A good week ago, I received a nice email from somewhere in the US, asking me this:
I do living history demonstrations, and since I am learning to spin, I will be adding spinning to what I demo. I’ve seen the pictures of the long double tapered spindles with distaff, it looks like there was either no spindle whorl, or it was a bottom whorl.
My problem is trying to learn how they actually spun the wool on the spindles. Do you know where I can get enough information on how the spinning was done so I can demonstrate it correctly?
First of all, I am thrilled that demonstrators pause and think about what tools were used, and how exactly they were used. Thrilled! Because (as I have learned, and to my great chagrin much too recently) that modern-style spinning, even with a distaff, is a long way removed from how medieval spinning pictures look.
So how do you spin medieval-style? First of all, the caveat: This is the attempt to reconstruct a spinning style from, basically, pictures and a few surviving tools. Spinning is, at its core, a very basic thing (adding twist to fibres) and this thing can be achieved with a myriad of tools, and a myriad of techniques; there is no guarantee that everybody in the MA spun alike, and there’s no guarantee that we as modern people trying to reconstruct it actually hit the correct version(s). Even if it works really, really well, it’s no proof. (It is a strong indication that it may be right or close, though.) If I’m talking about “medieval spinning” in the following text, it may refer to pictures and other sources or the reconstructed technique, so please read accordingly.
Typical modern spinning is drop-spindle spinning, where the spindle travels down, hanging freely from the hands and wandering towards the floor; the hands stay close to the fibre supply. Drafting takes place between the two hands. The spindle is flicked periodically with one hand (which leaves its normal drafting place for this).
In contrast to that, medieval spinning always keeps one hand close to the spindle tip and one hand close to the fibre supply. Drafting takes place between the top hand (drafting hand) and the distaff, which is indispensable for this kind of spinning; the other hand keeps the spindle in motion.
The spindle can either be kept in the hand and turned between the fingers or suspended right below the twisting hand from the thread already spun. In both cases, there is an almost continual twisting action done with the twisting hand.
And because you will probably be all confused now, here’s a video of me spinning in that technique.
I am indebted to Cathelina from the 15thcenturyspinning blog, who has done a lot of research on the reconstructed technique. She also has some videos on her blog, most of them showing the in-hand spinning, not the close-to-the-hand-suspending that I prefer. Especially this slo-mo one is worth watching.
If you want an overview on spinning pictures, I can also recommend her pinterest board.
With this technique for spinning, you can use a spindle with a whorl (giving a little more heft to the spindle and making for a better twist when spun suspended) or without a whorl (in my experience, nice to do when the spindle is already quite full, or when you are spinning long fibres such as linen). You do definitely need a distaff, either a free-standing one or one that you tuck into your belt, or place beside you.
You try to draft an equal amount of fibres from the distaff, letting the twist enter these fibres as fast as needed (the twist travels upwards from the spindle). As every style of spinning, it takes practice – but it’s a lovely and quite fast style in my experience. The well-dressed distaff with well-prepared fibres is crucial for this. I’ll try to do a blog post on how I dress my distaff one of the next days, since it’s different from Cathelyne’s version.
For now, though, I hope this helps to shed some light on medieval spinning!