Hand Spinning with a Drop Spindle
Spinning was the daily task of all women, high born or low, for thousands of years. Wherever wool was pulled or sheared from sheep, goats, llamas, or other beasts, and flax, cotton, or other long-staple fibres grown, women spun.
The drop spindles that Ceridwen and Ælfwyn used in late 9th century England were nearly identical to those used in Greece two thousand years before, and the spindle I use today so similar to hers that Ceridwen would pick it up from my table as a matter of course – and draw from it far finer thread than ever I could.
Like all girls, Ceridwen learnt to spin beginning at age five or six, and would be expected to continue this activity throughout her life to the day of her death. Whether cottar or queen, all women were responsible for spinning the thread that would be woven, usually by themselves, into tunics, shifts, gowns, mantles, bed clothes, towels, awnings, and nearly every other cloth item to be found in hut or timber hall.
Spinning is simply plying individual strands of wool, flax, cotton or other prepared fibre together by twisting. The thickness of the resultant thread is governed by the spinner’s skill and desire, and by the quality and staple-length of the fibre itself. To accommodate the mass of raw material (combed or carded wool, for instance) a distaff, often held under one arm, is used. This can be as simple as a length of tree branch or as sophisticated as a finely-sanded wooden fork. With one hand the spinner teases out bits of wool from the distaff, while the other hand smoothes the growing fibre between the fingers and onto the whirling spindle shaft.
Hand spinning, once the basic technique is mastered, is highly relaxing and quite portable. It is an ideal way to feel real kinship with our foremothers. If you then knit or crochet the finished thread into something you can wear or use, your pleasure and satisfaction in your skill will be doubled.
Beautiful handmade spindles are available from http://www.woollydesigns.com/spindles
Two excellent books on spinning are Handspinning by Eliza Leadbeater, distributed by Unicorn Books and Crafts, 1338 Ross Street, Petaluma, California 94954-6502 and the mind-expanding Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, W.W. Norton 1995