The Spinning Wheel

Lying and cheating, according to an interpreter at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, during Early Modern Europe was an important part of obtaining money during Early Modern Europe Peasants would spin yarn on spinning wheels to be sold at the markets. This yarn was an important source of income for households and he yarn they sold was often full of imperfections however. In order to get the best price they could on the yarn, peasant would often roll the yarn in a way so the imperfections were hidden and were not discovered until after being bought by merchants in towns. This form of dishonesty shows how important wages earned from spinning were to a family in that they were willing to lie to get them. The spinning wheel can then be used as a window into the lives of everyday people during the early modern period.


Spinning wheel from the Metropolitan Museum of Art ( Permission to use granted from Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC).

The spinning wheel is a large tool made of wood. A wheel is attached to a base where a spindle also sits. There is a bobbin where the yarn is spun around. A petal is near the ground, which is pressed to keep the wheel spinning. The wheel spins and turns the spindles in the center. This spins the wool into usable yarn which is collected on the bobbin.[1] According to the History and Evolution of Spinning the spinning wheel in Europe dates back to the late medieval period or the early renaissance time period. However, spinning dates back much further as “the practice of spinning fibers to form thread and yarns has been in existence for over 10,000 years.”[2] There are two types of hand spinning wheels: the drop spindle and the suspended spindle. According to Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, the drop spindle is the type used to Europe, drop spindles are when “the thread is formed as the spindle spins while gravity pulls it to the ground.”[3]The spinning wheels also used flyers, which helped to load the spun yarn onto the bobbin; it also made the yarn twist as it left the bobbin.[4]

The spinning wheel can use many different materials to spin into yarn. Spinners could use flax, wool, or silk to turn into thread.[5] Flax was important since peasants used this to make underwear, bed sheets etc, since it was softer than silk and wool.[6] Wool was often used for normal everyday clothing, while silk was expensive and was not common in everyday households. Making yarn was often a long and labor-intensive process. The flax or wool had to be grown or sheared from a sheep, if not bought from an outside source. It had to be prepared by bleaching and preparing the material for spinning. The material then had to be spun into yarn before being weaved into clothes or cloth. It then had to be washed and mended if needed.[7]

Spinning was often confined to the home and used to make clothes for the family, but many families used spinning as a means for income for the family. There is a case study about Richard and Nany Latham who were apeasant family that lived during the early 1700s and their main source of income was spinning.[8] The Latham’s account book tracked their spending and income. The spinning done allowed them to live comfortably, but not extravagantly.[9] In looking at the account book, the output of yarn varied based on the birth of a child, as child rearing was demanding. As the children grew however output increased some.[10] If yarn output were to vary, the living standard of the family would have then had to vary as well since spinning was a main source of income. According to “The Fabric of Life” the family would have had an increase in the amount of yarn spun after their daughters grew up and were able to contribute to the spinning.[11] The article also talks about how the increase in labor allowed for the family to grow their own flax instead of having to buy it.[12] This would have saved money for the family but there would have been a decrease in time spent spinning.

During this time, people made their own clothes more than they bought clothes. Buying clothes was expensive and usually only the elite bought their clothes from someone else. According to “The Cultures of Clothing in Later Medieval and Early Modern Europe” by Margaret Rosenthal, “clothing for the upper echelons of society was made of intricate textile weaves and patterns.”[13] This shows clothing during this time was starting to make a transition towards finer materials and more extravagance. Rosenthal writes, “aristocrats sought social differentiation through dress codes and elaborate spending because social status depended… and on how cloth was fashioned.”[14] Clothing began to become a status symbol during this time; if one had nicer clothing they were often richer.

Along with more lavish clothing, there were measures put into place to prevent fraud within the spinning industry. As said by the interpreter at the frontier culture museum, peasants would wrap yarn a certain way as to hide the imperfections. They would do this to get better wages and prices for the yarn. This money was often very important to peasants lives as most were subsistence farmers and did not grow enough crops to sell. According to John Styles, author of “Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the English Worsted Industries, 1550–1800,”[15] embezzlement of material was also a large problem as workers would take raw materials to use for their own personal use. He also writes that there was the “intensification in the use of the criminal law to prevent embezzlement and similar frauds,”[16] when before it was hard to control such shortcomings to the putting out system. This also shows the extreme measures peasants would go through in order to get wages. They were willing to lie and steal to get extra material or to get a few extra dollars on each spool of yarn. This also shows the importance of the spinning wheel, as peasants would not receive these wages without it.

Peasants who would spin for money were often a part of the putting out system. The putting out system was a system where a merchant would come and give a family a raw material, or a resource the peasants would grow themselves. The family would then spin the material into yarn to be sold to the merchant. According to William Hagen, author of “Capitalism and the Countryside in Early Modern Europe” the “demand for proto-industrial goods grew particularly rapidly on international and especially colonial markets.”[17] This allowed for some to be more financially stable as the market grew. As the market grew, there would have been more job opportunities within the putting-out system. This would have allowed more peasants to have extra wages. Some of these wages, like those gained by the Latham’s were used to buy goods like soap and tea, which were not essential goods to everyday life.[18] Also, according to the “Fabric of Life” spinning could depend on seasonal variations of the price of the flax or wool.[19] If there was a bad harvest on flax, a family might have to buy flax, which would then be an initial investment to the spinning. This would then affect the net profit of spinning within the putting out system.

Spinning also affected the status of women during this time. Women were often seen as less important  than men. They were stuck doing domestic chores such as rearing children or housework. Spinning gave women a greater chance to contribute to household income, since, as seen in the Latham case study, women were often the main spinners of the household.[20] Women were often excluded from other positions besides those found in the putting out system due to guilds. According to “How does Social Capital Affect Women? Guilds and Communities in Early Modern Germany,” “guilds regulated who could set up a workshop, who could be employed, how much they could be paid.”[21] Guilds were also biased against women, often not allowing them full participation or any participation at all in economic life.[22] Spinning, within the putting out system, then gave women some control over economic life, they were able to contribute real wages to a household. Due to restrictive guilds, it was also hard for women to make money and support themselves if unmarried since guilds controlled who and what was produced.[23] Women therefore had to marry if they wanted to work or be apart of a certain trade.

The spinning wheel was an important tool used in Early Modern Europe. In the home, it was used to spin the yarn, which would then be used to makes clothes for the family. It was also used as a part of the putting out system where families could make extra wages to support themselves. Due to this putting out system, women could make a larger contribution to the economics of the household.


[1] “Spinning Wheel,” How Products Are Made, , accessed November 16, 2016,
[2] Siobhan, Dhuinnshleibhe. “A HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF SPINNING.” 2000. Accessed October 5, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Alice Dolan, “The Fabric of Life: Time and Textiles in an Eighteenth-Century Plebeian Home,” Home Cultures 11, no. 3 (2014). 355.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. 356
[9] Ibid. 358
[10] Ibid. 361-362
[11] Ibid. 362
[12] Ibid. 363
[13] M. F. Rosenthal, “Cultures of Clothing in Later Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39, no. 3 (2009): 460
[14] Ibid.
[15] John Styles, “Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the English Worsted Industries, 1550–1800,” Textile History 44, no. 2 (2013):
[16] Ibid.
[17] William W. Hagen, “Capitalism and the Countryside in Early Modern Europe: Interpretations, Models, Debates,” Agriculutre History 62, no. 1 (1988):19.
[18] Alice Dolan, “The Fabric of Life: Time and Textiles in an Eighteenth-Century Plebeian Home,” Home Cultures 11, no. 3 (2014). 358.
[19] Ibid. 360-361.
[20] Ibid. 360.
[21] Sheilagh Ogilvie, “How Does Social Capital Affect Women? Guilds and Communities in Early Modern Germany,” The American Historical Review 109, no. 2 (2004): 330
[22] Ibid. 334.
[23] Ibid. 334-335.

Works Cited

Spinning Wheel. The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. In The Met. Accessed October 5, 2016.

Dhuinnshleibhe, Siobhan. “A HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF SPINNING.” 2000. Accessed October 5, 2016.

Dolan, Alice. “The Fabric of Life: Time and Textiles in an Eighteenth-Century Plebeian Home.” Home Cultures 11, no. 3 (2014): 353-74. accessed October 5, 2016, doi:10.2752/175174214×14035295691238.

Hagen, William W. “Capitalism and the Countryside in Early Modern Europe: Interpretations, Models, Debates.” Agricultural History 62, no. 1 (1988): 13-47. accessed October 5, 2016,

Ogilvie, Sheilagh. “How Does Social Capital Affect Women? Guilds and Communities in Early Modern Germany.” The American Historical Review 109, no. 2 (2004): 325-59. acceded October 4, 2016. doi:10.1086/530335.

Rosenthal, M. F. “Cultures of Clothing in Later Medieval and Early Modern Europe.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39, no. 3 (2009): 459-81. Accessed October 5, 2016. doi:10.1215/10829636-2009-001.

“Spinning Wheel.” How Products Are Made., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Styles, John. “Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the English Worsted Industries, 1550–1800.” Textile History 44, no. 2 (2013): 145-70. Accessed October 5, 2016. doi:10.1179/0040496913z.00000000026.