The beginning of spinning

(First published in Creative Fibre vol. 18 no. 1, June 2015)

Twisting fibres must be one of the three oldest crafts, along with making stone tools and working wood. Back in the stone age our ancestors discovered that even if individual fibres were weak, they could twist bunches with their fingers or around a stick, or roll them on their thighs (kiwicraft, anyone?) and they would have strong, useful string.

34,000 years ago in a cave in the Caucasus, humans like us were twisting fibres from wild-growing flax* to make cord, string and even quite fine thread. Some of the threads were dyed with natural substances, and some have ends that have been deliberately cut. (Imagine an obsidian blade, not scissors!)

The same kind of thing must have been happening in many other places and on down through the centuries, though the evidence has rarely survived.

By around 26,000 years ago people were making slender threads and twining them into fine cloth. Impressions on burnt clay, found at a site in the Czech Republic, show two-ply threads made from some undentifiable plant fibre. Warp threads so fine that they are spaced at 10-12 threads per centimetre are twined across with weft threads more widely spaced.

Twining seems to have been the earliest way to create various fabrics that could be used for mats, bags or clothing. It differs from what we think of as weaving – pairs of “weft” threads are twined around each other as they pass over and under “warp” threads. The technique survives today, most spectacularly in the elaborate twined cloaks and tāniko borders created by Māori weavers.


Maori twiniing

Basic twining, with warp suspended between two sticks set in the ground. The ancient method was probably very like this. Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), The Coming of the Maori (Wellington 1949)

All the evidence indicates that the very earliest spinning fibre was from plants: wild flax, nettle, hemp and the inner bark of local trees were used in various places. The oldest example found so far of wool being used for fibre craft is from the North Caucasus, about 3700 – 3200BC. By then sheep were domesticated and perhaps beginning to be selected for longer, more usable fleece.

Around ten thousand years ago, when people settled down and started farming, they discovered that a weighted stick speeded up yarn-making. The weight (whorl) acts like a flywheel, preserving momentum so that the spindle spins for longer before it needs to be twisted again. Whorls of various sizes and shapes are found in many neolithic and later sites in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The commonest is a little clay disc, but they can be any symmetrical shape and made of many materials – stone, bone, wood, metal and glass are found. The whorl may be at the top or the bottom or in the middle of the shaft, or the shaft may just have a wider spot to add weight.

Limestone spindle whorl from ancient Egypt

Limestone spindle whorl from Egypt (New Kingdom period, about 1570 – 1080 BC), Diameter 6.6cm, thickness 1.2cm. Los Angeles County Museum ( CC0

Intriguing evidence comes from a little village built on piles over a Swiss lake at a place called Arbon-Bleiche. It was inhabited for only 15 years till it was burned down in 3350 BC (the dates are very precisely calculated from the tree-rings of the wooden piles). Around 300 baked clay spindle whorls were found in the part of the site that was excavated, most inside the little buildings (dwellings?) – but some buildings had none and some had many, leading to speculation that fibre crafts may already have been a specialised occupation.

An astonishing find was an actual spindle, clay whorl and wooden shaft, with spun thread on it. The thread has inevitably deteriorated during its long burial, but it was quite finely spun (the single about 0.7mm thick) in the Z direction. The fibre seems to be from the inner bark of a tree, perhaps a lime tree.

Fragments of twined fabric made of the same fibre were also found. But actual weaving was also happening by this time. Several scraps of tabby came to light, woven of linen thread spun Z and plied S. Density is around 10 threads per centimetre, but finer weaving has been found in other neolithic sites, up to 24 threads per centimetre. It’s a lesson to us that primitive tools don’t necessarily mean a primitive product!

Some at least of the weaving was done on warp-weighted looms, for there were clay loom-weights – in one building a group of eight, with smaller groups in several other buildings. A weaver’s sword-shaped beater made of wood was also found.

Reproduction of warp-weightd loom.

Reproduction of prehistoric warp-weighted loom, in the Open-Air Museum of Százhalombatta, Hungary. CC0

Warp-weighted looms had been known in Europe since 5000 BC. The Greeks and Romans used them, and they survived well into the 20th century among the Sami people of Norway. They have a beam at the top supported by two leaning posts: these were often simply leaned against a wall, and the whole setup could be dismantled and transported fairly easily. The warp hangs from the top beam and groups of threads are tied to weights at the bottom. Weaving is upwards, and finished cloth is wound on the top beam. String heddles tied to a heddle bar can pull out alternate threads to make a shed.

Arbon-Bleiche provides just one small example (an unusually well-preserved one) of the kinds of fibre crafts that our earliest ancestors knew. Spindle spinning is still very much with us: a quick look through the “got video” thread in the Spindle Lore group on Ravelry will show an ingenious variety of spindles and many ways of using them.

* Flax here means linum usitatissimum, the fibre used to make linen, or one of its wild ancestors. It is quite different from New Zealand flax (phormium tenax).

Note: The bibliography is quite long, so I’m putting it on a separate page.