Sharing Saturday

I thought I’d add a new segment to my blog called ‘sharing Saturday’. When I first started researching I didn’t know many people at all who attempted to re-create the European medieval spinning methods with a distaff. Most people were just doing the drop-spindle technique. Now there are a whole bunch of people! So I thought I’d start sharing their work more.

On that note, I’d love to have people do guest blogs, so if you have anything you’d like me to share or have a blog post you’d like to post on my blog, let me know 😀

The first thing I share hasn’t got that much to do with medieval spinning but there is a medieval spinning related story behind it.

There is a thread on Ravelry called ‘Large cop, small spindle’ where people post pictures of their VERY full spindles. I was inspired so began working on my own entry—on my medieval spindle. Well, I was almost there, I had a HUGE cop on one of my spindles. So huge a lady at an event commented on it and I explained to her why I was spinning it. So I had it at the event. I’m not sure when the last time I saw it was but I haven’t unpacked it since coming home from the event, maybe I lost it there? I don’t mind the loss of the spindle but there was a LOT of thread spun on this spindle. I need to properly look through and sort my re-enactment gear, hopefully it is just hiding.

So when I was searching around on pinterest I came across the Spindleful board by Andrea Mielke Schroer and it made me happy to see all the spindles full of thread but also made me think of my old full spindle.

So I spun some modern wool on my spinner and made that nice and full instead, LOL


Back from the Museum

I had a great time yesterday at the Queensland Museum teaching people about spinning in the 15th century. I had some fantastic conversations. There were many good discussions about the social history of spinning, about the relative expense of linen and wool and how expensive clothes were in the middle ages compared to now. We also talked about the low quality of clothing today and how it starts right back at the fibre preparation stage. How many people these days list an apron or skirt in their will?


Photograph of Cathelina di Alessandri spinning thanks to Rosalie’s Medieval Women

Quite a few older women came up and talked about their grandmother’s spinning (on a wheel). One Irish women told me about how to boost productivity her family were given a spinning wheel in exchange for planting an acre of flax.


Left is a Hershey’s fibre arts spindle, right is an antique french spindle.

I also had sever men fascinated at the physics of spinning, one in particular who said I’d filled in the missing link in his knowledge of how textiles were made, which was wonderful.


15th Century Spinning’s Display at the Queensland Museum

I also had a lot of people who had seen different types of spinning in their travels (such as drop spindle spinning, supported spinning and different types of grasped spinning) who were very interested in the different techniques. The great thing about talking with the public is they don’t have an agenda to prove their way of spinning is right or deny the existence of certain spinning styles, so we can discuss them all.


Photograph of Cathelina di Alessandri spinning thanks to Rosalie’s Medieval Women

We recently got a video camera for using for our business, so we took that along and my partner took quite a bit of video, most of which I have to sort through. It was hard as I was usually surrounded by people, but here is a short snippet he got of me spinning.


There were also displays on illumination, needlework (specifically some beautiful gold work) and some artefacts that we got to have a up close look at, some of which we were able to handle.

Back to the 21st century!

Well I’ve almost finished unpacking and am in the process of catching up with my 21st century life.

I had a fantastic time in 1480. My demonstrations went well. As the organisers had listed my fingerloop braiding under activities for young children I took plenty of thick wool for kids to braid with and on the sunday the half hour demo just kept going and going and there was fingerlooping being taught for almost an hour and a half! As people left more people came to take their place. I taught the easy four loop braid which gives a spiral pattern and for those that did that well and wanted to learn another I taught them various five looped braids, either the broad or the round.

Finally the last person finished and we packed up, but the children in our encampment had gotten the fingerlooping bug and they spent hours making lacing ties for their dresses!

Spinning went well, better on the Sunday and I had more people interested in it on the sunday also.


This was taken by my friend on Saturday of me spinning. I’d just started with a new spindle and for some reason picked it up upside down! When I wound the thread on for the first time I realised and put it the right way up.

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!



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).