Spinning is medieval but…

When I was nineteen I worked at the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in DC, for the summer. I was an intern for a meteoriticist, someone who worked on meteorites, not the weather. The job was interesting of itself, but I also went out at lunch and wandered around other museums. The American History Museum had a spinning demonstration every Thursday and I was enchanted.

The volunteer used a walking or great wheel to spin wool. A walking wheel is basically a sideways spindle and a giant wheel connected to the end of the spindle with some sort of drive band. It’s called a walking wheel because the spinner draws out a thread and walks backward several feet as she does so. Then she turns the wheel the other way and walks forward, winding her thread onto the spindle base. Rinse and repeat.

Spinning wheels similar to the great wheel may have come from China or India or even elsewhere but they do appear in Europe shortly after the millennium. How shortly is a matter of great argument. Sometime around the 1400s a new kind of spinner was invented in Europe (not by Leonardo da Vinci though he may have made improvements). Thread is attached to a bobbin and passed through a hole to the operator. The bobbin is slipped onto a metal rod within a Y shape called a flyer. This new wheel had (and has) several variations for driving the flyer and bobbin and thus getting twist into fiber that holds it together. (As the Bible says, a three-fold cord is not lightly broken…) I will say honestly that the first time I saw a wheel with a flyer instead of the walking wheel I couldn’t NOT understand how it worked.

I saw a stage play once about Sleeping Beauty which played on the differences in the two machines since the one with a flyer doesn’t have a spindle to prick your finger.

Some years ago a friend sent me an article (which I’ll admit right now I can’t find) about spinning and how it had affected history. The basic idea was that when spinning linen became easier and quicker, due to the development of a new spinning wheel, this had knock on effects. More linen meant being able to do more weaving. This meant more sails for ships which was good for exploration and more leftovers from the weaving that could be used to make paper. (Weaving famously produces a lot of waste at the beginning of the warp and at the end of it.)

Unfortunately, as I hunted for this article on the Internet it became obvious that the article I remember was not telling a widely accepted story. Some people on the Internet insist that big sails for exploration were all made of hemp. Others argue that whether hemp or linen or cotton was used the thread was spun on a drop spindle rather than a spinning wheel. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The waste from either linen or hemp would make good paper but improvements in spinning were totally discounted by half the articles I found. I find this incredibly weird because my output is much higher and more consistent on a wheel than on a drop spindle. So…

All I can say really is that spinning wheels are medieval but what kind of impact they had is greatly disputed!

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