ORP: West Stow Spindle Whorl
This spindle whorl (one of many found not only at this particular site, but also in Anglo-Saxon England on the whole) is made from clay and was found at an unspecified location on the West Stow archaeological site. It would have been hand-made, and used along with a spindle (basically a short, smooth, stick) to spin wool into yarn, which could then have been woven into textiles. The spindle whorl was placed at the end of the stick, which tapered to keep the whorl from sliding off, and helped to keep the spindle spinning and twisting the wool into yarn. Today, spindle whorls are generally attached to their spindles, but in Early Medieval England this would not have been the case, allowing the user to trade out spindle whorls when convenient. They might have done this to adjust the weight — spindle whorls were often made from lighter materials like glass or heaver ones like lead as well as clay, and as the yarn ball around the spindle grew larger the added weight could cause the yarn to break — or simply to replace a broken whorl without needing to find a new spindle.
In reconstructing this spindle whorl, I went through two separate processes. First, I attempted to model it using PhotoScan, a 3-D modelling software. Unfortunately, the low light in the photographs I used and the dark color of the spindle whorl combined to make the second half of the whorl difficult to model, and I ended up with a strange cloud of blobs where solid spindle whorl was supposed to be. As I felt like my process hadn’t really taught me anything about the spindle whorl or how it was made, I decided to make a physical model using PlayDoh and attempt to spin some wool with it to get a feel for how weighty it might have been, and how that would have affected the spinning process. I first did a considerable amount of YouTube research on how spinning with a drop spindle actually worked (this video, as well as this blog), then put my PlayDoh spindle whorl on a pen and attempted to spin some wool. I learned mainly that spinning is a very finicky process, but also that the weight of the spindle whorl correlated to how long and how well my makeshift spindle would spin. Larger, heavier iterations of my spindle whorl were more likely to make the wool break off, but less likely to spin my wool too tightly and make it kink up. Overall, being able to adjust my spindle whorl was definitely worthwhile, and I can see why the Anglo-Saxons would have wanted different spindle whorls to use. I also realized how much easier it was to spin my spindle when the whorl was when it was even, and not larger on one side than the other. The West Stow spindle whorl was slightly lopsided, as I learned from my Photogrammetry recreation, so it would have spun at a bit of an odd rate, sort of like my PlayDoh spindle whorl (though not nearly as off-kilter).
In the end, my efforts left me with some very uneven yarn (a side effect of my inexpert handling of the wool) and a passable digital model of a spindle whorl in 180 degrees, if not 360 (see the above screenshot). Intangibly, though, I gained a rudimentary sense of how it might have felt to spin, or at least how it might have felt to learn to spin, the way the Anglo-Saxons would have, and the role a spindle whorl would have played in that.
Kania, Katrin. (2018). Medieval Spindles – Hints on Spinning and Weaving [web log comment]. Retrieved from https://www.pallia.net/en/main-page/articles/medieval-spindles.
“Dress and Identity.” In The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, edited by Helena Hamerow, David A. Hinton, and Sally Crawford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
“Weaving and weaving implements.” In East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 24, edited by Stanley West. Suffolk: St Edmund House, 1985.