The very first spinning wheels?

First published in Creative Fibre vol. 18 no. 2 (September 2015)

For thousands of years a weighted stick was used to twist fibre into yarn – then one day somebody turned the spindle on its side to be driven by a larger wheel. Now instead of the little flywheel, or whorl, there is a pulley on the spindle. A drive band transfers the rotation of the wheel via the pulley to the spindle. Truly, a modern spinner should call the whorl on her spinning wheel a pulley (as some experts do) because that’s what it is. But calling it a whorl reminds us of the many, many centuries when that little disc was just a weight to help our ancestors keep their spindles spinning.

Our story starts in China, where – as the many whorls found in neolithic sites tell us – making thread with hand spindles had been well known since around 4500 BC.

By about 1800 BC silk was widely used and the processes of preparing it were well understood. Cocoons of the silk moth were soaked in hot water and the individual strand of each cocoon was then wound, three or more at a time, on a reel. After reeling, several strands were often twisted together (“thrown”). Initially this had to be done with a hand spindle.

Reeling silk in China

Silk reeling in China. The cocoons are simmering on the left, and the craftsman turns the reel on the right to wind the silk. From Chinese Pictures by Isabella Lucy Bird (1900)

It is not difficult to imagine someone (or several people independently) having the idea of putting a drive band on such a reel and using it to drive a spindle, now turned on its side. It would speed up the twisting a lot.

We don’t know exactly when this innovation was made, but it could have begun to supersede hand spindles soon after 500 BC. Weavers may have been using faster looms (with at least one treadle) by this time, increasing the demand for prepared silk fibre. From then on, archaeologists find more traces of silk fabric that show twisted or doubled threads, yet they find far fewer spindle whorls. Clearly there is new technology for twisting fibres.

Other important sources of fibre were ramie, hemp and several other plants. Like silk, none of these were actually drafted as we do with wool. The bark of the long stems, after complicated preparation, gave individual fibres over a metre long. The fibres were joined end to end with saliva or by twisting the ends together, and wound into balls. Then they would be twisted for strength: often two or more were twisted together using a spindle driven by a drive wheel that was turned by hand.

Chinese painting "The Spinning Wheel".

The Spinning Wheel, a painting on silk by Wang Juzheng, Northern Song Dynasty. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.

The earliest picture dates from about the mid 11th century AD but the device it shows was probably invented well before that. A woman turns the wheel by means of a little knob on one of the spokes. If you look closely [clicking on the picture will enlarge it a bit] you will see that there is a spindle at the top, or perhaps there are two spindles, pointing away from her. An older woman stands off to the left, holding a wound ball of fibre in each hand, and the two threads from them run across the painting to the spindle(s).

A second type of wheel may be even older. From the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD) come stone carvings showing a drive wheel with an unusual type of treadle pivoted rather like an oar. For a long time such wheels too were used for winding and twisting a prepared thread of plant origin.

These two types of wheel put twist into fibres, but the fibres are already continuous (an unwound silk cocoon can be over a kilometre long) or they have already been made (by splicing plant fibres). Is the person feeding them onto the wheel’s spindle actually spinning? She is not creating the thread by drafting or drawing out the fibres, which we now think of as essential. Have we yet seen a true spinning wheel? In any case, one is coming.

By about 1300 AD cotton was becoming a major part of Chinese textile production. The short fibres of cotton cannot be spliced, but must be drafted. A smaller lighter version of the treadled wheel proved ideal for this. A fascinating reproduction has been created, with much research, by Jonathan Bosworth.

Jonathan Bosworth spinning cotton

Jonathan Bosworth spinning cotton on his reproduction Chinese wheel: drafting (left) and winding on (right). I thank Jonathan and Sheila Bosworth for the photographs.

These wheels have survived to more modern times among the Li people of Hainan Island in Southern China. We can even see one in use in a film apparently made in 2009.  (The wheel is at 1 minute 38 seconds and 2 minutes 10 seconds.)

The device has certainly now become a true spinning wheel, probably the very earliest. Astonishingly, it has a treadle, which will not be seen in any other tradition for a long time. It has another refinement too – multiple spindles which, as Bosworth demonstrates, are perfectly possible for a skilled spinner (some of the wheels had a mind-boggling 3 or even 5 spindles).

Yet this Chinese spinning wheel, with its oar-like treadle, seems to have had no influence at all outside its own country. Instead, the wheels we use today developed, slowly, from the type shown in Wang Juzheng’s painting (picture 1), where the drive wheel must be turned by hand. How did they become our familiar wheels? That’s a story for another time.

Select bibliography:
Farwell-Clay, Julia “Jonathan Bosworth’s Spinning Wheel Time Machine” Spin-Off XXXV.3 (Fall 2011)
Kuhn, Dieter & Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China vol 5 part 9, Cambridge University Press (1988)
Film of treadled wheel in use on Hainan Island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QI96KUULaBY
Videos of Jonathan Bosworth spinning on his replica: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGLTWQHEUl4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVchl_we5L

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