Shauna

At the beginning of this project I did not know much about spinning wheels. The image I had in my head was from a scene in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty [1]. When my class went to the Frontier Culture Museum I was able to see one in person. The woman talked about how they would make cloth to sell at the market, and how they would try to hide any imperfections so they could sell it for more money. At the time I was thinking about what to write my project on, and thought this was something that was probably used fairly often by many households across Europe. Going into the project I did not know anything about spinning wheels, so I was a little surprised at times by the information I found, such as the spinning wheels’ connections to Asia.

The spinning wheel shows one aspect of daily life across Europe. The wheel shows the spread of ideas and technology. Towards the end of the early modern era it also shows the advancement of technology. ‘Spinning is the drawing and twisting of fibrous materials (such as flax wool or cotton) into a continuous length’ [2]. Before the invention of the spinning wheel, people would use a technique called hand spinning. Hand spinning is when a person twists fibers between the thumb and forefinger to produce a yarn that was collected on a spinning spindle [3].

 

Woman working at a spinning wheel, (c) The Wise Crone’s Cottage in the Woods (http://www.wisecronecottage.com). Permission granted by Creative Commons.

[4]

Between the years of 500 and 1000 AD in India, or possibly China, this spinning technique was mechanized [5]. The spindle was mounted horizontally in a way that it was attached by a cord to a wheel that when spun would spin the spindle [6]. Over time the mechanized technique made its way to Europe. The charkha [7] was the type of wheel that first made its way to Europe during the middle ages [8]. From there the technology spread across the continent. By the 14th century the spinning wheel had made its way to England [9]. As time went on Europeans made their own changes to the wheel. Europeans raised the wheel by placing the mechanism on legs. They also added the bobbin and flyer. Adding these parts combined twisting the fibers and winding the yarn on the spindle [10]. Later, during the 15th and 16th centuries the treadle was added to the device [11]. This meant that the wheel no longer had to be turned with one hand, they could now do so with their foot. By the end of the early modern era the spinning jenny had been invented. The first patent for the machine was taken out by James Hargreaves in 1770 [12]. This invention marked the industrialization of the textile industry.

The spinning wheel was important to society for many reasons. First, because it allowed women to participate in their household’s income. There were not many options for women to earn money at this time. They could sell items at market, though, if they could first produce a product at home. The spinning wheel gave women a way to produce an item at home, and to then sell it at the market [13]. If a woman was able to bring in a little extra money, that money could be used to buy other products they could not make themselves. Or even something like bread, if they did not grow grain, had a bad harvest, or lived in the city. While spinners were mostly women, in some areas there was also a few men who spun [14]. Beyond that men were also involved in other parts of the process. During the Early Modern Era, there was a general trend in migration to cities, still, a number of people would have still lived in rural settings [15]. Those spinners whose families lived on farmers would probably have grown or raised something that’s fibers could be used to spin. In some areas that would have meant growing flax, while in others it meant raising sheep.

The spinning wheel also shows the spread of ideas, even before the age of exploration further connected Europe to the world. The spinning wheel was a technology that started in Asia between 500 and 1000 AD [16]. A few centuries past, but eventually the technology made its way to Europe, before spreading across that continent. This is one thing that shows that even before Europeans began finding oceanic trading routes to Asia, and beyond, there was some sort of connection between these peoples. These processes of sharing ideas and technology may have been a slow one, but it did exist. This connection can be seen in the spinning wheel as well as in the origin myth of the name of Europe among other things. According to legend Cretans abducted an Asian princess by the name of Europa [17]. As this era progressed and Europeans forged more intense global ties, these ideas spread even further. While the Native Americans spun before the Europeans arrived [18], Europeans brought with them their spinning wheels.

Over the years, there was also an advancement in technology. This process of turning fibers into yarn was originally done by hand, and this technique endured for centuries. It was not until the charkha wheel [19] was invented in India or China between 500 and 1000 AD[20] that this process changed. In the following centuries, many changes were made to the wheel, as the technology spread. The first European change was to add legs to support, and add height to the spinning wheel. From there the flyer and bobbin were added, and later the treadle [21]. With these changes those using the wheel could sit in a chair, use their foot to spin the wheel, and have the fiber twist and gather on the spindle at the same time. As the spinning wheel spread around the world, people started to create their own type of wheel, all of which worked about the same way. The great wheel, the vertical flax wheel, and the double flyer wheel were among the types to emerge in Europe. Some wheels would be different according to the type of fiber that was used. For example, some wheels included distaffs to hold flax [22]. Centuries after the spinning wheel reached Europe, and even centuries after it reached England, spinning was mechanized in a more modern sense. In the late 18th century Hargreaves, an Englishman, invented a machine he named the spinning jenny. This machine placed multiple spindles upright all being spun by one wheel and getting the material from one roving [23]. The spinning jenny was increasingly mechanized till it reached its modern form. In the 20th century rotor spinning was invented in the United States [24].

During the early modern era in Europe, the spinning wheel was an important tool. While the wheel was mostly used by women, it was also used by men in some areas, typically very poor ones. Records show that in the ‘poorest, upland parts of northern England nearly a quarter of spinners were men’ [25]. Despite this in many areas spinners were women. These people, men and women, would spin a variety of fibers into yarn, which could then be turned into cloth. The material they used to spin yarn depended on where they were. In some areas wool was the popular material to use, since it was more easily accessible. In other areas wool was less accessible so fibrous material like flax was used instead. People spun for a number of reasons. Some of what they would spin was for their own homes. After the yarn was turned into cloth, or was knit or crocheted, the material could have been turned into any number of useful things. The material created could have been turned into clothes to clean with, blankets, or clothing among other things. Many times, people would spin to sell the yarn at the market. This would give them money to buy what they could not grow or produce at home. This cottage industry also benefited those who did not have access to material that could be spun or could not afford a wheel, and probably oftentimes, those who lived in the cities, since they could in turn buy what they needed at the market. Hargreaves’ invention of the spinning jenny marked a shift from the cottage industry to a factory based industry.

During the early modern era in Europe, mostly women and some men spun flax or wool into yarn. They did this both for their own households, and to supplement their households’ income. The spinning wheel’s ties to this cottage industry began to shift after the late 18th century when Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny. The focus was then shifted away from the cottage textile industry to the factory textile industry. The spinning wheel that was first used in Europe was originally invented in India or China centuries earlier before it was brought to Europe during the middle ages. This spread of technology demonstrates global ties with Asia even before the early modern era of expanding global connections.

[1] Sleeping Beauty. 1959. Videocassette. Buena Vista Distribution.

[2, 7, 9, 10, 19, 21, & 22] Leadbeater, Eliza. n.d. Spinning and Spinning Wheels. Shire Album :43. Princes Risborough.

[3, 5, 16, 18, 20, & 24] “Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production.” n.d. In Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production, illustrated, 4:viii. John Wiley & Sons, 1999. https://books.google.com/books?id=5XM6b1TKS5cC&dq=spinning+wheel+history&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

[4] Shimpock, Kathy. n.d. “Wise Old Women Archetype in Folktales.” The Wise Crone’s Cottage in the Woods. http://www.wisecronecottage.com/2015_11_01_archive.html.

[6, 8] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannia. n.d. “Spinning Wheel.” Encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/spinning-wheel.

[11] Dhuinnshleibhe, Siobhan nic. n.d. “A History and Evolution of Spinning.” http://kws.atlantia.sca.org/spinning.html.

[12] “Heritage History.” n.d. Heritage History. http://www.heritage-history.com/?c=read&author=bachman&book=inventors&story=spinning.

[13] “Status of Women in 17th Century Neo Classical Age in Context of ‘Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat’ by Thomas Gray.” n.d. WordPress.com weblog. Survivingbaenglish. https://survivingbaenglish.wordpress.com/status-of-women-in-17th-century-neo-classical-age-in-context-of-ode-on-the-death-of-a-favorite-cat-by-thomas-gray/.

[15] Rowlands, Alison. 2001. “The Condition of Life for the Masses.” In Early Modern Europe, edited by Euan Cameron. Oxford University Press.

[17] Pagden, Anthony. 2001. “Prologue: Europe and the World Around.” In Early Modern Europe, edited by Euan Cameron. Oxford University Press.

[23] Simkin, John. n.d. “Spinning Jenny.” Historical Information. Spartacus Educational. http://spartacus-educational.com/TEXjenny.htm.

[14 & 25] “The Spinning Project.” n.d. Project Page (research). The Spinning Project. http://spinning-wheel.org/about1/.

Works Cited

Bax, Kathryn. n.d. “Countryfarm Lifestyles.” Information Website. Countryfarm Lifestyles. http://www.countryfarm-lifestyles.com/spinning-yarn.html#.V_Wlj4WcHIV.
“Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production.” n.d. In Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production, illustrated, 4:viii. John Wiley & Sons, 1999. https://books.google.com/books?id=5XM6b1TKS5cC&dq=spinning+wheel+history&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
Dhuinnshleibhe, Siobhan nic. n.d. “A History and Evolution of Spinning.” http://kws.atlantia.sca.org/spinning.html.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannia. n.d. “Spinning Wheel.” Encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/spinning-wheel.
Gumbel, Reirin. 2013. From Sheep to Shawl Interview by Kogan Sheldon. http://blogs.sfzc.org/blog/2013/06/11/from-sheep-to-shawl-ggf/.
“Heritage History.” n.d. Heritage History. http://www.heritage-history.com/?c=read&author=bachman&book=inventors&story=spinning.
Leadbeater, Eliza. n.d. Spinning and Spinning Wheels. Shire Album :43. Princes Risborough.
Pagden, Anthony. 2001. “Prologue: Europe and the World Around.” In Early Modern Europe, edited by Euan Cameron. Oxford University Press.
Rowlands, Alison. 2001. “The Condition of Life for the Masses.” In Early Modern Europe, edited by Euan Cameron. Oxford University Press.
Shimpock, Kathy. n.d. “Wise Old Women Archetype in Folktales.” The Wise Crone’s Cottage in the Woods. http://www.wisecronecottage.com/2015_11_01_archive.html.
Simkin, John. n.d. “Spinning Jenny.” Historical Information. Spartacus Educational. http://spartacus-educational.com/TEXjenny.htm.
Sleeping Beauty. 1959. Videocasette. Buena Vista Distribution.
“Status of Women in 17th Century Neo Classical Age in Context of ‘Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat’ by Thomas Gray.” n.d. WordPress.com weblog. Survivingbaenglish. https://survivingbaenglish.wordpress.com/status-of-women-in-17th-century-neo-classical-age-in-context-of-ode-on-the-death-of-a-favorite-cat-by-thomas-gray/.
“The Spinning Project.” n.d. Project Page (research). The Spinning Project. http://spinning-wheel.org/about1/.