’t need as much twist to hold the stuff together.

Here is my early progress with the wool.

I’ve heard people say you need a distaff for spinning line flax but don’t need one with wool. Well, I can see why a distaff for wool is so great! You just reach up and pull when you need to draft more fibre. Even though I didn’t do a great job at dressing it, it still worked out fine. I found if I let the twist travel a little into the wool in the distaff I could just pull the spindle away as I spun it and the wool more or less “drafted itself” at an even thickness with little impact from me. I believe this is called spinning the wool woollen so I’ll have to investigate that. The other option is to spin it worsted which is where you don’t allow the twist to go into the drafting area. I’m sure there are more differences than that, but it’s something to learn!

That’s all for today, next I’ll investigate woollen vs worsted spinning and of course keep practicing!

What’s so Great about a Distaff?

Something you notice in medieval spinners is that whenever they spin they seem to be using distaffs to hold the fibre. The link with the distaff and spinning was so strong that the female side of the family got the name the “distaff side”. It’s not just medieval Europe, either. In my research of cultures around the world anywhere I find people still using a spindle to produce thread I tend to find them using a distaff. Compare this to cultures where our thread and fabrics are produced in factories and spinning is more of a hobby there is a tendency not to use distaffs. Or to use a small one around the wrist instead of a large stick.


I think the reason for this is in cultures where they must spin with a spindle or go naked, spinning is a constant task. I read stories of children spinning while playing, women spinning while walking to the market or watching sheep.



You can see here this lady has put up her spindle to feed the chickens, but she was probably spinning on her way to the chickens.

The key here is spinning for a length of time and spinning while being active. Yes, you can carry a basket full of wool and tuck it up into your sleeve as you go, but I guess putting it on a big stick keeps it all together. If you’re only spinning as a hobby you’re more likely to do it while sitting in front of the telly. Even if you spin during a long car journey you’re still in the one spot.

The spinning I’ve been doing involves me having my stash of fibre on the ground next to me and me picking up more as I need it. I guess this is the same thing as carrying it around in a basket or an apron. It’s not that inconvenient and I think a great big pole to lug around WOULD be, even if it keeps everything together. Why did the use a distaff? Well, for the use of one to be so wide spread throughout history there must be some good things about it. And there’s only one way to find out…

Enter the wooden dowel from the craft shop.

Because I don’t want to go to a heap of effort for my first distaff I bought a wooden dowel from a craft shop, popped a length of flax tow over it and criss-crossed a bit of ribbon over it to secure it.

The verdict? Well, It’s not too bad. Not bad at all. In the picture above I’ve had it stood in a corner and been spinning from it and it works pretty well. I thought it would be far too short to put through my belt, but when I spun down to the length that I had above I stuck it through my belt. The first time was a disaster but the second time it worked perfectly. The difference? The first time I tried it with a modern belt containing elastic at my natural waist and the second time I used my leather belt I wear with my 1480 dresses and I wore it on my ribs where the high waist of my Italian dresses sit.  The high waist brought it that much higher and out of the way of most of my body’s curves. It worked really well. I think a longer stick would work better at my natural waist with a proper leather belt.

As you can see from the picture I made sure to draft evenly from both sides of the distaff, but that was pretty easy to do.  Using a distaff is quite different because instead of holding the fibre in your left hand you have a spare hand to hold it so your left hand can pull the fibre away from the supply when you draft it. When I was drafting the flax from my shoulder I found that I had to keep picking up the fibre supply and moving it away. I have fewer tangles with the distaff and I never have to worry about getting a new lot of fibre. I only have to worry about joining the thread when I break it, not each time when I run out of fibre. What else can I say? I love my distaff. It helps when I’m sitting doing nothing but I can also see it helping if I was wondering around doing stuff.

Here’s how my spinning is going. You cans see how crappy my spindle is, but it works! That’s all for now. Next time I’ll be re-vamping my spindles with clay whorls.



Can I call this Experimental Archaeology yet?

There’s only so much looking at pictures and videos can do for you when trying to figure out how people spun. At some stage you’re going to have to just pick up a spindle, give it a go and see what works.

Of course, the first then I did was sit down and order a bunch of stuff from the internet, but with internet ordering comes the wait of up to a month for your goodies. So I got a dowel, whittled it down with a craft knife to a point on one end and a taper on the other and added a bunch of hairties to make a whorl.

Because I needed something to spin I dug around in my stash and pulled out some wool designed for  needle felting and spun that. I spun from the fold, and I used my spindle supported in a little bowl to start off with. No, I don’t have any evidence for this but I’m learning. I figure that if I don’t have to worry about keeping the spindle in the air I can work on my drafting and twist and other things.

Here’s my first attempt. I plied it because it wasn’t the strongest piece of string in the world. It could be worse for a first go. To ply it I just made a ball and pulled from the centre and the outside at the same time and spun it to ply it.

Just as I was getting bored of the felting wool my flax tow arrived. Flax tow is the waste from making line flax which comes in stricks. This is the beautiful long stuff I want for my spinning, but the tow was easy to come by and I wanted something. I’m not sure about importing flax stricks into Australia and can’t find a local supplier. Apparently there is one somewhere…


I still used the supported spinning method to spin this but instead of spinning it from the fold I lay a bit of sliver over my left shoulder and pulled from there, almost using my shoulder as a king of a distaff.

Well, that’s all for today. Next time I’ll investigate distaffs and see if I can figure out why medieval women loved them so much and modern women seem to shun them!

Experimental Archaeology– How Will It Help?

I’m at the point in my research now where I can’t understand how anyone could think that the method I’m researching wasn’t used in the 15th century. It may have been one of several methods, but not used at all? Impossible? I suppose it’s like how “pink isn’t period” or “They didn’t have buttons back then.” Someone starts a strange rumour, it gets passed around as fact until everyone believes it and then when someone actually does the research they find that the common knowledge isn’t the case and they feel pretty stupid for believing it in the first place.

My understanding of experimental archaeology is that you construct a hypothesis and then test it with practical experiments. In essence it’s applying the scientific method to reconstruct the past where the records and material culture can’t tell us what we want to know. For example, if you’re digging up a bunch of arrows and your fellow archaeologists are speculating that these were used for hunting as they “aren’t strong enough” to pierce the amour of the time so therefore wouldn’t be used in warfare. Sure you can use an electron microscope to analyse trace elements, you can look at their context in the ground, you can look at paintings and read literature but there’s another way. You can make some bows and arrows using the same materials and techniques, make some amour using the same materials and techniques and then put that amour on some ballistics jelly or a pig carcass and take some pot shots at it.

I know which sounds more fun to me.

Many re-enactors would wonder at what experimental archaeology has to do with discovering how they spun in the 15th century. The reason for this is the majority of re-enactors you see spinning use a modern-styled drop spindle made out of period materials and use it in the modern drop spindle method. Note when I say modern I don’t mean it’s recent– it dates back to well before the 15th century– just that it is the current method most westerners are familiar with. Why do they use a modern spindle? Medieval ones don’t spin well. The whorls have their mass distributed close around the central spindle which gives them a short, fast spin. Drop spinning is most easily done on a whorl weighted to the rim to give a long, slow spin. Another thing that baffles me. Re-enactors will pick up a replica spindle, notice that it doesn’t spin well and rather than questioning that perhaps they span it differently back then they trade it in for a more modern-weighted one so it’s easier and then try to prove that the way they’re doing it is the only way it was done back then. The experimental archaeology for me come in when I make some spindles in the 15th century style and experiment with spinning them. My spinning technique will be based on a combination of what I can see in the medieval images and what I can see in videos of more modern women (no videos in the 15th century, sadly!)  where their spinning technique produces the same hand positions as in the medieval images.


My next step is to order supplies! Yay! Shopping!