14th Century Sewing Thread

And I’m off down another rabbit hole!

At Mists Investiture in May they’re having an A&S competition the theme of which is, essentially “Things Made At Home.”  They specifically mention spun thread as an example, to which I went.


That is a thing I can do!

Documentation is required, which means I’ve been in the slightly weird area of doing serious, academic-level research on something I have informally studied since the age of nine.  I’m really glad I chose to do this, though, because while there are other spinners in the Kingdom, they go about it in a very different way from how I do.

I’m not going to say that I’m a true production spindle-spinner, as women in the 14th Century would have been (and women in many indigenous populations in the Andes still are), but it’s something I’ve been doing for a while, and I’m pretty good at churning out fine, strong thread.  My spinning recently has been focused on making acceptable weaving yarns for fine fabric, embroidery threads, sewing threads, and very fine wool for Shetland-style wedding ring shawls.  And I think it’s easy for us to forget that medieval craftspeople were actually better at making fabric than modern machines.  There are species of linen that died out during the industrial revolution because the threads they made were too fragile for mechanized looms.  They weren’t spinning lumpy 1970s-style art yarns….. They produced fabric from scratch, by hand, and they were good at it.

I wanted to document, produce, and enter thread that proves that yes, a human being can make a strong, smooth wool sewing thread on a spindle.

For wool I’m using a lamb’s fleece I got from Pickwick Cotswolds a few years back.  Something like a double-coated Shetland or one of the really primitive Icelandic breeds would probably be more accurate (that’s essentially what the Herjolfsnes finds were made of, using the hair coat for the warp and the undercoat for the weft) but I had this already.  The Cotswold breed definitely underwent some breeding in the 18th Century, but it has no Merino blood (unlike every other fleece I own, thanks SPD) and it’s long and relatively hairy as described in:

Brandenburgh, C.R. (2010) Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production. Journal of Archeology in the Low Countries.

I’m using my modern Valkyrie extra fine wool combs because wool combs have really not changed very much over the past 700 years.  Check out this guy

Screenshot 2019-04-07 23.06.22

(Illustration from 1442)

And mine are these:

Screenshot 2019-04-11 14.45.10

(oh, and I washed the wool with Dawn dishsoap since I’m not futzing around with stale urine and medieval soap)

Then comes a topic of much debate– the spinning.

If you start researching medieval spinning techniques you’ll find a lot of speculation.  By the 14th Century they had great wheels (conveniently shown in this illustration from the Luttrell Psalter)

great wheel luttrell psalter

However I do not have a great wheel and they would not have been used to make a strong thread for warp or sewing (since they are pretty much only set up for long draw) so I’m using a spindle.  But how?  Drop or supported?  True worsted or woolen or something in between?

Women in medieval illustrations are almost always in this strange, stylized posture with one hand near the spindle and one raised in the air

Screenshot 2019-04-07 23.11.35

Now to me…. that looks a lot like a long draw technique.  But you can’t use that for warp or sewing, because it’s not strong enough.  No one seems to be quite sure exactly how spindles were used– if they were spun like this, or this was just an easy way to paint people, and how consistent the techniques were over space and time.

My personal opinion, going back to the production spinning point, is they used the spindles however they could best use them at that moment.  As far as we can tell there is no distinction between a medieval drop spindle and a medieval supported spindle– a low whorl spindle works just as well resting on the ground as it does hanging in the air with a half hitch. So if you’re watching the sheep for the day– ok, cool, drop spindling it is. You’re helping your husband sell wares at a market–perhaps supported spindling if you are sitting down for long lengths of time.  Your spindle is getting full and heavy and you switch to supported spindling only because the mass is changing how it spins.

You know, if you have ever tried to do any production spinning at all, that it takes time.  Lots of time.  It’s something that takes up your entire day.  I’ll never forget an article in Spin-Off about the diary of a lighthouse keeper’s teenage daughter in the 19th Century and there would be entries saying “Yeah, nothing happening today, I was spinning.”

With that in mind I’m using a couple of my favorite supported spindles (the extra light tahklis from Malcolm Fielding) for the main reason that I spend most of my free time sitting, and it’s much easier to use a supported spindle (at least for me) while sitting down.  I wish I still had a Bolivian spindle I got at La Lana wools in Taos (back when it still existed) that was near identical to the medieval spindles found in archeological digs.  A relatively straight stick, pointed at the bottom and rounded on the top, with a whorl that you can slide on and off.  The whorl was wood, not fired clay, but that was the functional difference.  But sometime in the last 17 years it vanished, so I’m using my tahklis instead.

My thread is also going to be essentially backward from the sewing thread in the Herjolfsnes finds, because I taught myself how to spin in the fourth grade and at the time I found it easier to flick the spindle with my non-dominant (left) hand, and hold the wool with my right.  Pretty much everyone else does it the other way around, but I can’t unlearn it at this point so my spindle spinning is just backwards.  Going back and learning the other way is worse than trying to fence left handed.

I’ll post the actual full documentation for this when it’s done, but in the mean time I’ve enjoyed climbing down a rabbit hole into archeological textiles, even if I’m annoyed that I can no longer VPN into UCSF’s library system and download any academic texts I want.

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