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Spinning on the Drop Spindle, or Rock

Chris Robertson
(aka Mistress Yseult de Lacy)

April 2006



Table of Contents


This booklet was written primarily for the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a medieval-ambience social and educational group ( References to period mean before 1600. However, all spinning instructions are perfectly relevant for modern times. Master Alex the Potters website is


Spinning on the Drop Spindle, or Rock

Mistress Yseult de Lacy (Chris Robertson)

Brief Historical Introduction

Even before mankind began to herd sheep, he discovered that wool strands can be twisted together to make a thread. The scales on the surface of wool fibres encourage them to cling together, and once these bonds are set by heat and/or pressure they are both strong and stable. Until then, however, the resulting thread will happily unwind itself without much provocation, making it difficult to produce any reasonable length of thread before it unravels. The simplest answer to this problem is to wind the thread onto something like a nice smooth stick as it is twisted, and thus was born the spindle. (Winding the growing thread into a ball would also work, but would be much more difficult to manage and does not seem to have been done.) The tension of winding onto the spindle and the pressure of overlying thread in the wound mass set the bonds within the twisted fibres sufficiently to significantly discourage untwisting once the thread has been unwound, even before the twist has been permanently set by soaking in very hot water. By itself, a spindle is still of limited use, as the thread must be twisted by hand little by little and continuously wound up, which is fiddly and time-consuming (although some spinning is still done this way even today, with the thread rolled against the thigh to twist it). The second innovation, which made a world (pun intended) of difference, was the spindle whorl (pronounced whirl), which seems to have appeared very soon after the spindle itself. The whorl is a solid disk, lens, or spheroid (bead) made of lead, stone, clay, ceramic, or wood, with a central hole through which the spindle fits tightly. The whorl may be set at the lower or upper end of the spindle; in modern usage, it seems to be about half-and-half, but medieval usage seems to be predominantly at the lower end. In either case, a centimeter or three of spindle projects below or above the whorl, respectively. For a spindle with the whorl near the bottom, modern spinning technique wraps the thread around the lower projecting end of the spindle to tension it (see Figure 5); I have

found no evidence to suggest this was done in period. What the whorl does is provide angular momentum in the spinning process. Rather than just twirling the fibres between the thumb and fingers, the rotation of the vertically-hanging weighted spindle now twists the fibres attached to it into a thread. This is more efficient than a simple fingertwist, since gravity provides the tension needed to keep the twist from unwinding as long as the spindle is spinning, freeing both hands to control the operation of draftingdrawing out the wool fibres from the wool mass so they can be twisted. It is still necessary to wind the thread onto the spindle by hand, but as a longer thread can be spun in one go this also becomes more efficient, further aided by the weight of the whorl in speeding the horizontal rotation of the spindle when winding-on. The final refinement to the spindle was a notch near its top to provide a secure anchorage for the thread (in modern spindles, this is often replaced by a little cup hook screwed vertically into the top end). The notch is not essential, as thread knotted in a half-hitch round the spindle will stay quite well in place under tension. It does, however, lessen the frequency of the thread slipping off and the spindle falling to the ground. As yet I have no idea when notches were first introduced; I have not found any clear illustration of one, and they may well not be period. "Drop spindle"the name is obvious. The spinning spindle drops, gravity provides tension, wool is drawn down, the thread extends. But why "rock?" Munro [2003] says that some early "spindles" were, in fact, simply rocks onto which the thread was first tied and then wound. And many early spindle whorls are indeed made of beautifully carved and decorated stonerock! So it appears that the concept of "rock" was sufficiently associated with spindles to pass the phrase into the language as "spinning on the rock" for drop spindle work. In modern times, the word "spinning" is almost always associated with "wheel." And the Great Wheel certainly existed in the Middle Agesit is pictured in the Lutterel Psalter c. 1330 (Figure 1), and was certainly known by 1224 [Munro 2003]. It was also banned from use for spinning at least warp threads for commercial use for quite some timefrom the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, depending on country. Why was this? Well, the Great Wheel produced thread inferior in strength and evenness to rock-spun thread. The spinner at the Great Wheel had to use one hand to spin it, while holding a distaff (stick about the length and thickness of a broomstick with a wool mass

bound onto it) under the other arm or wool mass in the other hand, which meant she had less control of the drafting process and thus the thickness of the thread so produced. The Great Wheel is also known as the Walking Wheel, as the spinner walks slowly backwards while the thread lengthens. By contrast, while the rock spinner had a distaff tucked under her left arm or a wool mass held in her left hand, she was still able to use the fingers of both left and right hands for drafting, providing much finer control. Until well into the 1500s most spinning, whether of wool, flax, hemp, or ramie (nettle fibres), domestic or commercial, was done on the rock. Machines for spinning (throwing) silk were invented quite early and were in use by the 1300s; silk thread does not seem to have been domestically produced in medieval Europe.

Figure 1. Spinning on the Great Wheel, c. 1330 (Lutterel Psalter) What we know as the modern spinning wheel was not invented until the late 1400s, when it was known as the Saxony Wheel. The wheel itself is turned by a foot treadle (early 1500s), freeing up both hands to control drafting. Winding the wool onto the spindle also happens automatically, whereas this still had to be done at frequent intervals when using the Great Wheel. The Saxony Wheel was also more productive; where the Great Wheel provided as much as a threefold increase over spinning on the rock, the Saxony Wheel provided twice that again [Munro 2003]. By the 1600s it was used extensively for both domestic and commercial spinning, and although like the Great Wheel it was initially banned by commercial wool producers on the

grounds of quality control, these bans were soon lifted. While using a spinning wheel is more productive, it is not portable. A drop spindle can be tucked through a belt or into a pouch, and distaffs were typically held under one arm, enabling women to spin almost anywherein Figure 2 from the Lutterel Psalter, the farm wife has not bothered to put her distaff and spindle down while she is out in the yard feeding her poultry. In Figure 3, a woodcut of jugglers on the road from a broadside ballad c. 1450, not only is the wife balancing their entire household goods, plus the poultry and the baby, but she is spinning while they travel. And possibly patting the cat. It's rather hard to tell. (At least she gets to sit down!) While I feel there may be a certain amount of exaggeration in this picture, I am inclined to believe the spinning... So while a household might have a spinning wheel, there would certainly still be several drop spindles around, and little girls would have learned to spin on the rock well before they began to use a wheel.

Figure 2. Woman with distaff feeding poultry c. 1330 (Lutterel Psalter) From ancient times spinning has always been, and still predominantly is, the province of women. Domestic textile production was part of women's work, and this continued even once the great commercial drapery houses had become established by the twelfth century. Although male weavers replaced female ones in the commercial houses with the invention of the horizontal loom [Munro 2003], spinners were women. Wool was typically parceled out to women working at home, or sometimes in a merchant's establishment, who were paid for piece-work rather than receiving wages. So when you are

sitting quietly and contentedly spinning on the rock, think of your millions of sisters in spirit through the ages who have done exactly the same thing.

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Figure 3. Jugglers on the road c. 1450

Drop Spindles
Figure 4 below shows pictures of five medieval spindles, ranging in time from the 1300s to the 1500s, left to right.

Figure 4. Medieval spindles from the 1300s to the 1500s The women are all spinning with a distaff essentially the same as the one shown in Figure 3, and I believe the fibre they are spinning is flax, not wool. I cannot think of any way to bundle up wool so it has that conical haystacklike appearance, whereas unspun flax consists of quite coarse stands 30cm or more long, and looks exactly like that when tied at one end to the distaff. My guess is that the farm wife in Figure 2 is spinning wool; note the quite different configuration of the fibre on the distaffan egg-shaped mass bound in place with crossed threads. In the centre image above the woman appears to be winding thread onto the horizontally-held spindle, rather than actually spinning it. The others are spinning. The first thing to notice is that the thread is all wound into a, well, spindleshape . The two leftmost spindles have no whorl visible. It is possible that the thread could be wound around the whorl, hiding it (possibly bead whorls), or else they really don't have whorls. In the three rightmost pictures, the thread is wound well above the whorl, leaving a short section of the spindle free just above it. This is quite unlike modern spinning practice, where the
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thread is wound into a cone with the base hard against the whorl.

The second thing to note is that the three visible whorls are quite small; indeed, very small by modern standards. The rightmost spindle, which comes from a Breughel painting, has the largest whorl, nearly the size of that on a small modern wooden spindle. It may be wood. My guess is that the two smaller whorls are lead, as lead whorls are quite a common archaeological find. See the photo to the right of a 14th century English lead whorl from the Strong Collection at Stone whorls, though also common, are much more spherical than those in Figure 4. See the photo at the right of a stone whorl from mid-16th century York, from The leftmost spindle does not seem to have a whorl at all, and I have seen other spindles with no whorls. Why would this be so, when it is the whorl that makes the spindles spin efficient? I believe the thread is flax, as I mentioned above. When spinning flax, the twist is given mainly by the fingers of the drafting hand, not the spindle itself (see Appendix 1), and hence a spindle whorl is not strictly necessary. The third thing to note is the complete absence of a thread wound round the spindle below the whorl and carrying back up to the top, as in modern technique (see Fig. 5). In the middle picture, where the spinner is winding thread onto the spindle, this would of course not appear, but if it was a common practice it should be shown in the two rightmost pictures, both of which are superior paintings showing great, and highly accurate, detail. I think we can safely assume that if it had been common to loop the thread round the spindle under the whorl, Breughel would have painted it. In modern spinning, the bottom loop provides tension on the thread so that the top half-hitch does not slip out of the notch and off the top of the spindle. In
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all the spinning miniatures I have looked at, the thread seems to just end at the top of the spindle; I think this is so because it is lying hard against the spindle, with the tension to hold it in place supplied by friction against the wound thread and the spindle itself. If a tight turn or two were taken around the wound thread before the end was pulled up for the half-hitch around the top of the spindle, this would significantly aid the half-hitch to stay in place. The final thing to note is that there is no notch near the top of the spindle. This is particularly obvious in the middle picture. Of course, it could be that every picture of a medieval spindle I've seen so far (more than twenty) just happens to show the exact back of the spindle so the notch is invisible, or hide it with the spinners fingers, but somehow I feel this is straining coincidence a little far. Figure 5 below shows a fully-dressed modern spindle and my conjecture for the dressing of a typical medieval spindle, both ready to spin.

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Figure 5. Dressed modern (left) and medieval (right) spindles. The medieval dressing is my conjecture.

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I am going to explain how to spin on a typical modern spindle, for two reasons. Firstly, as yet I have not found any period descriptions of how to spin on the rock. This does not necessarily mean there are none, just that I haven't yet found any. Secondly, having tried my conjectural medieval spindle conformation, while it certainly works very nicely for spinning, the modern spindle dressing is easier to work with for a beginner. I am quite sure that the basic technique of drafting threads to be spun has not changed significantly since spinning was first invented. I am also going to concentrate on spinning wool, as I do not have that much experience with anything else except silk yet. I have spun a little cotton (from a packet of cotton wool bought at a supermarket!), and some flax. Techniques for these differ a little from those for wool; see Appendix 1. The next sections will cover fibres for spinning, initial dressing of the spindle, basic spinning technique, plying thread, winding a skein of wool, and setting the twist. Preparing wool for spinning will be covered in the final section.

What Fibres Can Be Spun?

First and foremost, wool, then flax (which produces linen), then hemp, were the fibres most commonly spun in our period. Nettle fibres, which produces ramie, a hard-wearing linen-like fabric, was also spun. Cotton was spun in increasing amounts through the later half of our period, particularly in southern Europe, although I believe it was only spun domestically quite late in period. Silk was also spun, but mostly in commercial houses and mostly by machine. Finally, asbestos was also spun and woven, although perhaps fortunately for the already-precarious health of the medieval woman, this was extremely rare! Camel hair was spun in the Middle East, and used for clothing and tents. The poet Mutanabbi (905-965) wrote, in his Song of Maisuna:

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The russet suit of camel's hair, With spirits light, and eye serene, Is dearer to my bosom far Than all the trappings of a queen.

It is also possible to spin goat hair and angora rabbit, and while I don't know if the bunnies were period, I'll bet there were farm wives who gathered shed goat hair and spun it. Goat and yak hair were certainly spun in the Far East [Ryder 1993]. The hair of some modern breeds of dog can be spun, but I doubt this was done in period. Cat hair, although it will felt, will not spin.

Dressing the Spindle

Although it is actually possible to twist a bit of wool into a short thread with your fingers, wrap this around the notch at the top of a spindle, and start to spin (personal experience), it's not easy and success depends very much on the type of wool you are trying to spin. The normal way to dress a bare spindle is to take 30cm or so of spun thread, and begin by knotting one end around the spindle just above the whorl. The thread is then pulled down over the edge of the whorl, wrapped around the bottom end of the spindle, and brought all the way back up to the top of the spindle to the notch. Holding the spindle between your knees when you get to this point will make it easier to work with. A half-hitch pulled tight around the spindle then secures the thread in the notch. (The half-hitch is made by holding the thread horizontally across the notch, passing the thread coming up from the whorl back up over the spindle top and then pulling the free end tight.) See Figure 6 for a diagram of a dressed spindle.

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Starting to Spin
You now have a spindle with ten or so centimeters of thread free at the top, secured at the notch. The wool you will be about to spin will be in one of four forms: a teased mass, a rolag, tops, or a combed staple. A teased mass is exactly what it sounds likea fluffy lump of wool which has been thoroughly pulled apart to separate the fibres, untangle them from dirt and burrs, and remove knots. A rolag is a cylinder of light, fluffy wool made by rolling carded wool off a carding comb (carder), a process described in the last section (p. 29). Tops are a long ribbon a few cm wide and thick of commercially carded wool with nearly all the fibres lying parallel. A combed staple is a lock (staple) of fibres which have all grown up closely together and are compressed at the tip (usually with dirt), which has been brushed apart so that the strands all lie parallel to each other (see p. 35). The techniques for spinning from a rolag and a teased mass are the same. Spinning from a combed staple is described later (p. 30). Hold the unspun wool gently in your left hand. Pinch out a bit of it between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, and lay the end of the thread from the spindle in the middle of this pulled-out bit, overlapping one to two centimetres of the thread onto the wool. Hold this firmly in place at the top end of the thread with the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, and let go
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with your right hand. You now have the spindle dangling from your left hand, held by the thread. Hold this firmly in place at the top end of the thread with the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, and let go with your right hand. You now have the spindle dangling from your left hand, held by the thread. Hold the top of the spindle between the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand, give it a nice vigorous twist clockwise, and let go. The spindle and thread are now spinning.1 You will see the wool fibres start to twist around the thread; as soon as this happens, pinch them firmly with your right thumb and forefinger, just below the left ones. Ease off on your left thumb and forefinger a bit and pull up with your left hand and down with your right hand so that a strand of fibres a few centimetres long is pulled out from the main wool body. See Fig. 7 for a diagram of this. Pinch firmly at the top end of this strand with your left hand, then let go with your right hand. The twist which has been accumulating in the thread from the spindle's spin will run ziiiiip! up the strand and turn it into thread. Pinch hard with your right fingers just below your left fingers, ease off with your left, draft out more fibres, and do it all again. That's all there is to it. Here are the steps for continuing to spin once you have got everything started: 1. Pinch hard with left fingers at top of thread, just below the unspun wool 2. Set spindle spinning or check spin is correct 3. Pinch hard with right fingers just below left ones 4. Ease left finger pinch and draft out a few cm of fibres 5. Pinch hard with left fingers 6. Let go with right fingers 7. Check that the twist has turned the strands to thread properly 8. Remove any burrs or lumps (stop the spindle while you do this) 9. Go back to step 2 You need to be careful to keep the end of the drafted-out strand pinched firmly just below the end of the unspun wool, so that you don't let the twist get up into the rest of the wool. It can be quite hard to untwist it if this happens, and you will suddenly find yourself spinning something that more closely resembles a sausage than a nice thin thread!

If the spindle will not spin quickly and evenly, you probably need more weight on the whorl. A lump of Blue-Tack around the spindle underneath the whorl should do the trick. - 18 -

Dont try to draft out too thick a strand of wool. Drop spindles like to spin fine thread. If you cant get your spindle to keep spinning (twist runs down too soon), you are probably trying to spin your thread too thick. Wool is quite tough stuffyou can spin it amazingly finely before it breaks. Experiment a bit and see how fine you can make your thread. As your thread lengthens, check that your spindle is still spinning, and still spinning clockwise. As the spin runs down there is an annoying tendency for the spindle to sneakily start spinning anticlockwise, undoing the nice twist you've put in the thread, and causing it to suddenly fall apart. When you draft out a strand and let go with your right hand, if the twist does not immediately run up the strand this is a sign that your spindle has stopped spinning or is not spinning fast enough. When the spindle reaches the floor, let it fall on its side to stop the spin, gather up the thread by winding it firmly around your left fingers a few times (it will twist up on itself if hanging free), unhook it from the notch and the bottom of the spindle, and wind it onto the spindle just above the whorl. Leave enough thread to wind around the bottom and up to the notch again, and carry on. If the spindle starts wobbling while it spins, try just touching the bottom point to the floor. This should steady it.

Z-Twist and S-Twist

You may have wondered why I specified spinning clockwise. Spinning the thread clockwise gives it what is known as a Ztwist, as opposed to the S-twist produced by anticlockwise spinning (see Figure 8). Due to the wool scales' configuration, a Z-twist produces a slightly stronger thread than an Stwist, although the S-twist is a little softer. Unless you are planning to weave and want your thread for the warp (lengthways threads) on the loom, it probably does not matter which way you twist, as long as you are consistent. When plying thread (see below), you take two or more threads of the same twist, and spin them in the opposite direction. This is part of what makes the plied yarn stay together (the other is setting the twist in hot water).
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Slubs, Broken Threads, and Burrs

Your first thread will not be a miracle of evenness, to say the least. You will have thin bits and thickish lumps, which are called slubs and are actually considered desirable in novelty yarns for knitting! You will be surprised, however, at how quickly the evenness of your thread improves, and you will probably find that you are naturally spinning finer thread as well. Most thread spun on the rock was woven into cloth rather than plied for knitting, although knitting certainly existed in period. If you wish to knit your spun wool, you can always ply several threads together (how to do this is described later); this will actually give a stronger and more even yarn than one thickly-spun thread. You will also have the thread break quite a lot, and get very used to retrieving your spindle from the floor. I suggest you hold the spindle over your lap when you are joining the thread after it breaks, so that you don't have to chase the spindle across the floor if the join doesn't take first time. Overlap the thread by at least 3 or 4 cm when you are joining it. Sometimes you will find that broken threads just will not rejoin, no matter how tightly you try to spin them. In this case, pinch off a little bit of unspun wool and join that to the thread attached to the spindle. Spin this little fluffy bit of wool into thread, leaving some loose at the other end so you can join in the thread still attached to the unspun wool. Unless you are spinning commercially carded wool, your wool will have burrs, grass seeds, chaff, dirt, and other assorted bits of muck (into the nature of which it is best not to enquire too closely) in it, even after carding. Pick off the obvious bits on the surface, and don't worry about the rest. They will either come off by themselves as you spin, or stick out of the thread, and you will be able to pick them off without too much trouble. While you are doing this, I suggest that you stop the spindle spinning (grab it between your feet or let it rest on the ground), so that it doesn't start to unspin the thread while you are removing the bits. Incidentally, I recommend bare feet while you're spinning in the privacy of your own bowernot only is it easy to hold the spindle between your feet, but you can pick it up with your toes when it gets away, and save that undignified groping around on the floor.
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Kemp and Yolk

There are two other things you may find in your wool. Kemp is a small clump of very short fibres, often a slightly different colour from the surrounding wool. Some breeds of sheep produce more of this than others; the sheep's follicles just seem to make a bunch of short fibres and shed them into the rest of the wool. Although it can probably be spun in with the rest of the fibres, it can be a royal pain to try, so it is easiest just to pick the kemp lumps out when you find them. Also, if you are planning to dye the wool, kemp may come out a different colour [Dalby and Christmas 1984]. Yolk (also known as canary stain) is a yellowish salt deposit on the fibres, some of which will come off when you are carding the wool. If your wool has a lot of yolk, you'll have to give the left-hand carder a good thump, teeth side down, against your leg now and then to get rid of it. Apart from this, the only problem with yolk is that if the bottom ends of the fibres are badly yellowed by it, they may not come completely clean despite thorough washing, giving an uneven result if you dye the wool. Dalby and Christmas [1984] recommend choosing a fleece with little yolk for spinning.

When the Spindle is Full...

When your spindle has a nice fat lot of thread wound on it, it's time to stop spinning and do something with it. Unhook the thread from the notch and the bottom of the spindle, and wind it into a ball. Don't forget to leave 30cm or so of thread on the spindle for starting your next lot of spinning. I suggest that you wind the thread around something like an old wooden cotton reel, or a short length of 19mm dowel, to give the ball a bit more weight. This will stop it jumping out of the cup and rolling onto the floor when you are plying the thread and getting near the end. You will now have a nice ball of thread the size of a golf ball or a small orange, depending on how much you've spun. Put it in a coffee cup or one of Master Alex the Potter's lovely little pottery cups, and make another one. If the thread breaks while you are winding it into a ball, you can either spin it back together, or if you are going to ply the thread you can just leave it and join it up when plying.
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Plying Yarn
To produce a plied yarn from thread, take two or more balls of thread spun with the same twist. I will assume you have followed my instructions and spun all your thread clockwise, with a Z-twist. Each of your balls of thread should be sitting in a cup; this is to stop them jumping about while they are being unrolled. Place the cups on a table rather than the floor, so that you have a minimum of unplied thread extended. This will help prevent the thread twisting up on itself excessively and tangling (you cannot prevent some twisting up). Unroll 50cm or so of thread from each ball and knot the ends of the threads together. Hook them around the notch of your empty spindle. You may need to twist it a couple of times to get it to stay in place. Now start the spindle spinning, but in an anticlockwise direction so the yarn will have an S-twist. Gently (so you don't break the thread) pull out more thread from the balls until your spindle is just off the floor. Give the spindle another vigorous twist and let it spin for a few seconds. Check that the twist is good enough (see below), wind up the yarn onto the spindle, dress the spindle as for ordinary spinning, and continue. Figure 9 shows a spindle full of plied wool and two of Master Alex's cups containing thread wound on wooden cotton reels. How do you know if the twist is enough? Bend a section a few centimeters long near the top of your yarn into a U-shape. If the threads loosen or untwist, it needs more twist. It is fully plied when the yarn tries to twist itself together rather than staying in an open U. If it looks like you have too much twist, don't worryit will loosen up somewhat when you wash the yarn in hot water. Plying is much easier than spinning. It can almost get boring! Nothing bad happens if the spindle stops spinning and starts to untwist, you just have to start it spinning again. The only tricky part is if you need to join a broken thread. I recommend overlapping by at least 6-8 cm and plying it with the join quite close to the spindle, rather than way up the thread. You may need to ply in a thin wisp of unspun wool to make the overlapping threads sit
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tightly together. If both threads break at the same point, untwist the ends and cut a good 20cm off one thread. Join one thread on at this point, with a good overlap as above, and then do the second thread. If your overlap is not sufficient, the yarn may pull apart when you are winding it into a skein before washing it and setting the twist.

Making a Skein
You now have a spindle full of plied wool, which needs to be wound into a skein so it will not tangle when it is washed and/or dyed. The oldest way of winding a skein was around a helper's hands, held upright, palms facing, about 50cm apart. This still works quite well, since neither yarn nor people have changed much since the Middle Ages . However, apart from one's relatives, there were two devices which were used for winding skeins in medieval times: a niddy-noddy and a warp wheel. Both are still used today. A niddy-noddy (Figure 10) is essentially a pair of sticks set at right-angles to each other near the top and bottom of a vertical shaft of wood. The wool is wound from top front to bottom right to top back to bottom left and back up to top front.

Figure 10. A niddy-noddy Figure 11. A skein wound on a warp wheel Why not just have a pair of pegs about a metre apart on piece of wood sitting on the table top? Because it would mean considerably more bending and stretching for the woman winding the skein, whereas with a niddy-noddy she could produce a nice long skein while keeping her arms essentially in front of
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her body. Having wound skeins on chair backs, I can assure you that even moving only 60 cm or so side to side becomes work quite quickly. A warp wheel (Figure 11) also has the advantage of needing minimal movement. As its name suggests, it is a wheel 50 or so cm in diameter set vertically on an upright post or on an axle between two posts, which sits on a table. The wheel may have a rim with pegs projecting horizontally from it on which the yarn is wound, or it may be rimless as in Figure 11, with crescentshaped pieces at the end of the spokes to hold the yarn. The wheel in Figure 11 has a wooden tray at the bottom, presumably for holding wound skeins, spare spindles and so forth. (No date is given for Fig 11 in the source I took it from, but it looks early 1500s Flemish to me. The thread is probably linen.) For modern purposes, a straight chair back or the legs of a stool will do nicely. Measure the yarn path and count as you wind, so you will know how much yarn you have. Set the spindle of yarn upright in a coffee cup on the floor, having unwound the yarn from the notch and spindle bottom, and start winding onto the chair back. Try to keep the skein from getting too tight you don't need to have it under tension, just enough to stop it slipping down. If you have the spindle at the right angle in the cup, the yarn will simply unspool from it without needing to rotate the spindle at all (another advantage of the modern technique of winding the thread onto the spindle in a cone, rather than the medieval lens-shape). Alternatively, you can hold the spindle between your calves at the right angle for unspooling the yarn.. When the yarn is all wound, you need to tie the skein in at least four places to prevent it tangling. Use a figure-8 tie as shown in Figure 12; this helps keep the strands separate [Dalby and Christmas, 1974].

Figure 12. Tying the skein

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Washing the Skein and Setting the Twist

Fill a sink with enough very hot water to cover your skeins, drop them in, and let them soak for 10-15 minutes. The water should be hotter than you can keep your hands in. Add some soap or dishwashing detergent. After the skeins have soaked, swoosh them around gently to remove any remaining dirt. This will also remove the lanolin. Rinse the skeins in warm water until they are clean. Do not wring, scrub, or twist the skeins while washing them you don't want the wool to felt. Just squeeze the water out gently. Also, do not got from hot water directly to cold; this will shrink your wool. I let the sink of water cool till it is only warm, then rinse at the same temperature. Hang the skeins in a breezy place out of the sun, and weight them lightly at the bottom to stop them kinking up. I hook a garden gate hinge or shot-bolt onto the bottom of the skein as the weight. The soaking in hot water will have set the twist into the ply of the yarn, so that it will not unravel when loose. Once the skein is dry, remove the ties and roll it into a loose ball. If you intend to dye it, leave it as a skein and don't remove the ties (in this case you must also have used soap when washing). Figures 13 and 14 show how amazingly dirty my black wool was, even after vigorous brushing, and a couple of skeins hanging up to dry from wire hooks with my highly ersatz skein-weights.

Figure 13. First wash for two skeins, Figure 14. Weighted skeins no soap hanging to dry
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Preparing Wool for Spinning

In this section we will take a quick look at what raw wool is like, and how it was prepared in period. Believe me, you wouldn't want to put a medieval wool comb anywhere near your head! We will also cover three ways of preparing wool for spinning: teasing, carding, and combing.

Straight Off the Sheep's Back, Then and Now

A fleece of raw wool has several different types of wool in it, ranging from easy to moderately difficult to spin. The best quality wool comes from the sheep's shoulders, back, and head; the worst, from the belly, legs, and rump. For beginners, a fleece with a longer staple (fibre length) is easier to spin than a short-staple fleece. Here in Australia we have predominantly merino sheep, with a short- to medium-length very fine staple which is extremely crinkly (crimped). This is only moderately like the wool from a medieval sheep, which was, on average, not as fine or as crimped. The Spanish merino sheep from which our modern ones were bred appeared quite late in our period, and their wool was not widespread until the 1500s. English wool was considered the highest quality and most desirable for luxury cloth until the 1500s, when its quality declined and merino moved into first place [Munro 2003]. There were laws passed in most of the great textile centres stating that a certain percentage of English wool must be used in cloth-making, with penalties for those drapers found to be using poorerquality substitutes. The best luxury cloths ("scarlets") were produced from fine, short-staple wool prepared by combing rather than carding (combing removed the very short fibres, leaving a wool mass of even length and mostly parallel fibres). The resulting cloth was then fulledfelted within an inch of its life and any nap closely shorn off, producing a smooth, fine, strong cloth which would not fray at the edges and would last several lifetimes. Such cloth was for the aristocratic market; for an example of the cost, to buy a single broadcloth of about 30m x 2m would cost about 17 months' wages for a Flemish master mason or carpenter in the mid 1400s [Munro 2003]. A single weaving and fulling team could produce about 20 such cloths per year. Longer-staple and coarser wool was made into ordinary cloth ("stuffs"), which was naturally much cheaper. And of course, woolen cloth was produced domestically throughout our period; its quality would have
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depended on the care and pasturage of the sheep and the skill of the women of the household. A staple is a lock of fibres which have grown up as a single clump and are caught together at the tip (usually with dirt ). Figure 15 shows two kinds of raw fleece and some individual staples, from pure merino (back or shoulder wool, I think) and a Romney Marsh (belly wool on the left, shoulder wool on the right). The Romney Marsh wool is coarser and much longer-stapled, with less crimp. My guess is that good-quality medieval wool lay somewhere between these two, a bit closer to the merino. A close-up of a merino staple is shown in Figure 16; you can just see that there are about 5 crimps to the centimeter (12 per inch).

Figure 15. Merino (left) and Romney Marsh raw wool

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Fig 16. Close-up of merino staple showing crimping

The Tools
Medieval wool was prepared for spinning by first beating it thoroughly with willow sticks to loosen dirt and break the closely-clumped staples apart ("willeying"), and then combing or carding it [Munro 2003]. If you were too poor to own tools, you used a dried teasel seed headteasel is a kind of thistleto card the wool (Figure 19), or simply teased the fibres apart in your fingers. Combs had existed since ancient times, and were fearsome things. A pair of broomstick-sized sticks about 40cm long were joined in a T-shape, and the top of the T had a row of five to seven conical steel spikes 30-40 cm long, like an odd garden rake. Munro [2003] says that combs most typically had three rows of seven spikes rather than the single row shown in Figure 17, where a woman is holding one comb just above another mounted on a vertical post. As can be seen in Fig 17, the shorter fibres coiled up round the base of the spikes of the lower comb, leaving the longer fibres lying mostly parallel in the upper comb. I have no idea what is in the basket between the two combs lying on the ground. Thread spun from combed wool is known as worsted, named for the English town that was the centre of this type of thread production. It is smooth and
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strong, and was generally used for the warp fibres in weaving, which are under tension.

Figure 17. A 15th century woman combing wool for spinning Carders were introduced from the Middle East towards the end of the 1200s, possibly earlier in Italy [Munro 2003]. A carder is a rectangle of wood about 25cm x 15cm with a handle in the middle of one long edge. The working surface often has a convex curve, and is covered in hundreds of little hooked spikes about 1cm long made by poking thin, stiff wire through a piece of leather. The wire is bent about half-way along, with the bent top pointing towards the handle. Modern carders are almost exactly the same, except that some kind of synthetic cloth holds the teeth rather than leather. Figure 18 from the Lutterel Psalter (c. 1330) shows a woman carding wool with a pair of
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carders, and three finished rolags lie on a plate next to her (or else she is going to have very long, skinny sausages for lunch).

Figure 18. Carding wool into rolags, c.1330 (Lutterel Psalter) The term "carding" comes from the latin word for "thistle," carduus. Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum L.), a member of the thistle family, was the earliest carding tool and continued to be used to raise the nap on cloth during the complicated fulling process in commercial production. Dry teasel seed heads such as would have been used in medieval times are shown in Figure 19, and a pair of modern carders in Figure 20. Carders are used in pairs, with the wool being transferred from one carder to the other several times as they are drawn across each other, and finally rolled off the carder to form a rolag. The difference between carding and combing is that the shorter fibres are not removed by carding, but instead blended in among the longer ones. This results in woolen thread, fuzzier and slightly weaker than worsted. Woolen thread was commonly used as the weft in medieval weaving [Munro 2003]. Carded wool was also banned for commercial luxury cloth production for many years on the grounds of thread quality, but Munro [2003] suggests it was more probably because carding made it easy to adulterate expensive highquality wool with cheaper wool, since it blends the fibres so evenly.

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Figure 19. Dry teasel seed heads

Figure 20. Modern carders

Teasing Wool
To tease wool, hold a couple of staples in your left hand, bottoms between your thumb and fourth finger, tops between your fore- and middle fingers. Pinch the edge of the outer staple with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, near the top, and pull apart (see Figure 21). You will end up holding a fan of fibres in your left hand, and you can then separate the bottoms of the staples. You will need to tease several staples out lightly before carding them into a rolag.
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Figure 21. Teasing wool staples

Carding Wool into a Rolag

Figure 22 (next few pages) gives step-by-step instructions in carding raw wool into a rolag. The pictures are taken from Dalby and Christmas [1984]. Be very careful when you're first carding, as it is all too easy to rake your knuckles with the sharp teeth of the carder. I seriously suggest you stick a bandaid over the first knuckle of each hand when you begin cardingI gave myself a couple of quite nasty scrapes before my skill improved. When you've taken the rolag off the left carder, you may want to roll it very gently across the teeth to tuck the loose edge in. Rolags should be light and fluffy and full of air, so take care not to squash them. Thread spun from a rolag of mixed short and long fibres produces woolen-type thread, similar to that used as the weft in medieval weaving. Unfortunately, full-sized carders are not cheap; you'll be lucky to see change from $60 for a pair unless you can get them second-hand.

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1. Hold one carder on your left thigh, teeth upwards. Place four or five lightly teased staples on it, cut ends towards the handle, tips to the edge. Pat them down a bit.

2. Place the top edge of the right carder near the top of the left carder, and draw the right carder to the right across the left one. Do this several times, moving the top of the right carder nearer to the bottom (handle side) of the left carder as you go. You will have to hold the wool down to stop it being all pulled off the left carder on the first stroke.

3. The fibres will be pulled out from the left carder and will transfer to the right carder. Lift the right carder upwards with a rocking motion as you pull it quite lightly across the left carder; this will help transfer the wool.

4. If you cannot get all the fibres off the left carder, turn the right carder around so that it is almost at rightangles to the left one, with the top of the right near the bottom of the left, and pull it upwards across the left carder.

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5. All fibres are now on the right carder. Transfer them back to the left one by placing the top edge of the right carder near the bottom edge of the left one, laying the fringe of wool at the top of the left carder's teeth, and pushing the right carder slowly downwards across the left one.

6. The fibres will transfer to the left carder; you may have to push the right carder quite sharply downwards at the last bit.

8. Lift up the fibres at the top edge

7. Virtually all the wool is now sitting lightly on the left carder. of the left carder with the top edge of the right carder, and continue rolling them up with the carder or your fingers. I find fingers easier.

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9. The rolag is now completely rolled up and ready to take off.

10. The finished rolag after gentle rolling across the left carder.

Figure 22. Step-by-step carding instructions for making a rolag

Making a Teased Mass and a Combed Staple

If you don't have carders, you have two options: teasing or combing (not the same as the medieval technique). How to tease out fibres from staples is shown in Figure 21 (p. 29). For a teased mass of wool, you just pinch as small a clump as you can manage when you are pulling the fibres out, and once the staple is all separated, keep pulling at it gently until you have separated as many strands as you can without starting to felt the wool. For making combed staples, I use an alternative to a full cardera flick carder. This is smaller than a full-size carder, and much cheaper. Mine is actually a dog brush that I got for a few dollars from a discount store!

Figure 23. Using a flick carder.

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You can use an old hairbrush instead of a flick carder; don't pick one of the kind that has lumps on the ends of the bristles. Tease the staple lightly without separating the bottom end, then hold this end with one hand against your thigh and brush out the top end, using a flicking action (bounce the carder/brush down onto the end of the staple, then pull lightly up and out); see Fig. 23. When the staple is all nicely separated, hold the top end down and brush out the bottom end. You will end up with a rectangular lump of parallel fibres, with most of the shortest fibres stuck in the carder or brush (see Fig. 24).

Figure 24. A fully combed staple. Combed staples will spin into a worsted-type thread, very smooth and strong. Worsted is similar to medieval thread for luxury cloth, and is preferred for the warp threads in weaving. To draft out fibres from a combed staple, fold it over the forefinger of your left hand and hold the ends between your thumb and your other fingers (see Figure 25). Draft the fibres out from the edge of the middle of the staple where it lies over your forefinger, and you will get a nice smooth strand. If you try to draft from the ends of the staple, they will clump up and tangle. This is known as the "folded lock" technique [Dalby and Christmas, 1984].

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Dalby, Gill & Christmas, Liz. Spinning & Dyeing, An Introductory Manual. 0-7153-8515-1. David and Charles Inc., London, 1984 Hower, Virginia G. Weaving, Spinning, & Dyeing, A Beginner's Manual. ISBN 0-13-947804-3. Prentice-Hall Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976. Munro, John. Medieval Woolens: Textiles, Textile Technology, and Industrial Organisation, c. 800 - 1500, in David Jenkins, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, 2 vols. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Vol. I, chapter 4, pp. 181-227. Munro, John. in Medieval Woolens: The Western European Woolen Industries and their Struggles for International Markets, c.1000 - 1500, in David Jenkins, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, 2 vols. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Vol. I, chapter 5, pp. 228-324, 378-86 (bibliography). Ryder, M. L. 'The use of goat hair: an introductory historical review', Anthropozoologica 17 (1993), pp. 37-46. Ryder, M. L 'Coats of Himalayan Ruminants Elucidated by Study of a "Yeti" Skin', The Linnean 9 (1993), pp. 21-6.
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Appendix 1: Spinning Silk, Cotton, and Flax

Silk must be spun tight and under tension. You need to keep the spindle spinning fast, and never let it touch the floor while youre drafting, or your lovely thread will just fall apart in bits. However, it drafts out like a dream, and I have never lost the end of the thread among the other strands on the spindle or bobbin, which I have done annoyingly often on both dropspindle and wheel-spun wool. Silk also seems to have less tendency to unspin itself at the end than wool. Set the twist in hot water as for wool. Since silk does not shrink when wet, you will not need to weight silk skeins when drying them. Silk can be significantly harder to join than wool. If the thread breaks in the middle, it's best to pull the remaining thread off the silk mass and join the pulled-out fluffy end to the spindle-end, then join in the new end to the mass again. Joining two spun ends often won't work. I have only spun silk from tops, which are a long ribbon a couple of cm wide of parallel fibres. My technique is to pull off a 20cm length, fold it in half, put it into a little cotton bag (so it doesnt stick to my hand) with the fold poking out, pull out a few strands, and spin from there. This results in a very smooth, fine thread. It is also possible to spin from the end of a length, or from what is effectively a teased mass once you get near the end of the length and things have got rather bunched up. This results in more slubs, however.

Cotton seems to be pretty much like wool, except you are dealing with shorter fibres and cannot draft out too long a thread at one time. This may be better when spinning tops; I was spinning cotton wool from a supermarket packet, which definitely cant be described as top-quality spinning cotton!

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Flax, as far as I know, was always spun from a distaff in medieval times. However, I assumed that I'd find it much like wool. I pulled off about 20cm of the flax tops I'd been given, bunched it up in my left hand, pulled out a bit, attached it to the leader thread on my drop spindle, and began to spin. Ten minutes of spinning told me why they used a distaff for flax. All goes well for a bit, but then you are trying to pull flax fibres out of a clumped mass and they just wont draft out. Flax fibres stick together quite a lot better than wool when scrunched up. The conical-haystack distaff arrangement for flax shown in miniatures such as the cover and Figure 3 ensures that the fibres lie parallel and don't form crosslinks too soon. Modern flax spinners also spin the thread wet, either from a distaff or laid flat between two damp teatowels. In period, the fibres were typically moistened with spit. Wetting the fibres helps separate them for drafting out, and results in a smoother thread when it has dried. Looking at pictures of spinning flax, one thing that really takes the eye is the position of the spindle in relation to the distaff. The distaff is typically under the left arm, but the spindle is nearly always down by the right calf, with the thread lying loose across the spinner's lap. Left hand is up near the draft of flax from the distaff, right hand is a little above the spindle. In this position, the spindle cannot be spun to twist the thread as it comes away from the distaff. My own experiments with spinning flax suggest that unlike wool, where the spin of the spindle is the most significant element in actually twisting the thread, for flax the spindle's spin is almost entirely secondary, and used mostly for re-joining broken thread. I believe the primary twist for the thread was given by the left-hand fingers as they drafted the thread out from the distaff. This, incidentally, also explains the lack of a spindle whorl on many illustrations of spinning flaxit simply isn't needed if the spindle doesn't spin. (These illuminations tend to be earlierthe "typical" household spindle may well have been multi-purpose later.) I have quite successfully spun linen thread with twist supplied only by the drafting hand. [This conclusion has been affirmed by Mistress Rowan Perigrynne from her books on spinning flax.]

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