Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Spinning in 800 B.C.
In the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History there is a display of things that were found at the site of ancient Troy. In the collection are two spindle whorls. They look like blobs of baked clay with holes poked in them, about the size of large cherries. The shafts are long gone, as are the many yards of yarn or thread that were made with them. Remember, in ancient times, every thread of every woven garment was made by hand. Women spent many hours each day spinning the thread for the clothes they would later weave for their families.
Here is a lovely bas relief from ancient Iran, from about the time of Homer's Odyssey - 800-700 B.C. It's on display at the Louvre. There are a few things we can learn from the picture. The spinner is a wealthy lady - she is wearing a fancy wig and is attended by a slave with a fan. A wealthy lady would not have to spin - she could afford to pay spinners (if she didn't own a few already) or purchase cloth, so we know she is spinning for pleasure, not out of necessity. She is using a top-whorl spindle and setting it into motion with her hand, not a thigh spin. She has a snack available, and probably another slave waits nearby to break off pieces of fish and put them into her mouth so she doesn't lose her rhythm or stain her fiber. The spinner sits barefoot and cross-legged on the stool and fills her spindle with wool yarn. It's a lovely, leisurely domestic scene.
We spin our threads as well. We have electric fans and air-conditioning, not slaves. We don't prove our wealth by our wigs, and it is more likely that we keep a cup of coffee on hand for our refreshment, rather than a fish in a bowl. We may use a spindle, and we may sit barefoot and cross-legged. Or we may use that miracle of modern invention, the spinning wheel, but like the lady in the picture we spin for pleasure, for the joy of making something beautiful by hand. We may be separated by a thousand years, but in our craft we are sisters.