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An ancient technology

June 8, 2013

I’m a spinner and weaver, so I am well acquainted with the length of time it takes to prepare fibers and to make textiles from them. And no, the process is not really “slow” or inefficient, and I’ll explain why.

This image belongs to http://15thcenturyspinning.wordpress.com/2013/01/, a blog by a modern handspinner who greatly impressed me. Click to enlarge, and look at all those little delicate pinkie fingers!

This image belongs to http://15thcenturyspinning.wordpress.com/2013/01/, a blog by a modern handspinner who greatly impresses me. Click to enlarge, and look at all those little delicate fingers!

In the old days, the time it took to spin fine threads  to weave into cloth for a garment was regarded simply as the length of time it required to make something well by hand. After all, you couldn’t plant wheat in the field and expect your crop to spring up overnight. Everything had a season and a time.

Only when the Industrial Revolution arrived with its power machinery did the old ways began to be seen as slow and inefficient. But to embrace new ways simply because of their speed is equivalent to a person who, after seeing a car for the first time, announces “I’ll never walk again, I’ll cruise everywhere at 65 miles per hour.” Too many early adopters of technology made this error: that speed is intrinsically better. Speed is useful at times but it’s also beneficial at other times to stop and smell the roses. The slow path is often the most rewarding.

Think of the number of hands that have held this slender spindle over the years and spun with it!

Think of the number of hands that have held this slender spindle over the years!

Although my spinning wheel is already “slow” enough that it takes me the better part of a year to spin a pound of fine thread in my spare time, I recently slowed down the process of spinning even farther by purchasing a hand-spindle, an antique French item of considerable elegance, with decorative  incised bands along its length and a spiral groove near the tip to help seat the thread. Such spindles were used in many parts of Europe until the Industrial Revolution. Essentially, it is a stick whose ends have been tapered to fine points. The thing that struck me about it is that although my spinning wheel might seem quaint to some, it actually represents a fairly advanced technology, with drive-band ratios, moving parts and bearings. In comparison, the hand spindle represents a huge leap back into an even older time, a time before technology altogether. The use of spindles reaches back into the Neolithic and possibly even earlier. The fascinating book “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” suggests that the “String Age” was every bit as important as the Stone Age in advancing human culture.

When the antique spindle first arrived in the mail I confidently attached a leader, brought out my prepared wool roving and gave it a twirl. I had no fear; after all, I am a spinner, right? To my great surprise the spindle clattered out of my hand and fell to the floor. I picked it up and tried again. Many, many clatters ensued; many curses were muttered as insufficiently-twisted yarns slipped apart. Finally I managed a lumpish yarn that withstood pressure, and I began to understand how to use it. I shifted to cotton fiber, which is very difficult to spin, in the assumption that if I could master that, then I could spin anything. Failure, over and over. But finally last night the process all clicked into place and I spun several yards of perfectly even cotton thread atop the earlier wool (see photo).

Look carefully and you can see the new-spun thread following the groove at the very tip of the age-polished spindle.

Look carefully and you can see the new-spun thread following the groove at the very tip of the age-polished spindle.

It’s difficult to describe the sensation of pride and accomplishment that filled me. I never experienced anything like this with my spinning wheel, although there is indeed a quiet sort of overall satisfaction as I watch my bobbins slowly fill with perfect singles. But the oldest technology, a shaped stick, was despite its apparent simplicity the most difficult spinning I have ever done; it was the slowest by far; and it was also absolutely the most rewarding, bar none. If I had taken the fast route this wonderful experience would never have been mine. I will never forget this.

 

 

 

Read more fiber arts posts at my new blog, http://fiberfeast.wordpress.com/.

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From → fiber arts

4 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Thanks for helping us to untangle our ideas of time and value.

    My experience is that this link has been so deeply engrained in most people that they can only imagine that I would do something ‘slow’ for either nostalgic or romantic reasons. Really though, each thing takes the time it takes. There is always something faster-slower-bigger-smaller to compare it with and if that comparison means that a whole lot of beautiful learning is skipped or marginalised, then what is it in aid of?

    The drop spindle looks beautiful and elegant to me. Thank you for this post. 🙂

    • Thank you very much for commenting! Yes, the drop spindle is immensely elegant as a simple shaped object. I wonder what tools were used to make it, and how many hands have handled it before me. I feel part of the continuum of spinners when holding it, in a way that is entirely new to me.

      Thank you for reading my blog. Your own weavings are extremely beautiful!

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