Niddy-noddies through the ages

(First published in Creative Fibre vol. 18 no. 4, March 2016)

Niddy-noddy, niddy-noddy, two heads one body
’Tis one, ’tain’t one, ’twill be one soon
’Tis two, ’tain’t two, ’twill be two soon
’Tis three, ’tain’t three, ’twill be three soon …

Do you count the rounds as you skein yarn on your niddy noddy so you can work out the length of the skein? Next time, try this old rhyme. Each line represents one complete round, in four beats. A warning, though: as the numbers increase, it becomes quite a tongue-twister. The rhyme is often quoted (with variations) but I suspect few spinners actually used it.

Niddy-noddy can be one word or two, with or without a hyphen. The nodding motion as we wind has no doubt given our useful tools their name. But niddy-noddies are much older than the rhyme, older even than our name for them.

In 834 AD two women were buried in an elaborately decorated ship near Oseberg in Norway. One of them must have been very important: they were buried with opulent grave goods, as well as everyday household items and tools including spindles, little wooden tablets for tablet weaving (one set had the remains of weaving still on it), beaters for use with a warp weighted loom, shears – and two niddy noddies (one each?).

An impression of some of the textile tools from the Oseberg ship burial, by Daniel Reeve

An impression of some of the textile tools from the Oseberg ship burial, by Daniel Reeve

In mediaeval times, they were clearly a vital tool: they appear sometimes in the margins of mediaeval manuscripts. Apes were quite a favourite subject, often doing everyday human things such as spinning and yarn winding. This little ape sits comfortably in the margin of the Maastricht Hours (early 1300s) skeining the yarn he (she?) has presumably spun. Many such devout and ‘improving’ books were enlivened with fanciful pictures. In at least two other manuscripts, an ape seems to be running off with a spindle and niddy-noddy.

One of several apes with niddy noddies in the margins of the Maastricht Hours (early 1300s). © The British Library Board, Stowe 17, f.44

One of several apes with niddy noddies in the margins of the Maastricht Hours (early 1300s). © The British Library Board, Stowe 17, f.44

These niddy noddies have the crosspieces parallel, and most have the shaft extended to make a useful handle. The same setup is shown in a 14th century manuscript and is also favoured by Veturia, the mother of Coriolanus, in a 15th-16th-century book about famous women of the past.

3. Veturia, from a French edition of De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Boccaccio. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 599, Folio 27v.

Veturia, from a French edition of De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Boccaccio. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 599, Folio 27v.

Leonardo da Vinci, or perhaps one of his students, painted the Madonna with a similar niddy-noddy in the early 1500s. The symbolism is clear: the baby grasps the cross-shaped tool and gazes intently at it, while his mother seems thoughtful, perhaps with a premonition of what is to come.

Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Leonardo da Vinci. One of two versions painted in the early 1500s

Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Leonardo da Vinci. One of two versions painted in the early 1500s

This painting has been given various names in different languages. Those of us who spin in public are all too familiar with ignorance about our craft (‘Look, she’s making string on a loom!’) so we shouldn’t be too surprised at some of them. Madonna Fuseau in French,  Madonna mit dem Spindle in German and Madonna del Fuso in Italian all mean ‘Madonna of/with the Spindle’, while Virgen de la Rueca in Spanish means ‘Virgin of the Spinning Wheel’.

All the niddy-noddies we’ve seen so far have the two cross pieces parallel, not at right angles like ours, though it’s possible that the ones from the Viking ship burial could be twisted in the middle (the wood is much too fragile for experiments). Veturia is taking the easy path, just once around, and our ape’s winding looks impossible: either the ape or the artist must have been confused. But in various manuscripts there are apes, and women, who seem to be making an actual skein. So how do you wind your yarn on a niddy-noddy with parallel arms? It’s time for some Experimental Archaeology. This is a recognised technique, attempting to replicate techniques used used in ancient cultures to shed light on them.

First experiment: the most obvious way to wind a niddy-noddy with parallel arms (left) and the result (right).

First experiment: the most obvious way to wind a niddy-noddy with parallel arms (left) and the result (right)

My first effort was almost impossible to remove, and produced a very unsatisfactory skein with the threads crisscrossed in the middle. A slightly more elaborate path for the yarn was tricky to wind without the useful handle-extension of the shaft that we see in some of the old pictures. However, it made a skein that was easier to remove and quite respectable.

A more complex but much better way (left) and the same skein with the arms twisted and no longer parallel (right)

A more complex but much better way (left) and the same skein with the arms twisted and no longer parallel (right)

It’s a tiny step from this to the way we make skeins – one end of the niddy noddy just needs to be turned through a quarter circle so the ends are at right angles. (These experiments also demonstrate why another old name for a niddy noddy was ‘cross reel’.)

More familiar looking niddy-noddies appear in several paintings by Dutch artists of the mid 1500s. They hang on the wall, with skeins neatly wound on them, in the background of a couple of domestic scenes of peasant life. A picture by Pieter Pietersz shows us more – an old man winding yarn off a spindle. A faint inscription in the top left corner means ‘I am old and worn, and still I must wind for my food.’ Whether he had also spun the yarn, or whether he was paid only to wind it, we can’t tell.

Oil painting by Pieter Pietersz from the second half of the 16th century, showing a niddy-noddy like those we use today

Oil painting by Pieter Pietersz from the second half of the 16th century, showing a niddy-noddy like those we use today

So by this time, niddy-noddies like ours were being used just as we use ours. If the ones in the Oseberg ship were adjustable, then the method goes back a very long way. I wonder whether this style, originating in the more northerly parts of Europe, has taken over at some point from the less efficient (but perhaps easier to make) parallel-arm type used from Britain to the Mediterranean. But that’s speculation.

Anyway, it seems that our niddy-noddies are older than our wheels. These simple tools have quite a history.

 Resources: As far as I can discover, there has been no actual study of the history of niddy-noddies, but these websites may be of interest:

http://www.larsdatter.com/winding.htm (links to many old pictures)
http://www.forest.gen.nz/Medieval/articles/Oseberg/textiles/TEXTILE.HTM (an account of the Oseberg textiles – weavers and embroiderers will like to scroll down through this)
http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/01/monkeying-around-with-the-maastricht-hours.html (apes in mediaeval manuscripts – actually they may be Barbary macaques which are tailless monkeys)

I thank the British Library for permission to reproduce the ape, Maggie Forest and Christina Petty for help with the Oseberg tools, and Daniel Reeve for the illustration.

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