Assorted spindles – modern, but identical to old and ancient ones. © Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

Spinning a Tale: Spinning and Weaving in Myths and Legends

Spinning is one of most ancient things that makes us human. Many would say one of the first is making basic tools – shaping a stone to hit things with, while many would put making string as the second. You can’t do anything without string: you can’t make clothes; you can’t tie a stone to a stick to make a hammer; you can’t make nets to carry or catch things. Spinning is a fundamentally human thing, and something that we have been doing since far back into the ancient past.

The first length of thread would have been no longer than the distance between two extended hands, then it was wound round a stick and made longer. The first wheel was probably made after watching a spindle whorl rolling along the floor.

Spinning is the oldest textile skill. Then comes knotting and netting – vital skills for our hunter-gather ancestors to make bags to carry food and nets to catch food. Weaving cloth in any amount came along in the Neolithic Period, when people were settled enough to set up their simple looms (made from sticks and pegs).

People used plant materials to make string long before someone tried animal hair. Materials such as climbing plant stems, the inner bark of certain trees, and dried grasses. Twist gives strength and allows you to add length, so a handful of fibres can become a length of thread, string, or rope. It’s not surprising that thread, the making of thread, and the tools to make thread, turned up in tales and myths.

The Greek Fates, or Moirae, were usually depicted with yarn and its tools: Clotho spinning yarn on a spindle, Lachesis measuring the length of a yarn or a life, and Atropos snipping it off when the end was reached. A simple craft, but recognised as being intrinsic to life and living even then. The idea of a human life equating to a thread in a tapestry, weaving in and out, is a very old one. The Norns, the northern fates, are also spoken of as spinning and weaving men’s fates too.

Unsurprisingly, spiders have been associated with yarn production more than once – there is the myth of Arachne from ancient Greece, and that of Spider Grandmother from the Navajo and other Native American traditions. The Arachne story is interesting, in that it seems to be accepted that mortals can exceed the gods in skills and artistry; just don’t boast about it where they can hear you!

The tools that make the yarn turn up in our tales, too.

Take ‘Sleeping Beauty’, for example. She pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep. So far, so straightforward; most people take this at face value. As a person who spins in public frequently, one of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘Where is the spike?’ And this is where the passage of time comes in – spinning wheels have changed. Most fairy tale, and more modern, wheels look like this:

What you think of as a traditional spinning wheel © Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

What you think of as a traditional spinning wheel © Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

Now look at this:

Great wheel, otherwise known as a walking wheel. © Jacob Jose CC BY 3.0,

Great wheel, otherwise known as a walking wheel. © Jacob Jose CC BY 3.0,

This is a great wheel, the earlier form, and you can stab yourself on this thing very easily. An accidental jab from the spike/spindle in the days before antibiotics and you might sleep for longer than a century.

Spinning wheels came relatively late to yarn production. They appeared in Europe in the thirteenth century, having been invented in India a few centuries before, and in use in the Islamic and Chinese worlds before they came west. Before the wheel, everything was spun with a simple spindle. Everything. Clothes, furnishings, and ships’ sails. Lots of yarn was needed, and this is why unmarried women became ‘spinsters’. Any woman (or child or man) who wasn’t doing something else would spin. Some common women’s work could be done hands free, so spinning could be done simultaneously.

Spindle whorls have been found from all periods of human history, and in nearly every culture. They are one of our most ancient tools, made of stone and bone, wood and ceramics, and are often patterned. Could a spindle make a spell as it spins and falls? Mine sometimes do.

And the woman’s side of the house — the female line of descent — was referred to as the ‘distaff side’. The distaff was the stick or pole used to hold the linen or wool out of the way while it was being spun.  Oddly enough, a floor-standing distaff looks much like an upside down broom, and it would make an excellent flying steed for a witch.

Spinning flax from a distaff. Wilhelm Leibl

Spinning flax from a distaff. Wilhelm Leibl

Spinning straw into gold, raw flax straight from the fields resembles straw as much as anything. Then it’s rippled, retted, broken, scotched, hackled, spun, and woven. At the end of this you have a valuable piece of linen cloth, at its finest worth a considerable amount of money in a pre-industrial society; worth gold, in fact. The tale of ‘Rumplestiltskin’, and its variations, all deal with the basic exchange of a first-born child for services rendered and the subsequent change of mind by the mother, but this straw into gold idea slips in too.

Nettles can be made into a fabric much like linen, and is processed in a similar fashion, so the tales that tell of silenced princesses stinging their hands as they pick and spin nettles to make shirts for twelve avian brothers have a grain of truth. Those stories have been remembered by people who knew that nettles could be made into fabric, but not exactly how.

Lunil & the yarn stall © Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

Lunil & the yarn stall
© Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

Weaving is nearly as ancient as spinning itself, but oddly, knitting came surprisingly late, and cannot be traced back further than the eleventh century in Egypt and the Near East, and considerably later in Britain, but both of these deserve their own consideration.

Spinning is an utterly basic human need, but now it’s nearly all automated and industrialised and not everyone knows their friendly neighbourhood handspinner. We are here, though.  There is a reason why ‘spinning a yarn’ has more than one meaning.

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Sadly tied to an office job to pay the bills, Freyalyn lives in West Yorkshire with both town and woods on the doorstep. Her interest in ancient tales and technology and folklore led to a degree in Archaeology that has not helped with job-seeking at all, but isn’t regretted in the slightest. Her knowledge and skill in textile arts go back more years than she cares to remember, and somehow there are three spinning wheels, two large dogs, plus cats, in a small flat! Visit her website here.

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Comments (2)

  • Dee Dee Chainey

    I’ve just found an interesting reference to a spirit of spinning-wheels from the Scottish borders. I’ll paste it in full:
    ‘In the old days, when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning-wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habetrot, and Mr. Wilkie tells the following legend about her:— A Selkirkshire matron had one fair daughter, who loved play better than work, wandering in the meadows and lanes better than the spinning-wheel and distaff. The mother was heartily vexed at this taste, for in those days no lassie had any chance of a good husband unless she was an industrious spinster. So she cajoled, threatened, even heather daughter, but all to no purpose; the girl remained what her mother called her, ” an idle cuttie.” At last, one spring morning, the gudewife gave her seven heads of lint, saying she would take no excuse; they must be returned in three days spun into yarn. The girl saw her mother was in earnest, so she plied her distaff as well as she could; but her little hands were all untaught, and by the evening of the second day a very small part of her task was accomplished. She cried herself to sleep that night, and in the morning, throwing aside her work in despair, she strolled out into the fields, all sparkling with dew. At last she reached a flowery knoll, at whose feet ran a little burn, shaded with woodbine and wild roses; and there she sat down, burying her face in her hands. When she looked up, she was surprised to see by the margin of the stream an old woman, quite unknown to her, “drawing out the thread” as she basked in the sun. There was nothing very remarkable in her appearance, except the length and thickness of her lips, only she was seated on a self-bored stone. The girl rose, went to the good dame, and gave her a friendly greeting, but could not help inquiring what made her so “lang lipit.” “Spinning thread, ma hinnie,” said the old woman, pleased with her friendliness, and by no means resenting the personal remark. It must be noticed that spinners used constantly to wet their fingers with their lips as they drew the thread from the rock or distaff. ” Ah! ” said the girl, ” I should be spinning too, but it’s a’ to no purpose, I sail ne’er do my task; ” on which the old woman proposed to do it for her. Overjoyed, the maiden ran to fetch her lint, and placed it in her new friend’s hand, asking her name, and where she could call for the yarn in the evening; but she received no reply; the old woman’s form passed away from her among the trees and bushes, and disappeared. The girl, much bewildered, wandered about a little, set down to rest, and finally fell asleep by the little knoll. When she awoke she was surprised to find that it was evening. The glories of the western sky were passing into twilight grey. Causleen, or the evening star,” was beaming with silvery light, soon to be lost in the moon’s increasing splendour. While watching these changes, the maiden was startled by the sound of an uncouth voice, which seemed to issue from below a self-bored stone, close beside her. She laid her ear to the stone, and distinctly heard these words: “Little kens the wee lassie on the brae-head that ma name’s Habetrot.” Then looking down the hole slie saw her friend, the old dame, walking backwards and forwards in a deep cavern among a group of spinsters all seated on colludie stones (a kind of white pebble found in rivers), and busy with distaff and spindle. An unsightly company they were, with lips more or less disfigured by their employment, as were old Habetrot’s. The same peculiarity extended to the other of the sisterhood, who sat in a distant corner reeling the yarn; and she was marked, in addition, by grey eyes, which seemed starting from her head, and a long hooked nose. While the girl was still watching, she heard Habetrot address this singular being by the name of Scantlie Mab, and tell her to bundle up the yarn, for it was time the young
    lassie should give it to her mother. Delighted to hear this, our listener got up and turned homewards, nor was she long kept in suspense. Habetrot soon overtook her, and placed the yarn in her hands. ” Oh, what can I do for ye in return ?” exclaimed she, in deliglit. ” Naething—naething,” replied the dame; “but dinna tell yer mither whae spun the yarn.” Scarcely crediting her good fortune, our heroine went home, •where she found her mother had been busy making sausters, or black puddings, and hanging them up in the lum to dry, and then, tired out, had retired to rest. Finding herself very hungry after her long day on the knoll, the girl took down pudding after pudding, fried and ate them, aud at last went to bed too. The mother was up first the next morning, and when she came into the kitchen and found her sausters all gone, and the seven hanks of yarn lying beautifully smooth and bright upon the table, her mingled feelings of vexation and delight were too much for her. She ran out of the house wildly crying out— ” Ma daughter’s spun se’en, se’en, se’en, Ma daughter’s eaten se’en, se’en’ se’en And all before daylight!” A laird, who chanced to be riding by, heard the exclamation but could not understand it; so he rode up and asked the gude-wife what was the matter, on which she broke out again— ” Ma daughter’s spun se’en, se’en, se’en, Ma daughter’s eaten se’en, se’en, se’en before daylight; and, if ye dinna believe me, why come in and see it.” The laird’scuriosity was roused;-he alighted and went into the cottage, where he saw the yarn, and admired it so much, he begged to see the spinner. The mother dragged in the blushing girl. Her rustic grace soon won his heart, and he avowed he was lonely without a wife, and had long been in search of one who was a good spinner.” So their troth was plighted, and the wedding took place soon afterwards, the bride stifling her apprehensions that she should not prove so deft at her spinning-wheel as her lover expected. And once more old Habetrot came to her aid. “Whether the good dame, herself so notable, was as indulgent to all idle damsels does not appear—certainly she did not fail this little pet of hers. ” Bring your bonnie bridegroom to my cell,” said she to the young bride soon after her marriage; ” he shall see what comes o’ spinning, and never will he tie you to the spinning wheel.” Accordingly the bride led her husband the next day to the flowery knoll, and bade him look through the self-bored stone. Great was his his surprise to behold Habetrot dancing and jumping over her rock, singing all the time this ditty to her sisterhood, while they kept time with their spindles:— ‘ We who liye in dreary den, Are both rank and foul to see, Hidden frae the glorious sun, That teems the fair earth’s canopie: Ever must our evenings lone Be spent on the colludie stone. Cheerless is the evening grey, When Causleen hath died away, But ever bright and ever fair, Are they who breathe this evening air; And lean upon the self-bored stone Unseen by all but me alone. The song ended, Scantlie Mab asked Habetrot what she meant by her last line, ” Unseen by all but me alone.” ” There is ane,” replied Habetrot, ” whom I bid to come here at this hour, and he has heard my song through the self-bored stone.” So saying she rose, opened another door, which was concealed by the roots of an old tree, and invited the bridal pair to come in and see her family. The laird was astonished at the weird-looking company, as he well might be, and inquired of one after another the cause of the strange distortion of their lips. In a different tone of voice, and with a difierent twist of the mouth, each answered that it was occasioned by spinning. At least they tried to say so, but one grunted out “Nakasind,” and other ” Owkasaand,” while a third murmured ” 0-a-o-send.” All, however, conveyed the fact to the bridegroom’s understanding; while Habetrot slily hinted, that, if his wife were allowed to spin, her pretty lips would grow out of shape too, and her pretty face get an ugsome look. So before he left the cave he protested his little wife should never touch a spinning-wheel, and he kept his word. She used to wander in the meadows by his side, or ride behind him over the hills, and all the flax grown on his land was sent to old Habetrot to be converted into yarn.’ FROM
    Henderson, William, 1813-1891. Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders (Kindle Locations 4328-4332). London, Pub. for the Folk-lore Society by W. Satchell, Peyton and co.. Kindle Edition.

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