Spindles and spinning are also built into our mythology and folklore. Who can forget childhood tales of Rumplestiltskin or Sleeping Beauty? Plato says the axis of the universe is like the shaft of a spindle with the milky way as the whorl of wool in his Republic. In Greek mythology, Arachne challenges the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and when she fails she is turned into a spider. Theseus follows a thread out of the Labyrinth. The three Fates, or Norns, spin, measure and cut the threads of life. The art of spinning is also identified with nature's spinner, the spider, and her web. Most of us writers use the web every day, without thinking much about its roots.
Before the spinning wheel, to make yarn, wool or plant fibre was twisted or spun by hand onto a stick or distaff and then wound onto a second stick or dropspindle. The act of turning the fibres bonded them together into a continuous thread. (Have you ever lost the thread of your story?) The female side of the family used to be called the "distaff" side of the family, the spinning of flax on a distaff being a female occupation.
Thus, the dropspindle was 'the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.' (http://kws.atlantia.sca.org/spinning.html)
In order to increase the spin, a whorl was added. The spindle, or rod, usually had a raised lip to hold the whorl. A wisp of prepared wool was twisted around the spindle, which was then spun and allowed to drop. They are amongst the most common Medieval finds, as the process of spinning was the most common occupation. The majority of whorls were made from stone or recycled pot but some were carved from wood or cast out of lead.
It was a natural evolution that spinners invented a way of speeding up the process - the spinning wheel. However, no one knows who invented the first one, but it probably originated in India between 500 and 1000 A.D. It is said that the hand spinners in India were able to spin almost half a million yards of yarn from a single pound of cotton (Hochberg), a fine quality that machines until recently were unable to do.
In the past spinning was mostly done by women.The resulting thread was woven by men onto looms to produce cloth. Hand loom weavers were men because of the strength needed to batten the cloth. Many superstitions abound about winding thread - for example fishermen's wives would not wind wool after sundown, for if they did they would soon be making their husband's winding sheets.(Dictionary of Superstitions).
By the13th century spinning wheels appeared in Europe, putting an end to handspun thread, and in 1764, a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves invented a hand-powered multiple spinning machine that was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel, ending the 'homespun' era for good and paving the way for modern machine produced goods.
Like Theseus, when writing I often feel I am following my own thread out of the maze of the plot, and after writing a book, I often think of editing as 'tidying up loose ends' and 'winding it up' neatly, both expressions which have probably originated in our lost spinning culture.
I can recommend this book, Women's Work, for those who want to know more about spinning and weaving in early history.
Want to try metal detecting to find some spindle whorls of your own?
Interesting You Tube video on spindle whorls http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6TGuypgXms