The Humble Spindle

In our second Origins lesson you read that for the past 9000 years or so, spindles of some form or other have been used. Spindles and spindle whorls have been found in archaeological sites all over the world. The spindle whorls tend to preserve better as they are usually made of stone, ceramic or shell, materials more permanent than wood which usually makes up the spindle staffs. When you think about it, it's a very simple tool. It's portable and very adaptable to the fiber being used. It's revolutionary and allowed a larger production of fiber than the method of rolling down the thigh, with less wear and tear on the palm and the thigh. So let's look at our humble spindle.

There are two types of spindles we will discuss here; supported and suspended or drop-spindles. Supported spindles are used in a way in which the fiber and the yarn being spun, does not support the weight of the spindle. Suspended or drop spindles are hung from the yarn in which you are spinning. I've included some photos below of both.

Not surprisingly, much of the archaeological evidence we have regarding spindles indicates that supported spindles evolved predominantly where the materials available for creating threads and yarns were short stapled (meaning the length of each fiber is shorter rather than longer, say under 4 inches or so), such as Africa (where cotton has long been produced) and many areas in Asia where livestock produce short downy fibers. As you might expect, suspended spindles are more commonly found in areas where longer staple fibers have been traditional such as sheep's wool or flax. 

Most spindles have two main features, a shaft and a whorl. Although not all spindles possess a distinct whorl. Compare the two supported spindles in the photos above. The Navajo spindle has a very distinct, large whorl upon which to build up the cop of yarn. The smaller supported spindle, (designed to be spun with a small bowl supporting its base) does not show a defined whorl but it is clear where the cop should be built up. 

In her work on The Evolution of Spinning, Heather McCloy talks about another type of spindle called the cross arm spindle. This type of spindle consists of a piece of wood or bone attached to the bottom of suspended type spindle instead of a rounded whorl.  "These types of spindles were used exclusively as drop spindles, either twisted by hand or rolled along the thigh to start the rotation while the yarn is pulled out from the fibers.  Eventually the cross-arm style was expanded upon to create a double cross-arm spindle, commonly known today as a “Turkish” dropspindle.  This style was used across the Middle East, and is formed by two arms that interlock (often at right angles) at the bottom of the spindle to allow for more balanced spinning than the single-arm style.  Some sets come with two sets of arms, so that you can use one set for thinner yarns and the second set for thicker yarns, and others come with arms of two different weights, allowing you three possible weight combinations for spinning on the spindle."

Turkish Spindle with yarn woven onto the cross arms.

Turkish Spindle with yarn woven onto the cross arms.

In a previous section we looked at different types of whorls and if you recall they were made from stone, bone, wood, and shell. Undoubtedly the materials could tell us great things about trade routes and cultural status in a community. Whorls play a part in a number of mythological stories. 

The Greek Goddess Anake was the Goddess of Fate until the Fates were born. She was the mate of Chronos and like Chronos, she was incorporeal and serpentine like. She was not a spinning Goddess but Plato had a vision of her spinning the universe. He said the sun, moon and planets were her spinning whorls. Plato said Sirens sang through the webs of fate she wove and souls endlessly moved through the strands on their way to and from death and rebirth. 



In Plato's The Spindle of Necessity, the cosmos is represented by a spindle with a giant whorl attended by sirens and  The Fates, whose duty is to keep the rims of the spindle revolving. The Fates, Sirens, and Spindle are used in Plato's The Republic, partly to help explain how known celestial bodies revolved around the Earth according to his cosmology.

"The "Spindle of Necessity", according to Plato, is "shaped . . . like the ones we know"—the standard Greek spindle, consisting of a hook, shaft, and whorl. The hook was fixed near the top of the shaft on its long side. On the other end resided the whorl. The hook was used to spin the shaft, which in turn spun the whorl on the other end." (Desmond Lee's translation in the Penguin/Harmondsworth edition of The Republic.)

There were 8 orbits on the whorl of Plato's cosmological system. Each created a perfect circle. They were as follows:

  • Orbit 1- The Stars
  • Orbit 2- Saturn
  • Orbit 3- Jupiter
  • Orbit 4- Mars
  • Orbit 5- Mercury
  • Orbit 6- Venus
  • Orbit 7- Sun
  • Orbit 8- Moon
Plato's Ptolemaic System map. The descriptions of the rims accurately fit the relative distance and revolution speed of the respective bodies as would appear to an observer from Earth.

Plato's Ptolemaic System map. The descriptions of the rims accurately fit the relative distance and revolution speed of the respective bodies as would appear to an observer from Earth.

Similarly, we've also learned about the Norns, the Norse triplicate of goddesses similar to The Fates. Originally from the land of the Giants, they controlled the fate of men and gods. "Their names are Urd or Urdi ("Fate", or "That Which Was", the Norn of the Past), Verdandi or Verthandi (Present or "That Which is Becoming") and Skuld (Shall-be, or "She Who will Becoming")." ("The Titans"; Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov;Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, Massachusetts; 1961, page 42.)

In the Norse legends, the two elder Norns are said to set happy fortunes for people, while Skuld, the youngest, often changed their decrees to more tragic outcomes. Skuld determined the length of the thread of life and in some cases, she tore apart that which her sister's had already woven. 

As they were linked to time, each sister represented a different age. Urd was the crone, old, decrepit and very absorbed in the past. Verdandi, the middle sister, was active and fearless. She was always looking straight ahead. Skuld, the youngest, represented an uncertain future and was prone to violence and destruction.

C. Ehrenberg/Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber

C. Ehrenberg/Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber

In our next lesson we'll look at the spinning wheel.