Hand Spinning

The origins of spinning fibre to make string or yarn are lost in time, but archaeological evidence in the form of representation of string skirts has been dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, some 20,000 years ago. In the most primitive type of spinning, tufts of animal hair or plant fibre are rolled down the thigh with the hand, and additional tufts are added as needed until the desired length of spun fibre is achieved. Later, the fibre is fastened to a stone which is twirled round until the yarn is sufficiently twisted, whereupon it is wound upon the stone and the process repeated over and over.

The next method of twisting yarn is with the spindle, a straight stick eight to twelve inches long on which the thread is wound after twisting. At first the stick had a cleft or split in the top in which the thread was fixed. Later, a hook of bone was added to the upper end. The bunch of wool or plant fibres is held in the left hand. With the right hand the fibres are drawn out several inches and the end fastened securely in the slit or hook on the top of the spindle. A whirling motion is given to the spindle on the thigh or any convenient part of the body. The spindle is then dropped, twisting the yarn, which is wound on to the upper part of the spindle. Another bunch of fibres is drawn out, the spindle is given another twirl, the yarn is wound on the spindle, and so on.

The distaff was used for holding the bunch of wool, flax, or other fibres. It was a short stick, on one end of which distaffwas loosely wound the raw material. The other end of the distaff was held in the hand, under the arm or thrust in the girdle of the spinner. When held thus, one hand was left free for drawing out the fibres.

A spindle containing a quantity of yarn rotates more easily, steadily, and continues longer than an empty one; hence, the next improvement was the addition of a weight called a spindle whorl at the bottom of the spindle. These whorls are discs of wood, stone, clay, or metal with a hole in the centre for the spindle, which keep the spindle steady and promote its rotation. Spindle whorls appeared in the Neolithic era.

In medieval times, poor families had such a need for homespun yarn to make their own cloth and clothes, that practically all girls and unmarried women would keep busy spinning, and spinster became synonymous with an unmarried woman. Subsequent improvements with spinning wheels and then mechanical methods made hand-spinning increasingly uneconomic, but as late as the twentieth century hand-spinning remained widespread in poor countries: in conscious rejection of international industrialization, Gandhi was a notable practitioner.

A great wheel (also called a wool wheel, high wheel or walking wheel) is advantageous when using the long-draw technique to spin wool or cotton because the high ratio between the large wheel and the whorl (sheave) enables the spinner to turn the bobbin faster, thus significantly speeding up production.

A Saxony wheel (also called a flax wheel) or an upright wheel (also called a castle wheel), can be used to spin woolflax wheeel or cotton, but are invaluable when spinning flax (linen). The ends of flax fibres tend to stick out from the thread unless wetted while being spun. The spinner typically keeps a bowl of water handy when spinning flax, and on these types of wheels, both hands are free (since the wheel is turned with a treadle, rather than by hand), so the spinner can use one hand to draft the fibres and the other to wet them.

Industrial spinning

Modern powered spinning, originally done by water or steam power but now done by electricity, is vastly faster than hand-spinning.

The spinning jenny, a multi-spool spinning wheel invented c. 1764 by James Hargreaves, dramatically reduced the amount of work needed to produce yarn of high consistency, with a single worker able to work eight or more spools at once. At roughly the same time, Richard Arkwright and a team of craftsmen developed the spinning frame, which produced a stronger thread than the spinning jenny. Too large to be operated by hand, a spinning frame powered by a waterwheel became the water frame.

In 1779, Samuel Crompton combined elements of the spinning jenny and water frame to create the spinning mule. This produced a stronger thread, and was suitable for mechanisation on a grand scale. A later development, from 1828/29, was Ring spinning.

In the 20th century, new techniques including Open End spinning or rotor spinning were invented to produce yarns at rates in excess of 40 meters per second.

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