History and Evolution of Spinning

History and Evolution of Spinning
Anju Singh
Pursuing M.Sc. in Fabric and Apparel Science
Delhi University, India
Email: anjusingh292@gmail.com

Spinning is an ancient textile art in which plant, animal or synthetic fibers are twisted together to form yarn. For thousands of years, fiber was spun by hand using simple tools, the spindle and distaff. Only in the High Middle Ages did the spinning wheel increase the output of individual spinners, and mass-production only arose in the 18th century with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Hand-spinning remains a popular handicraft.

Spinning by hand has been existence for over 10,000 years, but the spinning wheel did not become used widely until the middle ages. Hand spindles had been the primary method of spinning for all thread and yarn production for over 9000 years, and in some parts of the world hand spinning is still a widely used method of yarn production.

In the most primitive type of spinning, tufts of animal hair or plant fiber are rolled down the thigh with the hand, and additional tufts are added as needed until the desired length of spun fiber is achieved. Later, the fiber is fastened to a stone which is twirled round until the yarn is sufficiently twisted, whereupon it is wound upon the stone and the process repeated over and over.

The next method of spinning yarn is with the spindle, a straight stick eight to twelve inches long on which the yarn is wound after twisting. At first the stick had a cleft or split in the top in which the thread was fixed. Later, a hook of bone was added to the upper end. The bunch of wool or plant fibers is held in the left hand. With the right hand the fibers are drawn out several inches and the end fastened securely in the slit or hook on the top of the spindle. A whirling motion is given to the spindle on the thigh or any convenient part of the body. The twisted yarn is then wound on to the upper part of the spindle. Another bunch of fibers is drawn out, the spindle is given another twirl, the yarn is wound on the spindle, and so on.

In medieval times, poor families had such a need for yarn to make their own cloth and clothes that practically all girls and unmarried women would keep busy spinning, and "spinster" became synonymous with an unmarried woman.

Most authors agree that the practice of spinning fibers to form thread and yarns has been in existence for over 10,000 years. The spinning wheel, the tool most commonly associated with the art of spinning, was not introduced to Europe until in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance. Thus, the drop spindle was the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.

The oldest actual “tool” used for spinning thread were common rocks. As the first spinners were nomadic tribes from pre-agrarian societies, it is unlikely that they would have carried their rocks from camp to camp, and would use stones found at each new site for their spinning. A leader thread would be spun by twisting the fibers between the fingers to a desired length, then the resulting thread would be tied around the rock. The rock could then be rotated to spin the fibers as they are played out between the fingers. Spinning with rocks is still done in remote parts of Asia among the nomadic tribes.

A hooked stick is another ancient “tool” used for spinning. Whereas the rock would be used more like a drop spindle, a stick cut from the branches of a tree would be used to spin the fibers by rolling the stick horizontally along the length of your thigh to put twist into the fibers. The first sticks may have been straight, and were a natural outgrowth of rolling the fiber along the length of their leg to twist the fibers. As with the rock, the time and place of the origin of this spinning tool is unknown.

Medieval spinners often used a distaff, (a stick with a fork or ornate comb on the tip used to hold long-staple fibers while spinning) to hold their fibers while they were spinning with a spindle. This stick was usually held under the left arm according to most pictures – meaning that the spinners would have had to set their spindles in motion with their right hand, and feeding their fiber with the right hand.


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