Saturday, July 4, 2015

Spin like you're Medieval posted to my YouTube channel

I am happy to announce a new Historical spinning video on my YouTube channel:

Spin like you're Medieval

In five minutes, I demo the small spindles of the 11th-14th centuries in England (especially the area around York, England).  This area seems to have retained the tradition of these short spindles for several centuries.  The influence is Anglo-Norse.  Exactly what these little spindles were used for is the real question.  Unlike today, very fine yarns were likely to have mainly been used in singles form for weaving.  But the Coppergate surviving spindles have a nok both top and bottom, which makes them a puzzle.  Two-ply yarns could easily have been plied on them.  Two-ply yarn in that time period would have been needed for sewing thread, tablet weaving warps, embroidery thread and braiding strands, but not for knitting, which has not appeared in England yet.  The illuminations from the 1300's (Luttrell Psalter and Decretals of Gregory IX) show short spindles with compact round cops on them.  As an Independent Researcher I must wonder what the advantages are of such a form.  Hence the experiments with the recreated spindles and test swoping out of many whorls.  I have 'more to say' but have to go back to the lathe right now!!!! More spindles, more spindles.  My Etsy shop is thirsty (

I edited this video from the raw footage that my daughter, Tammy Swales, was kind enough to shoot while we celebrated first my birthday, and then hers.  We had a great deal of fun working together, as you might see in the video.  We are somewhat dangerous together; sometimes things spin out of control……...I am slowly learning to do my own video editing, but it is a big learning curve.  I hope I am improving in doing these.

There is another video upcoming, "Spin like you're Scottish", probably ready in early Fall.  I have to combine my research and the timing of the videos.  I am still frantically researching and testing out spindle shapes.  To say nothing of coming up with some sort of historical costuming. I am known to be 'frumpy' in the modern world.  It turns out I am just as frumpy as a re-enactor in costume!

PS: The blue wool on the distaff is commercially, chemically dyed the most radiant blue.  I am quite certain it is not the least bit Medieval in hue.  But it stands out so well visually.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Spinning a Heavy Cop using Oseberg Distaff


 I've been asked by viewers for longer visuals on the use of the hand distaff in action while spinning wool and I also wanted to show a Viking Oseberg-style drop spindle in use when it is getting very heavy.

Clip of missingspindle using an Oseberg Hand Distaff
See Link below.

Here's the link to the video on my Flickr account.
( you might have to click twice - I'm an amateur at setting this up.

In this demo, the spindle wool cop weighs 3 ounces, and the spindle shaft weighs 1/2 ounce.  It is getting too heavy for me to easily spin.  I use method B to attach the yarn each time, going around the bottom of the cop before I half hitch the yarn to the nok.  The distaff has drum-carded Romney wool mounted on it, as seen in my YouTube videos.  The red leader and white Romney yarn are to help you see the path of the yarn as it is spun and attached to the cop.

The Flickr video is shot against a red Japanese maple tree and I am wearing a Medieval Liripipe hood but using a Viking Oseberg-style spindle.  I am also sitting backwards on the top of a ladder (not recommended, safety-wise) to match the level of the first-time videographer, who is standing in the back of a pickup truck trying to hold the video camera (high quality $70 point and shoot camera bought cheaply ;-)).  This is my first foray into providing simple how-I-do-it to my students and customers.

I've chosen not to provide this on YouTube with my professionally shot instructional videos.  Those are here:

Comments are welcome.  More short videos to come as I master the mysteries of making and uploading.

I will also point out that the Greek and Roman hand distaffs (distaves) would likely use the same movements, those most seem to be shorter than the Oseberg.

And, I forgot to mention, I am Left Hand Dominant.  If you are Right Hand Dominant and want to do this, think of yourself as looking in a mirror.  In other words, you might like to hold the Distaff in your left hand……….

Lois Swales, missingspindle Spinster

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Handling the Hand Distaff

Dressing Wool Viking, Roman & Greek Style

Blog Instructions to go with the "Spin Like a Viking" YouTube video by missingspindle. I've uploaded a (non-professional) video of this distaff type in action on my Flickr account here:
( You might have to click twice-I'm am amateur.
You can find the Oseberg-style distaffs (distaves) for sale in my Etsy shop

The Distaff, sometimes called the Roc or Rock, is an ancient and ubiquitous tool throughout history used in spinning wool fibers into yarn on a spindle.  With the invention of the spinning wheel and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, its use gradually vanished in urbanized Western Europe and the USA.  With the craft revival(s) of the 20th and 21st centuries, many techniques have been devised to prepare and control wool fibers while hand spinning.  The trouble is, the wooden wool distaff has been ignored, even though it is a delightfully effective tool for controlling wool fiber while spinning.  It acts as a third hand.  The binding cord holds back the upper wool fiber and creates 'drag' on the lower fibers, making pulling out the right amount per draft much easier and more accurate for the spinster.

There are three basic 'sizes' of the distaff:  Hand, Waist and Free Standing. I am going to concentrate on the Hand Distaff below.

The Hand Distaff is manipulated as it is held in the hand.  It is shorter and lighter than the Waist Distaff (which is tucked in the belt in use) and far more portable than the tall free-standing distaff.  The Viking Oseberg ship grave find contained at least two hand distaffs (distaves), the larger of which I recreated to study.  The larger Oseberg original was 19" long (Quite possibly designed for bast/flax fibers at that length, but I wanted to work with wool here.). It was not found "dressed", so no proof of what fiber was used.).  I resized mine to use with drum-carded wool batts, which were pulled in half to fit comfortably on a hand distaff of 16-17", with the bottom wool draping over my holding hand. 

I found that the narrow hand distaff style of the Oseberg (and some of the Roman and Greek grave finds/images) suits long fibered wool (over 3"- 4-5" is pleasant to use) combed or drum carded so that the long length of the fibers is bound longways to the distaff staff.   The Oseberg hand distaff has features that make the mounting and spinning off of the fibers much easier than using a simple straight stick. The distaff carries several batts easily and keeps them in good order even in windy conditions.  The spindle tucks into the cross binding tape/string when the Distaff is not in use.  It is sized to fit in a large bag and quick to grab when traveling by car.  It is easy to use in a car and small enough not to assault other travels when in use in small spaces.  It suits my modern spinning life very well, as it must have done for millions of women working inside and outside their homes throughout history.

Dressing the Hand Distaff with Wool

  1. Prepare or purchase drum-carded batts of wool.  Several can be dressed on a hand distaff; I generally use two or three.
  2. Obtain a binding cord or tape.  Spinsters in the past have used cotton tape, wool tape (narrow), coarse wool braid (3 strand or more), and sturdy twine.  The cord should be three times the height of the hand distaff.  It can be trimmed shorter if necessary.
  3. Lay the pile of batts, fanned out at the bottom and narrowed at the top, under the distaff.  Larks' head the end of the binding cord or tape to the narrow groove at the top of the distaff.
  4. Gather the top of the batt so that it is compressed and slightly higher than the top of the distaff.  Wrap the binding cord firmly two or three times around the distaff tightly over the wool.  Spiral down the distaff (firmly again) until the binding cord is about 2-3 inches from the 'knuckle' at the top of the hand hold bottom area.

  5. Spiral back up to the top grooves, where the cord will be half hitched two times to hold.
  6. Spin the wool from the bottom of the distaff, using your distaff-holding hand for both holding the distaff and for pulling down wool as needed.  Both hands work together for this task.
  7. When a length of yarn has been spun, wind the fresh yarn around your distaff-holding hand in preparation of winding it onto the storage area of your spindle.  
  8. Begin again from no. 6, being certain that you rotate the distaff so that the wool is spun up evenly, level by level.  
  9. Adjust and retie the binding cord so that the wool is tied lower toward the distaff hand area as the wool batt becomes smaller.  
    Eventually you will be holding the distaff higher on the shaft to 'reach' the last wool tied there.
  10. Remove the last bit of unspun wool and binding cord.  Begin with fresh wool batts and redress the distaff.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Shriveled Whorl Turns

  the sticky details

Temporary whorls of potatoes or dried fruit for lightweight spindles are mentioned from time to time. Usually they show up associated with really light spindle sticks.

When you begin to spin with a really lightweight spindle stick, it doesn't revolve very long with a flick; you work really really hard to make enough twist. A simple, fast, removable fix is to put something heavy at the bottom that will add temporary weight that you pull off as the yarn you make gets heavy enough to add more weight to the stick.


Raw potatoes are better than cooked potatoes, especially in mashed potato form, though deep-fried crispy spheres might work. A raw round potato works best; weight  30 grams (one ounce) or less.  Over-weight potatoes can be down-sized with a knife and offer opportunities to try out different whorl profiles as well.
Details on weights below:
Potato: Red, fresh: 30.2 grams, 1 3/4" diameter; 1 3/4" height
Andean Spindle stick shaft: 5.8 grams
Andean wooden whorl: 6.4 grams
Total weight, stick+wood whorl+red potato=  42.4 grams

Inserting whorl on the spindle stick was a bit, well, juicy.  I started with a thin skewer puncture and followed by jamming the potato whorl on the bottom of the spindle.  It spun pretty well; just a bit unbalanced, but not as bad as the 40.9 grams ovoid potato, which felt like it was limping as it revolved.  Also too heavy for my taste.

How long can you use a potato whorl?  

Growth and Shriveledge is a problem.

Potatoes shrivel at room temperature, when punctured.  The 30.2 gram potato weighed 23 grams after whorled for 3 weeks or so.

The main problem was that both potatoes began growing sprouts, which gave strange rotational quirks as they increased in size and interfered with whorl location on the stick.

Other dried root vegetables would probably work.

Dried Fruit Whorls

The type of dried fruit selected has to have a round profile either spherical or discoid.  The two I selected were Dried Figs and Dried Apricots. Dried fruits definitely leave a sticky residue on the bottom of the spindle stick.  Doesn't bode well for the future cleanliness of the spindle stick.

Dried Fig was squeezed into round shape; it weighed 26.8 grams - nice weight but a bit bumpy in rotation; the stem didn't help.

Dried Sulfured Apricots were discoid shaped.
 I squeezed them more ovoid and stacked two together.  I ate part of the third one, which made it half-moon shaped so I couldn't use it.  The two dried apricots weighed 8.4 grams and 10.0 grams for a total of 18.4 grams.  I shouldn't have eaten the third apricot.
Spun quite well, but was the stickiest of all the temporary whorls.

Should you eat a temporary whorl?

They get a fibery coating and pick up dirt and dust.  Not sanitary at all.  I heartily recommend not eating them after they convert to whorls. They can only be compost after time spent as whorls. For a totally compostable spindle and whorl, perhaps experiments with celery sticks and apricots.  I haven't gotten that far yet.

Is this a joke, or can you learn something from doing this?

The truth is, especially with something you can carve into different shapes and weights, a lot can be learned about what weight works best as you fill up a spindle to capacity with yarn.  When to remove the whorl; what shapes/weights revolve best for the fiber length and spin you are working with; when you have enough yarn weight to remove a whorl entirely and continue spinning with a 'yarn whorl'.  Messing about changing the whorls' weights also gave me insight into the Goodness of a very light spindle.  It means more yarn can be piled on before it becomes way too heavy.  For me that usually is 3 ounces suspended. If I 'cheat' at the end and start using it supported, then at least another ounce can be added if I have a spindle stick long enough to absorb it.