The process of turning fibres, either of plant or animal origin, into yarn by hand using either a spindle or spinning wheel.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Mesolithic|
The spinning of fibres to form yarn or thread has been carried out for over 10,000 years. Whilst the earliest yarns were made without tools and were twisted rather than spun, for millennia most spinning was done using a spindle. On the drop spindle, the thread is formed as the spindle spins while gravity pulls it to the ground; on the suspended spindle, the spindle is spun on a set surface like a top and the thread is created by pulling the fibre away from the spindle. The spinning wheel was introduced to Europe in the late Middle Ages. Spinning was mechanised in the mid-eighteenth century with the invention of the spinning jenny, and gave birth to the Industrial Revolution.
The craft of spinning can be divided into the preparation of the fleece to produce fibres for spinning, and the spinning itself. The fleece must be cleaned, washed and carded before the fibres are ready to spin. While whole fleeces are readily and cheaply available, many people today spin from ‘rovings’ (cleaned and carded fibres which have been drawn out and slightly twisted to form lengths suitable for spinning).
Today, hand spinning is largely done for personal use for knitting or crochet (very few people weave with their own yarn).
There are over 200 breeds of sheep in the UK, and the wool from each has its own associated uses. There are two historical types of spinning:
Woollen spinning: short wool or downland wool (fibres approximately 1.5” long)
Worsted spinning: long wool or mountain wool (fibres approximately 12” long)
However, today most people spin from short fibre ‘rovings’.
- Preparation of tops for hand or mill spinning
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Handspinning is largely an amateur of semi-professional pursuit nowadays, with relatively few people earning their main living from spinning.
Training issues: The Association of Guilds of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers education programme includes, The Foundation Certificate in three disciplines, spinning, weaving and dyeing, The Certificate of Achievement in five disciplines, spinning, weaving, tapestry weaving, natural dyeing and in synthetic dyeing. The Certificate in Advanced Textile Studies intended to be a personal development, self-directed, in-depth exploration, from an original concept, through planned detailed research, development of ideas, sampling, and evaluation to an end product of excellent quality.
Market issues: Good quality hand-spun yarn is a highly skilled product and professional hand spinners find it almost impossible to find markets which will pay a fair wage, so most also teach.
While whole fleeces are readily and cheaply available, changing lifestyles mean that people often don’t have access to a large sink and space to clean and prepare fleeces. This means that most people today spin from rovings, leading to a loss of the key skills associated with preparing and spinning the fleece.
Craftspeople currently known
Whilst professional spinners are fairly thin on the ground, interest in hand spinning is thriving with a lot of engagement and skills sharing happening through social media.
Covid 19: This appears to have led to a increase in people spinning and there has been more activity on the individual preparation of fleece as shepherds are finding difficulty in getting markets for there fleeces and the amounts paid are extremely low. People who may not have the access to large sinks etc are returning to the more traditional ‘suint’ method of scouring raw fleece. This involves leaving the fleece to soak in cold/rain water for a period of a week or more, before tipping out the water (good fertiliser) and rinsing.