Before cloth was made on looms and spinning wheels were made redundant by machines which spin hundreds of metres of thread in a day, all thread and cloth had to be made by hand.
Archaeologically, the first understanding of twisting fibres to make thread is thought to be from using a rock to weight the end of the fibres so they could be rolled together. The rock developed into a spindle, a weighted stick which the user could spin and allow gravity and the weight to help spin the fibres together.
Ths innovation spread across the ancient world, with the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all placing a high importance on spinning.
In Egypt, the goddess Neith was responsible for war and weaving (especially linen used for mummy wrappings). Her identifying headdress was that of a weaving shuttle:
In Greece the goddess Athene was challenged to a weaving competition by Arachne. Arachne’s tapestry mocked the gods, which caused Athene to go into a rage, destroying the offending tapestry. Here some versions differ: one one verson Athena punishes Arachne by turning her into a spider, in another Arachne kills herself, and Athene takes pity on her by bringing her back to life as a spider. Either way, Athena gets angry and spiders result.
There are plenty of other deities who have responsibility for spinning or weaving, the majority are goddesses, as spinning is seen as an exclusively female skill:
Aclla Peruvian (Weaving)
Arachne Greek (Weaving)
Chih Nu Chinese (Weaving)
Eileithyia Greek (Spinning)
Ehecatl Aztec (Crafts)
Frau Holle Germanic (Spinning)
Giane Sardinian (Spinning, Weaving)
Habetrot English (Spinning)
Hsi-Ling Shih Chinese (Silk weaving)
India Rosa Venezuela (Weaving, Pottery)
Ix Chebel Yax Mayan (Weaving, Dyeing, Spinning)
Iyamoopo African (Indigo, Weaving, Dyeing)
Kanene Ski Amai Yehi Cherokee (Weaving, Pottery)
Kothar-u-Khasis Canaanite (Crafts)
Lug Celtic (Crafts)
Myrmex Greek (Weaving)
Neith Egyptian (War and weaving)
Paivatar Finnish (Spinning, Weaving, Sun)
Papalluga Serbian (Spinning)
Penelope Greek (Weaving)
Ruana Nieda Saami (Spinning)
Rua Tahitian (Crafts)
Saule Baltic (Weaving, Dance, Poetry)
Spider Woman Navajo Dine (Weaving Spinning)
Sreca Serbian (Spinning)
Sunna Scandinavian (Spinning)
Sweigsdunka Lithuanian (Weaving)
Tatsuta-Hime Japanese (Weaving)
Wakahirume Japanese (Weaving)
In Japan, the celestial spouses Orihime and Kengyuu are separated for the majority of the year by her father, so that she can concentrate on her spinning. The day they are traditionally allowed meet, there is a festival (7th July).
You might think that you don’t know any folklore concerning weaving and spinning, but Rumpelstiltskin, The Emperors New Clothes and Sleeping Beauty all focus on spinning and tailoring cloth. Other European folktales abound, such as Habetrot and the Scantlie Mab the Scottish tale of the Good Housewife and Her Night Helpers , the Brothers Grimm tale of the Lazy Spinner, and the Finish epic poem Kalevala has many references to spinning and weaving.
Chapter 23 has instructions on how best to spin:
When spinning-time comes and cloth-weaving time, don’t go
to the village for wrinkles beyond the ditch for guidance
to the next house for warp-thread, to a stranger for reed-teeth:
spin the yarn yourself, and with your own fingertips the weft
make the yarn lightweight the thread always tightly spun;
wind it into a firm ball on the reel toss it
on to the warp beam, fit it then set it out on the loom.
Strike the reed smartly and raise the heddles nimbly
weave homespun caftans and make woollen skirts
from one strip of wool, the fleece of a winter sheep
from the coat of a spring lamb, the down of a summer ewe.
The Norns and Pacae were two similar groups of ‘fates’ from the Romano-Greek and Norse traditions. Each consisting of three members, one would spin, one would weave the thread and the third would cut. Each thread represented a life and a fate or ‘orlog’, so when it was cut, that life ended. For the Norse, even the pantheon of deities was subject to the Norns decisions.
As well as a spindle, another piece of equipment was used in hand spinning, called a distaff. This was stave, which could be forked at the end and held the raw fleece before it was spun. In depictions it is usually shown either tucked under an arm, or into the waistband to allow both hands free to spin.
A slang term for the distaff was a ‘stang’, Some authors interpret many Medieval depictions of witches flying to the sabbath as flying on their distaffs –the bundled unspun fibres on the ends often causing the distaffs to be mistaken as broomsticks. Thus the witch flying to the sabbat on her “stang” is really a metaphor of transvection for the witch using her distaff to travel between worlds as the shamans of animistic cultures flew up or down the world tree using their staff carved as a horse or deer. In mythology, the distaff represents the universal world tree and the spindle is the axis mundi of the Earth. The distaff was also viewed by Pagan cultures as the embodiment of the creative powers of the Universe and of a woman and man –creating something from nothing just as the Universe itself was created. In ancient myths a creator Goddess spins the earth and everything upon it from her distaff using the raw fibres of chaos. In Greek mythology it was Clotho, one of the Three Fates who held the distaff and spun the thread of life. For ritual, the stang is struck into the ground outdoors. The part in the earth reaching down to the underworld like the roots of a tree, the branch representing our realm, and the tines reaching to the heavens uniting the three realms and opening a doorway to the Otherworld. A live tree or staff can be used in a similar manner.
In Slovakia there is a tradition of floor standing distaffs:
And finally, one illustration showing the distaff being used as a weapon: (not advised!)
Nowdays the drop spindle has developed into two different types, with bottom, or top whorl spindles, depending on where the weight is:
Modern equipment for spinning can be homemade, or made from expensive materials, so if you do decide to have a go, you can probably make your own to start with 🙂 If you fancy getting started, the lovely folks at World of Wool are really helpful and enthusiastic!