Women and Worsted

My Norfolk Horn obsession is taking me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go but now I’m there I am loving it.  I have followed the Norfolks trail to Norfolks medieval and early modern textile industry.

England dominated the international textile trade, booms and busts notwithstanding, and Norfolk was the world centre for Worsted textiles. Textiles that were only possible to make due the production of vast amounts of yarn produced on what must have been an epic scale.

This is an extraordinary feat when you consider that until the introduction of powered spinning machines in the 1750’s, all yarn was spun by hand either on a spindle or on a wheel. And spun almost exclusively by women.

In the early medieval period spinning with a spindle and distaff was a ubiquitous activity of all women that transcended all classes.  For many women it the only way for them to provide their households with textiles. Spinning was so prevalent that it was not thought of as a skill or a craft that could be mastered but as some kind of natural ability inherent her gender. The spear side and the distaff side were terms to distinguish male inheritance from female inheritance. Spinster is still used today to describe an unmarried women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath cites a proverb that holds that the natural endowments of women as ‘Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given to women kindly, while they may live.’

There are many contemporary images showing women spinning, or carrying her equipment, spindle and distaff visibly prominent as she carries out her other tasks, as a visual representation of her productiveness and positive wifely attributes.

My favourite is The Lutrell Psalter,an 14thC manuscript with illuminations showing depictions of everyday life on a manor through the year. Its wonderful, go take a look here. In it most of the depictions of women show them either directly engaged in spinning or undertaking other activities with distaff and spindle visible ready to whip out at a moments notice.

LuttrelPsalterwomen_spinning.jpg
Spinning on a great wheel and carding wool (source: Lutrell Psalter folio British Museum)
LutterellPsalterWomenwithdistafffeedingchickensp20.JPG
a women attending her chickens, spindle and distaff tucked in her arm.

 

Luttrellffff60womenstrikingaman

In this image a women looms above a cowering man brandishing her distaff  with her spindle flying like a flail. I can’t help but wonder what his crime was.  Depictions of irate women brandishing distaff and spindle occurs alot.  Misericords in Malvern and Westminster also show husbands being chased by irate wives with raised distaffs.

 

 

And one of my personal favourites:

womenjoustingwithdistaff.jpg
Jousting.  Just another alternative use for a distaff  (source: National Library of France)

Women must have had their spindles and distaffs about them at all times, ready to whip out and put to use at every opportunity. It must have been an incessant unrelenting and all pervasive activity.

In Norfolk, doing different seems to have been a consistent thread through time. Whilst the spinning wheel was widely adopted elsewhere, in Norfolk, spinning ‘on the rock’ (as spindle spinning was known) persisted more or less until mechanisation replaced hand-spinning from the mid 1700’s on.

The simple reason for this technical.  A great wheel cannot spin a worsted yarn (I wont bore you with the technicalities of worsted and woollen – that is whole chapter all on its own). As a consequence, in Norfolk all the worsted yarn, for which its spinners were famed, used in the worsted textile industry were spun on the rock.

Yes, on a weighted stick.

By hand.

Whilst she got on with doing everything else as well. Hmm.

This got me curious about the time it might have taken and the quantities involved. So I did a very rough back of the envelope calculation. And please note this took about 10 minutes and I have very limited weaving knowledge. I would be really interested if anyone out there would like to put this to the test and work up some real data.

It’s easy for us to underestimate just how good the quality of English textiles being produced at that time were. We don’t have museum archives stuffed with bolts of cloth or clothing or household draperies to examine. But we are lucky that a few precious fragments have survived. These range in quality from coarse rough cloth woven from uneven yarns to very fine worsted that must have looked like silk.

So, M’lady wants a new dress.

Assuming she’s a bit of dandy and wants a reasonably priced good quality cloth and this cloth had an even number of warp and wefts [2]. Analysis of contemporary textile fragments show that the numbers of threads ranged from approximately 8 – 28 threads per cm[1].

So let’s assume our worsted cloth had a count of 20 threads for every cm. So, 1cm2 would need: 20 + 20 = 40cm of yarn. If our fabric was 1m wide, each meter of woven cloth would need: 0.40 x 10,000 = 4km of thread.

A women’s dress may have required between 3 -5 m of fabric, depending upon her status, size and cut. There would also have been wastage from the weaving process and shrinkage.

So if we assume 5m of cloth. This would require at least: 4 x 5 = 20km of yarn.

Geez! How long would that take to spin?

It is impossible to say how productive a medieval spinner was. She was likely to be very well practised and competent at her craft. I’m not a well-practiced spindler so I can’t really use my output for this. I do know that a competent spindler can spin between 35 – 50 m in 15 minutes competitively. I don’t think we’ve evolved much since the 12th Century so I think it is safe to assume this is a good match for your average medieval spinster. This output equates to between 140 to 200m an hour.

It would take over 20hours to make enough yarn to weave a single meter of fabric.

Therefore, to spin enough for m’ladies dress would take over 100 hours.

100 hours.

This is in addition to the time taken to wash and prepare the fleece before spinning.

In addition to all the other tasks the household required.

This goes some considerable way to understanding just how precious textiles were, given the amount of labour it took to produce them.

So there may well be a grain of truth in the  statement I keep coming across that it took seven spinners to keep one Worsted weaver going.  Without them Norfolks wealth and power would not have been possible. But these women made it happen. Sadly though, these women remain unrecorded, unrecognised and, mostly, invisible.

[1] Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., & Staniland, K. (1992). Textiles and Clothing c. 1150—1450 [Volume 4 in Medieval Finds from Excavations in London].

[2] Warp threads are the threads the loom is dressed with and run vertically.  Weft threads are the threads the weaver inserts horizontally running over and under the warps)

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3 thoughts on “Women and Worsted

  1. In Peru (in places like Cuzco in the mountains) the women spin alpaca and wool on a spindle all day, every day. They give spindles and wool to children as young as 2 to play with and I guess this is as close as we will get to the level of competence of a medieval woman – I saw one video where a woman joked that her husband complained that she was spinning during sex 😂 I think it was a joke anyway.

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  2. Great piece – thanks! I’m a historian of the period c.1550-1750 and although I’m far from an expert on the cloth trade, I read a piece recently by Craig Muldrew that might be of interest. It has a lot of estimates of productivity, earnings and more. One the of key findings is the amount of employment spinning would have provided: “taking wool, linen, and hemp spinning together, the potential employment by 1770 could have been in the order of 1,500,000 married women. If we were to add to this the figure of 100,000 women employed in hand‐knitting stockings, this would have provided employment for about 75 per cent of all women over the age of 14 in the country.” MULDREW, C. (2012), ‘Th’ancient Distaff’ and ‘Whirling Spindle’: measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550–1770. The Economic History Review, 65: 498-526. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2010.00588.x/abstract

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