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Sunday, 13 May 2012

Spinning -The Roots of the Language of Writing

The language of story is peppered with references to the craft of spinning. We 'spin a yarn', and 'weave' a tale. The art of 'fabric'ation has very deep roots as one of the earliest forms of creation.

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.
Warterhouse - La Fileuse

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.' (

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


  1. And of course there was Penelope, weaving and unpicking, as she waited all those years fro Odysseus to return...really enjoyed reading this piece, and beautifully illustrated!

  2. Hello Deborah, how could I forget Penelope! The Odyssey is one of my all time favourite mythic stories. The term 'spinster' has almost disappeared I think, except for on marriage certificates, but the idea of a spinster waiting years for her man certainly applies in Penelope's case!

  3. Fascinating blog, Deborah. It's interesting how many words we use without thinking about the origins of them.

  4. Very interesting. I have also noted how many authors also have an interest in needlework and craft. I know quite a few quilters and embroiderers who write.

  5. Hi Charlotte, yes isn't it. When writing I often have to use the Etymological Dictionary to check whether a word was in usage in the period of my novel. Recently my editor queried the word 'nonplussed', but it fact it was in existence as far back as 1532. I always find word origins fascinating.

  6. Hello Eliza, our comments crossed! Hope sales of The History room are going well. I myself have no ladylike hobbles at the moment, except maybe drawing and painting. I seem to spend a lot of time tramping through muddy fields or practising martial arts! Though I am interested in crafts, they always fascinate me. Perhaps I should take up knitting!

  7. Fascinating post, Deborah. I'd never thought of it before, but you're right, the imagery is perfectly apposite.

    A friend of mine at uni had a spinning wheel which I used a couple of times, and I can still remember the sensation of it now. Storylining is very like the 'combing' process, brushing and brushing until the amorphous mass smooths into visible strands, and writing a first draft is exactly like the teasing out of a single, continuous thread. The editing process is like spinning too. I used to think of it as 'ironing' - going over and over it to smooth out the bumps - but it's really a more delicate operation, working the piece through and through the fingers until it runs as smoothly as silk.

    Unfortunately I was rotten at it.

  8. Hi Louise, I love your descriptions of your editing process as a 'delicate operation'. I'm in the middle of editing now, and it made me think to go easy a little. We are always being told to axe and chop and cut (the way of the woodcutter?), but it's interesting to think of it in a more feminine way too.