24 March 2020

Drop spindles? Part 2 - Drop the drop! (or 'please stop calling them that!')

In Part 1 and Part 1b of this series, I documented the earliest uses of the term 'drop spindle' and theorised about how the term may have come about. In this, the final part of the series, I discuss why (in my opinion) the term 'drop spindle' is so problematic and should never be used, particularly in a reenactment or historic context.

Even the Met is at it, and they REALLY should know better. Source.

What is a 'drop spindle'?

Western spinners and crafters could probably all identify a 'drop spindle' if asked. It looks something like this:

An Ashford brand drop spindle.
(Image used for illustrative purposes only.)

So, what have we got there?
  • A simple dowel for the 'stick' section, with no taper or shaping.
  • A simple, disc-shaped whorl with a comparatively large diameter.
  • A hook (as here) or a notch, which may be orientated close to the whorl (for 'top whorl' spinning, as here) or at the far end of the 'stick' section (for 'bottom whorl' spinning).
There's also an assumption that it is used with the 'drop spindle method', i.e.
  • No distaff is used (unless flax needs to be wrangled), the fibre is held in the non-dominant hand.
  • Drafting is between the hands, generally at around eye-level.
  • The spindle is suspended.
  • The spindle descends vertically as thread is made.
The above image is what we think of as a 'drop spindle'. The above characteristics make a 'drop spindle'. The above method is, in most people's minds, how you use a 'drop spindle'.

In contrast, the term 'spindle' has a much larger remit in modern English -- we can, for example have 'Turkish spindles', 'Russian spindles', 'support spindles', 'Tibetan spindles', 'medieval spindles'... There is a much wider array of possibilities included under the word and we expect there to be an adjective or other clarification provided if a particular type is meant.

I will now delve into the assumptions associated with the term 'drop spindle' in more detail.

1) A spindle's just a spindle, right?

An irritating side-effect of the use of the term 'drop spindle' is that people often think that a spindle is a spindle is a spindle. I.e. there are no cultural variants in spindles, or if there are they represent an incompletely evolved version of the 'drop spindle' rather than a culturally-specific tool adapted for the needs of a particular niche.

All spindles have plain dowels as the 'stick'. So, if you want a medieval spindle, you just stick a reproduction whorl on a plain dowel. (No, no you don't... *sigh*)

All 'drop spindles' have big, flat, disc-shaped whorls. So, all spindles (should) have whorls like that, right? (No, no they don't... *sigh*)

All 'drop spindles' are around 20-40g. So, all spindles (should) have whorls like that, right? (No, no they don't... *sigh*)

The trouble with these assumptions is they start to hurt our interpretations and experiments. They start to give us a biased view of historic crafts and historic people. For example, if you use a plain, untapered dowel on a reproduction (or original) medieval spindle whorl it may be more likely to fall off the stick in use. This may lead you to erroneously think of the tool as irritating, inefficient and stupidly designed. You may think of its users as 'primitive' idiots incapable of designing a usable tool and/or self-sacrificing martyrs to their craft who were far more patient and focused than modern people.

All of these assumptions colour our beliefs of our past and feed into the stereotypes of the past as as being either "nasty, brutish and short" or a mythical Golden Age of wholesome self-sufficiency, simple living and happy, rural people who are able to waste their endless time on old-fashioned, inefficient tools in between cavorting in fields whilst wearing flower-crowns and/or cuddling cute little baby lambs.

2) Do you really drop it?

We've all heard the joke: Why is it called a drop spindle? *thread snaps and spindle clatters to the floor* That's why!

However, when it comes to people who are interested in any form of non-modern-Western-centric spinning, this is more than just a stupid joke and a minor irritation. Most English-language speakers, even those who are textile craftspeople, see a spindle today and think "oh, a drop spindle". And that comes with the set of assumptions detailed above. The most obvious of those is that it is used with a suspended method of spinning. (And, particularly, a long-suspension method.)

That was not originally problematic. As discussed in Part 1 and Part 1b of this series, 'drop spinning' was the term which was first invented and it seems to have been used analogously to how we nowadays use the term 'suspended spinning'. The term 'drop spindle' came later, but originally meant 'a spindle used with a suspended spinning method'. However, nowadays (and, indeed, in much of at least UK and USA literature and craft-speak since at least the 1970s) the term 'drop spindle' is a synonym for 'spindle'. THAT is where this starts to get problematic. By using the term 'drop spindle' as a synonym for 'spindle' (and, indeed, as the more common of the two terms), we imply that all spindles are by default suspended spindles.

Firstly, this is highly problematic when it comes to interpreting the spinning techniques of other cultures, both geographically and historically. If we assume all spindles are 'drop spindles' (and all spindles are therefore used suspended), we can make some very weird interpretations. The most obvious that comes to mind is the insistence by many people that medieval depictions of spinning are artistic licence rather than documentation of a culturally unique spinning method as "that's not how drop spinning looks" (this is discussed by Cathelina di Alessandri here).

We also assume that spindles are adapted for suspended or supported or grasped spinning. In reality, spinning practices are much more variable and nuanced than that. For example, medieval spindles were used in-hand/grasped or short-suspension.

3) Historic spindles are just poorly evolved versions of spindles

This assumption is the result of the two previous ones combined and can result in some very odd, and in some cases borderline racist, beliefs.

The 'drop spinning method' is the dominant mode of non-wheel spinning in the UK, USA and Europe today. It is also typically thought of as the default of spinning. There's something a little disturbing about thinking of (what many presume to be) the Western method of spinning as the One True Way of spindle spinning and all other cultures' methods as 'other' or even 'weird' or 'aberrant'. This way of thinking is occasionally taken to the extreme, as in Mary Lois Kissel's book which describes suspended spinning (which she considers to be European/Mediterranean) as the pinnacle of spindle spinning evolution and much better than the "rude attempts of people of lower culture at yarn and cloth making" such as grasped or supported spinning (see p. 2, 7 and 10 as well as the section 'Spinning Types' starting on p. 18).

These assumptions about technology evolution can impact on our interpretations of history, as well as our interpretations of other cultures.

For example, some reenactors I have met have attempted to use medieval-style whorls. However, they used the 'drop spinning method' with them. Due to their dimensions, proportions and materials, medieval whorls back-spin after a relatively short duration spent spinning in the correct direction. This makes using the 'drop spinning method' an exercise in frustration. So, these individuals typically keep medieval spindles and whorls for display purposes but continue to spin on 'drop spindles'. They espouse to all and sundry how inefficient and stupid medieval tools are compared to the modern 'drop spindle'. In reality, it is not that medieval spindles are inefficient tools, but rather that they are perfectly adapted to a specific spinning style (i.e. in-hand or short-suspension spinning with a distaff). The same is also true of modern 'drop spindles', which are highly inefficient when used with an in-hand or short-suspension spinning method. However, as most English-speaking people consider 'drop spinning' to be the One True Way of spindle spinning, that side is rarely if ever explored.

(The amusing side to this idiocy is that 'drop spinning' or even exclusively using suspended spinning is not traditionally Western at all. At my best guess, as currently practiced, 'drop spinning' is a bastardised version of Peruvian spinning introduced to the West during the 1970s craft revival! See Cathelina's nice discussion of this theory.)

4) Historic spindles must have been used in certain ways

A final issue stemming from assumptions around 'drop spindles' relates to the size and weight of whorls. As previously noted, most 'drop spindles' are in the 20-40g range and are discoid in shape (and thus wide). This means that most modern (Western) spinners are used to spinning with spindles in this weight and shape range. Many historic whorls are much heavier and narrower than this, leading to some flawed assumptions.

Heavy extant whorls are often thought of as being for chunky yarn or plying only. In some cases, the weight and/or dimensions of a whorl may lead it to being considered a bead or other object, rather than a whorl, as it is considered too heavy or too small to function. However, most of these assumptions are based on 'drop spindles' and 'drop spinning' rather than any historic exploration of tools and tool-use. They are also often erroneous. 

For example, my friend frequently uses a original medieval lead whorl (a metal detectorist's find from unstratified ploughsoil) when demonstrating medieval spinning. It is 81g without including any spindle stick, spherical and 29mm in diameter. However, with the short-suspension method and a distaff (i.e. an appropriate method that replicates the method likely used by its original owner) she is able to easily and efficiently spin lace-weight and cobweb-weight singles with this whorl. With the 'drop spinning' method and the same whorl she is barely able to produce thread at all, despite being a spindle spinner with over a decade's experience. This whorl is a highly efficient tool adapted for making fine, high-twist singles (the sort of thread most needed by medieval people as it is the sort of thread that is used for weaving). However, if you tried to use it for making, say, DK-weight yarn with a 'drop spinning' method you would erroneously conclude that it is, at best, highly inefficient and, at worst, not a usable whorl at all.


Overall, I hope this shows why using the term 'drop spindle' as a synonym or replacement for 'spindle' is problematic. If we say something like "medieval Europeans spun thread using a drop spindle" then instantly a raft of assumptions come with that statement -- how the spindles looked, how they were used. If we say "medieval Europeans spun thread using a spindle" then our mental picture of this is still open to possibilities.

Using the word 'drop spindle' implies a single tool style and a single spinning method. It shuts down discussion of cultural differences in tools and techniques and risks giving a highly incorrect impression of how various cultures (historically and geographically) spun. Using the term in the context of historic tools is incorrect. However, using the term at all, IMO, only popularises it (and the above assumptions) further.

Drop the drop! Bring back the English-language term 'spindle'!

Thank you for joining me on this journey exploring the term 'drop spindle'. I hope you have found it interesting and thought-provoking. Do please share your thoughts on the topic.

Also, I would like to use this space to thank Neil Whiteley and Veerle van Kersen for coining the phrase "drop the drop". It was too perfect not to use. Thank you for letting me use it.


  1. Thank you for the example of the heavy whorl used to spin fine yarns. Whorl weight does, on a very large scale, not relate at all to the thread thickness spun. The one reliable thing that the whorl weight actually does, if you spin short-suspended or long-suspended, is to give you what I call a "running quality control". If your spindle weight is 80 g, you can be sure that your thread will hold a tension equivalent of 80 g at any time... which is rather important if you are planning to use the yarn for weaving, or for any other textile technique where there is a given minimum amount of tension on the thread.
    In my personal experience, most spinners vastly underestimate how thin they can spin with a given whorl weight, possibly because "you spin thick yarn with a heavy whorl" is repeated so frequently and so widely; and like using the term "drop spindle" for any spinning tool, this is causing a lot of issues.

  2. This was really interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing! Do you have any resources you would recommend for learning about different styles of spinning with a spindle?