In last week’s post I mentioned the woman at the medieval event I went to who was spinning. I was very interested in what she was doing and, after a short lesson from her, decided to buy a spindle so that I could have a go myself. I’ve been a knitter since my teens and the processes involved in getting wool from the back of a sheep onto my knitting needles has interested me for a while.
In the fourteenth century, as today, sheep were shorn in late spring and the fleeces were washed. If you’ve ever seen a sheep, you’ll know why the fleeces have to be washed. Everything sticks to them. The debris in the fleece is referred to as ‘vegetable matter’. Just remember that sheep eat grass and you’ll understand what some of that matter is. The fleeces were washed in lye, a very strong cleaning agent made by pouring water through ashes. Once they were clean, the fleeces would be carded and combed to remove any remaining debris and to make the fibres run in the same direction. This makes it easier to spin.
Although fragments of knitted hats and gloves from the fourteenth century have been discovered, wool was mostly used to make cloth. This means that it was spun and then woven. It took about 19 women to keep a single loom going. Spun thread was also used to make braids and belts on much smaller looms. Wool wasn’t the only substance to be spun. Fibres were spun from flax to make linen.
Spinning required a spindle and a distaff. The spindle was a short, thin stick with a whorl at the bottom. The whorl is the circular bit which weights the spindle. This was usually a stone or a piece of clay with a hole in the middle. The distaff is a pole or stick onto which the prepared fleece is attached. Unsurprisingly, since they were made of wood, very few spindles and distaffs have survived.
It doesn’t take long to learn how to spin. After three hours I was making a thread that didn’t snap, although it was on the thick side. With someone to teach her, rather than relying on an instruction sheet and YouTube videos, a young girl could probably learn quite quickly how to make a decent thread. It would not take her long to make a consistently thin thread, which could then be plied and woven into bolts from which clothes could be made. Plying is the joining together of two or more strands of thread. This is done in the opposite direction to which the thread was spun. For instance, I spin in an anti-clockwise direction. When I come to ply the threads, I’ll spin them in a clockwise direction.
Women who span were called spinsters and this eventually became the word denoting unmarried women. Married women had many domestic tasks, so spent less time spinning. Unmarried women had fewer tasks and were able to give more time to spinning.
Making thread by hand is not as slow as you might expect (although it is slow) and you can do it anywhere. You could be sitting, standing or walking. When you’re standing or walking, the distaff can be put through your belt to hold it in place.
Whilst spinning was very much women’s work, some historians believe that men also span. Why wouldn’t a shepherd spin while he was watching his sheep, or a cowherd when he was taking the cows to and from the fields? The looms needed miles of thread and it seems sensible that anyone who didn’t literally have their hands full all day would spin at least part of the time.
The importance of spinning in the fourteenth century is illustrated by its use in the ditty attributed to John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, as the activity representing womankind:
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
Here is a video of Kathalyne Aaradyn who has researched spinning in the fifteenth century and spins in that style.