Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part III: Spin Me Right Round…

This is the third part of our four part (I, II, III, IVa, IVb) look at the production of textiles, particularly wool and linen, in the pre-modern world. Last time, we processed our raw fibers, removing extraneous material and getting them ready to be turned into thread. Today we’re going to continue with that next step, spinning our fibers into thread before weaving that thread into cloth.

We are going to discuss both of these processes (spinning and weaving) this week mostly in the context of household production. Markets in textiles, as we’ll see next week, were a major part of the economies of the pre-modern world and so the commercial production of cloth is something that appears fairly quickly as agrarian societies grow more complex; almost any society with a significant degree of urbanism is producing at least some cloth for the market. That said, for reasons we’ve already discussed, in most pre-modern societies, the great majority of people (who were farmers) remained substantially disconnected from markets in much of their lives. Consequently, at any given time, while commercial textile production was significant (particularly from a trade-and-commerce lens), generally the majority of clothing being worn was likely to be produced within the household economy (though that doesn’t preclude specialization). So while we will discuss commercially produced textiles next week (along with the more frequently commercially-oriented fulling and dying processes), this week we will focus on spinning and weaving through the lens of household production, which in turn means that we will focus on spinning and weaving through the lens of the women who mostly did it in the household.

Fortunately, the processes for spinning and weaving do not meaningfully change based on the context of production (household or commercial; indeed, in many cases the producers will have been the same people through the ‘putting out’ system we discussed last week), meaning that in many cases a commercial spinning or weaving operation may be understood by ‘scaling up’ the same techniques we’ll discuss here simply to involve more laborers working in parallel (and likewise, production in very large households). That said, spinning and weaving are one area where there is significant technological change through the pre-modern, as we’ll see, which has important ramifications for the process and the availability of cloth. In the interest of keeping this reasonably easy to follow, we are going to use the methods as they existed during the Roman period (distaff-and-spindle spinning, weaving with a warp-weighted loom) as a baseline, discussing other methods and changing technologies as we reach them in the process.

I do want to stress here at the outset that this is not a how-to guide, not the least because I am not qualified to write one, but also because that is not our purpose. Consequently, some of the steps here will be somewhat simplified in presentation and a lot of the complicated processes available to very skilled spinners and weavers (such as weaving complex patterns) are going to be left out for the sake of brevity (or my none-too-convincing attempt at it).

And, as always, if you enjoy the yarn I am spinning for you here, please share it; if you really like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon. If you want updates when each new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for not merely updated but also my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.


Spinning a Yarn

The next step for both of our fibers, now that they have been cleaned and sorted, is spinning, when the fibers are turned into thread or yarn (the distinction between the two is purpose; any kind of spun fiber is yarn – though the term is often used particularly of wool – while thread is technically yarn intended for sewing, although even in technical writing, often all yarn is called ‘thread’). In antiquity and for much of the Middle Ages (and into much more recent history in many parts of the world) this was done by hand with a distaff and spindle.

This is an incredibly important process. We’ll come back to time and labor at the end of this post, but spinning was by far the most time intensive part of making textiles (in the estimates I’ve seen, spinning tends to take up around 85% of the labor time of textile production, see below for figures). And textile production was a major activity (indeed, the major activity) for probably around 40% of the population in most pre-modern societies – not merely almost all adult women, but girls too would start spinning and weaving (spinning in particular, again, we’ll get there) at very early ages. Consequently, spinning thread may have been the single most frequently performed work-task in the ancient world (the various farming tasks being more varied and more seasonal, while spinning was being done continuously all year round). We tend to think of the pre-modern world as a world of farmers (and it was) but we ought just as well to think of it as a world of spinnners.

(As an aside: weaving, rather than spinning, tends to dominate the modern imagination when it comes to women’s work in the pre-modern world, but this is a product (as we’ll see) of the rather late-arriving spinning wheel (and in particular the even later arriving mechanical spinning wheel), which altered the time-and-labor economics of textile production. From the Neolithic down to c. 1500 AD, by far most of the labor-time spent producing textiles – probably even if shepherding and flax growing are included – went into spinning fibers into yarn.)

This spinning was done with a distaff and spindle (there was an even older pre-distaff spinning process used for flax by the Egyptians very early on; on this note Barber (1991), 44-51). The distaff was a rod, typically made in wood, sometimes with a hooked end (but as frequently without) which holds the fibers to be spun (those fibers are typically in the form of a long, almost rope-like mass called a roving). The roving is wrapped around the top of the distaff and then typically tied in place with cord or ribbon so that the fibers may be drawn out slowly (and so it doesn’t fall off). While some distaffs were hooked or otherwise shaped to hold the fibers, both wool and linen may be spun using a distaff that is just a straight rod (indeed, a simple stick of the right length and thickness will do).

Via Wikipedia, a distaff and spindle at work. The spindle drawn here looks to be a hand-held spindle for short-stapled wool.

Spindle design is a bit more complex. A spindle has three main parts: the shaft, around which is set the whorl, and sometimes a hook which allows the spindle to be suspended and holds the yarn (some spindles do not have hooks; drop-spindles, which often require hooks, are clearly in use in Greece by the end of the Archaic and possibly much earlier). Finally, something that is on the spindle but not part of it is the cop, which is the tight mass of spun yarn wound around the shaft of the spindle (that is, completed yarn being effectively ‘stored’ on the spindle).

The way a spindle works is that it spins (imagine that!). The spinning is set in motion by the hand of the spinner. The purpose of the whorl, which is generally a large, often flat, round and fairly massive (compared to the shaft) object mounted on the shaft, is to preserve the momentum of the spin, allowing the spindle to be kept spinning with less effort (particularly less frequent turns of the hand). The spinner draws out (‘drafts’) the fibers (this is the hand motion you see spinners doing; it allows them to carefully control how much fiber is being drawn into the spinning action of the spindle), while the spinning action of the spindle twists the fibers, causing the microscopic barbs (‘scaling’) on the wool to hook together as the fibers twist around each other, giving the yarn its coherence and strength. The spin then finally pulls that spun yarn down on to the shaft of the spindle and into the cop, where it can be later removed and used as thread or to weave fabric.

This basic process is largely the same regardless of if it is wool or linen. The direction of the spin determines if the resulting yarn is ‘s’-twisted or ‘z’-twisted and a skilled spinner can also control the rate of spinning and thus the twists-per-inch (lower twists makes for softer but weaker yarn, higher numbers of twists makes for stronger but harsher yarns). Skilled spinning requires careful control thus both of the rate at which fibers are drawn and the rate of rotation of the spindle.

Unsurprisingly, spindle and distaff designs vary a fair bit, place to place, purpose to purpose and culture to culture. For distaffs, the main variation is the length of the rod; distaffs from the ancient world only rarely survive archaeologically but fortunately spinning scenes are some of the most common artistic motifs depicting women (no surprise, it is the thing they do the most of) so we still see a lot of them. The most common distaff length seems to be around three feet, an ideal length for the staff to be couched under the arm when in use for spinning (as you can see in some of the pictures). That said, we also see artwork of much longer distaffs which were long enough to be rested on the ground while the spinner was either seated or in some cases standing, and much shorter distaffs designed to be held in the hand rather than couched under the arm.

From the British Museum, a Greek white-ground oinochoe (c. 490-470) showing a woman spinning with a short-handled distaff and a drop-spindle.

Spindle design is more varied still. Archaeologically, spindle whorls – the circular weight, which could be a part of the spindle itself but was often a separate piece attached to the spindle-stick – are recovered in significant numbers because they tend to be made of durable materials like pottery or stone (while the spindle itself is generally wood). Spindles might mount the whorl at either the top or bottom of the shaft; high-whorl spindles seem to have been more common in the Near East, while low-whorl spindles were more common in the Mediterranean and Europe, and there are even some ‘middle whorl’ spindles from Asia Minor. The base of the spindle-stick generally thins almost to a point – this was to gain mechanical advantage when starting the spinning motion by flicking the spindle between the thumb and forefinger – the narrower the spindle at that point, the more rotations are induced by a single flick.

Via Wikipedia, a collection of ceramic spindle whorls from Greece, c. 10th century BC, now in the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The spindle also needs to be supported in its rotation, which has an impact on design. ‘Drop-spindles’ – where the weight of the spindle is supported by the thread itself (they require some form of catch at the top of the spindle-shaft to avoid falling off; this can be a small metal hook or just a notch in the top of the spindle which can catch the yarn) seem to have been the most common in Europe, but by no means the only spindles in Europe. Alternately, a spindle may be rested on something – the thigh of the spinner or even the ground; this is particularly important for very fine, light or slippery fibers (some flax or wools, but also cotton) where the weight of a drop-spindle would draw the fibers too rapidly. The advantage of supported spindles like this is they allow both hands to manipulate the fibers, but there were also hand-held spindles which were turned in the hand (and thus may not need a whorl, though they they sometimes have them anyway); these seem to have been used exclusively for short-staple wool as both hands are required for drawing out long staple wool (Barber (1992), 43-4).

Via Wikipedia, a woman spinning with a spindle but no apparent distaff, while fanned by an attendant (clearly a high status woman), fragment c. 700-550 BC from Susa.

The oldest depictions of spindles I know date to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2048-1782 BC, Barber (1992)), 45), but archaeology tells us the technology is even older, with spindle whorls appearing in the archaeological record in pre-historic Neolithic sites (Barber (1992), 55). The distaff seems to come later; clear evidence for the distaff shows up in the visual record for late Archaic and Classical Greece (and in the Danube basin in the 7th century), but doesn’t arrive in the Egyptian record until the Roman period (though there may – interpretations are difficult – be evidence for the use of distaffs in 3rd-millenium Mesopotamia, far earlier).

The great advantage the distaff provides is portability (note this video for a demonstration). With the wool or bast roving wound up on the top of the distaff, a woman spinning with one can stop the spindle, gather up the drawn fibers, tuck the spindle into the roving and get moving fairly quickly. This was a tremendous advantage for a woman looking to spin thread in whatever small gaps of time she had in the midst of other household work (e.g. food preparation, child care, or overseeing other younger spinners in the household). Consequently, a woman could take her spinning with her almost anywhere she needed to go, setting up, getting working and then packing up and moving again as needed.

The Spinning Wheel

And for more than 4,000 years, from the beginning of the Bronze Age (at least!) to perhaps 1000 AD, that was simply how yarn was produced. The major change comes with the development of the spinning wheel. The exact dates for the development of the spinning wheel are unclear; it may have been invented in India or the Islamic world. In any event it is known in the Near East by 1030 AD and we have clear depictions of it (see below) by 1237. The innovation travels fast, with the first references in China by 1090 and the first depictions in 1270 and the first clear illustrations in Europe in 1280, though the spindle-and-distaff were not fully displaced (they retained advantages in portability and cost, as well as being able to handle a wider range of fibers and yarn-types) until the industrial revolution in some parts of the world.

Via Wikipedia, a manuscript illustration (1237) showing a woman working at a spinning wheel. This is, to my knowledge, the earliest visual depiction of the technology.

The basic design of the spinning wheel was heavily iterated on, but at its core the wheel has a wheel (rotated by hand, or foot or later peddle) which in turn rotates a spindle (there is still a spindle) which is held horizontally rather than vertically. By holding the fiber at an angle to the spindle, its turning induces the necessary twist in the fibers to produce yarn while, as before, the spinning of the spindle draws the freshly spun yarn on to the spindle’s cop. The spinner controls both the rotation of the wheel (thus the speed of the twist) and with the other hand the rate at which fibers are fed into the twisting. A major development was the addition of the treadle (developed in Germany c. 1533), a foot-pedal which spun the wheel and allowed for very steady, constant rotation while freeing up the spinners hands to focus on drawing the fibers. You can see a good demonstration of this here.

The spinning wheel, at least in these early forms, had serious limitations. Yarn spun on early spinning wheels tended to be looser and weaker and so was unsuitable for warp threads when weaving (see below) which meant that the spinning wheel persisted alongside hand spinning for some time. The treadle-driven wheel (known as the ‘Saxony wheel’ in England) enabled the spinning of much stronger yarns (suitable for the warp) and it was this development that set in motion the replacement of hand spinning with spinning wheels though as noted hand spinning retained enough advantages to still continue, especially in poorer areas, until the industrial period.

Via Wikipedia, a painting by Guillaume Fouace (1888), La dernière Fileuse de mon village (“The Last Spinner In My Village”) showing a French woman working at a spinning wheel. The wheel is driven by a treadle and she keeps the wool for spinning on a distaff.

The spinning wheel dramatically altered the labor economics of yarn production. Even the hand-turned spinning wheel was probably around three times faster than hand spinning (J.S. Lee, op. cit., 47); the treadle wheel was at least twice as productive as that and some estimates for mature spinning wheel technology over hand spinning suggest as high as a ten times increase in spinning speed. Needless to say, a reduction in labor time potentially close to an order of magnitude in the most labor-intensive part (again, c. 80% of the labor time!) of textile production had enormous economic impacts once the spinning wheel was widely dispersed. J.S. Lee (op cit., 9) estimates, for instance that English cloth production tripled (measured by weight) between 1315 and 1545 and cloth produced per capita increased five-fold (the English population declined during the period due to the Black Death). Income and the status of spinners consequently declined (wages may have dropped by as much as half) and the sudden relative abundance of cheap yarn put pressure on the other stages of textile production – both to feed wool into the spinning wheels and then more weavers to make cloth out of it.

Via Wikipedia, a photograph of an old woman with an Irish spinning wheel (c. 1900), now in the Library of Congress Collection. Note that this spinning wheel is of a later design with a treadle (a foot pedal) to drive the motion of the wheel.

We’ll talk more about the status of the workers doing all of this spinning at the end of the post, but for now this brings us to the next stage in textile production: weaving.


Some of the yarn we have made is going to be used in sewing (though as we will see, really only a tiny fraction of it), but most of our yarn is going to need to be woven into fabric. Of course yarn, particularly woolen yarn, can also be knitted into a knitted fabric, but the great majority of textiles are woven and not knitted so we are going to focus on weaving to produce fabric.

First, we need to clarify some key terms because otherwise describing various weaving methods won’t make much sense. Woven fabric is made up of two components: the warp threads (which held still in tension on the loom) and the weft thread (which runs through the warp and loops back as it reaches the warp’s end on each side); note the numbers here: there are many warp threads, but typically only one weft thread. Fundamentally, the act of weaving is about passing the weft thread through the warp, alternating the warp threads it passes in front of and behind of (following a pattern; we’ll discuss some in a moment), looping back around after each completed pass to create a tightly woven fabric. The frame used to hold the warp during this process is called a loom.

Via Wikipedia, a useful diagram of the warp and the weft of a weave.

To facilitate this process, a loom has to do a few things. First, it has to have a system for holding the warp threads taught under tension; this must be done along a bar at both ends rather than being tied off at a single point in order to weave fabric wider than just a few inches. Second, it needs a way to separate the upper and lower threads of the warp (so that the weft can be passed through between them, passing over some and under others), creating what is called the ‘shed’ (not, by the by, in the sense of a house – that meaning comes later – but actually from German scheiden, ‘to divide,’ as the shed divides the warp threads), and it needs to be possible to change which warp threads are on top and on the bottom of the shed. Without the ability to create the shed, it is necessary to ‘darn’ in the weft, manually passing it over some warp threads and under others, which would be slow and tedious to say the least. Next, to assist the passing of the weft thread it is generally connected to some convenient holder called a shuttle. Finally there needs to be some way, once each loop of the weft has been run through the warp, to compress the weft in order to form a tight, strong fabric. Different looms are essentially defined by their different solutions to these problems.

Probably the earliest looms were in the form of the backstrap loom (where one warp beam is tied off to a fixed object while the other end of the warp is secured around the waist of the weaver; later more sophisticated variants use two bars, but secure the second bar around the back), but the evidence is tricky; we see such looms in the pre-contact Americas (for instance in Inca sites in the Andes) and in China during the Han dynasty, but this evidence is chronologically after our evidence for ground looms appearing in Egypt. Since we’re focused on textile production in the broader Mediterranean, I am going to otherwise leave the backstrap loom out (but see Barber (1992), 80-82 on it if you like).

Via Wikipedia, a modern photo of an indigenous woman of the Maya Tzutujil weaving using a two-bar back-strap loom.

We have evidence for the ground-loom from the late Neolithic (early 4th millennium BC) in Egypt (Barbar (1992), 83). In a ground loom, the warp lays flat parallel to the ground, attached at both the top and bottom to warp-bars which are in turn secured to the ground via stakes, thus providing the necessary tension in the warp. By using two warp bars like this, the fabric may be arbitrarily wide or long, though making it wider than a person’s reach poses difficulties (the Egyptians seem to have generally had two workers on the loom for wide fabrics).

Via Wikipedia, a small Egyptian model of a ground loom from the Tomb of Meketre (11th dynasty, 2130-1991BC), showing an Egyptian ground loom in operation, including the shed and heddle bars. I believe this particular model is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but many of its companions from the Tomb of Meketre are in the MET.

The solution that appears here to quickly creating the shed and counter-shed are the heddles and the heddle bar, along with a shed bar. The shed bar is a rod that passes through the warp such that every second thread (or whatever pattern is desired) passes over the rod while the other threads pass under it; when that rod is pulled forward, the threads are separated to make that passageway (the shed). The countershed is then created through the heddle bar, which is attached to the return row of the warp by heddles (these days, little metal hooks, but in ancient weaving, heddles were short strings looped around behind the return-row warp threads and then tied to the heddle bar). Let the heddle bar down while pulling the shed bar up (or in a ground-loom just having a tall enough shed bar that it creates a ‘natural shed’ by simply being there) and you get the shed; pull the heddle bar up while leaving the shed bar down and you get the counter shed.

Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a painting from the Tomb of Khnumhotep (c. 1897-1878) which shows weavers working on what is probably a ground loom (represented without perspective) which more clearly shows the heddle bar (held by the left hand of the left-most woman; you can just barely see on it if you look closely the strings tied to it that connect it to the warp threads), the shed bar (directly below it) and the passing of the shuttle (just below that, from the second woman to the left).

Thus the weaver can use the two bars to make the shed, then passes the weft through the shed on the shuttle (called shedding), then shift the bars to make the counter-shed, pass the weft back the other way on the shuttle (called picking). Finally, another rod (lots of rods here) called the beater – generally a very flat rod which can span the entire way over the warp and still stick out on both ends – is used to compress the row of weft thread by being pushed or pulled hard to compress the weft into the completed sections of the weave (a process called ‘beating’ or battening). By repeating that basic sequence, our carefully spun thread can be slowly transformed into fabric.

Loom Design

Naturally, different looms were common for different purposes and also at different times and places. Because weaving, like spinning, was a skill learned locally (passed down from mother to daughter, generally), there tends to be a lot of regional variation in loom design and even very old loom types often persist in certain areas even while being replaced in others (the same is true, by the way, of spinning implements).

Dating to the late Neolithic, the Warp-weighted Loom was the standard loom of the ancient Mediterranean and while it was supplanted in most of Europe during the Middle Ages, its use persisted in Scandinavia through the Middle Ages and into the modern period. This was the principal loom for the Greeks and the Romans, as well as for much of Europe during the early Middle Ages (especially in Northern Europe). These looms, being made of wood, are only very rarely preserved archaeologically, but their loom-weights, being made typically of fired clay or stones, are preserved in great number, often allowing archaeologists to identify where in a structure or settlement weaving was taking place by the presence of the loom-weights.

Via Wikipedia, a reconstructed warp-weighted loom from the National Museum of Textile Industry in Silven, Bulgaria.

In the warp-weighted loom, the warp is attached at the top to a warp bar which is supported by a frame (which can either be free-standing or designed to lean against a wall); the attachment of the warp is managed through the use of a heading band (a bit of already woven cloth as a ‘starter,’ the weft of which became the warp of the finished weave; I think I’ll do a short addendum on tablet weaving to discuss one way these heading bands were made.). At the bottom, groups of warp threads are tied to loom-weights (often stone or ceramic weights with loops for tying off the warp threads), which provide the necessary tension, but also give the weaver more opportunity to manipulate the warp threads if necessary. Then towards the bottom of the frame, the shed-bar can be mounted on the frame itself (as with the ground-loom, the shed bar passes under every other warp thread and over the rest), while the heddle bar (which otherwise functions exactly like that in the ground-loom) is mounted around the center of the frame, connected to half of the warp threads with string. Weaving started from the top and moved down the frame.

The great advantage of the warp-weighted loom as compared to the ground loom is that it allows the weaver to weave sitting or standing, which is a lot more comfortable than having to weave from a squatting position as shown in Egyptian artwork on the ground-loom. Such a loom could also be more easily set up or moved to a new location if needed. The limitation was that the size of the frame fundamentally limited the size of the textile which could be woven and most frames tended to stick to a size small enough to be used by a single person, though two-story frames or extra-wide frames worked by multiple weavers for very large fabrics are known in art (Gleba, op. cit., 123-4).

Horizontal framed looms, developed in Asia, began to spread into the Mediterranean in the 10th century and seem to have become reasonably common in Europe by the thirteenth. In this kind of loom, the warp is held horizontally, often using rollers on each side to allow the the weaving of a fabric of any length (there a vertical loom like a warp-weighted loom was restricted in fabric length to the height of the loom). The warp beams are then attached to a rectangular frame (see image) and the heddle bar (or bars) are suspended from the top of that frame. Often this allows the heddles to be controlled not by hand (as with the warp-weighted loom) but by a foot-controlled treadle, allowing shedding to be done quite rapidly (though passing the shuttle and battening are still done by hand; that won’t be resolved until the invention of the flying shuttle loom in 1733, outside of the scope of this essay). It is not hard to guess that the adoption of better looms (J.S. Lee, op. cit., 51 supposes that the horitzontal frame loom could be worked perhaps three times faster than the old vertical warp-weighted looms) and the adoption of the spinning wheel motivated each other, as faster production on one end created the demand for faster production on the other.

From the British library, detail from the Egerton Gensis Picture Book, Egerton MS 1894, fol. 2v (c. 1350-1375) showing a woman weaving on a horizontal frame loom. Note how the pedals at her feet control the heddle bar. Thanks to J.S. Lee for citing his manuscript details completely so I could find this; I am endlessly frustrated by books using manuscript illumination images without citing the manuscript completely, since a random manuscript illustration with nothing but the name of the collection it is from is almost impossible to run down.

In any event, the end result of our process (we have skipped a few finishing steps, but this is not a how-to-guide) is a lattice-work of fine fibers of either wool or linen (you can mix the two, creating linsey-woolsey, but my impression is that ancient weavers generally didn’t do so), which is to say, fabric, ready to be dyed or bleached (if the thread wasn’t dyed already) and cut or sewn into garments, blankets or any number of other uses.

Distaff Economies

Now I’ve alluded to the labor demands of all of these processes before, but it is time to put some sense of numbers and scale behind that. Time-and-labor studies with actual historical spinning and weaving equipment are few, but there are a handful, so we can to some degree model the household economics of a family looking to produce its own textiles.

First we need to think about minimum textile requirements. At the absolute bottom end, Cato the Elder (De Ag. 59) who was well known to be parsimonious and cruel towards his enslaved workers, recommends each worker get a long tunic and a cloak (the sagum – sometimes oddly translated as ‘blanket’ I do not know why) every other year; obviously a fairly miserable minimum but it adds up to about 21,650cm2 of fabric per year. Probably even most enslaved workers were somewhat better clothed than this, given Cato’s reputation, and free farmers must have aimed a fair bit higher for sure. Roman soldiers – initially drawn from the modest-but-not-poor freeholding Roman farmer class (the assidui) seem to have had perhaps two complete sets of garments per year (following J. Liu, “Clothing Supply for the Military. A Look at the Inscriptional Evidence” in Wearing the Cloak, ed. Marie-Louise Nosch (2012), 19-28)), which might be more reasonable; presumably poor farmers would have somewhat less than this, but someone more than Cato’s poor enslaved workers.

So let’s assume a standard, somewhat extended household, of perhaps six individuals; a married couple, one of their elderly mothers, an adult son and two children (a decently plausible small farming household). A complete set of Roman clothing (I’m using the Romans because I’m more familiar with their dress), excluding formal wear (read: the toga, though I am also not counting the woman’s palla either) for this family of six might require something like 220,000cm2 (26.3 square yards) of fabric at a minimum pear year – a single complete change of clothing. Comfort might look two or three times this much. How much labor is that?

We can look at a few different estimates (skip one paragraph ahead if you hate lots of numbers). Aldrete et al., (Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor (2013) do a complete labor study of the time it took to make a linothorax, a Greek style of linen armor, including fiber preparation, spinning, weaving and sewing. For the roughly 65,000cm2 amount of (admittedly quite rough) linen required (which in turn required 12,600m of thread), they figure it took 25 hours to break, scutch and hackle the flax, 575 hours to spin it into thread, 75 hours to weave the thread into fabric (including loom setup time), and 8 hours to measure and cut the fabric (alas, the linothorax is laminated, not sewn, so they have no data for the sewing portion). Eve Fischer has done a similar calculation (but with back-of-the-envelope estimates rather than a detailed study) estimating that 41,804cm2 (5×1 yards) of fabric would require c. 8,230m of thread which would in turn demand something like 7 hours of sewing, 72 for weaving, 500 or so for spinning. J.S. Lee (op. cit., 51) figures a 14th century weaver (with those fancier looms and spinning wheels) could weave around 2 yards of fabric per day from roughly 6lbs of spun yarn while a given spinner might spin about 1lbs of yarn per day; assuming a 12-hour work-day that comes out to about 6 hours per yard weaving (a little more than twice as fast as Fischer of Aldrete’s vertical loom weavers) and 36 hours per yard spinning (three times faster than the hand-spinners).

So we have our range if we harmonize the estimates: something like a yard-square (8.361.27cm2) might require labor time roughly on this order:

Fiber PreparationSpinningWeavingSewingTotal% spent spinning
Aldrete et al3.25 hours74.7 hours9.75 hours2+ hours?89.7 hours83.2%
Fischer100 hours14.4 hours1.4 hours115.8 hours86.35%
J.S. Lee36 hours6 hours42 hours85.7%
Note again that the Lee estimates are chronologically later, post-spinning wheel and horizontal loom and so represent those labor savings. Also please note the total columns don’t include tasks for which the authors did not estimate times.

Now we can very roughly calculate the labor time our family needs (keeping in mind this is rough, with the largest problem being that we have an estimate for flax preparation but not for wool preparation; if you are a traditional wool worker, I would love detailed, rigorous time-labor data for all stages of wool preparation as doing a rigorous assessment of the textile production needs of a Roman smallholder is a long-term research goal of mine). Using the average of Aldrete and Fischer’s figures (erring a little high to account for Fischer’s lack of preparation time) we might figure something like 2,683 hours to produce our 220,000cm2 minimum requirements. Our upper ‘comfort’ level might be three times this or 8,049 hours.

Via the British Library, detail from the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130 fol. 193r (1325-40), showing one woman spinning with a spinning wheel while another cards wool. Once again, thanks to J.S. Lee for citing his manuscript details completely so I could run this down and get the image.

Put into working terms, the basic clothing of our six person farming family requires 7.35 labor hours per day, every day of the year. Our ‘comfort’ level requires 22.05 hours (obviously not done by one person). These figures come way down once we get the spinning wheel and horizontal loom, but what seems fairly readily apparently is that women did not necessarily work less so much as produce more, selling the excess via the ‘putting out’ system we mentioned last time and using that to support their families.

That data has some implications.

Household Spinners

A lone woman could, if she spun in almost every spare minute of her day, on her own keep a small family clothed in minimum comfort (and we know they did that). Adding a second spinner – even if they were less efficient (like a young girl just learning the craft or an older woman who has lost some dexterity in her hands) could push the household further into the ‘comfort’ margin, and we have to imagine that most of that added textile production would be consumed by the family (because people like having nice clothes!).

At the same time, that rate of production is high enough that a household which found itself bereft of (male) farmers (for instance due to a draft or military mortality) might well be able to patch the temporary hole in the family finances by dropping its textile consumption down to that minimum and selling or trading away the excess, for which there seems to have always been demand (from families with the wealth to demand more textiles than the women of the household would produce; we know that it was rare in practice for aristocratic Roman women to do much spinning for instance – exceptions were notable, see below). Consequently, the line between women spinning for their own household and women spinning for the market often must have been merely a function of the financial situation of the family and the balance of clothing requirements to spinners in the household unit (much the same way agricultural surplus functioned).

Via Wikipedia, another painting by William-Adolphe Bouguerau (1873), The Spinner, showing a young woman with her distaff and spindle. The subject is again idealized, and rather well dressed and unlike with the earlier painting of the shepherdess, in this case the activity (spinning) was one done by all classes of women.

Moreover, spinning absolutely dominates production time (again, around 85% of all of the labor-time, a ratio that the spinning wheel and the horizontal loom together don’t really change). This is actually quite handy, in a way, as we’ll see, because spinning (at least with a distaff) could be a mobile activity; a spinner could carry their spindle and distaff with them and set up almost anywhere, making use of small scraps of time here or there.

On the flip side, the labor demands here are high enough prior to the advent of better spinning and weaving technology in the Late Middle Ages (read: the spinning wheel, which is the truly revolutionary labor-saving device here) that most women would be spinning functionally all of the time, a constant background activity begun and carried out whenever they weren’t required to be actively moving around in order to fulfill a very real subsistence need for clothing in climates that humans are not particularly well adapted to naturally. The work of the spinner was every bit as important for maintaining the household as the work of the farmer and frankly students of history ought to see the two jobs as necessary and equal mirrors of each other.

At the same time, just as all farmers were not free, so all spinners were not free. It is abundantly clear that among the many tasks assigned to enslaved women within ancient households. Xenophon lists training the enslaved women of the household in wool-working as one of the duties of a good wife (Xen. Oik. 7.41). Columella (De Re Rust. 12.3.6.-7) advises that the enslaved wife (the vilica) of the enslaved manager (the vilicus) ought to be working wool (which is to say, spinning) at any time when she could not be doing agricultural work and moreover assumes that she would also be supervising other enslaved women on the estate doing the same. Columella also emphasizes that the vilica ought to be continually rotating between the spinners, weavers, cooks, cowsheds, pens and sickrooms, making use of the mobility that the distaff offered while her enslaved husband was out in the fields supervising the agricultural labor (of course, as with the bit of Xenophon above, the same sort of behavior would have been expected of the free wife as mistress of her own household).

Large and wealthy households might have many enslaved women producing not only the textiles required of the workers, but also for the family itself. Columella (loc. cit.) is quite clear that the aim of his vilica and her assistants in spinning was to make the villa self-sufficient by providing domestically produced clothing for the male workforce. Meanwhile, Homer in describing Alcinous’ household (presumably meant to represent an opulent late-Dark-Age/early-Archaic Greek household) notes that Alcinous had fifty serving women who both ground grain in hand-mills and produced textiles (Od. 7.103-5). Notably, earlier in the poem we hear that Helen (of Troy, though now back with her husband Menelaus) works wool and spins herself (Od. 4.130f), as of course does Odysseus’ own wife Penelope.

Consequently spinning and weaving were tasks that might be shared between both relatively elite women and far poorer and even enslaved women, though we should be sure not to take this too far. Doubtless it was a rather more pleasant experience to be the wealthy woman supervising enslaved or hired hands working wool in a large household than it was to be one of those enslaved women, or the wife of a very poor farmer desperately spinning to keep the farm afloat and the family fed. The poor woman spinner – who spins because she lacks a male wage-earner to support her – is a fixture of late medieval and early modern European society and (as J.S. Lee’s wage data makes clear; spinners were not paid well) must have also had quite a rough time of things.

Via the British Library, once again the Luttrell Psalter, fol. 166v showing a woman feeding birds with her distaff and spindle in hand. She seems appropriately bothered by the fact that one of the birds is absolutely massive, but fortunately for everyone involved, it is tied off to a stake in the ground.
More to the point, this is a good example of how a woman could easily take her spinning with her when accomplishing other tasks around the house, like feeding your enormous, nearly man-sized pet bird.
Also, I keep saying this, but one more huzzah to J.S. Lee, who includes complete manuscript citation in his image captions. Huzzah!

Spinners, Spinsters and Distaff Lines

It is difficult to overstate the importance of household textile production in the shaping of pre-modern gender roles. It infiltrates our language even today; a matrilineal line in a family is sometimes called a ‘distaff line,’ the female half of a male-female gendered pair is sometimes the ‘distaff counterpart’ for the same reason. Women who do not marry are sometimes still called ‘spinsters’ on the assumption that an unmarried woman would have to support herself by spinning and selling yarn (I’m not endorsing these usages, merely noting they exist).

E.W. Barber (Women’s Work, 29-41) suggests that this division of labor, which holds across a wide variety of societies (though commercial textile production was often done by men in pre-modern societies, something we’ll discuss next week) was a product of the demands of the one necessarily gendered task in pre-modern societies: child-rearing. Barber notes that tasks compatible with the demands of keeping track of small children are those which do not require total attention (at least when full proficiency is reached; spinning is not exactly an easy task, but a skilled spinner can very easily spin while watching someone else and talking to a third person), can easily be interrupted, is not dangerous, can be easily moved, but do not require travel far from home; as Barber is quick to note, producing textiles (and spinning in particular) fill all of these requirements perfectly and that “the only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food” which of course was also a female-gendered activity in most ancient societies. Barber thus essentially argues that it was the close coincidence of the demands of textile-production and child-rearing which led to the dominant paradigm where this work was ‘women’s work’ as per her title.

(There is some irony that while the men of patriarchal societies of antiquity – which is to say effectively all of the societies of antiquity – tended to see the gendered division of labor as a consequence of male superiority, it is in fact male incapability, particularly the male inability to nurse an infant, which structured the gendered division of labor in pre-modern societies, until the steady march of technology rendered the division itself obsolete. Also, and Barber points this out, citing Judith Brown, we should see this is a question about ability rather than reliance, just as some men did spin, weave and sew (again, often in a commercial capacity), so too did some women farm, gather or hunt. It is only the very rare and quite stupid person who will starve or freeze merely to adhere to gender roles and even then gender roles were often much more plastic in practice than stereotypes make them seem.)

Spinning became a central motif in many societies for ideal womanhood. Of course one foot of the fundament of Greek literature stands on the Odyssey, where Penelope’s defining act of arete is the clever weaving and unweaving of a burial shroud to deceive the suitors, but examples do not stop there. Lucretia, one of the key figures in the Roman legends concerning the foundation of the Republic, is marked out as outstanding among women because, when a group of aristocrats sneak home to try to settle a bet over who has the best wife, she is patiently spinning late into the night (with the enslaved women of her house working around her; often they get translated as ‘maids’ in a bit of bowdlerization. Any time you see ‘maids’ in the translation of a Greek or Roman text referring to household workers, it is usually quite safe to assume they are enslaved women) while the other women are out drinking (Liv. 1.57). This display of virtue causes the prince Sextus Tarquinius to form designs on Lucretia (which, being virtuous, she refuses), setting in motion the chain of crime and vengeance which will overthrow Rome’s monarchy. The purpose of Lucretia’s wool-working in the story is to establish her supreme virtue as the perfect aristocratic wife. This didn’t change in the Middle Ages either; for instance by the 12th century, popular memory of Bertha of Swabia (907-966; queen of Italy 922-926, 937-948; this memory may have been in part invented by monastic communities which claimed her as a sponsor) represented her as an idealized figure, depicted her with distaff in hand and the phrase “when Queen Bertha was spinning” became a trope to evoke an idealized past. Betha’s is hardly the only legend that has to do with women’s role in textile production.

Via Wikipedia, painting by Albert Anker (1888) showing Queen Bertha instructing girls on spinning (in this case the fibers are clearly flax, though wool would probably have been more appropriate for a tenth century spinner in Italy).

Moving from legends, textile production was an important point of status for many pre-modern women. It was a thing which might well be bragged about (e.g. Plut. Mor. 241d, where an Ionian woman does just that to a less-than-receptive Spartan woman). Augustus (the first emperor of Rome) and his wife Livia recognized the value of the imagery, letting it be known that Livia (herself fantastically wealthy even without being the wife of the sole ruler of Rome) spun his clothing herself (Seut. Aug. 73); we may safely judge this to be a bit of theater, but the usefulness of the theater (much like the manufactured memory of Bertha) tells us something.

Indeed, even in death a great many pre-modern women did not leave behind the distaffs and spindles. Perhaps the single most common compliment given to Roman women on funerary inscriptions was the simple but ubiquitous ‘lanam fecit’ (“she made wool;” for an example, note). Spinning and weaving tools are extremely common grave goods (almost always, but not always for female burials) in numerous pre-modern cultures. Sanna Lipkin (“Textile Making in Central Tyrrhenian Italy – Questions Related to Age, Rank and Status” in Making Textiles in Pre-Roman and Roman Times, ed. M. Gleba and J. Pásztókai-Szeöke (2013), 19-29) notes numerous examples in pre-Roman Italy (interesting age seems to have been a factor, with younger individuals more likely to have weaver’s sets, while older individuals were more likely to be buried with a distaff; Lipkin suggests quite plausibly that burial with a distaff and spindle was the clear marker of the mater familias – the female head of house).

For myself, I find that students can fairly readily understand the centrality of farming in everyday life in the pre-modern world, but are slower to grasp spinning and weaving (often tacitly assuming that women were effectively idle, or generically ‘homemaking’ in ways that precluded production). And students cannot be faulted for this – they generally aren’t confronted with this reality in classes or in popular culture. For instance, in HBO’s Rome, we see men work, build and farm (as well as fight), but we do not see women spinning or weaving at any point, even in very modest households where this would have been a continuous activity (the opportunity to have Livia, herself a character in the show, be shown spinning Octavian’s clothes was also sadly missed). Even more than farming or blacksmithing, this is an economic and household activity that is rendered invisible in the popular imagination of the past, even as (as you can see from the artwork in this post) it was a dominant visual motif for representing the work of women for centuries.

Needless to say, there is much more to discuss when it comes to these processes (I have, for instance, left out some of the finer points of weaving, in particular the mechanisms of producing more complex weaving patterns and the loom set-up and finishing techniques; seriously, weaving is complicated but I leave it to modern practitioners to explain those details), but with any luck I have at least convinced you that pre-modern household textile production is not a thing to be neglected in the study of the past.

Next week, we move more fully into the commercial space and look at the fabric trade and commercial production, along with the various color treatments that might be applied to either fabric or yarn.

200 thoughts on “Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part III: Spin Me Right Round…

  1. Is there any reading on why the spinning wheel was developed around 1000AD and not earlier? It seems the constituent parts of the wheel all had drastically earlier antecedents and if spinning was such a core part of the economy, presumably large amounts of mental energy were devoted to improving the workflow.

    Similarly but unrelated, do you know of any reading that delves into why the horse collar was also invented around this time and not earlier?

    1. Speculation on the horse collar: The incentive to invent the horse collar scales with the potential value of horses as draft animals. The horse wasn’t domesticated among agricultural peoples until some time around… [looks up] roughly the third millennium BCE. And those tended to be scruffy little ponies, small enough that even if you had a really efficient way to harness them to a plow or a freight wagon, they wouldn’t necessarily be very useful for pulling it. You would of course hitch them up to chariots anyway- but in fairly sizeable teams, enough so that it would be nearly hopeless to use them for draft animals.

      Thus, reliance on donkeys, oxen, and other animals for musclepower in the civilian economy.

      Breeding for larger, stronger horses would likely have been ongoing in the background anyway, since the ideal warhorse needs the stamina and strength to carry a well equipped rider for a long time. I suspect that wherever the horse collar was invented (as I recall in China) not TOO many centuries after horse breeders managed to create varieties that would be strong enough for the increased tractive power to matter.

      Then again, I could be wrong.

      There’s no *immediately* obvious reason for the spinning wheel not to evolve faster. As you imply, the efficiency gains from a good spinning wheel should massively increase any given spinner’s productivity even if the rest of the textile production chain is still firmly in the Bronze Age.

      Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of spindle-distaff production. This is a tool, and an entire production process, that you can pick up and walk around with. It’s portable and lets you work in five or ten-minute bursts throughout the day, interspersed with other activities. A spinning wheel may let any given woman spin thread much faster, but she has to stay with the wheel, operating it more or less continuously without interruption, and she can’t move it around the home. It is no more a direct “drop-in” replacement for the distaff-spindle combination than a rotary table saw is for a handsaw.

      To get the spinning wheel, at a bare minimum you need the right socioeconomic conditions. You need a combination of reasonably clever craftwork (to think of building the things and design them to be effective) and significant numbers of women who do NOTHING BUT spinning, to the exclusion of other tasks that would otherwise interfere with their ability to stay seated and spinning cloth.

      These conditions, for most of the pre-industrial world, would seem to only be attainable on wealthy estates with large numbers of (generally enslaved) women working at the spinning. If I’m not mistaken here, the question then wraps back around to the more general question of “why didn’t ancient slave-owners see an incentive to invent labor-saving machinery to improve the productivity of their enslaved workforces?” Because we see that pattern frequently, I think.

      1. Breeding for larger horses started quite early – Persia boasted the famous Nisaean horses, a royal stud farm in Media Alexander took care to seize. The horse collar came west from East Asia, yet China is hardly horse country – perhaps the collar originated further west (as did the stirrup)? Around the same time we see improved ox yokes, mould-board ploughs and then a spate of inventions – wire-drawing, an explosion of water-powered industrial applications and so on. It seems to relate in some way to social relations.

      2. “These conditions, for most of the pre-industrial world, would seem to only be attainable on wealthy estates with large numbers of (generally enslaved) women working at the spinning.”

        So then why do we see spinning wheels more or less universally adopted? Yes, it took a while, but that’s because pretty much everything took a while to change.

        Pre-industrial societies are generally composed of a large number of (very) local communities tied together by a (very small) travelled elite. The elite had very little penetration into the community – in a number of cases they didn’t even speak the same language (even when they did, it would be a different dialect).

        I’ve been reading a bit about this – my father (who passed a few years ago) grew up in a small mountain village in Italy just before and during WW II. Some of his attitudes are becoming more clear now. In many ways, the village was pre-industrial. Most people grew most of what they needed, but one didn’t go to market for most things. Italian was the language you learned in school – you spoke the local dialect at home and to the other villagers. The people from the village down the valley (10 miles away) spoke funny and had odd ways. There was a blacksmith because you used oxen and donkeys for a lot of work – although he could get and use things like an oxy-acetylene torch for certain work. I’m not certain about how cloth was made and used – the family had 4 boys (no girls), and what I know came from my father.

        I visited the village with him in mid-September a couple of decades ago. It is now specialized for growing a certain variety of apple that apparently is quite popular in Italy but does not travel well, so we don’t get it here. Pretty much every non-vertical surface has been levelled out and planted with an apple tree. They have specialized drip irrigation systems, probably because (as I said) it’s a mountain valley.

        And the children all speak Italian at home now – anyone under about 50 likely knows no dialect.

        I think my point here is that you can get new stuff adopted fairly quickly only if the existing system gets more or less completely torn down first. Italy had that between the trifecta of unification, Mussolini and World War II. Other places likely took more time…

        1. I read Reinhold Messner’s autobiography, including growing up in the South Tyrol in the immediate post.war years, and a couple of other Austrian memoirs from that period. It’s astonishing how mediaeval life still was in the upper valleys in those days. Cattle smuggling to avoid customs duties between Salzburg and the Tyrol was a thing in the 1950s!

          It was probably the advent of ski tourism as as (relatively) mass middle class leisure pursuit that really changed things.

          1. That’s… not actually very far away from where I was talking about.

        2. To directly respond to the question I was asked:

          So then why do we see spinning wheels more or less universally adopted? Yes, it took a while, but that’s because pretty much everything took a while to change.

          Because given when the spinning wheel was invented, you don’t need a large centralized estate of for-profit spinners to adopt the spinning wheel, but you’re more likely to need one to invent the spinning wheel.

          To adopt the spinning wheel, you need to be able to see that someone else has done so, and get a suitably talented woodworker to make you one. This is not an insurmountable obstacle for the typical peasant woman, once the spinning wheel has come to her community. And there’s enough diffusion and contact within the overall civilization that spinning wheels will make their way up into the back country in time.

          To invent the spinning wheel, you need someone to have the time and skill set to design something that makes spinning easier in the first place. Which means you need either:

          1) A very unusual spinner (one with the skills of an expert woodworker), or
          2) A somewhat unusual spinner who is close to a somewhat unusual expert woodworker, and who can persuade the woodworker that it’s worth their time to spend months tinkering with a prototype spinning wheel, or
          3) Someone who can convince an expert woodworker to spend all their time for months tinkering with a prototype spinning wheel, and is inclined to do so.

          Realistically, the spinning wheel probably originated with situations (2) or (3). No way to say which it was, obviously, but the obstacles to entry are still there. Either you need a prosperous backer who can monopolize a craftsman’s time for the full duration of the “invent spinning wheel” project, bankrolling them and their personal needs until they work the bugs out… Or it has to have originated as something of a long-term passion project on the part of a vary specific pair of people.

          1. I’d guess it was #2, because every woodworker was married to a spinner.

          2. I think situation 1 is more likely than you give it credit. I know of many modern spinners who have taken up hobby woodworking in order to fix or create spindles for their own use. A spindle is a heavy-use item that is not often treated delicately. The process of spinning involves many bumps and jostles, and that’s assuming you never fumble and drop the thing! It doesn’t seem a huge leap to think that some percentage of our ancestors would take up a degree of woodworking as a matter of course, because if you dropped a spindle and the shaft broke, or the whorl broke off or some such thing, you would lose many hours of production if you had to wait for the skilled woodworker to make you a new one. Much simpler to head out and find a stick in the woodpile, then whittle and bow lathe yourself a replacement. Once that is commonplace, it doesn’t seem like such a leap for one or two particularly engineeringly inclined spinners to hit upon the idea of getting the spindle turned by something else, especially if they are living in an area with a mill to give them the idea to have a powered wheel providing the force. Once you’ve got a basic idea and a rough prototype to work with, it’s not that hard to then move on to either making it yourself, especially as the first wheels were the great or walking wheels. These were generally powered by hand turning the wheel, which is directly attached to the spindle and the magic of it is all in the ratios: one big turn of the big wheel equals many little turns of the tiny spindle. Not much mechanical knowledge is needed; I know of someone who made a spinning wheel of this type using a pair of knitting needles, some twine, a bike wheel, a cork, a 2×4, a leather strap, and some screws.

        3. Why spinning wheels in 1200 or so in Europe? Because that’s when the commercial economy in key regions is dense enough to allow women to dedicate themselves to spinning more or less full time. At the same time the clothing trades take off in Italy (fine Florentine cloth) and the Netherlands, with reaches into eastern England and northern France. Presumably the same commercial point was reached earlier in the Middle East and China.

      3. It would also be an issue of cost. Horses of the right size and strength would have been luxury goods, mostly for warrior-aristocrats in sedentary societies. I don’t think they would have considered using them to pull a plow

        1. And horses took longer to grow up than oxen.

          This I have heard of mostly in why beef and not horsemeat — you get more beef than horsemeat per grass — but until your horse can outdo your ox, you aren’t using your horse.

      4. I wonder how much gendered notions, too, played a part – men inventing new tools for agriculture or war makes sense because they see an immediate increase, but how many men would fiddle around after normal work to improve women’s lives? Especially since there is an existing tool – spindle?

        As for staying seated with a spinning wheel versus mobility with spindle and distaff: I think you need to remember that all those pre-industrialized societies followed farming cycles. So in summer, middle-age women would be helping in the fields, and old women look after the toddlers and cook food; but in winter, when the harvest was in, there were long days with little outside work.

        In 19th century rural Bavaria, women had “spinning evenings” where a dozen or more girls and women from several households would meet at one farm in an empty room and spin together (plus gossiping about boys or learning wisdom from older women). Saved on candles and wood to only use one room, and the work goes quicker if you talk (before radio) than work alone.
        These young women were working for their bride chest, not for selling, if they were moderatly-off farmers.

    2. Part of it might be complexity.
      The spindle needs to rotate very fast for the process to work. So you cannot have an intermediate form of a spindle attached to a frame and crank or similar; gearing with a big and small wheel is absolutely required.

      Speaking of which, here is a longer video that shows and explains the different parts of a spinning wheel:

      1. That, and there may have been gender roles associated with the craftspeople who had the skill to design a spinning wheel. If wainwrights and other wood workers were primarily men, one might be relying upon them to (a) decide that faster or more efficient spinning was a problem they cared to solve, and (b) have sufficient understanding of the process of spinning to propose a solution.

  2. Possible Typo: “(the distinction between the two is purpose;”

    Should that be “purposeful” or something?

    1. I read it as saying that the distinction between the two is the purpose to which they are put, rather than there being any physical difference.

  3. I think this is a useful illustration of how short our cultural memory really is, and how, when people talk about the “traditional” way of things, “how it’s always been” (in this case referring to the “proper” place of a woman in the household, but the same applies to “traditional” attire, festivals, food, etc – some of those might in fact be centuries old, but most probably aren’t), they mostly mean how it’s been ~100 years ago.

    As for the connection between spinning as the main source of income and economic hardship, this is also encapsulated in a German saying “Spinne am Morgen – Kummer und Sorgen. Spinne am Abend – erquickend und labend” (Spinning in the morning – grief and sorrow. Spinning in the evening – refreshing and nourishing).

    spinning […] is not dangerous
    Sleeping Beauty would like to disagree.

    1. could you explain the exact meaning behind that phrase? is it grievous to spin in the morning because that means you’re doing it all day to make ends meet?

      1. That’s the implication of the first part, at least as I understand the saying, yes.

        The second part I understand to mean that doing some spinning in the evening would allow people to wind down at the end of the day. Today
        some people would knit or crochet for that purpose.

      2. Could it possibly be a reference to the morning being used for the other tasks of keeping a family alive, meaning if they’re spinning in the morning there isn’t a family to do that for (likely meaning they’ve died).

        Pure conjecture of course.

        1. Not necessarily: it can mean either the woman is alone, hence in danger of poverty, therefore spinning the whole day to make money; or that she has a family, but the financial situation is so precarious for the whole family that she needs to spin the whole day to make some money.
          If the family or woman owned some land of their own, she’d work on the field during busy season, so no spinning, but if they were daily labourers, poverty was always looming.

  4. Fascinating as usual!

    I’m wondering how this ties in to your other observations about how people were more likely to wear textiles than furs/skins/hides/leather, given that textiles were so labour-intensive. Was tanning and leather preparation even more intensive? Or were hides too scarce? Or just not comfortable enough?

    1. You can shear a sheep year after year, but you can only skin it once. A sheepskin is less than a yard of material, but its cumulative wool output can make many yards of cloth.

      1. Definitely be crazy to kill a sheep for clothing. But there are billy-goats, steers, rabbits etc that are eventually being killed for food anyway. If we’re talking 26 square yards for the minimum clothing for a family of six for a year, you might be able to get some square yards from them.

        1. You’d probably use leather were it was necessary i.e. in boots, belts things like that. You’d likely try to conserve it when possible since you’d only have access to it when an animal dies.

        2. Wild animals dissapear in and around agricultural areas and can not fully furbish an entire population. They were hunted mainly for meat and the fur was usually reserved for the elites or for export. People used to wear leather and fur clothes only in low density zones.

          1. Wethers (neutered male sheep) give better wool than ewes do, because they don’t have the hormonal fluctuation or nutritional demands that a ewe does. But a ewe gives milk and meat (excess lambs). I have no idea how many of those flocks of sheep would have been both ewes and wethers. Many breeds are dual purpose, for 2 of meat, milk (for cheese), wool.

            These days some farms keeping alpacas for fleece also keep neutered males, for the same reason. Not every male is breeding stock quality, but he can still produce good fleece.

  5. not, by the by, in the sense of a house – that meaning comes later – but actually from German scheiden, ‘to divide,’ as the shed divides the warp threads

    It’s wrong to say that it’s from German scheiden; it’s definitely related to it though. The exact connection, but it was probably formed off of the English equivalent of that verb, (to) shed (as in “shedding fur”; German preserves the original meaning of “split, divide”).

    1. English uses the same meaning in Watershed, the line that divides regions of drainage. I’m not sure if there are any other English words that use it in that meaning though.

        1. From Wiktionary:

          From Middle English sheden, scheden, schoden, from Old English scēadan, scādan (“to separate, divide, part, make a line of separation between; remove from association or companionship; distinguish, discriminate, decide, determine, appoint; shatter, shed; expound; decree; write down; differ”), from Proto-West Germanic *skaiþan, from Proto-Germanic *skaiþaną (compare West Frisian skiede, Dutch and German scheiden), from Proto-Indo-European *skeyt- (“to cut, part, divide, separate”), from *skey-.

          See also Welsh chwydu (“to break open”), Lithuanian skėsti (“to spread”), skíesti (“to separate”), Old Church Slavonic цѣдити (cěditi, “to filter, strain”), Ancient Greek σχίζω (skhízō, “to split”), Old Armenian ցտեմ (cʿtem, “to scratch”), Sanskrit च्यति (cyáti, “he cuts off”)). Related to shoad, shit.

  6. Are the economics taking mending in account ? even now in rich countries, it happens that the next child get some of the clothing worn by the elder child when it has been outgrown. And surely people were not throwing away all their garments after one year ? Without any kind of evidence at all, my guess that beside all women, quite a lot of the men, including many soldiers – even the burly Roman legionaries – were using thread and needle to mend their clothes themselves when necessary. At the market price of clothes in premodern times, clothing was precious, something to be inherited.

    Here is a link about mostly food; but there is also a price list for cloth in 1438 at London

    One square yard of linen, one week of work for a skilled worker.

    1. I think the idea is that you own multiple sets of clothes at a time, and every year or so one of them becomes too badly worn for mending or handing down.

      1. Also, I left out of the calculation the cloth requires for rags, towels, covers and the like for precisely this reason: I assume those will mostly be made of the scraps of fabric from otherwise worn out garments.

        1. You pretty much correct here. This practice is alive even today. My mother for example habitually keeps old discarded clothing to use it for rags, to wipe floors and surfaces with and so on.
          Cultural memory of that kind is strong enough to transfer across one generation at least, because my wife for example do not have such habit, even if her mother have it too.

          1. That’s strange. What do you use to clean? Paper towels? That seems so extravagant plus they are less sturdy than textiles. That said, we produce much more in worn clothing than we can use in cleaning rags.

        2. Ancient Egyptian mummies required vast amounts of linen for their wrappings. These wrappings were mostly old and worn linen. It is uncertain who supplied it. Did people save their old linen for mummy wrappings or did embalmers buy used linen? Who knows.

    2. People did a lot of manual and high friction work in pre-modern times. Combine this with sweat, rain and add repeated exposure to UV and it will torn down most kind of thin fabrics. Carrying rocks/wood, fighting with bladed weapons or simple manhandling at the bar will also take care of even tough vestments. People did a lot of sewing and patching by themselves but preferred to give the cloths to some man / woman who knew how to do good needle work and had enough patches of required textire and colour.

  7. A woman did not, of course, spin all the time. January 7 is “St. Distaff’s Day” because, being the day after Epiphany, women started spinning again after the Christmas holidays.

  8. Great article, and fascinating subject. I again don’t have enough of a perspective to offer an intelligent question, but something tangential to the main thrust of the article caught my eye. Attached to a picture, you said, and I quote

    “Thanks to J.S. Lee for citing his manuscript details completely so I could find this; I am endlessly frustrated by books using manuscript illumination images without citing the manuscript completely, since a random manuscript illustration with nothing but the name of the collection it is from is almost impossible to run down.”

    Is the state of image citation really that bad? I never went into academia in the traditional sense, but I do read a lot of history, both popular and some more serious academic stuff. Granted, it’s very very rare that I actually ran down a citation to try to find an original reference in something, but I thought that this was a big important part of the discipline, and one of the major things that separates the true historian from the pseudohistorian amateur. I’m reminded of Richard Evans’s critique of David Irving in the Lipstadt trial, which spends enormous time and detail on Irving’s failures to clearly cite his sources, and the clear implication that “Because Irving does not cite the way a historian does, he is therefore not a proper historian.”

    Have I come away with an idealized vision of the discipline?

    1. From observation, historians seem to be much more careful when citing words than images. Words will almost always have exact page page numbers, but most images are just given as “British Museum Collection” or “Author’s Collection” or similar.

  9. Great essay! I do kinda wish you had a diagram with labels (rather than old artwork) or a video of pre-modern looms since it was a bit hard to follow along with your descriptions, especially with all the terminology. The videos you linked for spinning were incredibly helpful.

  10. (WordPress ate my comment. I retyped the whole thing just to spite it.)

    The spinning wheel freed a mind boggling amount of human time. Shouldn’t that leave incredibly obvious impacts on the historical record? Like, if a city-state monopolized this, I would expect them to conquer the region just to have something to do with the tens of thousands of person hours that just appeared out of nowhere.

    Even if the productivity went somewhere useful like improved living standards, we should still be able to track it by the sudden jump in wealth. If most women spend 80% of their labor spinning, reducing that by two thirds represent a 24% increase in gdp (technically false, doesn’t matter). This is back in the days before growth was a thing. There isn’t anywhere that surplus can go without us being able to notice, even a 1000 years later.

    Like, what were women writing about in those days? I mean, yes, most of the women who were writing weren’t doing all the spinning themselves, but surely they noticed their staff/slaves suddenly had lots of free time, or if they kept going full throttle, that they were drowning in cloth that wasn’t selling for as much as it used to?

    1. The impression I get from the post is that the extra time freed up by the spinning wheel mostly translated into additional textile production – English cloth production tripling between 1315 and 1545.

      The big shift in GDP in that timeframe is a dramatic drop caused by the Black Death (the linked data series has a fall from £4bn to £2.67bn between 1348 and 1351). The general trend, before that fall, is fairly level or (at best) growing extremely slowly. After the Black Death there was a long, very slow, recovery – could that huge shock have completely swamped the evidence of the arrival of the spinning wheel?

      The data series starts in 1270; it’s possible that the big increase in available time took place right at arrival of the spinning wheel, was diverted elsewhere, and for some reason swung back to support additional textile production in the C14th. That seems unlikely on several fronts, though.

      I’d guess that another problem is that GDP is a pretty blunt instrument. The data set I’ve linked to gives historic estimates developed by the Bank of England; unfortunately their link back to the BoE website is out of date. Recent BoE GDP calculations are put together using three different methodologies – how much everybody has produced, how much everybody has earned, and how much everybody has spent – and then triangulating between the resulting figures (more details here).

      Historically this is obviously problematic – many goods were produced and consumed by the same household, fewer people earned an income, far more of the national economic activity would have been outside the scope of record keepers.

      If most of the freed up labour went into additional cloth production, and the majority of that cloth was consumed by the producer or bartered between close households in the village, then it might be completely invisible to some approaches to measuring GDP.

      GDP aside, I’d guess that any woman writing at the time might have been a bit distracted by the plague and its aftermath; anyone thinking about the economy might have noticed that the price of textiles had fallen, but not that there was surplus fabric sitting around or spinning wheels sitting idle – textile production wouldn’t have increased so much if there wasn’t the demand. So perhaps it makes more sense to think of all that effort going into moving whole societies going from having a barely functional level of clothing, warmth, etc to having a more comfortable baseline for day to day living.

    2. – As pointed out by another comment, the spinning wheel also comes with severe drawbacks in the portability department and therefore did not immediately and universally replace the hand spindle. The change might have been slow enough that people didn’t notice much of a difference within their lifetime.

      – Growth definitely was a thing in the Late Middle Ages. As mentioned in the blog post, textile production in England went up even when population declined during the Black Death. There was a growing urban middle class wearing more (and finer, i.e. more labor-intensive) clothes than they could produce themselves, and aristocratic fashion gets more extravagant. Probably a 1350 peasant also got more changes of clothes per year than a 1050 one.

    3. As I understand it, trade across Western Europe, especially the wool trade, does become a lot more economically important in this period. Also, clothes production becomes more fancy: this is the period in which buttons come into use, allowing for close-fitting clothes, rather than loose gowns, which I assume is more wasteful because of offcuts. We start to see fashion in clothes coming in.

      More speculatively: this is a period in which we start to see vernacular literatures in Western Europe shifting away from in which the implied setting is the poet reading to his peers and patron after a meal to more private works, in which the implied setting might be one woman reading to her companions while they were working. Religious material starts to be written to be used in the home. (I don’t know if there are similar developments in the Islamic world and China.) So we’re looking at a society in which work is less intensive for the upper and urban classes and there is more demand for reading material. The rise of vernacular material intended for mass circulation predates the printing press as a means of mass circulation.

      1. This is more speculative on my part but…
        I can’t help but note that the minimum was set at 1 new outfit every two years right? But that’s…Not much clothing for any given person. So Households can, and likely did, simply escalate their internal ‘demand’ as the supply was increased from various means. So a minimum of 1 new outfit every two years for the poorest slave might become 1 new outfit every year, at least until it hits the point that being short of clothing would only really happen if someone was going out of their way to deny clothing to a person. Plus, as mentioned above, said increases in productivity could also be used to increase quality/complexity of clothing as well. Throw that in with the notion that households could produce the products they then consume without any middleman, and it seems to me it wouldn’t even touch GDP figures, Plague or no Plague…

    4. Bret addressed this:

      “estimates, for instance that English cloth production tripled (measured by weight) between 1315 and 1545 and cloth produced per capita increased five-fold (the English population declined during the period due to the Black Death). Income and the status of spinners consequently declined (wages may have dropped by as much as half) and the sudden relative abundance of cheap yarn put pressure on the other stages of textile production – both to feed wool into the spinning wheels and then more weavers to make cloth out of it.”

      I’d note that another consumer of fabric is sailcloth. Cheaper fabric -> more sailing ships and/or ships with more sails.

  11. In the Odyssey Helen enters the Megaron of her home trailed by maids carrying a cushion for her chair, a footstool, and her wool basket. We should imagine the Queen of Sparta spinning with distaff and spindle as she talks with her husband and their guest Telemachus. Queen Arete of Phaecia sits in her Megaron weaving as she receives guests and petitioners.
    For elite women spinning and weaving was a pass time not a necessary chore. But Livia probably did take part in producing the clothing of her household. Elite women used expensive dyes wove elaborate patterns if we can believe the Illiad.

    1. My own sense is to detect a divide between the aristocracy of the Greek Dark Age and the elite Roman women of the early empire; my sense is that the latter were less likely to be active wool workers than the former. Consider the gap in wealth: Alcinous, with 50 female slaves, is presented as a very wealthy king. Livia must have owned thousands of enslaved workers on her own, without considering the equally vast property of Augustus. The Roman elite were rich in a way that essentially no one in Dark Ages, or even Archaic, or even *Classical* Greece was. Evidently, Augustus’ home-spun wardrobe was unusual; most elite Romans didn’t produce their own clothes.

      1. Livia’s wool work was clearly a public relations ploy. She was posing as a virtuous Roman Matron of old. Possibly other elite women did so as well for the same reason. Textile fancy work, including weaving, was a pass time of elite women long after the ceased having to do so economically. It continued to be a symbol of female virtue and even identity.

        1. Elite weaving could also be using more expensive materials and making more complex textiles; Helen in the Iliad is weaving a story cloth depicting the war. Penelope’s burial shroud was probably a story cloth.

          1. The Bayeux tapestry is a later example of the prestige weaving by elite women, as are – I believe – a large number of altar cloths and the like.

          2. The Bayeux “tapistery” is in fact a wool embroidery on woven linnen.So the figures are needlework, not weaving.

    2. There is also the point that just because you don’t *have* to produce cloth, that doesen’t mean it’s not something that gets used/is a meaningful addition.

      My mother does some textile work (mostly knitting and such) and even though we usually bought our cloths we still wore the stuff she made, and it was a contribution to the household.

  12. “there a vertical loom like a warp-weighted loom was restricted in fabric length to the height of the loom”

    The picture of the warp-weighted loom just above this quote looks like it has a roller with some fabric alread rolled up on it, with the small stick on the top right being there to prevent it from unrolling. Together with wrapping the excess warp in neat bundles on the weights this would allow to weave fabric significantly taller than the loom.

    Of course, having two rollers at the two ends of the warp / fabric means that moving forward is much quicker than having to roll up the fabric and then unwrap an appropriate amount of warp from each weight, so horizontal framed looms would still have an advantage.

      1. I don’t know if it was feasible for those looms, but modern weavers often have odd warp threads wound on bobbins to repair a warping error or a broken warp thread. The replacement warp threads need to be as long as the original warp threads. The replacements also need some weighting to maintain tension.

        The picture of a woman at a horizontal loom – I thought “Oh, a counter-balance 2 harness loom”. With 2 harnesses she can only do plain (tabby) weave. With 3 or 4 harnesses she could do twill.

      2. If you examine the photo of the warp weighted loom reconstruction, you can see compacted bundles of warp threads near the top of the weights.

        As a contemporary weaver if I were setting up such a loom those would probably be slip knot chains, but I cannot say for certain that that was the warp thread storage method used in this reconstruction or historically. This sort of knotting allows for significant lengths of warp to be compacted down to quite small volumes with little to no tangling.

        Having made a piece inspired by the warp weighted loom, with card woven band and all, I would say that the most likely practical constraint on the length of a warp for such a loom is not the hight of the frame, but the area one has for measuring out the warp when weaving the starting band. This is not really much of a constraint as one can measure out significant length in a remarkable compact area with the use of several strategically placed pegs as can be seen in a contemporary warping board.

        I admit most of this conjecture is based on practical contemporary weaving experience, however I do believe it is worth considering as historical weavers were people of considerable practical experience who could very well have come to similar solutions presented with similar constraints.

  13. Part of the reason why we don’t hear much about spinning as opposed to farming is that, for some reason, we moderns tend to think of clothing as something that just *happens* in a way that we don’t think of food as just *happening.* I suspect this is because, at least these days, farming is visible in a way that textile production is not.

    1. Also, people who spin, weave, knit, sew clothing, quilt, make lace, etc. now are mostly doing it for a hobby and they are correctly regarded as spare time activities. Fantasy writers often treat sewing and embroidery as aristocratic fripperies done by ladies who ought to be out killing dragons or something important.

      1. And the princess who rebelliously refuses to do any needlework is showing that she’s the Heroine, not shirking when she’s perfectly willing to wear the clothes after.

        1. Exactly!
          Even after cloth making was professionalized and those who could afford it bought cloth instead of producing it at home women still did tremendous amounts of sewing. Even queens made shirts for their husbands and sons, and good queens sewed clothes for the poor. In addition to decorative embroidery, curtains, cushion covers and the like ladies embroidered heraldic trappings for their knightly menfolk, clothing for themselves and altar cloths and similar adornments for churches.

          1. My grandmother’s grandmother in rural Virginia gave the children the loom to burn when the family could afford store-bought cloth. Given the mechanization of cigarette making and expansion of tobacco growing in their area, this would have been around 1912. Flyer and great wheels still turned up in estate sales in that area in the late 20th Century.

            Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia still has women producing house-hold textiles, often buying the thread, though. Nicaragua had home spinning and weaving up to the 1940s when the native cotton plants were destroyed to protect commercial cotton growing and move women into working in export agriculture.

            Some Mexican field clothes apparently last for up to twenty years, according to a textile cultural student. Handspun and woven cloth can be sturdier than machine spun and woven cloth.

    2. Also, when the new food supply stops it is a much more severe and immediate problem than when the new cloth supply stops.

      1. When the new food supply stops, as it does about every winter, you have stored food, which is the equivalent of the clothes on your back. No food at all is the equivalent of no clothes at all, which… can kill you overnight, depending on the weather.

      1. “From the supermarket, of course!”
        (Not my view – I’ve caught, killed, butchered, and cooked my own dinner at least once. Chicken on a farm)

    3. Kind of makes sense, Clothing is just one of lots of manufactured goods these days, and people don’t say, spend lots of time thinking about where pencils come from, or screws, or random plastic things, etc. Food’s a bit more specific and obviously important when it comes to health and such.

  14. I would be interested in a series on the functioning of monasteries (or equivalents if those are relevant) in pre modern times. I would be willing to guess that the representations in pop culture are probably more than a little misleading especially as the roles of the monasteries and the monks themselves changed a lot over time.

  15. Great series! I’ve recently found this blog and I’m working my way through the other series as well.

    One typo I saw: under the picture demonstrating warp and weft you write “holding the warp threads taught under tension”. That should be either “holding the warp threads taut” or “…tight under tension” (either one works). Taught is what happens to me while reading the blog posts 🙂

  16. Prof. Devereux raises an interesting issue about translating descriptions of domestic female laborers. It is true that in an ancient Mediterranean household those laborers were enslaved, but our current picture of slavery is largely shaped by the antebellum American South. So describing Lucretia’s assistants as “slave women” would evoke a picture of a Southern matron surrounded by a bunch of black women. That would be on the whole less accurate than a picture of a Victorian matron surrounded by a bunch of working class women.

    The same issue arises in translating descriptions of male agricultural laborers.

    1. Aside from skin color, what’s the difference between Lucretia’s slaves and American slaves? I’d certainly rather be a working class Victorian than either one.

        1. Leaving aside that both cover long periods of time, large areas, and many different individuals, making it difficult to speak about each of them as one thing — all works I’ve read on the matter indicates a comparable range of treatment.

          1. Was it? Besides, that only converted your master to your patron, and your slavery to being his client. You were part of his clan, and you had many duties to your patron, which could include sexual intercourse. (Unchastity is for the freeborn a fault, for the slave a necessity, and for the freed a duty.)

            A freedman in the Deep South could tell his master go fly a kite.

          2. @Mary

            A freedman in the antebellum South could tell his master to go fly a kite… for about as long as it took his former master to whistle up a mob. And because the freedman was on the wrong end of a racialized caste system, the mob in question was not likely to be hard to find.

            The institutions of Roman slavery and slavery in the American South were very different. Analyzing which (if either) was better is really the kind of thing that would require a deep, comprehensive dive into the details.

          3. If so, no doubt you have cases where masters sent lynch mobs to murder their former slaves for disobeying them.

          4. Actual slave testimony from the Old South indicates that truly evil owners were as rare as saintly ones. The vast majority were described as generally kind except when angry or drunk. In other words generally decent people took their temper out on slaves because they could.
            Frederic Douglass, no apologist for slavery or slave owners, stated that there were indeed limits to how much mistreatment an owner could get away with enforced by other whites. The infamous Madame la Laurie barely escaped from a lynch mob when her tortured slaves were discovered.
            Wealthy Romans had many more slaves than even the most affluent Southern planter making individual lives relatively cheap. Various laws were made to protect slaves from being sold as gladiators or casually killed but only God know how well they were enforced.
            Privileges like peculium and manumission were generally limited to house servants and skilled laborers. A Freedman suffered from a number of limitations and it would take a generation or two for his descendants to rid themselves of the taint.
            Romans definitely had racial prejudices. Northern Europeans were thick witted barbarians. Greeks were decadent, Levantines sly and greedy and North Africans sexually voracious.

        2. That’s dubious. There are some pretty terrible stories from Roman times and people who abuse power and get off on sadism exist in every time and population.

          1. The existence of terrible stories says nothing about the frequency. And I would retort it’s dubious that a racialized caste system of slavery with an explicitly dehumanizing ideology wouldn’t be worse than one where being a slave was viewed as bad luck, and emancipation common.

      1. Slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was (i) not race-based and (ii) not necessarily a lifetime condition. We encounter numerous freedman in Roman history. (Not so many freedwomen actually receive historical mention, but presumably the freedmen married someone.) A family in the Roman empire could theoretically move from slave to freedman to auxiliary soldier to legionary to farmer to larger farmer. No step of that ladder was open to a black person in the old South.

          1. Yes, a few, but the ones who were known to be black (as opposed to those who had small fractions of black ancestry which they concealed) existed on sufferance–a sufferance which was generally withdrawn during the Civil War, incidentally, and at other times and places..

  17. Typos:
    they they sometimes have them

    or later peddle

    the warp threads taught

    on each side to allow the the weaving

    allows the headles


    Note how the pedals are her feet control the heddle bar

    about minimum textile requires.

    minimum pear year

    (interesting age seems to have been a factor

    1. Gendered food prep: _Catching Fire_ (Richard Wrangham) says

      “Overall cooking was the most female-biased activity: Women did the cooking “almost exclusively” in 63.6 percent of societies and “predominantly” in 34.2 percent. After cooking, the next most female-biased activities were preparing vegetable food (mostly by women in 94.3 percent of societies), fetching water (91.4 percent), and doing the laundry (87 percent) (Murdock and Provost [1973]).”

      Men will cook when on their own but in mixed company the women almost always cook; Wrangham speculates that this goes back to Homo habilis. He also says that “wife stealing” was often motivated more by seeking someone to cook and make clothing than seeking sex.

      1. How does Wrangham provide supporting evidence for gendered food preparation in prehistoric proto-humans? You could get back to the Neolithic using existing Stone Age tribes as a reference point, but for homo erectus?

    2. So: how all this ruins your favorite “medievalish” fantasy series.

      Maybe your Rangers or Lakewalker patrollers can hunt and forage their food, especially with cheaty but low levels of magic. But who’s making their clothes? (Bujold does talk about this for the Lakewalkers.) Maybe Yavanna makes gathering food in Valinor a cinch, but if Feanor’s a smith and Nerdanel’s a sculptor, who’s making clothes for them and their 7 sons? Can’t just say “Feanor’s the prince” without saying why other elves agree to donate their labor. If dwarven women are only 1/3 of the population and often doing their own smithcraft, who’s making all those clothes? Do dwarves really wear chain-mail underwear like Pratchett joked? Coll and Taran grew food for Caer Dallben, but who made the clothes?

      There may be fixes: Tolkien dwarves who buy their food can buy their clothes. Tolkien elf and dwarf handicrafts tend to last forever, so maybe it takes a lot less effort to keep elves clothed in the long run (spend a year making a few outfits, then forget about it for the next century.) OTOH clothing that stays intact *while being used* is maybe more extraordinary than stuff that stays good in storage. Maybe Noldor have spinning wheels while avoiding the trap of overproduction. Maybe your D&D world is lacking in gunpowder but rich in labor-saving mechanisms and efficient organization. Maybe your wood elves just wear buckskin, or small amounts of flax-like underwear.

      But it’s worth thinking about, after you’ve figured where the food is coming from.

      1. (Of course if your favorite fantasy series is ASoIaF then the solution is free: lords extract it from the smallfolk. I’m talking about the more fantastic and leisurely societies.)

      2. Maybe Miriel, who invented the art of embroidery, made a truly enormous amount of clothing in a wide variety of sizes…
        The Eragon books have the woman who takes charge of the Rebellion develop a way to make lace with magic and sell that, but given the technology available perhaps she should just have sold thread…

      3. The cloaks given to the Company by Lothlorien were made by Galadriel and her women themselves. What they were made out of isn’t said. Sam asks what the rope they’re given is made out of, but the elves reply that if only they’d known he was interested earlier they would have had time to explain.

      4. During the period of “it’s a fantasy world with sci-fi trappings” the Dragonriders of Pern says “the Holders make it all for the Weyrs in exchange for not dying horribly.”
        (Except the system broke down in the Long Interval)

      5. D&D is the modern world with some fantasy trimmings stuck on, including the pretense that life is hard. Much of the world-building would be impossible without some modern elements such as low infant mortality. Which would probably require extensive clerical magic — however incompatible with the claim that clerics are rare because they are adventurer grade.

        1. Going by the family trees Tolkien also had low infant mortality. Granted elves don’t get disease and Gondor was said to be able to cure almost anything and hobbits are I dunno tough hobbits.

          D&D is often compared to Renaissance + Wild West. But yeah, low morality, high literacy and monetization.

          Various editions have given putative demographics for low level PC classes like clerics, they’re not necessarily that rare, though ‘remove disease’ takes 5th level clerics.

      6. It certainly does ruin it – unless all that magic is put to practical use. Which then generates other problems. Most fantasy is written as if the main occupation of most of the world is either blowing it up or preventing same. There are a few writers who take a different approach – Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar series, my own modest efforts, C.M Waggonner are some.

        1. There’s always Heinlein’s Magic, Incorporated and Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos — modern America, only some of the stuff is magic.

          Both put some variation into it, which is important, because magic and science have to have different effects to tell them apart. (In fact, technically, what we call “science” is putting “magic” through a wringer to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and building on that. So we do have a technology that works like magic. We call it “technology.”)

      7. The Sindar definitely did spin and weave. In the Leithian Lúthien uses his enchanted hair as raw material:

        “And now was her labour but begun:
        long was she spinning, long she spun;
        and though with elvish skill she wrought,
        long was her weaving. […]
        Then Daeron feared, and in amaze
        he called from under; but three days
        she answered not. Of cloudy hair
        she wove a web like misty air
        of moonless night, and thereof made
        a robe as fluttering-dark as shade
        beneath great trees, a magic dress ”

        I think the shadow cloak is at least two square yards, if not more. Lúthien has a loom made by Daeron, but wheel is not mentioned, so probably she uses spindle&distaff. Using Aldrete’s numbers this would take 180 hours. Since she finishes in three days (72 hours) either she is an incredibly good spinner, or the longer and smoother threads of magical hair are easier to spin than common fibers.

        1. Sounds like Luthien was engaged in Seidr, a form of magic centered on spinning and weaving mostly practiced by women and remembered in fairy tales about girls who can spin straw into gold.

  18. The industrial revolution did not kill off drop spindles entirely. I remeber seeing people waiting for the bus in rural Bolivia using them for llama wool in the early 90’s.

    1. For future series in this vein I’d love to see one on brewing. There’s an enormous among of confidently-stated nonsense being put out about brewing, often from academics who should really know better. Breweries often contribute to this problem since a lot of people trust utter crap put out by marketing hacks as long as they’re employed by a famous brewery.

  19. I wonder if repetitive strain injuries were a big problem for these people spinning by hand eight hours a day.

    1. Bet on it. There’s a reason that the stereotypical peasant grandmother was in poor physical condition despite the fact that a lot of women in those societies might be having their first grandchild in their forties or even late thirties.

      Well, actually there’s a lot of reasons, but this is one of them.

      1. English peasant women tended to marry around 20 in good times, 23-25 in bad times, so early 50s would be the usual time for grandkids.

    2. There is also the fairy tail where girl is kind to three old ladies, marries prince, they show up at the wedding, and convince prince to forbid his new wife from spinning. Iirc, one had a large lip from licking the thread, one was hunched and big foot from running the spinning wheel, and one had bulging eyes and nearly blind from constantly looking at something tiny (looking at quality of thread maybe? I forget)

      I think the fairy tale mentioned a spinning wheel, dunno if there is an earlier drop spindle version.

      1. That would be The Three Spinners. Grimm. The Scandinavian version The Three Aunts has them ugly from spinning, weaving and sewing.

  20. If I get a bit miffed at my kids when they scrape holes in their clothes I can only imagine the lectures kids got when that hole took twelve days of work to fix.

  21. Does anyone have a good source on the evolution of the spinning wheel? I’d love to see how the first ones worked and how they changed over time. Most things I can find focus heavily on the most modern forms.

    1. If they’re a girl, they’re going to be fixing it themselves, which will do more good than any lecture.

      If they’re a boy, they can expect to be getting the rough side of the family womenfolk’s tongues for as long as it takes to fix it… which is going to be quite a while.

  22. Women’s textile work became politically important in the run up to the American Revolution. Urban and elite Americans bought English cloth rather than making homespun as country women still did but after the stamp act patriotic women took up spinning and weaving, probably doing it rather poorly, and flaunted their homespun garments. The newspapers of the day tended to make fun of them but the women were deadly serious about theit contribution to the Cause, and so were some men.
    King James I famously asked is a learned lady of his court could spin. And Queen Victoria kept a spinning wheel in her private rooms and seemingly used it.

  23. spindle whorl or loom weight? for a doughnut shaped stone or ceramic… it can be hard. The weight ranges overlap. It is hard to get time estimates, partly because it is a skill, I could tell you it takes me weeks to spin enough to knit a lumpy hat, but that’s useless, I am unskilled and have few hours to do it, it’s compatible with childrearing but not with typing); very few people today put in the time to learn well enough to spin at the speed of a woman who did it every moment she could, beginning when she could hold a spindle. But one of the consequences of the level of work here is economic, as a re-enactor (early modern) people are often surprised by the notion that a full set of clothes each year could form a substantial part of a wage. Clothing yourself could cost more than housing yourself.

  24. Eve Fisher’s calculations are very rational and painstaking, but they don’t match historical prices for her shirt or the experience of other spinners and weavers very well. I am glad that she got so many people interested in this topic!

  25. Anyone interested in a really thorough mapping of the many facets of economy and work in the “domestic economy” or “female economy” should look into the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who coined the latter term, and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor (for a look at the transition from agriculture to early industrialization, and types of labor by enslaved women which Thatcher Ulrich mostly doesn’t study). Both specialize in women’s labor in pan-Atlantic 18th-early 19th century history. Thatcher Ulrich is famous for her book, “A Midwife’s Tale,” which goes into the many types of work- unpaid domestic labor to keep the household running that takes up a lot of time on its own, paid-or-trade work as a specialist (i.e. a midwife), putting-out gigs like spinning (depending on the context this might be only for the family or paid or traded work done at home but sent out into the larger community- often both) participation in the family business (in “A Midwife’s Tale,” a mill), and– her most revolutionary observation– the running network of informal trade between households, including a more informal apprentice system of sending children (especially girls) to learn skills from neighbors or extended family. I highly recommend “A Midwife’s Tale” (it won awards for a reason) but her article “”A Friendly Neighbor”: Social Dimensions of Daily Work in Northern Colonial New England” is a pretty concise sum-up of her observations and a good place to get a feel for this economic model.
    Anyone with other recommendations, hit me up! Let’s make a reading list! I wanna know more about earlier eras and non-European domestic economy models especially.

    1. When I was in college in1981-1982, one of my professors took us to a nearby lecture by the author of this book:

      “More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave” by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1984)

      (More about the 19th and 20th century than OGH’s focus.)

      tl;dr: Labor saving devices often meant more work as expected living standards rose to soak up the surplus. Instead of changing your main outer clothes once or twice a week, the expected standard became wearing a newly washed complete set of clothes every single day. Stuff like that.

      1. On the other hand, living standards are not to be sneezed at. In medieval Scandinavia, it was regarded as a bad sign for your health if you had no lice.

  26. Income and the status of spinners consequently declined (wages may have dropped by as much as half)

    Got a couple questions about this:

    1. Are spinners stuck in this particular job?

    2. Are these wages per day instead of per time?

    My immediate economics logic on this would expect higher wages overall in the textile part of the economy, with less time spent spinning, and more time spent on the other parts of production (maybe more time spent on other things in general). However, the history is what it is, so the conditions mentioned above, or something I’m just not thinking of (or incorrect logic) seems to be going on.

    1. Remember that households were mostly not fully plugged into a market economy with fungible labor and with costs and production being denominated in fungible money. Spinning was a skill almost every adult woman had, and it produced a fungible commodity (thread) with consistent high demand.

      As such, it was “unskilled labor” by the standards of modern economics, since modern economics doesn’t really distinguish between jobs that require no skill and jobs that require skills everyone has. This is demonstrated by the fact that we consider jobs requiring literacy to be ‘unskilled’ when a thousand years ago that would have been hilarious nonsense.

      This kind of labor rapidly becomes a side-gig done by the most disadvantaged people in any given economy, in order to bring in money. Which, it it’s late medieval Europe, means widows and “spinsters” (who may have few other marketable skills). Or it may mean women who are part of a household, but need to spin more thread for money because their household is partially coupled to the money economy. They still need some money, even though the primary worker is not a wage-worker. If your husband is a tenant farmer, the product of his labor is food, and there won’t be enough to sell much of a surplus. So it may very well fall on you to spin the thread that gets sold on market day for the pennies that, added up, pay the baron’s taxes.

      So those are the demographics most impacted by a fall in the price of thread. And to find another money-making job, they need to either:

      1) Find a new marketable good that almost any woman in the society knows how to produce without needing a lot of capital goods to do it, or

      2) Enter the service sector as a domestic servant working in the household of someone rich enough to pay cash wages, or

      3) Accept reduced access to cash for the household, with potential consequences (harder to buy things the household can’t make for itself, harder to pay fees and taxes charged by the government)

      Historically I’m guessing the result was more likely to be (2) or (3) than (1).

      1. Or (4) get a spinning wheel and now spend as much time spinning more thread for the new more productive looms, but with less flexibility in where and when you spin.

        1. A spindle and distaff are cheap and easy to make at home. A great wheel (walking wheel) needs a woodwright and a bobbin wheel is really complicated. That means acquiring a spinning wheel will range from fairly expensive to really expensive.

  27. One of the more subtle effects of the amount of work that goes into textile production relative to spinning and weaving especially is how it impacts tailoring. Most patterns from the medieval period in Europe (which I’m most familiar with) are extremely simple, shape wise- it’s just rectangles and a few triangles in strategic places to help with ease of movement (i.e. armpits). Fancier clothing, besides being embroidered and made of finer materials in richer dyes and worn with accessories, almost always includes an element of fabric waste as conspicuous consumption. Bliauts have impractically long sleeves (tied in knots to keep out of the way!) and houppelandes often have wide, darted sleeves and wide skirts. Trains are another obvious display of wealth- not only are you using more fabric than necessary, it’s impractical for manual labor and in late medieval styles you have to throw it over an arm in order to walk!
    The birth of fashion trends- usually agreed to be the 14th century or so- coincides pretty nicely with the import of the spinning wheel into Europe. Not only are styles changing more often and getting more ostentatious, tailoring is getting more form-fitting and therefore wasting more fabric in order to cut irregular shapes. (Within reason. Pre-industrial fashion is still extremely practical with fabric use and mending and maintaining clothes is a constant task.) With the Renaissance we see puffed sleeves and skirt/doublet pleats as the most notable wasteful styles. This is especially noticeable comparing clothing across classes. Compare the servants and old people with the rejuvenated ladies and gentlemen in the painting “The Fountain of Youth” (1546) by Lucas Cranach the Elder here and here
    The servants have 6-12 pleats strategically placed in their skirts and doublets, or none at all, while the ladies in fine gowns have around 28 each- far more volume than is necessary. Cranach famously painted a lot of ladies wearing similar many-pleated gowns, and I find it fascinating that this fashion trend almost perfectly coincides with the creation of the treadle spinning wheel in this same area.

    1. Hmm? Yes, tailoring cuts off pieces of cloth, but the very fact that they were loose earlier meant that the cloth that was now cut off was originally part of the garment. And the cut-off parts could be used for various purposes.

      1. I was thinking the same thing, but I couldn’t figure out how to phrase it. I guess the ostentation of well-fitted clothes comes from the extra work of complicated tailoring.

        Of course, some of the clothes Addie describes are extravagantly loose instead of close-fitting, and that certainly would use extra cloth.

        1. You are forgetting clothes have seams. Seams require a surprising amount of cloth folded in – especially if you want the option to let out (make larger) a garment.
          If you use the full width of the cloth, you only need very thin seam, or none at all.

          The sort of dresses the ladies in the picture wear require far wider seams – at least 1 inch of fabric on each side, probably 2 if the seam is irregular instead of cut on the warp or the weft. And those bodices probably require at least 6 vertical seams, and at least 2 at the neck, and 1 at the waist. Looking at the middle lady, I count at least 8 seams on her sleeves. The men’s garments have a lot of seams as well. And that is before we go into the pleats. All of the women are wearing a partlet (the ruffled semi-transparent thing at their neck). Pleated partlets require a length of cloth at least 5 times the width of the shoulders – luxury variations might have more.

          So a quick calculation indicates that, just for a luxury bodice, you would need 6 * 2 * 2 inches = 24 extra inches horizontally, and 3 * 2 * 2 inches = 12 extra inches vertically. You cannot win that back from the waste fabric.

          And to make things worse, many cloths had a pattern, as seen on the cape of the man on the left. You would have to match patterns, and that puzzle would be far more difficult than with modern patterned wallpaper, and also lead to more waste.

          That is also the reason quilts became so popular: no matter the size of the scrap, you could use it.

          1. That’s a great point about pattern-matching! Seams are the main fabric waster here; even with huge sleeves, a very simple rectangular patterned bliaut with some gussets for movability is still not wasting anywhere near as much fabric as these many-paneled skirts, or even the tight-fitting bodices. (The bliaut is a pre-spinning wheel design, the so-called Cranach gown is a post-treadle wheel design, albeit just barely). As you say, if any of those ladies loses or gains weight (i.e. with a pregnancy, or just the natural cycle of bloating and shrinkage) they need to do some serious tailoring to adjust those gowns. A lot of earlier clothing, even more close-tailored styles like the cotehardie, have adjustability built into the garment with the looseness of skirts and the placement of lacing. In the painting, the poorer and older women aren’t just wasting less fabric because of the fewer seams, their dress designs would be easier to tailor themselves in case of significant size changes, and might not even need tailoring in case of pregnancy if those bodices use lace-closure (notice that the pleats are at the front and back instead of the sides to account for pregnancy belly). The richly dressed ladies would need a professional tailor if they wanted to keep that gown after size fluctuation; the complex design is as ostentatious as the amount of fabric wasted, the rich colors, the patterns and the accessories.

            Scrap fabric is useful, but not as much as one might think. Close-tailored styles are wasteful because the scrap fabric is irregular in shape and therefore can’t be used for much more than patching, and they also require more seams which means lots of seam allowance, which means even more waste. Cutting square/triangle pieces means it’s easier to salvage squares and triangles for the next project, even if the end result doesn’t fit as tight. (Again, it also means less seams, which means less fabric waste *and* less time spent sewing). Extra fabric scraps are also nowhere near as useful as having a flexible fit when pregnancies were a constant presence in most women’s lives, which is why loose styles were popular the further back you go. Compare the clothing of drop-spinning eras to the early spinning wheel, treadle spinning wheel and industrial eras and you’ll see that as a rule, styles use more seams and irregular shapes the easier it is to make fabric.
            Related to this- patchwork quilts only explode in popularity in the 19th century during industrialization and the rise of highly-form fitting clothing for all classes. Compare the still-quite-tailored styles of the 18th century, which had a lot of adjustability for sizing in the form of pin closure and skirt design. This is again because of maternity and cloth production in the pre-industrial age. 19th century styles would have to be re-tailored to fit new bodies more often than a lot of 18th century styles, which is fine when you don’t spend as much time and money on spinning and weaving because cloth and even clothing is mass-produced by the end of the century. With some exceptions, up until the Victorian era of confinement and mass-produced cloth, maternity wear was regular wear.

            Making a dress tight-fitting isn’t going to save money on fabric because you’ll get scraps from it, it’s going to waste the entire fabric of the dress if you can’t wear it for most of a pregnancy when you’re going to be pregnant over and over for most of your adult life.

      2. I think it’s more that a skirt or kilt or robe can be turned to minimise wear and is easily patched. Certainly the poorer parts of Europe (Scotland, Albania) stuck with the kilt, and the poorer classes with the smock well after everyone else was in breeches.

    2. As an extreme example of economy, at one time my SCA wardrobe included a steppe nomad shirt, the pattern from the 18th C IIRC but looking very similar to earlier depictions.
      It was cut entirely from a rectangular strip 18″ / 45cm wide, presumably because that was the limit on how wide a loom could be and still reasonably portable.
      And not a scrap of fabric was left over. Even the small triangular insets at the armpit were made from a small rectangle cut diagonally and sewed together.

  28. And also, this post’s description of spinning, along with some “old recipes” I’ve seen elsewhere gets across more than anything else how long some thing took before industry.

  29. The one thing I remember that plugged people into markets pretty early on was salt: Absolutely neccessary (if not in huge amounts) and not neccessarily easy to get. (though easier if you lived near the ocean)

  30. AIUI mostly in Louisiana. The South was not uniform. Era also matters: the slave states became increasingly hostile to emancipation and the existence of free blacks.

  31. Weaving doesn’t seem to have been gendered in Ancient Egypt. The workers in that adorable Middle Kingdom model and the relief seem to be women but Tomb workers in Deir El Medina begged off work because they had to weave suggesting that in that middling community cloth was still a home manufacture and that both sexes took part in the work.
    The so called Harem palace in the Fayum seems to have manufactured high grade linen for the royal household. What role if any the Royal women had in the process is unknown. I don’t know of any evidence for elite women engaging in textile work the way Greek women did.

    1. Flax working in general tended to be more commercial and so more often done by men. Certain kinds of linen in ancient Egypt were reserved for the priesthood and of particularly high status.

  32. FWIW, Britannica says:

    “It should be noted, however, that in Rome manumission was relatively easy and was widely practiced, even though there was a 5 percent tax on manumission in the Republic, and the Lex Fufia Caninia of 2 bce forbade manumission by testament of more than a fifth to a half of one’s slaves, depending on the number owned.”

    Wikipedia says “Already educated or experienced slaves were freed the most often. Eventually the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed before age 30.[citation needed]”

    And “Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. After manumission, a male slave who had belonged to a Roman citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote.[53]”

    1. Britannica again: “in the American South manumission was comparatively difficult and almost never happened after the prohibition on importing new slaves… manumission was even forbidden in South Carolina in 1820, Mississippi in 1822, Arkansas in 1858, and Maryland and Alabama in 1860”

      1. Roman manumission tended to be limited to the household slaves of the great and good or skilled slaves who were able to save up their price. Manumitted slaves did indeed become Roman citizens but their citizenship carried disabilities such as clientage to their former master, and incapability to hold office. The taint of slavery took at least three generations to completely dissipate, at least legally. Socially it might linger for longer.
        Against this we have truly dreadful conditions for slave workers on the huge agricultural estates of the Roman wealthy, and mine workers. These had practically no chance of manumission. Not did the innumerable female slaves working as prostitutes.
        Ex slaves who became rich and powerful existed but were very much the exception to the rule. Much like slave owning free mulattoes.
        Manumission was indeed made much more difficult legally in the American South and freed slaves were not released from prejudice against their skin color. One slave owner, a young man known to Thomas Jefferson, had the guts and the gall to sell his plantation, free his slaves and move with them lock, stock and barrel to the Ohio territory. Very few slave owners would go that far nevertheless manumissions did occur right up to the Civil War, usually in small numbers and often the freed slaves had to leave the state.
        People do like to think of American slavery as being somehow worse than other kinds but that doesn’t seem to be the case. All slavery is evil. The best treated slave is still being deprived of their right as a human being .

        1. Part of that, I think, is because American slavery, at least in the later stages, was an aberration among its neighboring societies rather than the norm, and as such looked worse by comparison. Also, it was more recent, so the memory is fresher.

        2. Why spinning wheels in 1200 or so in Europe? Because that’s when the commercial economy in key regions is dense enough to allow women to dedicate themselves to spinning more or less full time. At the same time the clothing trades take off in Italy (fine Florentine cloth) and the Netherlands, with reaches into eastern England and northern France. Presumably the same commercial point was reached earlier in the Middle East and China.

        3. Whoops. Last comment on spinning wheels should be near the top of the discussion. On slavery – yes it’s all evil, but there are degrees. At one extreme, mamluks and janissaries were slaves (Mamluks slaves of the corporation they themselves owned). At the other you have the Caribbean sugar island slave – captured, transported, sold, used up, discarded. Comparable to a Greek or Roman mine-slave. Overall, Roman slavery seems a notch up from Greek (wider manumission, many citizen rights with freedom). Southern US slavery 1830-1860 seems to me to be nearer the harsher end of the spectrum.

          1. Janissaries were stolen from their parents and brainwashed into supporters of the system oppressing their native communities. Both they and Mameluke became threats to the elite who made them. Turns out slave soldiers are a Bad Idea.

  33. In regards to your request for for further information regarding wool fabric production times using drop spindles and a warp-weighted loom, my distaff counterpart (who to our mutual amusement is the textile enthusiast of our household) suggests “Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby: Excavations in the Black Earth 1990-1995” by Eva Adersson (ISBN 9789172092952). There’s a translated version available on

    While the garment production time is not included in the calculations detailed in the article, the technologies and techniques for garment production from cloth are broadly similar until the advent of the sewing machine. We can therefore assume the times for the linen garment production details above are fairly representative.

  34. Spindles versus spinning wheels: from my experience you can get a longer continuous single on a bobbin (modern wheels wind the yarn on a bobbin after the twist is added, all in one operation) than a spindle. The weight of the cop means that at some point on a drop spindle the spindle is too heavy for the original thread thickness, and the thread breaks. You either start spinning a thicker thread or stop spinning. On a bobbin wheel the layer of thread gets thicker which affects the amount of twist, but you can adjust for that.

    The other huge advantage of a bobbin wheel is that adding twist and winding thread happen together. On a spindle or great wheel adding twist and winding cop are 2 separate activities. First you spin, then you wind. This makes the whole operation slower.

    Brett, did you find anything about the introduction of spinning wheels into Europe first as plying wheels? Singles can be used for warp, but it is work to keep them under tension. Plying gives a stable yarn which doesn’t need to be kept under tension. Plying is a royal pain on a spindle, but relatively easy on a bobbin wheel.

  35. I note that before this step, you can also dye the fiber. (Well, the wool at least. I believe linen doesn’t dye well.)

    Cloth loses its color not only because the color is not fast, but because of mechanical abrasion of the dyed part. This is fastest when the cloth is dyed, in between when the thread is dyed, and slowest when the color is — ta-da — dyed in the wool.

    That all three processes co-existed show much more of a nuisance it was to dye the wool or even the thread.

  36. Don’t let the History Channel see that bird image—the last thing we need is a special about how moas survived through the early modern period in Europe.

    [T]he female half of a male-female gendered pair is sometimes the ‘distaff counterpart’ for the same reason.

    …as readers of TV Tropes will be aware.

  37. Here’s a video from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on how the Ancestral Pueblo people created textiles using yucca fiber and turkey feathers. The archaeologist in it wove a full-scale blanket to demonstrate the technique and analyse how long it would have taken. Apparently, it’s very labour-intensive, but creates an exceptionally soft and warm fabric.

    We often think of pre-contact indigenous folks in North America as wearing exclusively fur and leather clothing, but that wasn’t the case everywhere.

  38. “tended to see the gendered division of labor as a consequence of male superiority, it is in fact male incapability, particularly the male inability to nurse an infant, which structured the gendered division of labor in pre-modern societies”

    Is it plausible that it was at least partially result of difference in average physical strength? And from stereotypical view of ancient promoter of male superiority, it is likely that they would consider it as very important.

    1. Maybe somewhat. But men and women overlap in height and strength. There is no overlap in ability to have and nurse a baby. Most sexually active women probably would have been pregnant or nursing for most of their lives from long before agriculture. That’s going to be much of what sets your original gender division of labor.

      1. The division of labor wasn’t some fiendish plot against women by men. It started as a simple exercise in practicality. It made sense for the lactating parent to take on the majority of childcare. This inevitably limited her ability to engage in work outside the home. Since she was sticking to the house anyway it made sense for her to take on certain chores such as cooking, clothing making, etc.
        The trouble began when this pragmatic decision became ironclad tradition and people, not just men, started believing it was the natural order of things and create ideologies to reinforce and justify their cultural assumptions.

      2. “men and women overlap in height and strength”

        Maybe somewhat. But most men are bigger, stronger and tougher than most women. The priceless ability to make more people exacts a heavy toll on women’s physical frame and physiology.

        Also, it’s easy to ignore just how brutal and dangerous life used to be for most of history. Men doing the hard and dangerous jobs, while women and children are kept safe, has been the norm in pretty much all societies that actually survived and thrived.

        Spinning was “women’s work” not just because it fit most women’s daily routine, but also because it required patience and skill but not physical strength. And the skill was of the type that anyone could learn relatively easily, demonstrated by the fact that everyone did.

  39. A little late to the party, but I would point out that textile production is a major part of the Bible’s description of the ideal wife – Proverbs chapter 31:10-31.

  40. Bret, as become my habit now, I have not checked for mistakes noticed by others, I am simply providing the list of the ones I noticed.

    see, which have important -> has
    just as well think of it -> well to think
    whorl, they they sometimes -> though they sometimes
    allows the headles to be controlled -> heddles
    shedding do be done ->
    to be done
    Caption for horizontal frame loom: the pedals are her feet control -> pedals at her feet (?)
    minimum textile requires. -> requirements.
    there seem to have always been -> seems
    we should not this is a question -> not see this as (?)

  41. It’s amusing that the term “drop spindle” lives on in another context: Low-rider classic car culture. “Drop Spindles” replace the original forged parts that house the spindles/bearings for the front wheels on older cars, relocating the center, higher on the suspension, and making the frame ride lower.

    Of course, a spindle is a spindle — a tapered shaft for mounting a wheel. So describing the same thing across several centuries.

    1. As a fellow classic car enthusiast, the similarity in terminology struck me as well.

  42. What about felting? How common and useful was it? It seems like it would _dramatically_ cut down on production times where it could be practically used.

    1. Very important for when you need felt. Felt was useful for lots of things – hats, cloaks, etc. But you tended not to make primary garments out of felt, since it is itchy and uncomfortable.

      1. At least in Bavaria in the past century, it did not cut down on time! Yarn still had to be spun and woven, then felted: and in 19th century, felting for water-proof warm jackets and hats in cold winters required men to do hard work with a heavy roller over a large, heavy piece of cloth.

        Today, where felting is a hobby, you buy specially untreated yarn, knit 30% bigger, and put it into washing maschine together with a tennis ball/ rubber massage ball at 40 or 60 Celsius, but that’s not what felt jackets before modern outdoor jackets were like.

  43. i can imagine how Sleeping Beauty might have pricked her finger on a drop spindle, but not on a spinning wheel bobbin!

      1. Only if we are attempting to squeeze a fairy tale into the confines of real-world logic. With magic involved, all bets are off.

      2. I don’t know, a well used spindle eventually splinters, which can definitely pick your finger. Additionally, supported spindles (used for making very fine thread like sewing threads) come to a very fine point at the working end. They don’t usually start out sharp, but years of constant use can wear it down inro a sharp

      3. Or it could’ve been a randomly chosen unlikely occurrence, put there to make the curse that much more compelling – she’ll prick her finger on a spindle! But how!?

        The curse is gonna getcha even if it’s impossible.

    1. distaff in either case — the pointy stick that you put your stuff on so you can pull it off as you spin.

      Not that that is VERY pointy.

      A lot of the variants have variations on that. A bit of flax under her finger, or the straightforward curse if you pick up a spindle. (There’s one where he wakes her up by picking up the spindle and so taking it from her hand.)

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