History Of Handspindles

Although handspindles are usually considered one of the earliest tools; spinning fiber into useable thread even predates handspindles. The first spinners probably used no tools at all to twist fibers overlapping them and producing early string and thread. Early peoples rolled the fibers on their thighs or simply between their fingers and in the case of some of the longer bast-type fibers, perhaps even over lapped them instead of “drafting” them out. The earliest evidence of spindle whorls dates back about 7000 years in the Mid-East where spindle whorls have been found. People have dug up spindle whorls, usually in the trash heaps of civilizations, all over the world. We see South American whorls from pre-Columbian times and Mid-Eastern whorls from 300 AD, and some folks have even purchased whorls from Europe or the United Kingdom. We have also seen spindle whorls from the Ohio Valley dating back to the pre-Columbian era. There have also been spindles buried with the dead; sometimes more of the spindle survives, but often all that is left is the whorl. Handspindles were tools, created out whatever raw materials were available. When they didn’t work anymore, they were simply thrown away and new ones fashioned. They are generally finely tuned to the fiber that the culture was spinning; only do modern handspindles try to be multi-purpose tools. Where people were spinning cotton, their spindles were made to spin that fiber, and where spindles were spinning wool, mohair, silk, or flax the spindles were different. There are lots of different kinds of handspindles. We have supported spindles, drop spindles, and spindles that are held in your hand while you draft and spin. We have high whorl spindles and low whorl spindles, and spindles with the whorl in the middle of the shaft. Whorls are made of stone, clay, wood, bone, shell and metal. The shafts are metal, bone or wood. Spindles were formed by the people using the tool or those in their family groups. Over the thousands of years, these tools evolved and were very efficient; not just the primitive tools we often make them out to be. Some of the finest yarns and threads ever produced were produced on handspindles. The Chinese and the Egyptians are known for their fine threads, The Incan culture had spinners that produced a super fine alpaca thread, and the Dacca muslins from Indian cotton were among the sheerest fabrics ever produced. All of these fabrics and threads were produced before the development of the spinning wheel and the looms as we know them. When handspinning regained popularity in the U.S., most people went directly to the wheel and skipped the handspindle all together. It was a novelty, or sometimes a discussion in the progression of spinning. Few people gave handspindles much thought; they were believed to be slow and less efficient. Some people in other countries have never given this tool up. It is easy to use, easy to store and transport. A portable way to spin that allows you to be moving (in most cases - some are not portable), and take care of other business while getting your chore of spinning done. When looking at spindles, think of their use; what kind of thread are they meant to spin. A heavy whorl is for producing a heavier yarn, the lighter whorls will not spin very well if you spin a heavy yarn on them. When spinning remember that the yarn you store on the spindle adds weight it, and you have to produce a yarn that supports that added weight. Often spindles that are meant to be held or supported while spinning do not freely spin well, but that is not needed. Those types of spindles do not always have a hook or groove, but a tapered end. They are meant to used much like the great wheel and the spinning thread should be held at an appropriate angle to allow that “slip/pop/twist” motion off the tip of the spindle to produce the twist in the thread. Supported spindles are often smaller - one exception being the Navajo spindles that are used to produce a rug and blanket yarn and still allow the spinner to either sit in a chair or on the ground. Supported spindles can produce a gossamer-like thread because the spindle is not supported by the spun thread. Usually smaller in size, they can hold between ¾ - 1 ounce of thread, but oh, the yardage that can be produced! When looking at antique spindle whorls, remember where they were found – if they were found in trash heaps, they probably were thrown there for a reason; if they were found in a burial or house excavation, they may have still been in use. Also look to the culture where the whorls were found and think of the fibers that were used; this will give you pointers if you plan to put that whorl to use. The spindle wheel made its way from the Far East, where it was developed between 600-900 AD, and came into use in Europe around 1257. Legs were added to the small table so that people could sit in a chair, but not much changed about the mechanism for several hundred years. People used the spinning wheel for wool, other animal fibers and for cotton, but for spinning flax and hemp, the handspindle was still the main tool. In 1480, a spinning wheel that spun line flax was developed in Germany and this became the next big leap in technology. But the wheel did not just pop up everywhere and it took quite a time for the wheel to spread across Europe. It was not until the mid 16th Century that the flyer wheel crossed the English Channel and even later for it to reach Ireland. Prior to 1632, the flyer/treadle wheel was not in common use in Ireland; that means that the handspindle continued to be the main tool for spinning the flax into the linen that Ireland was so famous for. We think of the Industrial Revolution as changing the world. And when we think of this revolution, we date it to the mid 1700's to the mid 1800's. We forget that different countries experienced different Industrial Revolutions. Some areas of the world did not experience this revolution until the mid 1900's. We find small areas of the world where handspinning and handspinning on handspindles are still practiced in much the same way as has been practiced for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. There were a few handspinners who, once they learned how to spin on a handspindle, realized the possibilities. It took awhile, but handspindles lost their second string status and there are people who now see the respect that handspindles deserve. Handspindles are indeed primitive tools, but there is a physics to them when they work well. I am sure that people in ancient times did not concern themselves with ratios, diameters, whorl weights and such. But when a spindle worked well, it was a much used piece of equipment and when the spindle didn’t work well, it ended up in the trash heap. Modern spinners who use handspindles - whether drop or supported - find one that works well, and that one becomes the one that gets used all the time. In collecting spindles, there is no rule that says you must spin on all of them - some are just pretty and that is that. Don’t ignore the handspindle, more of our history includes that piece of textile equipment than almost any other. When you spin thread on a spindle, you are winding back in time and connecting with the first person who ever twisted fiber into useable thread and holding onto a past has created some of the most fantastic fabrics in the world.