Woman unwinding thread from a spindle into a skein
MS Fr. 599, f. 48, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris
French, c. 15th Century


Why Spin?

To wind raw fibers into sturdy yarn, or strong thread. Spinning kept individual fibers from falling away from each other, and stretching helps lock them together.

The Spindle

  • Most types look like a top, made of a rod with a disk-shaped weight attached close to one end, with a point below.
  • The spinner starts with an already spun thread attached right above the weight of the spindle.
  • They then clump a few new fibers onto the thread, secure it in a notch on the top end of the spindle, and then spin it to twist the new fibers into more thread.
  • When enough new thread is produced, it is wrapped around the rod, over the top of the weight.
  • A distaff is a forked or straight rod, used for holding fiber about to be spun.
  • Spindles would be held in the right or left hand, depending on where the spinner was from and the direction in which the fiber would be spun.

The Spinning Wheel

  • Came to Europe from India in the 13the century.
  • The Great, or Jersey wheel was invented in 1350, and was the first improvement to cotton spinning.
  • The last medieval improvement to the spinning wheel was the addition of a foot treadle.
  • Spinning wheels operate on the same principles as the spindle, but they also wind the spun thread on a bobbin for you, in addition to spinning it together.


Backer, Patricia. "Part I - Medieval European History." Technology in the Middle Ages. 2005. San Jose State University. 29 June 2007. http://www.engr.sjsu.edu/pabacker/history/middle.htm#Weaving%20and%20the%20Textile%20Industry