Spin like an Ancient…kinda, sorta, not really

November 20, 2014

Ever since I read Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s extraordinary book Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years, I have been fascinated by spindle spinning. Β I have a couple of beautiful, wood turned ones, a cherry Maggie and a Bog Oak IST, both top whorl spindles. They are expensive and precious to me. I am careful with them.

bobbin2Illustration by Barbara Wayland Barber (1991)

More than simply spinning with a hand spindle, I am curious about ancient spinning techology, the simple clay, bone or stone whorls coupled with a straight stick that were common throughout the ancient world. The whorls survive the eons long after the timber shaft has persished. These are hardy tools. Whorls like these enabled entire communities to survive the winter, clothed everyone from slaves to emperors and spun the yarn for sails that storms and broad oceans.

I really wanted to try spinning on an ancient spindle and flirted with the idea of buying a Viking reproduction spindle…there are such things out there on the interwebs. But it felt a bit silly, purchasing an ancient style spindle over the internet from another country to reproduce something that never happened in this country. I started to think about Barber’s work and how I might use some of the qualities of ancient spindles to respond to the Australian landscape. In this journey I was also informed by Debbie Zawinski’s article in Spin.Off Winter 2014, The Feral Spinner: Evolving back to the basics of making yarn. I have discussed this article before if you are curious.

The desire to replicate a historical artefact evolved into an experiment of spinning place, my place.

IMG_4578So I went to my local potter, Riverwife Clay. She lives in my village and our children attend the same village school. She makes objects from the earth that reflect our landscape and flora. She made a range of whorl sizes and weights suggested by dimensions of whorls in musem collections, glazed in oxides and incised with her own designs.

The whorls feel wonderful to handle and they make little thunking sounds as they touch in their muslin wrapping cloth. So small, so powerful. So easy to transport. They have a beauty that I find impossible to describe…they hold me in thrall. I am compelled to look at them, handle them, listen to them.

IMG_4581The size range means theoretically I can choose a whorl to suit the spinning, a small, fast one for fine spinning, a heavier slower one for thicker yarns. Probably in eons past, a turned timber shaft with a convex profile would have been used to fit a variety of whorl sizes. Β I searched the garden for straight sticks of various sizes and tried some apricot prunings. It was OK but the yarn snagged on the knobby bits. I needed a straighter stick.

IMG_4592In the next post, you can see the spindle whorls in the bush, in their full glory, actually making yarn…do come back.



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  1. Excellent article, Rebecca. I’m looking forward to your next post. I have 3 nice spindles and told myself that this was the winter to learn to use them!!

  2. What gorgeous objects! Stunned by their beauty. What an affirming post. Resounds with my current thinkings…… thank you x

  3. Rebecca, As always this is absolutely wonderful. The colours and flora depicted on the whorls are perfect. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  4. What an appealing project: its immediacy and being in tune with what is here and now and around us without losing the past. I can’t wait for the next installment.

    P.S. A spindle made of ancient bog oak sounds awesome!

  5. I DO like the ancient one on the lower right…DOGS on/in a whorl πŸ™‚
    I remember that article re feral spinning, impressive still.
    As much as I would like to be a competent spindle spinner…I guess I don’t have the patience for it. You did make me laugh with the :
    “purchasing an ancient style spindle over the internet from another country to reproduce something that never happened in this country” I am just as bad with other things, like buying a Herdwick fleece from Scotland. I mean really……..
    On the other hand, the designs on your whorls will inspire you.
    Wonder if the Dear Ones would try them out.

  6. Barber’s book is one of my all-time favorites–I loved the way she “read” weaving history from language and art and archaeological finds. I’ll look forward to the rest of your experiment with the whorls!

  7. Very exciting post. I will check next Friday for “whorls in the wild” (which I will admit sounds like an naturalist documentary featuring a spinner in a khaki bush jacket).

    Wasn’t Barber’s book incredible? Best bit of textile writing in my library. Nice to know it’s on your shelf, too.

  8. Thank you for this post, Rebecca! It is such a delight to read. I really admire spinning, though I’ve never tried. It’s basically the process that brings you back to the roots of all the textile industry. Can’t wait to see the spindle whorls in action!

  9. I somehow missed this post, and having read it gor sidetracked woolly thoughts and looking stuff up in books … but I’m back to say that I love Women’s Work – my copy is well thumbed – and I think your whorls are perfection!

  10. Beautiful! In fact, stunning! Supported spindles don’t rotate like drop spindles: you have to keep them going continuously. I think you’ve found that out by now. It soon becomes quite natural and you stop thinking about it, like all techniques you learn.

    Women’s Work is one of the jewels in my bookshelf too, and in my spindle box you can find an IST bog oak Turkish, and a Maggie in cherry πŸ™‚

  11. I’d never heard of whorls before. They are such lovely objects in themselves, with the added magic of being so useful, or even necessary in times past. The fact that they were made by a potter in your villiage makes them all the more special.

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