4 February 2020

Drop spindles? Part 1 - what are they? where does the term come from?

What is a drop spindle? For anyone who's familiar with textile crafts this is an easy question. They're a familiar tool and can be easily purchased online or elsewhere. Generally what people think when you say "drop spindle" looks something like this:

Selection of drop spindles, from the first page of an image search using a well-known search engine.

This is fine when talking about modern spinning. However, when we come to talk about historic spinning, this becomes problematic. (This is a pair of posts about terminology and may involve a fair bit of ranting. You have been warned...)

When was the term introduced?

In short, the term 'drop spindle' seems to have entered the English language at some point in the 20th Century, possibly the late 19th Century. I've tried to document it. I can't.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster, Collins, The American Heritage Dictionary and Dictionary.com do not have entries for 'drop spindle' -- either in its own right, as a sub-section of the entry for 'spindle' or as a sub-section of the entry for 'drop'. They also do not have any entries for the verb 'drop spin', either in its own right or as a sub-section of the entry for 'spin'.

Incidentally, the OED, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com also have distinctly historic-European-sounding definitions for 'spindle', including a shaft tapered at both ends and, in the case of Dictionary.com, mention of a distaff:

Spindle, n. ... 1.a. A simple instrument employed in spinning by hand,
consisting of a slender rounded rod (usually of wood), tapering
towards each end, which is made to revolve and twist into thread
the fibres drawn out from a bunch of wool, flax, or other material (

Spindle, noun ... 1.a. A round stick with tapered ends used to form
 and twist the yarn in hand spinning (Merriam-Webster).

Spindle, noun ... 1. A rounded rod, usually of wood, tapering toward each end,
used in hand-spinning to twist into thread the fibres drawn from the mass on
the distaff, and on which the thread is wound as it is spun (Dictionary.com).

The OED provides etymological information and references to historic use along with the definition(s) of words. It notes that the Modern English word 'spindle' is derived from the Old English word 'spinel' and has comparitors in the Old High German words 'spinela' and 'spinnila'. Various quotes are given showing the historical usage of 'spindle' (and variants) in the English language -- the earliest is c. 725 AD but the others range from the 12th to the 19th Centuries. 

As said before, the compound word 'drop-spindle' (or any variant of that, e.g. 'drop spindle', 'dropspindle') is not noted anywhere.

We can also look more specifically at medieval word usage, using Michigan University's Middle English Dictionary. Under the entry for 'spindle', this dictionary provides eleven quotes that contain the word in the sense of the hand-tool used to make thread. These range from c. 1225 AD to c. 1550 AD (i.e. the period when Middle English was spoken). Again, none include the term 'drop spindle'. The same is also true for the verb 'spinnen' (the Middle English version of the verb 'spin') -- there is no reference to 'drop spinning'.

So, when does the term 'drop spindle' first turn up?

This is a much harder question to answer. A simple internet search turns up thousands of entries, but (unsurprisingly, given that they are internet resources) most of those were written in the last 25 years. So, instead I attempted to answer this question by restricting my searches to books. Books are rather more difficult to comprehensively search, particularly if you want to search their contents, not just their titles. So, I turned to GoogleBooks. Obviously, this will not sample all books in existence (or even all English-language ones). In particular, it is likely to miss out earlier books (which is far from ideal if you are trying to document the earliest reference of something). However, it is a good starting point.

A GoogleBooks search for "drop spindle", excluding books published after 31st Dec 1999, returns books ranging from 1957 to 1998. These are a mixture of types -- mostly academic anthropology books, academic textile history/archaeology books and (particularly in the 1970s) how-to craft books for a general audience. 

The earliest reference is from Kate Peck Kent's article The Cultivation and Weaving of Cotton in the Prehistoric Southwestern United States, published in 1957 in the journal Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, volume 47 (parts 3-4). The extract viewable via GoogleBooks states:

Drop-spindle spinning may have been discarded along with the spinning of
animal hair, to be replaced by techniques better suited to cotton (KP Kent, 1957).

This tells us that by 1957, the term 'drop spindle' was being used in academic textile history/archaeology in at least one publication the USA. However, it sheds no more light on the introduction of the term or when it was first used. The term was obviously in common usage in at least some circles by this point, so 1957 is not the earliest date.

The next-earliest reference is slightly more useful. This dates to 1959 and is from Verla Leone Birrell's book The Textile Arts, a handbook of fabric structure and design processes: ancient and modern weaving, braiding, printing, and other textile techniques. The extract viewable via GoogleBooks is (irritatingly) truncated but is potentially useful:

Suspended or drop spinning: A drop spindle is one not supported while in use; it
hangs in the air at... (VL Birrell, 1959).

This suggests that the compound term 'drop spindle' was originally created to distinguish so-called 'drop spinning' from supported spinning. I.e. its original meaning was a synonym of the modern term 'suspended spinning'. Thus, we can infer that the term 'drop spindle' was coined to refer to 'any spindle that is used suspended rather than supported'. Its opposite would be 'support spindle' or 'supported spindle', which would mean 'any spindle that is used supported rather than suspended'.

The two earliest book references we have (Kent and Birrell) suggest that the term 'drop spindle' may have been coined in an academic context -- either an ethnography/anthropology context or a history/archaeology context.

This is where I suspect all of this ... nonsense ... has spread from.

In Part 2 of this series, I shall discuss why the term 'drop spindle' is so problematic, particularly from a historical academic and reproduction perspective. Hope you like the series. ^_^

1 comment:

  1. I find this all very interesting, because I have *stopped* using the term, except as an aside/explanation to non-spinners who have heard it and ask me questions. I don't like it because I tend to be very literal in my thinking -- consciously and, it appears, unconsciously as well. Since I have dropped the term, I actually seem to drop the actual spindle much less frequently!