The spindle and its accompanying whorl comprise a simple, elegant tool that has been used for spinning fibers into thread for at least 9,000 years. The spindle itself is, in the words of Webster’s, a rounded rod, usually wooden, tapering toward each end, for twisting into thread the fibers pulled from the material on the distaff. The whorl is a weight, usually stone or ceramic, that is fitted onto the spindle to increase and maintain the speed of the spin. Basically doughnut shaped, it can be flatter or more conical, plain or elaborately decorated. It is an entirely portable ensemble: the distaff may be tucked into a belt or held under an arm, while the spindle and whorl are controlled by the spinner herself, suspended from the thread that is being spun.
I say, “the spinner herself.” We don’t know who used the earliest spindles, which were developed in Mesopotamia for spinning the relatively short fibers acquired from animals. (South Americans developed the technology somewhat later.) It is clear that within the Northern European world spinning has been a task reserved for, or, if you prefer, relegated to, women. Indeed, before the introduction of the horizontal loom, weaving—the twining of weft threads around the warp--was also women’s work. Women’s graves from pagan Scandinavia and its related North Atlantic settlements often contain spindle whorls as well as loom weights from (vertical) warp-weighted looms. Excavated from far-flung Norse settlements, they substantiate the presence of women in these places.
Textiles, relative to stone, metal, and even wood or leather items, are impermanent. They burn, molder, and rot. They leave few traces of their existence. Similarly, traditional women’s work, though fundamental to human survival, seems to disappear without a trace in the historical record. Spindle whorls and loom weights, whether deposited in a grave or abandoned in a turf longhouse near a choppy northern sea, document and eulogize my great-grandmothers.
Spinning is a feature of the cosmos. The weighted spinning developed by our ancestors elegantly utilizes force and gravity to “turn” one thing into another thing entirely. The creative work of the spindle and whorl is accomplished through motion, yet the worker remains rooted at the center of being and becoming. If we believe in the holistic nature of the universe we must be onto something. What it may be, remains to be seen.
Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla A. High Whorling: A Spinner’s Guide to an Old World Skill. Cedaredge, CO: Nomad Press, 1998.
Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991.
Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.
McGovern, Thomas H. “The Demise of Norse Greenland” in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, editors. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.