I'm recovering from a weekend of fun at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex where I spent two days learning how to spin. Now, this might not be quite the rock and roll lifestyle you imagined for me (let's be honest, it probably was), but as I am someone who spends a fair amount of time not being able to find exactly the knitting yarn I need, I thought I'd learn how to make it myself. Unsurprisingly, my thoughts turned to Victorian depictions of spinning...
|Still Life Interior with Spinning Wheel (early 20th century) 'Cogswell'|
I do love doing things with my hands (no sniggering at the back) and so the idea of learning how to turn sheep into wool (not the whole sheep obviously) just seemed like magic and so booked the course and began to dream of sitting at my wheel singing as I span. Span? Spun? Spinned? Well, you know what I mean...
Thank you Morris, 'span' it is. Mind you, his depiction of drop-spindle spinning is a bit vague. I'm guessing that's what she's doing - I can see the stretch of fleece going from hand to hand as she twists, but I can't really see a spindle. Mind you Adam seems to be digging with an elongated heart on a stick so who knows what's going on here...
|Woman Spinning Margaret Thomas|
That's more like it, although she's going some in this picture. The idea is (for those who don't drop-spindle, or indeed spin) is that the hand nearest the spindle holds the fleece as it twists as the other hand feeds out the fleece to feed the twist. The hand nearest the spindle then moves up the unspun fleece releasing the twist into it. You then wind that part onto the spindle and away you go again. As I have just started, I horribly over-twist but that is normal and to do with not working quick enough and being too cautious. It also makes your arm ache like a bugger, especially if you try and drop-spindle-spin sitting down. Anyway, enough practice, let's get on with the art...
|Sleeping Beauty (1913) Leon Bakst|
Let's just get something out of the way - I did not prick my finger and fall asleep for a 100 years. This would have been damn near impossible anyway as a regular spinning wheel does not have any sharp bits at all. Apparently 'great wheels', really massive spinning wheels, have a spike, probably used to hold the fibre to be spun (called a distaff) because you are using one hand to turn the wheel while the other feeds in the fibre for spinning, a bit like a sideways drop-spindle.
|St Elizabeth of Hungary spinning for the poor Marianne Stokes|
Here you can see the distaff holding up the dark fleece while Elizabeth spins and uses the treadle joined to the shaft by her knee. Although we often think of wheels being a symbol of the industrious poor, living in little cottages and wearing headscarves, having a wheel in your house was fairly rare until Tudor times. Until then you would drop-spindle (which can be made really easily) and so Elizabeth of Hungary is doing work for the poor with something the poor would not have had access to.
|Our Saviour Subject to his Parents at Nazareth (1847) John Rogers Herbert|
This therefore is a very miraculous scene, not least because the spinning wheel would not be invented for about another 500 years. You'll remember from Blogvent that the Virgin Mary was known for her needlecraft, and so I think Herbert was trying to express this. Actually, apart from the uninvented spinning wheel, it's not a bad effort as if Mary is going to be doing all that embroidery she'll need to get her yarn from somewhere. It's not like she can pop over to Hobbycraft on the donkey.
|The Sleeping Embroiderer Gustave Courbet|
What is it with Courbet and sleeping women? It's a bit creepy and voyeuristic but we'll just think the best that he was making the best if their rest period. So the lady here is spinning her embroidery yarn but has dozed off with the spike of fleece on her lap. I love that red ribbon around the silver fleece.
|Fair Rosamund John William Waterhouse|
It's nice to know that whilst hanging around for her lover and being done in by his jealous wife, Rosamund Clifford wasn't sat around bored. In the corner of her room is her spinning wheel. Well, that wool isn't going to spin itself and if you want a thread to lead your erstwhile lover to your hidden lovenest (not a euphemism) then you have to make it yourself. The illicit-lover-threads you buy in the shops are just not the same quality.
|A Romance of Bridport, Dorset (1923) Francis Henry Newberry|
Whenever a monarch turns up in your town, you might as well bring out your spinning wheel to impress him. Henry VIII was well known for his love of a woman with a wheel (according to the song often attributed to him, 'I like big wheels and I cannot lie') and so this lass is wise to turn up with her wheel, which also denotes her unmarried state. The term 'spinster' referred to the mostly unmarried women who span wool, the idea being you would probably give that occupation up when you were married and popping out babies.
|At the Crofter's Wheel (1876) William Henry Midwood|
Come on now, it's obviously an open secret that men love a wheel. Look at the confidence this woman has with hers, as if to say, 'Yes, I spin and you like it, don't you Big Boy?' If I had only known this as a teenager it would have saved so much heartache. Men like milkmaids and spinsters, don't try and deny it. Damn it, I could have had a vastly different school experience...
|Thomas Faed at the Easel in his Studio (1853) John Ballantyne|
Mind you, I think it's a fair bet that Victorian artists loved a spinning wheel as a prop. You could use it as short-hand for honest, lady-like labour making dainty loveliness which has a purpose. From the flax spun for nets and rope in Bridport (hence the spinning wheel) to dainty silk spinning, it has all sorts of useful and beautiful applications in real life. Stick some apple-cheeked voluptuous woman next to a wheel and we know what it represents.
|Waiting (1885) Clement Rollins Grant|
Also, as we have covered, it's rather a neat way of showing that the woman is unmarried. Grant's girl, above, is literally waiting to be married, but she doesn't look like she needs to spin for anything other than fun. There does seem to be a point in time when wheels start looking slightly anachronistic and an affectation...
|Summer Morning Interior (1917) Ernest Townsend|
This young lady seems to say there might be trouble on the Western Front but I have a load of merino to spin up. However, might it be that she is unmarried and likely to stay so because all the chaps are now dead in No Man's Land? Might this be a powerful anti-war painting disguised as something pretty and Vermeer-y?
|The Spinning Wheel (1859) John Phillip|
So, in conclusion, I have added another skill to my apocalypse cv, joining bee-keeping, bread-making, chicken-hypnotism and cow-milking. As someone said this weekend, when the lights go out, I'll be ready, which is just the sort of positive thinking we all need. Anyway, everyone can look forward to some over-twisted wool for Christmas this year...