Spinners would originally have used the spindle alone, twisting wool strands together to make a thread, winding it onto something like a nice smooth stick as they went. The tension of winding onto the spindle and the pressure of overlying thread in the wound mass set the bonds within the twisted fibres, enough to discourage untwisting once the fibres were unwound and before the twist was permanently set by either soaking it in very hot water or weaving it under tension.

Useful though it was, the spindle on its own was limited in application. The second development was the spindle whorl. This was a solid disk, made from a variety of materials, with a central hole through which the spindle fitted. The whorl provided an angular momentum in the spinning process, so, rather than simply twirling the fibres between thumb and fingers, the spinner would use the rotation of the vertically-hanging weighted spindle to twist the fibres attached to it. Gravity provides the tension needed to keep the
twist occurring, freeing both hands to control the operation of drafting – the drawing out of fibres from the wool mass so that they can be twisted. The thread still needed to be wound onto the spindle by hand, but this was a far more efficient method.

People started spinning not very long after they first began to herd sheep, discovering that wool strands could be twisted together to make a thread. Most sources agree that the art of spinning fibres to form thread and yarn has been in existence for 10,000 years or more, with a drop spindle being the primary tool for fibre used in everything from the wrappings for Egyptian mummies onwards. Whorls from hand spindles have been dated to 5,000BC and some theorise that these may have been the inspiration for using the wheel for locomotion.

While the spinning wheel existed in the Middle Ages – known then as the Great Wheel - it was some time before it superseded drop spinning because the early wheels produced thread inferior in strength and evenness. The modern spinning wheel was not invented until the late 1400s, when it was known as the Saxony Wheel.

While the spinning wheel proved to be much more productive, it was not particularly portable, so it never completely replaced the drop spindle. The great advantage of the drop spindle was that spinning, the work of women, could be combined with other tasks around the home and farm. Who said female multi-tasking was a modern phenomenon!

Even when a spinning wheel was introduced into a household, drop spindles still had their place – for one thing, little girls would have learned to spin using a drop spindle long before they were allowed near a set of fast-spinning spokes. And still today, drop spinning offers a simple, low cost, entry into the world of spinning to create your own yarn for your own creations – continuing a thread that was first spun over 10,000 years ago.

HOW TO USE A DROP SPINDLE - Drop spinning is a fairly simple technique that is easy to master – although it does require some practice. The great advantage for the beginner is the start-up cost – you can get going for as little as a £10 investment in spindle and fibre, which is considerably cheaper than a spinning wheel.

How-to Guide