Presentation by: THL Lucia Thaylur

One of the earliest, and most crucial steps in the manufacture of fabric was the idea of taking individual Venus of Lespugue
Women's Work
The First 20,000 Years, p.44
pieces of plant material or animal fiber and combining these into one continuous length of thread which is stronger and thicker than individual strands of fiber. Hochberg uses the twisted string skirt on the ivory figurine, Venus of Lespugue, as an example to show we have been twisting fibers together to make clothing for at least 27,000 years (cf. 1979, p.10). James and Thorpe claim the recent find of actual linen pieces preserved in the dry air of a tiny cave at Nahal Heiner, a Judaean Desert, establishes the date of earliest cloth we have found, to be from about 6500 B.C. (p.275). Thread can be twisted without using any tool, simply by grasping the fibers and rolling along the thigh or leg to insert twist. The process of twisting fibers together is very tedious and leaves one with the problem of what to do with the fiber that's been twisted. If you let go of it to make more thread, it will immediately kink up into an unmanageable mess or will untwist. The worldwide solution to this problem was the invention of the handspindle.

A handspindle is any tool that can be rotated by hand todrop spindles
Handspindles, p.70
twist and hold yarn or thread. Hochberg believes the oldest spinning tool in most cultures was a spinning stick. Once the fiber was twisted by hand or rolled along the thigh it was wrapped on a stick to allow the process to continue. In it's most primitive form the stick is a branch pulled from a tree, the most common form a straight, smooth stick. This type of spindle is called a supported spindle and can be rotated in the hand, twirled upright in a bowl or rolled along the thigh. (cf. 1977, p.23). The right hand rotates the spindle as the left hand draws out the mass of unspun fiber. Small supported spindles are especially suitable for making fine thread of short staple fibers, because the spindle exerts no weight or pull on the fiber as it is being spun (cf. 1977. p. 21). This type of spinning is so efficient it is still being done today by many cultures.

Sticks are easy to wind onto, but Crowfoot notes how much faster the spinning process gets when a certain amount of wool yarn is wound on the spindle; it would seem that the weight of the fiber adds momentum (p.11). Initially, rocks were tied onto the spindles (Hockberg, cf. 1977. p. 25).

This combination of the stick and rock led to the development of the drop or suspended spindle. To qualify as a dropspindle, the tool must have both a shaft and a whorl. As the yarn is being spun, the drop spinner
Handspindles, p.11
shaft of the spindle is twirled by the finger or rolled on the thigh and then dropped. It continues to rotate as it hangs freely suspended from the yarn. Both hands are then free to hold and draw out the unspun fiber. Drop spindles are best suited for long or medium staple fibers and for yarns strong enough to bear the weight of the spindle. (Hochberg, cf. 1977. p 20). We'll probably never know when or where dropspindles originated. Early shafts were probably of wood and would decompose quickly unless under ideal circumstances.

In Prehistoric Textiles, Barber tells us in the North Mediterranean, early in the aceramic and early ceramic Neolithic period, objects begin to turn up that look remarkably like spindle whorls, but until the Early Bronze Age in Troy, no actual shafts appear. Some 8-10,00 baked clay whirls were found but only two had shafts. In Switzerland, a Late Neolithic (3,000 BC) spindle with an antler whirl has been discovered. By the Early Bronze Age drop spindles were widely used by most civilizations. Some cultures position the whorl at the top of the spindle, others at the bottom (p.51-55). Hockberg says a range of sizes developed from needle-like slivers of bamboo weighted with tiny beads of clay, to yard long wooden spindles with large plate-like whorls (cf.1976, p.10). Wood, bone, metal and ivory are not uncommon for spindles even today. Whorls are made of everything from clay to bronze.

For at least nine thousand years, all spinning was done on handspindles. To appreciate the versatility of such ancient tools we need only to realize the handspindle was used to spin all the thread for household linens, blankets, clothing-even the sails for ships.

Hochberg tells us the spinning wheel evolved from the handspindle. Initiallyspinning wheel
Handspinner's Handbook, p.11
, the wheels were long-shafted handspindles with the whorl suspended horizontally between two posts. A cord encircled the spindle whorl and a large wheel. For each turn of the large wheel the small whorl rotates many times. A spinner would use one hand to spin and the other hand to turn the wheel. When sufficient yarn had been spun it was wound on the spindle and the process continued. This type of wheel was used in the Orient for centuries and was introduced to the West before 1300 A.D.

By 1480, someone had figured it would be possible to add a flyer and bobbin to spinning wheels so the yarn could be wound on as it was spun. Some of these early flyer driven wheels had a handle attached to the main wheel allowing the spinner to rotate it by hand. The woodcut illustration from the Hausbuch, dated 1480, also shows a distaff for holding fiber attached to the wheel. By the early 16tth century, the concept of treadles first appeared thus eliminating the need to turn the large wheel by hand (cf. 1976, p.11).

Today, there are many varieties of spinning wheels. Some like the original spindle wheel are still being used, others have one treadle and some two. Very little, however, has changed in either the way they are built or the way they function.


Barber, Elizabeth, Women's Work The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times.
W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., London. 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0.

Hochberg, Bette. Handspinner's Handbook , Hochberg & Hockburg, USA. 1976. ISBN 0-9600990-5-0

Handspindles. Hochberg& Hockberg, USA. 1977. ISBN 0-9600990-2-6
Spin Span Spin. Hockber & Hockberg, USA. 1979 ISBN 0-9600990-3-4

James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. Random House, Inc. New York.1994. ISBN 0-345-40102-6

Last updated: 9/3/2006