Skills and Technology: Spinning
By Anne Harwood
For the Tournament of the Golden Swan
It is generally agreed that spinning has been practiced for over 10,000 years. The spinning wheel was not introduced to Europe until the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, and for thousands of years prior to that innovation, spinning was done on a drop spindle.
the drop spindle is a length of wood around which woolen fibres are wound to
make yarn. A whorl is added to give the spin of the shaft momentum, thereby
making the spinning more efficient. The earliest whorls were made of clay, or
soft stone that could be shaped without metal tools. As technology advanced,
however, whorls were made out of virtually every material imaginable: bone,
porcelain, glass, metals and semi-precious stones.
low drop spindle used by Alis is typical technology of her time. It features an
oaken shaft and an authentic period whorl made of lead, excavated at York and
dating to the twelfth century. It may be surmised that spindles in France at the
same time were identical.
this tool, Alis spins silk. While there is no hard physical evidence that Alis
had access to silk, a couple of arguments can be made to support my theory.
First, women of all social classes throughout the Middle Ages were involved in
some way in the production of textiles. This included none only those who worked
as weavers and spinsters in the Guilds, but also the ladies of privilege and
leisure in the highest nobility. Due to their rank, they were entitled to work
the finest and most expensive of substances for use as embroidery thread and
yarn for tablet weaving.
Secondly, while no specific mention of silk other than textiles is made in France before the thirteenth century, it is not inconceivable that it was available in very limited quantities prior to this. In her biography, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alison Weir writes,
“We know nothing of Eleanor’s activities during the eleven months she spent in Jerusalem: the contemporary chroniclers do not mention her, and stories of her deeds and pilgrimages there belong to later romances; one legend claims she brought back from the Holy Land the gallica rose…Another credits her with introducing silkworms from the Orient into Aquitaine, and the mulberry trees whose leaves they ate. There may be a modicum of truth in these tales, for her experiences of life in the Holy Land must have had tremendous significance for her and left their mark in many ways…” (page 72)
Finally, an excerpt from the Livre de Metiers contains regulations for silk spinning in France in the thirteenth century. Certainly silk spinning was established well before regulations governing the commercial Guilds were written; how long is impossible to say. However, given the vast amount of materials that flooded into Europe as a result of the Crusades, and given Eleanor’s resourcefulness as Queen, it seems possible (if not probable) that silk was available to her and her ladies upon their return to France in 1149.
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Alison Eleanor of Aquitaine London: Jonathan Cape, 1999
Excerpt from the Livres de Metiers-- The Gallileo Library