Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Princess is dead! Long live the Princess!

In the 4,000 years prior to 1750, there was global trade in hand-spun, hand-woven textiles.  The textiles were mostly made from fibers such as wool, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, alpaca, camel, nettles, ramie, goat, and yak.  From this period, we have many stories of the princess that could spin fast and fine.

A tribe that has the tools and skills for better spinning will have a comparative economic advantage in the textile trade, and that tribe will get rich.  Then, the daughters of the leaders of that tribe will be princesses. Thus, the girls with the best tools and skills to spin fast and fine were princesses.  Viewed through the lens of economics, the stories of  princesses that could spin fast and fine make sense, even when such things could not happen in history as written by Victorians. (Take off your Victorian glasses. Family businesses succeed because the family has a passion for the industry. When the family has a passion, everyone in the family becomes involved.)

The next element of these stories is that the princess is captured by an evil king or witch, and forced to spin a room full of straw into gold.  This is fairy tale language for "the captured business executive was forced to disclose her company's trade secrets." "Gold"  is the key word.  It tells everyone (except the Victorians) that the fairy tale  is really about trade and wealth. The princess was spinning for trade with distant (more than an hour's walk?) markets.

This whole line of thought about fairy tale princess started when I was thinking about hand-spun, hand woven fabrics that are planned for a particular garment. Some of these are very clever. Last year at CNCH, I must have spent an hour looking that red silk jacket by Stephenie Gaustad. The other day she was showing a nice little cotton blouse with her trademark invisible hand stitching along the selvage.  That is fine for haute couture, but  for trade, one must produce more generic bolts of cloth that can be used to make garments of various kinds that will fit people of various sizes. Tailors need to be able to make clothes with seam allowances, so the garment can be taken in and let out

So, for 4,000 years princesses hand spun (and supervised/managed the hand spinning of) the yarn for bolts of cloth.  Now, when was the last time you saw a bolt of high quality, hand-spun, hand-woven wool flannel cloth?  

Since I started spinning, several spinners have been telling me about their depth and breadth of spinning experience.  They tell me how they are connected to their historical roots. With all of these experienced spinners around, the countryside should be awash in bolts of hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, just as it was prior to 1750.  It is not. The spinning princess must be dead.

If the experienced spinners will not spin thread  for full bolts of cloth, then some of us newby spinners will have to step up and do it.  My next goal is spinning yarn for a bolt ( 32" wide by 12 yd long) of wool flannel.)  It should weigh about 10 lb. It should require ~25,000 yd of yarn.  And, since the fabric will be wider than my samples, I will spend a lot more time spinning than weaving  That 10:1 ratio of spinning to weaving may be about right, or even a little low.  This is the ultimate stash buster project. The warp will take most of my Cotswold, and for the weft all the Rambouillet  in the house is freshly washed and sitting beside the carder at this very minute.

I am using J&J No More Tangles for my carding/spinning oil so I do not have to wash the weft prior to weaving. I do not like it as well as the AA spinning oil mix for spinning, but since I am not spinning very fine, it works well enough.

We were in Needless Markup the other day, and there was this lovely lady's jacket trimmed with dove gray wool flannel.  Oh my, there are some nice wool fabrics this year, but $4,000!? for that little thing!!  Good thing my wife does not look good in dove gray. Yes, it is time to see if I can actually make flannel from hand spun.

Let's see if any of the experienced spinners turn out a bolt of wool flannel before I do. Let's see who can spin fast and fine.



Gough Whitlam said...

Yes, you're a special, special princess.

Einar Svensson said...

Hello my friend. If the daughters of the leaders of the tribe are the ones with the best tools to learn to spin fast, then that would seem to go against your argument that they would not have their iron spindles as grave goods - since they were important people they should have their valuable tools with them.

Aaron said...

Grave goods are cherished objects.

Production work tools are made, used, worn, and discarded. Production work tools have little sentimental value.

Einar, how do you make a living? If you are a housewife, then the brush used to clean the toilet is one of your tools of the trade. Do you want that tool buried with you, or do you want some sentimental object that is kept for special occasions?

People tend to be buried in their best clothes - not the ones they wore everyday, and grave objects tend not to be ordinary objects of daily work. The hope is always that one will not have to work so hard in the next life. And, spinning, or running a spinning mill or textile trading IS very hard work.

Do you really think that Robert Ashford will be buried with some of the huge industrial wood mills that are used to make Ashford Spinning tools? Was John Rockefeller buried with an oil derrick or an oil refinery? No, the rich are buried with jewelry and art, not workmen's tools. Rockefeller gave his wealth to his sons and Robert Ashford will leave those wood mills in the business.

You are thinking of spinning tools as supporting a hobby, and not as the tools of an ongoing business.

Stanley Kowalski said...

What kind of nonsense is this? Spindles are commonly found among grave goods (which very frequently DO include tools of everyday living and sometimes such large and unwieldy items as beds, boats, or horses) the whole world over. A spindle owned only by upper class women WOULD be a cherished personal item to its owner as well as a mark of status, and would almost certainly be included among grave goods.

The fact that no physical remains of them have ever been found doesn't absolutely prove that spindles like the ones you describe didn't exist, but without any compelling evidence that they did, your obviously biased personal speculation should be considered exactly that.

However logical your reasoning seems TO YOU, the standards of historical evidence do not permit vivid imagination and wishful thinking to be entered as proof.
History isn't theoretical physics. A certain amount of conjecture is permitted, if it is strictly understood as such, but to make a claim about the existence of an object requires actual physical evidence that it existed. No written description? No physical remains? Not even a basic understanding of premodern burial practices? You got bubkus.

Aaron said...

Stanley Kowalski was the brutish character in Tennessee Williams play, A Street Car Named Desire.
I like people that use their real names.

Decorated beads of any kind would be wealth and a candidate for grave goods. We need to distinguish between grave goods included as wealth, and work-a-day tools in graves. Wealth may have the form of work-a-day tools, but not be actual work-a-day tools.

Anyone that has done a lot of spinning with stone bead whorls knows that they have a magical attraction for stone floors and tall grass. For careful workers, (at a tea party) this is acceptable. For production workers under a deadline where time was pence inexpensive plain bead whorls are used. It is how business works. Stanley Kowalski cannot tell the difference between jewelry and tools.

Tools get used, worn out, and discarded or recycled. Old tools are rare. Old jewelry is common. Stanley Kowalski has not used a stone whorl enough to generate the wear marks that distinguish tools from jewelry.

If you want to work with bead whorls, try Panda Hall
( and look under "gemstone beads". Buy a few extra. You will need them.

I very much doubt if "Stanley Kowalski" has ever spun the web for a loom using spindles with a stone whorl. In contrast, I did spin 4 lb of 5,600 ypp singles on drop spindles including those using stone whorls. Stone whorls on wooden blades are good. Metal whorls are even better. However, I like metal blades with wooden bobbins on them even better.

Einar Svensson said...

I am educated as a historian and work as a teacher.

I am not thinking of spinning as a hobby. I will come back to that in a minute. But you seem to think of early industrial production as a big international operation with marketing plans and targets. The modern idea of "international" didn't exist 1000 years ago. I think too that you are thinking of graves in accordance with modern religions, not older beliefs.

In the grave goods of Viking women important enough to deserve a fine grave are almost always a small case with her needles and a knife. These were the tools she used every day and were valuable and cherished possessions. She would also be buried with her fine jewelry, and often these needle cases were as decorated as fine jewelry. The same with knives.

Producing textiles was not a hobby, it was a necessary part of life, and the better it could be done, the better the family lived. Textiles would need to be produced in the world after death, and so a woman would be buried with the tools she would need to make these. That is why we find things like whorls, metal and bone needles, and metal, shell, bone and stone beads in graves. We find metal artifacts. If there were metal shafts to spindles, they would be found too.

Do you have any documentation at all to support your theory that spindles were made of metal?

Aaron said...

I really do not care about documentation. All I want from history is clues to skills and tools that I can use to make better textiles. If I get an idea from history that lets me make better textiles, I try it. I do not care how if the method is "historically accurate". I only care if it works better than any other method that I know. I am always asking if this method is better than that method? Then, I adopt the method that seems better, regardless of documentation.

I do think that a great many hand spinners put a lot of effort into developing tools and skills, over a very long period, and that we have lost a many of those skills. Mostly, I think that if a method is really, truly better, somebody else must have already thought of it. Those old timers were clever, and had centuries and centuries to work on these problems. They had the time to try everything. If it really is better, (and within their frame of technology) then that is how they would have done it. The technique might even have been discovered and lost several times. I just need to find a clue to one use.

What we know is that by 3,000 BC there were ship loads of textiles on the move. Hand spinning the yarn for a ship load of cloth is an industrial operation. Darius (500 BCE) brought an army of 25,000 men to Greece. Clothing that many men takes many shiploads of cloth. This is not the work of "housewives" this is the work of paid professionals (or slaves). The truth of the matter is that full-time textile workers produce cloth faster, better, and cheaper than housewives. The have better tools and better skills.

There are parts of the "silk road" in China that are 7 thousand years old. Before the Norman invasion of England, Norse traders brought silk thread by the boat load to York to be woven.

And, fine woolen cloth was being traded across Europe before the Romans invaded England, so textile trade went back and forth.

I had a chance to handle and knit with a knitting kit made by Fabergé for a princess. It was jewelry in the shape of knitting tools. The kit was a powerful display of wealth as it allowed the use of large gemstones that would be awkward in jewelry. As knitting tools it was - marginal.
Likewise, grave goods need to be a display of wealth, rather than functional tools.

Think about it, what is the deceased going to use their tools on? Where are they going to get the furs and cloth to sew? If they can get furs and cloth in the afterlife, then they can get the tools! We cannot depend on grave goods to be a rational sample of the technology of the society.

Einar Svensdon said...

A historian without documentation is like a scientist without data. At the close of the day it's just meaningless conjecture.

I understand that you don't care if a method is historically accurate. I don't think that matters either. But you have no documentation for what you are claiming are historical facts. History must be historically accurate.

You do not seem to understand the role of death in these older cultures. Death was the land on the other shore. Of course you would take your tools with you on your travels to another place, just as you would in life.

You do not understand the role of slaves in ancient societies. The owners did not sit in big houses drinking tea while the slaves worked. It was a hard life and sll worked. Slaves meant that there was someone else to do the hardest or meanest jobs. I don't understand what you mean with "housewife" since you seem to be trying to put a modern concept into an acient matrix.

Also, we know that cloth was transported by ship. But whole shiploads of cloth would have been rare, if not unheard of. Transportation was so risky and dear that it was not specialised that way. A trader would carry many things.

This faberge set is irrelevant. The luxury playthings of the 19th and 20th century aristocracy have no meaning to discusding iron age grave goods.

Do you have any documentation at all for your claim that iron age grave goods would never include useful tools?

Aaron said...

Which older culture? Egyptian Old Kingdom? Hittite? Xia Dynasty? Bronze Age Greeks? Minoan? Do we move forward to Han? Persia? Classical Greek? Egypt/Israel? They all made and traded textiles.

Did they know anything about hand crafting cloth that we have forgotten? What kind of analysis is going to bring that kind of information to light?

How many textile historians can sit down and replicate the textiles they study using only technology available to the original textile maker. If they cannot do that, I do not trust them.

A new curator of the UC museum set up a new SW pottery exhibit and retired curator went to look at it. Dr. Wheat picked up a fine pot labeled Pueblo III on the basis of style, and showed the new curator that there were imprints of rainbow trout scales on the bottom. Yes, that was a pot that Dr. Wheat's students had made, and we had put the trout scale imprints on the bottom to show that it was modern. It fooled one of the greatest experts on the topic.

Documentation? Would you put a toilet brush in somebody's casket? It is a useful tool, and if knives are not available on the other side, then toilet brushes might not be available! No, the grieving hope the deceased is going to a place where daily toil is not required. Thus, the tools of daily toil are not needed.

Economics says that production tools are plain. They have value, but putting to tools of toil in in the grave does not comfort the mourners. The mourners want to give something nice, something pretty, something that symbolizes the absence of toil. They give a store of wealth, not tools for toil.

The faberge set is a good example looks like tools of toil, but it is a status display of wealth. No professional knitter would use those tools, because the are not functional as knitting/sewing tools. Are you sure those carved stone whorls are fully functional? Did you spin with them? Did you use those whorls to produce textiles appropriate to the period and location? Would another weight or cross section be more appropriate for those kinds of textiles?

Einar Svensson said...

We are talking here about your lack of evidence for finding metal shafts in graves, not stone whorls

You ask which culture. I specifically said 'iron age grave goods' because your claim was that at the iron age, they began to use metal shafts.

I described to you what is typically found in a northern European iron age grave of a woman. Knives and sewing needles. The tools of daily toil.

We no longer place grave goods that way, so your modern toilet brush analogy is irrelevant.

So there are my answers to your questions. Now that we've narrowed it down, where is your evidence -not conjecture, but evidence - that in the iron age they began to spin with spindles with iron shafts?

Aaron said...


compare time frames of metal expansion to expansion of textile trade.

Aaron said...

If you can use an authentic, highly carved grave-goods whorl to spin the yarn for a 20 bolts of cloth, I will believe that they are tools and not just decorative objects and stores of wealth.

By and large the carved whorls are not as balanced as the plain whorls, and thus do not spin as well.

Carved whorls are toys and jewelry for the rich, and not professional quality tools.

Einar Svensson said...

I don't understand why you think only highly carved stone whorls have been found in graves. All types of whorls have been found, including bone and plain stone.

Is there some reason why you think it is only highly carved stone whorls?

Einar Svensson said...

Why are you talking about stone whorls here? I am only responding to you talking about finding iron shafts in graves, not stone whorls.

The wikipedia reference is the basis for a hypothesis, but sadly it is not proof. As a scientist, would you keep your job if when asked for proof you could only point to the basis for your hypothesis?

Aaron said...

I am interested in what did they know about textile production that we have forgotten? I want to know what are the holes in textile history? What are the gaps in archaeology?

For example, drop a wooden spindle, a bronze spindle, and an iron spindle in an English sheep pasture, and 500 years later send a grad student out to find them. The grad student may find pot shards or stone spindle whorls, but the iron and bronze have most likely oxidized and the residual oxides been mixed into the soil by the trampling of the sheep. And the wood decayed. The grad student is going to come back and say that there was no spinning activity in that pasture 500 years previously.

If the history that we have says they were trading ship loads of cloth, and you cannot show me how they made that cloth, then there is a hole in your story. If there is a hole in your story, then you should not be too concerned about the holes in my story. At least I am trying to fix the holes in my story. You do not even see the holes in your story.

What I want to know is: What skills and will allow the fastest production of yarn or thread using Neolithic technology? Using Bronze Age technology? Using Iron age technology? This is not archaeology or history, this is reverse engineering. I seek the answer to: "How does one produce a boat load of cloth by hand?"