Adventures in History: Wool spinning–by Heather R. Darsie

Hi! Today we have a guest post from historian Heather R. Darsie. It’s about wool spinning wonder that is her friend Beth. Now, over to Heather!

Beth is a self-described Bohemian housewife. She also works as a legal secretary and provides technological support to elderly students at the local university. Beth’s predominant passions are fiber arts, painting, and gardening. Beth was kind enough to welcome me into her home and teach me about spinning wool, starting with the history as she knew it* and a demonstration of how her very own spinning wheel works.


The first device used to spin fiber was the drop spindle, which is powered by hand and was used for many centuries before and even for some time after the invention of the spinning wheel. The drop spindle looks like a strangely-shaped spinning top with a hook. A leader thread is placed around the post, and raw, clean fiber, like wool, is fed through the top. The spindle is spun and dropped, which pulls out a bit of the raw fiber and creates a string, which is spun tighter and wound around the post.

Drop Spindle

The first evidence of spinning wheels comes from China in approximately the 1200s. Silk and cotton were spun into useable threads for making cloth. From China, the art of spinning spread to the Middle East, then Europe, although there was an uneven adoption of the technique. Women spent a great deal of their time spinning fibers to make cloth, which, in Europe, was most commonly made of wool or flax. Peasants and poorer people usually wore rough spun, whereas wealthier people could afford nicer cloths, like damask and linen. Silk cloth was imported from Asia.

Spinning Wheel

Beth’s spinning wheel is in the German style and dates from the late 19th to early 20th century. It is a highly decorated spinning wheel, as evidenced by the captive ring. A captive ring is a piece of wood that is carved around a post, with the post and ring being carved of the same piece of wood and the ring being permanently stuck, or captive, around the post.The purpose of the intricate, decorative carving was to show a future bride the wealth and skill of her future groom. It is likely that there were other captive rings on Beth’s wheel, but they have broken and fallen off over time.

Captive Ring

To turn wool into yarn, clean, carded wool fibers are fed into the wheel, which is powered by the treadle.


Two other important pieces, the bobbin, which collects the yarn, and the flyer, which twists the yarn, turn at different speeds. This allows the yarn to wind onto the bobbin as it is spun. Going back to the initial cleaning of the wool, combs, called cards, were used to brush out the wool fibers. That is why wool is sometimes called “carded.” Today we have wool roving, which is made by machines. Flax fibers had to be fermented to get rid of the plant flesh, then the long fibers are beaten into long bundles called stricks before being spun.

Flyer and Bobbin

Today, in developed societies, spinning fibers into yarn is a hobby. One can create customized, beautiful yarns for any purpose. If you are interested in spinning yarn, I would encourage you to visit your locally owned, specialty yarn store.

Thank you, Heather!

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