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.  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.  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.