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Spindles of the World

Posted By TNNA Editor, Tuesday, October 2, 2018

By Robin Goatey

Making fiber tools and bringing ancient tool forms back to life for the Fiber Tribe is always full of interesting surprises. A seeming random conversation in-person at a festival or via Instagram DM – or email – can lead to a research thread that very often leads one to the archives of the British Museum online, early Smithsonian Anthropology reports or Norse Grave Goods inventories from the Oseberg Ship Burial. All with the intention of finding lost or especially misidentified early fiber tools. The “ring distaff,” in particular, was misidentified as a “stirring stick,” and Kim Caulfield in her research on distaffs and spindles has helped rectify some of these oversights.

Dating all the way back to the Old Kingdom in Egypt, turned items for use by the Fiber Tribe are legion. Showing amazing variation in form, material and function, fiber tools are ancient indeed. The “Spindles of the World” class that I teach at festivals across the Midwest covers the three basic forms of the “support spindle:”

  • the Single Stick Russian form;
  • the versatile Tibetan form (pictured above); and,
  • the very large, unusual ‘Navajo’ form.

Within these three basic forms are the primary supported spindle types that were created over and over again in prehistoric cultures. In their native form, all of these spindles have a characteristic of use based on the flicking point and, for the purposes of the class, each has been modified with a hook.

What people don’t realize is that the question is not “Can you learn to spin?” but rather, “What do you want to make?” Everyone can learn to spin. What to make is the thing that will guide the selection of spindle type. For example, lace on the Russian form, multiple weights on the Tibetan form, or heavy singles and art yarns on the Navajo form.

Take a look at a Tibetan spindle with a wooden whorl. Change the whorl to clay or stone and that is the diagnostic whorl type found along the length of the Andean Cordillera or the Middle Eastern cradle cultures. Change the whorl type to lead and that is the type found in Roman context and is diagnostic of the Celtic La Tène culture in Western Europe.

The three basic supported spindle forms, though, are just the beginning and new tools are coming to light all the time. A tool form that has largely been forgotten is the distaff. Look at any ancient depiction of spinning activity and there is always a distaff. My favorite early illustrations of spinning and distaffs are on Etruscan Redware and have the most amazing style.

The Ring Distaff, The Oseberg Distaff and the Spinning Spoon are all recent additions to the list of ancient fiber tools I am making.

Know of a forgotten fiber tool? Let me know where it might be from and when. Bringing these ancient tool forms back to life is a true passion of mine and you can never have too much information.
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Robin Goatey of The Dancing Goats is a periodic John C. Campbell Folk School instructor, woodcarver, woodturner, broom maker and folkways instructor, and a student of folklore, metallurgy, spinning, tapestry weaving, glass making, ceramics and lapidary work. He is a Past President of the Artisan Guild of Southern Illinois and an award-winning craftsman participating in the global marketplace for handmade goods. He and his wife established The Dancing Goats in 1987 and brought the business online in 2000. Find more from Robin and The Dancing Goats on Etsy, Amazon, Instagram or YouTube

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