Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Behind the Wheel

January 7 is an auspicious day on many calendars. It is the birthdate of such luminaries as Nicolas Cage and David Caruso. It is the date upon which Harry S. Truman announced the creation of the hydrogen bomb, which would end World War II and plunge the world into a full-blown Cold War. It is the date upon which the HMS Beagle weighed anchor in the Galapagos, where Charles Darwin would develop the theory of evolution.

The Japanese celebrate Nanakusa on January 7th. This is also Christmas Day for those who follow the Julian Calendar, known in Canada as Ukrainian Christmas. (I will be having my peroghies and holubsti when my cold clears up!) This year, Muslims will observe Ashura, a day of remembrance, on January 7th.

And for those of us who spin, January 7th is St. Distaff Day. This is the day that European women traditionally returned to the work of spinning after the Christmas festivities. The men did not return to their work until Plough Monday, which could be as many as 6 days away, which meant that they had a lot of time on their hands to harass the women at their work. This was generally referred to as merriment. I personally think that this was just further proof that men have never grasped the concept that the only thing standing between civilization and them standing naked in a field bashing things withs sticks was a woman and her spindle.

Of course, in the shiny new year of 2009, we have Wal-Mart and The Gap to keep us well attired while we bash things with sticks. So why do we still have spinners? Someone asked me that question lately, and my immediate response was "Because spinning is the basis of all civilization!"

There is much debate regarding how long humans have been twisting plant and animal fibres to make string. Most historians and archaeologists will agree to 10 000 years, but many speculate that spinning goes back further. Neolithic goddess figures, dating back 20 000 years BCE have been found that appear to be wearing skirts of twisted string. These goddess figures have little other detail, but the twists of the spun string on their skirts is clearly represented. Why would cave-dwelling mammoth eaters take the time to carve twists into the string if they had not observed them daily and regarded them as significant?

We know from Egyptian tomb paintings that women spun and wove the fine linens that the mummies were wrapped in. Researchers have found mummy wrappings as fine as 500 threads per inch, just like a set of Ralph Lauren sheets. But handspun.

Greeks and Romans treasured their sheer linens, and many of their goddesses are associated with spinning. Demeter,the goddess of the harvest, was also associated with the hearth and spinning. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was a weaver. The Moirae, who determined the fates of men, were three mystical beings who spun, measured and cut the thread of destiny. The classical mythology of the Greco-Roman period is rife with tales of spinning and weaving, from Jason's pursuit of the Golden Fleece, through Penelope's weaving and unweaving of her wedding veil while she waited faithfully for Odysseus to return to her. And all the string was handspun.

Vikings sailed to the New World with waterproof sails of handspun greasy wool. The ships that Columbus brought to that same New World five-hundred years later likely had sails of hemp or linen, but still handspun. Nations rose to power, and collapsed, according to their textile industries. The pursuit of silk and pepper led to the Crusades; the Spanish Empire grew to rule most of the New World and Europe on the strength of silk stocking and Merino wool. All spun into string by women who were not paid for their labor.

And handspun string was not only reserved for great feats and fine artifacts. Every stitch of clothing worn by prince and pauper in every culture and nation in the world was made from string spun almost exclusively by women. Unpaid women, who squeezed the spinning in between tending the animals and the home garden, raising babies, cooking, and cleaning. Women who spun because they knew that otherwise their families would be naked in a field, bashing things with sticks.

Over the millenia, the simple spindle evolved into the spinning great wheel. Then the great wheel was streamlined to fit into small cottages and a treadle was added to speed the process up. Then , in 1764, James Hargreave invented the Spinning Jenny, which allowed a single operator to spin 8 spindles of string instead of just one. Ten years later, Samuel Crompton attached the Spinning Jenny to a water-driven turbine and the mechanization of spinning began. Suddenly, the home spinner was obsolete. Mass production of muslin made fabric cheap and accessible to all. Factories wove the cheap cotton cloth, chemical dyes were invented to dye cloth more economically, and clothing was mass-produced. The Industrial Revolution came along, and the world has never been the same. Twenty thousand years of handspun string and its crucial role in holding society together disappeared practically overnight.

Spinning had historically never been truly treated with respect. It was often referred to as a feminine pursuit or as a means to occupy idle women to keep them out of mischief. In the same way that other women's work, such as child-rearing and nursing the ill and dying were historically marginalized, so was spinning. In German and the Netherlands, men took a shot at controlling the cottage weaving industry, forming Guilds that granted license to qualified men and making it illegal for women to weave, but they never touched spinning. That was women's work, and thus , beneath them.

Women have continued to spin in developing nations since the Industrial Revolution. Not everyone has access to manufactured goods, or the resources to purchase them. Babies need blankets, husbands need warm hats, young brides need finery, whether there is a Wal-Mart nearby or not. Indigenous spinning traditions thrived in India, Tibet and Peru well into the 1970's and are now being eagerly revived.

Mohandas K. Ghandi promoted spinning as a step toward autonomy from Colonial rule for the eople of India. The wheel in the centre of India's flag is a charkha--the traditional spinning wheel used by Indian women. To many Indian people, that wheel is the symbol of independence and freedom. And with the growing craft revival in North America and Europe, it is becoming an increasingly relevant symbol of individuality.

Modern spinners tie the world to the very roots of civilization. As we begin to discover the environmental, fiscal and social costs of mass-production and our credit-card, fast-food economy, more and more people are turning to the simpler joys of the hand-made. And with the current climate of global economic concern, I suspect that even more will start looking for the independence and freedom that the DIY lifestyle offers. Which is where it all began. With a couple of women sitting in a cave, twisting nettle fibres together while the naked boys were out bashing things with sticks.

It is time for spinners to stand up and claim our heritage. For women and men to come together to appreciate this timeless and gentle craft that connects us to the roots of what makes us human. The unseen craft that raised us from caves to condos, discovered new worlds, preserved ancient cultures, and kept us warm and clothed while we were doing all that stuff.

Spinning is just one way we express our individuality. It is a connection to the past, it is a road to the future. It is women's work, raised to art. Men are spinning. "High art" is being created. The world is a warmer place when there are spinners. We are in control of our destinies. We are behind the wheel, so to speak.

So, on St. Distaff Day, as I sit back down at my wheel after a couple of wonderful weeks of revelry with family and friends, I am going to take a moment to thank all the women who have worked to make the world a warmer, safer place for the ones they loved, and to all the men who have appreciated them and the work that they did.


  1. Wonderful post, Michelle! I love the part about "their families would be naked in a field bashing things with sticks". Very apt description. LOL!!

    Personally, my family would have very cold feet.

    Happy Rock Day!

  2. I LOVE this post!! I'm in the process of writing a book about my own philosophy on spinning and crochet mainly, and would love to connect with you!