Spinning wool or plant fibres into yarn or thread has been one of the main human activities throughout history, alongside gathering edible plants, fishing, hunting, caring for children, and various types of agriculture. Spinning enough yarn to keep a family clothed took a lot of time. In pre-Industrial England the word “spinster” came to mean “unmarried woman” because if a woman didn’t have a household of her own to manage and children of her own to care for, spinning was what she did all day.

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” was a famous revolutionary slogan in medieval Europe. It originated in a sermon delivered by the English priest John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, in which the peasants tried (unsuccessfully) to overthrow the feudal nobility and create a new society in which everyone was equal. The rhyme evokes the idea that it is in the natural order of things, and therefore the will of God, that men delve (dig the earth in order to plant crops) and women spin wool to make yarn; it was assumed that these had been the natural tasks of men and women since the beginning of time. The implication was that there was nothing natural or God-willed about the existence of a class of nobles who had all the wealth and political power, but did no productive work.

A black and white illustration from an old book: a man and a woman, both wearing only a sort of wrap-around skirt or kilt, and two naked babies; the man holds a spade which he is driving into the soil, while the woman sits on a fallen log and holds a drop spindle.
A page from the book ‘A Dream of John Ball’ by William Morris, 1888. If you look closely you can see that Eve is holding a drop spindle in her right hand.

Overall process for turning animal hair or plant fibres into clothing:

– Comb the wool and clean it.
– Spin the wool into yarn or thread*
– Weave the yarn to make cloth
– Dye the cloth
– Cut and sew the cloth to make an item of clothing

*Yarn and thread are broadly speaking the same thing; generally yarn is thicker and has a woolier texture.

Spinning is just one step in the overall process , but it is the most laborious.

The raw materials:

Plant fibres: Cotton, flax, hemp, ramie, jute, sisal, fique
Animal fibres: Llama wool, sheep’s wool, silk
Synthetic fibres: Mostly made from shredded recycled plastic

The simplest way to spin wool into yarn is:

– Start with a ball of combed wool
– Tug a little bit of fluff gently away from the main ball
– Carefully twist the bit of fluff to make it thin, tight, and strong
– Repeat until all the wool has been converted to yarn

This method takes forever and produces poor quality yarn, thick and clumpy in some places and thin and weak in others; no-one would actually do it this way. But it’s a useful thought experiment that gives you a basic picture of how spinning works, and what are the problems that spinning technology, such as the drop spindle, exists to solve.

Drop spindles

A photo of a simple drop spindle: a slim wooden pole with white yarn wrapped around it, and a wooden knob at one end.
A drop spindle. Photo by Flickr user Carissa Bonham, CC BY-NC.

A drop spindle is a spool or stick that yarn can be wrapped around. They are found all over the world – it’s one of those technologies that is so useful that many different cultures independently developed it. The shape and the materials it is made from vary widely, but usually it’s a simple wooden stick that the yarn can be wrapped around. Often there is a sort of heavy knob attached near on one end of the spindle called a spindle whorl; this prevents the yarn from slipping off and also serves to add weight. The spindle as a whole acts a little like a spinning top or a yo-yo; from a physics / engineering perspective it is essentially a flywheel, a rotating object that has a high moment of inertial and therefore can be used to store kinetic energy, while making that energy available to do work when needed. A skilled spinner can keep up a nice steady spinning motion so that the wool is converted to yarn rapidly and evenly.

Sometimes a distaff is used as well – this is basically a wooden spool or stick with the unspun wool attached to it, that is held in the other hand, or tucked under the arm.

A line-drawing of a woman wearing an old-fashioned dress and bonnet who is spinning wool into thread: in her right hand she holds a spindle with thread wrapped around it, and the end of the thread stretches to a big clump of wool wrapped around a distaff (a wooden stick) which she holds tucked under her left arm.

Spindle whorls (the heavy knobby bit) are sometimes beautifully decorated. Since they tend to be made of heavy, durable materials like bone, polished stone, or pottery, they last a lot longer than the wooden spindle; in the case of drop spindles from long-ago times, the spindle whorl is often the only part which survives to be found by archaeologists.

A photo of a beautifully carved wooded drop spindle.
‘Andean/Peruvian Style Bottom Whorl Drop Spindle’ by Flickr user grizzlymountainarts, CC BY.
A photo of a circular white stone with a hole through the centre, carved and painted with circular designs.
A polished stone spindle whorl, about 3000 years old, from Cyprus. Image source: The British Museum.
A small cone-shaped terracotta object with a hole through the center and designs painted on it in a circular pattern.
A Greek terracotta spindle whorl from the 6th or 5th century BCE. Image source: The Met Museum.
A photo of a beautifully carved wooden bead with a hole in the middle and abstract painted patterns.
A spindle whorl of carved bone from Egypt, 8th-10th century CE. Image source: The Met Museum.
A photo of what appears to be a carved button, made of bone with some sort of writing on it.
A spindle whorl made in 1892 from reindeer antler, Lapland, Finland. Image sourse: digitalmuseum.se, CC BY-NC-ND
An photo of an older woman holding a drop spindle with yarn wrapped around it in her right hand, in her left hand is a ball of wool which she is spinning.
An Armenian woman demonstrates her drop spindle. Photo by Rita Wellaert, CC BY