Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Metal spindles

We are very much a product of our culture and the expectations programmed into us by that culture.

We recognized neolithic spindle whorls that fit on a wooden shaft.  These were made of wood, bone, stone and ceramic. We found/find a lot of them, and they continue up into the bronze and iron ages. See for example  Subsistence communities still using such spindles to spin coarse yarns. Moreover, bronze and lead whorls on a wooden shaft work very well.  However, in the bronze and iron ages, population exploded and cloth production increased dramatically, and professional spinners associated with industrial scale cloth production needed faster ways to spin.

If I were an Iron Age spinner, and I needed to spin a lot of garment weight (5,000 to 10,000 ypp) yarn quickly for weaving, what would I use?  I would use a piece of iron or bronze wire with a wooden whorl that acts as a yarn spool or pirn.

Certainly many folks use steel wire for the shafts of bead spindles such as .  However, the idea of using a metal blade with a wooden bobbin or pirn as a whorl seems to be rare these days. 

The concept works for both drop spindles and supported spindles. We can look at medieval art, and see nothing what-so-ever that looks anything like this.   See for example.  On the other hand, in that art, we also do not see anything that looks like the industrial production of shiploads of cloth for export either. And, we do know that such production was going on.  Art is not the last word on industrial production technology.

It is not pretty, but it is an awesome spindle for spinning. The metal "blade" (shaft) is small enough that the spindle can be spun up to very high speed, which is somewhat limited by the diameter/inertia of the wooden whorl. It is much faster than a spindle with a wooden blade and a whorl. It is faster than a spindle with a steel shaft and  "spindle beads" as the relatively high inertia of the spindle beads tends to slow the spindle.   Drafting is just like drafting for any other spindle, just faster.  Most modern recreational spinners will find it difficult, and thereby assume that I know nothing about spinning with a spindle.  They will object to having to spin the spindle frequently and assume that I know nothing about spinning.  No, it is a matter that I tend to spin garment weight yarns, and I want much higher rates of twist insertion than most modern recreational spinners can accommodate.  I know that the spindle is slowing because it is putting a lot of twist into the yarn and a lot of twist in the yarn is what I want.   Most modern recreational spinners using a drop spindle are not trying to spin as fast as possible. They spin for relaxation.  I spin because I want yarns that are not commercially available.  Thus, I want to spin as fast as possible.

The design has many advantages. It is cheap and durable. This spindle design can withstand being dropped on a stone floor many times. It is easy to fabricate.  And. the wire can be used to toast marsh mellows or cheese over an open fire.  :  )  The wooden whorl/bobbin allows very fast wind-on, and instead of winding off, the  bobbin/whorl/pirn can be slipped off, and handed to the person doing the plying or even to the weaver as a wound shuttle pirn. This can speed the entire textile production process. 

However, such tools are not likely to be found in the archaeological record because when they break the pieces will either get reforged or reused as wire. To anybody that actually makes stuff, such little pieces of metal are very handy.  And, archaeologists are not looking for such a spindle, it is not part of their culture. They are looking for spindle whorls of stone, ceramic, lead, bronze . . . . 

Did any previous culture every use such spindles?  Who knows?, but it is an intermediate step between a neolithic spindle with a metal whorl and a flyer/bobbin assembly.  This suggests that at some point, somebody did work with the concept. (Or, perhaps that intermediate point did not occur until bobbins were put on the spindles of great wheels.)  And, without the wooden bobbin, you have the "twisty stick" that was traditionally  used by wool merchants to grade wool.  Since the grading (and hence price) of wool was based on how fine a thread a competent spinner could spin from the wool, this suggests a relationship between the grading tool and the spinning tool. It may be that at the end of the dark ages, the grading tool was just a metal spindle without its bobbin.


Gordon said...

This was an intriguing idea, so I tried it out with an old steel knitting needle and an old wooden thread spool.

In many ways it worked well, but there's a major flaw in that it severely limits the yardage that can be wound on to the combination bobbin/whorl. I want to be able to pack at least 2-4 ounces of singles onto the cop before winding it off for plying, washing, or any other processing. Lots of tiny bobbins-full are too inefficient.

If I was in the bronze age (or any other age) wanting to produce a lot of fine singles quickly, and have the option of passing the cop straight to the weaver, or storing it for winter when I get on with my own weaving, I'm back to the more common design. Wooden or metal shaft, option of removable whorl, option of using something long, thin and tubular (goose quill, straw, reed) to slip over the shaft to act as a storage bobbin.

Einar Svensson said...

Hello again my friend. I find your theory about metal shafts in the iron age interesting. But there are three problems with your theory.
The first is the idea that metal shafts would have been widely available during the iron age. Although we had developed the technology to work metal, it was still very expensive and only would be used where something else would not be just as good, like for cutting and piercing tools. An average person wouldn't have access to so much metal.
Second is thinking that the lack of archaeological record has no meaning. A spindle would have been grave goods for an important woman. If anyone would have had a spindle with a metal shaft, it would be such a woman and such a valuable spindle would have found its way into her grave goods. Also, the way archaeology works they would have found at least one such spindle around a house site at least once. Nothing probably really means nothing in this case.
Last, is the idea of speed. If you are living all those years ago spinning yarn for sails and clothing and ropes and things, that is what you were doing and you had time for it. You didn't need to fit it in with going to your job, watching the children, etc. Time was a different commodity than now.

Aaron said...

By 400 AD, iron horse shoes were common across Europe. After 1100 AD large (1" by 6" by 8") iron bars were being forged (not cast) in Europe. Iron was available.

These were the capital tools of a professional. Look at a modern carpenter and his pickup with $2,000 worth of tools in the back. A metal spindle might be a good chunk of the value of a professional's tools. Do not think of it as something a hobbyist would have, but rather as the capital that a professional uses to earn his income.

Aaron said...

Do we find axes in the graves of wood cutters? The day to day tools of labor tend not to be placed in graves. Grave goods tend to be items of luxury, and symbols of wealth or power - the opposite of a spinster's spindle.

Aaron said...


Lets say you are a production spinner with a contract to spin 10.5 pounds of wool into 400 hanks of worsted yarn (40s /22,400 ypp/ ~ 17 tpi). Lets further say, that you are paid by the completed hank (560 yards) tied in a neat skein.

If your little bobbin holds 0.45 oz then, when it is full, you know that you have just over 560 yards (one hank), and you wind off. (The bobbins on my Traddy for spinning 40s hold about 0.5 oz, so that I know I have spun a hank. My bobbins for spinning 20s hold ~ 1.0 oz.) Why do you need 2,000 yards of yarn on your spindle?

Having 2-4 oz of finished yarn on your spindle will slow your spindle down. After each "flick" it will spin longer because it is not spinning as fast. If it is not spinning as fast, it is not inserting twist as fast, and the insertion of twist is most of the reason for the spindle slowing down. If the spindle is not making yarn as fast, and the spinner is not making as much money.

Show me a spindle that will let you produce 40s faster, and thereby allow you to make more money per hour.

The advantage of a slow spinning spindle is that it allows a slow spinner to keep up with it.