Picture Friday, St Elsbeth



Today’s picture is of St Elizabeth spinning in a woodcut from 1511.   There are a few St Elizabeth’s, but I think she might be St Elizabeth of Hungary whose charitable pratices included spinning wool for the poor.


© The Trustees of the British Museum


What I love about this picture is that you can see spinning in various stages in the one image.


This women here is holding her spindle how I do when I’m first drfafting out a thread across my body.



This woman looks like she is suspending her spindle after drafting it out to add more twist. She even appears to be putting her thread over the back of her spindle hand the same way I do.

There is a little basket of spindles with th whorls removed holding spin thread in the foreground.


Picture Friday: Between the Knees

I’ve posted a sitting to spin picture before. If I’m sitting on the couch at home then I can trap my distaff between the couch, the arm and my leg. But what if there’s nowhere so easy to keep the distaff standing? Answer, hold it between the knees.

15th C broughton church Cambridgeshire

Here you can see a depiction of Adam and Eve. Eve holds the distaff between her legs and appears to be resting the spindle on the ground.


Here is an image from a book of hours. You can’t see her spindle as it’s hidden beside her in her right hand, but she grasps the distaff between her knees as she sits on a basket.


Hours of the Virgin: Terce Annunciation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Once again with the distaff between the knees.


In this detail of Proverbs bu Pieter Brueghel the Younger you get a good look at a spindle and once again the distaff is held between the knees.

Distaffs are pretty long and you don’t want one falling over as you’re trying to spin! How do you keep your distaff upright as you spin?

Picture Friday: Domestic Violence

A distaff is great for holding your fibre and acting as a third hand when drafting. It has other uses too.

Miniature of Orpheus lying on his back, protesting himself from Thracian women armed with spindles and distaffs.

Here is a miniature of Orpheus lying on his back, protecting himself from Thracian women armed with spindles and distaffs from an English manuscript from around 1450.

I’ve never hit anyone with my distaff on purpose but when I have it through my belt I have to be aware of those around me, especially if I have it through my belt and turn around too quickly! I’ve also managed to drop it upon my own head a few times. Don’t ask how, I really couldn’t say! haha

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?


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 http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/bge/fr0064 and here is the page this image is from  http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/bge/fr0064/161v/large

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?

Picture Friday: Sitting to Spin

This week’s picture is from the same 15th century French  manuscript as last week’s. This time it depicts a woman sitting down to spin. We all talk about how spinning was a constant, ladies would spin on the way to the market, feeding chickens etc. but a lot of my spinning is done in the evenings in front of the telly so I find myself sitting to spin a lot. I like how she appears to be resting her spindle on the ground to spin, as I sometimes do this too!


How do you like to spin? Sitting, standing? Do you also sometimes rest your spindle against a surface?

Picture Friday: winding thread on the spindle.

I really love this image for a few reasons. We get to see a few things we often don’t see in images of ladies spinning in the 15th century.

Have a look at her right hand where she is holding the spindle. The spindle is held between her third and fourth fingers. I’ve seen this a couple of times in period art and it’s where I naturally hold my spindle when I’m trying to recreate 15th century technique– which makes me think I must be doing something right. With the top of the spindle through these fingers you can use your thumb and second finger to flick the spindle and the third and fourth  finger to grasp the spindle firm enough to stop it dropping but light enough so it spins. When winding on your spin thread these fingers work again in the same way, third and fourth holding the spindle, thumb and second turning it.
Now look at her left hand. When I have an arm’s length of thread and go to wind it onto the spindle I have to unwind what has spiraled around the shaft, leaving me with more than an arm’s length that will kink up on itself. If I’ve been suspending my spindle at the side and have even more than an arm’s length then I have an even bigger problem. I “butterfly” the tread around my thumb and pinkie on my left hand to keep the tension on the thread as wi wind it onto my spindle. This looks just like what this lady is doing here!


This image is from a French manuscript of the 15th century, Le Roman de la Rose.

It’s really hard to know if what I’m doing is right, I can’t go and visit the 15th century and it’s always hard to know how accurately images depict technique. But when I discover something in a picture that I’ve been doing already then that makes me happy! Have you ever had this happen with your research?


Research and documenting how they spun.

So I was telling my mum about my recent spinning research and she asked me why I had been working so hard to document the style of spinning I was doing. I explained to her that a lot of people think the 15th century paintings show an artist’s depiction of spinning and it wasn’t actually how people spun. She asked me why they thought that and… I couldn’t answer her.

So I’ve been thinking.

First off, historically people did spin with the method many hobby hand spinners use today, I’m not saying it’s a modern method or was never used historically.

This is how they spun in ancient times in Greece and Egypt.


Kinda like today’s spinners and even though there’s a distaff it’s hand held so there’s still a hand taken up with holding the fibre and the other hand is used to spin the spindle and draft the fibre.

I understand that in the Americas they spun (and still do) using the drop spindle method.

I believe in many parts of Europe they moved from the ancient method to the one I’m exploring. Of course, I have to research where abouts in Europe they did that and it’s entirely possible several methods were used depending on what they were spinning.

Spinning was once a chore. It was a task that had to be done constantly. Every thread in every dress, every shirt and every bedsheet had to be spun by a person somewhere. The sails on ships? Those too. It was hard work, as many things once were. Then the industrial revolution happened and a lot of that hard work was taken out of people’s houses and given over to machines. People didn’t have to do that work any more and because it was work, why would they continue? They didn’t teach their children because why would their children want to learn how to do all that hard work their parents used to have to do?

Hand spinning now days has become a hobby in many parts of the developed world. We don’t have to do it, and see it as a craft. But by the time we started seeing it as a craft those who used to do it day in day out for producing cloth to stay warm and dressed were all dead. The knowledge hadn’t been passed on.

But the industrial revolution didn’t happen everywhere. Spinning didn’t get mechanized everywhere. Indeed, there’s places today where people still spin because they need to. For them it is still work.

I’ve read a few stories online of spinners who have relatives in these places, where spinning is till a job, and they ask their relatives to help them with their spinning and the relatives are shocked. “Why would you want to do that hard work? You can just buy what you need!” they say. A lot of the time they think it strange or silly or a waste of time to make what you can afford to buy and have access to cheaply.

But for one reason or another, we like to spin. So where do we look to learn how to spin? To the people still doing it. I know there’s lots of how to spin books and videos and websites and many of the ones I find are by Americans. Lots of them have traveled to or lived in countries where people still spin, but because these people are Americans usually they’ve been to countries in the Americas where people use the drop spindle method. So this is what they learn. Which I think is fantastic, but…

Drop spinning is often the method people learn. So when a medieval historical reenactor learns they should be spinning every chance they get and they hop online to see how to do it they are presented with two methods. Drop spinning or the supported spinning (often with tiny spindles in little bowls or big ones on the ground rolled along the thy.) The supported spinning looks nothing like what the medieval folks did so they learn drop spinning because that’s the other way.

Maybe they notice their arm positions aren’t the same as in the medieval manuscripts but then again all the pictures of spinners are painted the same anyway so it’s probably just artistic shorthand to depict a spinner. Holding your spindle out like that looks graceful. We know how to spin therefore we know how they span.

15th C Martham church norfolk 1347-1350 E109989 K040868 MIMI_76F13_010V_MIN spinning women 1899-43305

If we come at things from the angle of “we don’t know how they spun in the 15th century in Europe, lets research” then none of the evidents points towards the drop spinning style you see most modern spinners doing. At least, I haven’t seen any. They may have used the drop spinning method but I can’t find any evidence of it* therefore I won’t use it. As a living historian I recreate what I see evidence of. That’s why I took up fingerloop braiding rather than making lucet cord. I had actual manuscripts from the 15th century telling me how to braid and pictures of people fingerlooping in the 15th century and cords that had been identified as being made from fingerloop braid. At the time the only evidence for lucet braid was “some possible lucets from viking times were found and they has lucet braid in the 17th century therefore it continued in all the years between.” Considering people from all around the world invented fingerloop braiding independantly from one another, it makes sense that lucet braiding could have been used in the viking times, lost then re-invented later. Well, three times, because I once watched a child invent lucet braiding. Keep in mind, I haven researched lucett braiding for a good 7 years, more research may have come to light since then but 7 years ago there was only stacks of evidence for fingerloop in the 15th century and none for lucett.


So, that’s my theory, what do you think?

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*Yes, there is evidence they suspended their spindle for a part of the spinning process. I do this also, but it is different from drop spinning as many of us know it. I’m going to write a post up about the differences soon!



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.



How did women spin in the 15th century.

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).