18th Century Spinning: Spindles and Distaffs

Many 18th century living history programs and historic sites demonstrate and teach spinning with a drop spindle, tending to use a modern style of crafter’s spindle without a distaff. However, most spinners of European descent probably used a spindle and distaff, as shown in the illustrations linked below. A 15th century reenactor demonstrates this as European draft spinning in the first part of this video. However, there are some other tools to consider depending on the cultural background of the role that’s being represented.

Spinners of West African descent likely continued to use the same sorts of spindles for handspinning as they had used before they came to the American colonies. “Evidence for Folkways and Cultural Exchange in the 18th-Century South Carolina Backcountry” compares ceramic spindle whorls found at archaeological sites in the South Carolina colonial frontier with other spindle whorls from Ghana and Nigeria.

Spinners from Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, including the islands and Highlands, used a whorl-less hand spindle called a dealgan or farsadh. The use of this style of spindle continued in the Canadian coastal areas settled by their descendants, such as Cape Breton, where it was used “to take single threads of homespun wool yarn and twist two threads together, usually for 2-ply yarn for knitting … Occasionally the process would be repeated -- two balls of 2-ply yarn would be twisted with the spindle to make 4-ply yarn used in hooking floor mats.” Glasgow Museums 1897.198.b is a similar style of spindle made in the 18th century “for spinning worsted yarn used on the Island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.” See also Spin like you’re Scottish and Ply like you’re Scottish. (In contrast, this spinner in Edinburgh after 1745 uses a fairly standard European spindle and distaff.)

The following images show 18th century spinners using a spindle and distaff. While there are certainly images of women with distaffs but without spindles (such as Madge and Bauldy or Reading the Bible), I have not found an image that clearly shows European women (or American colonial women of European descent) doing drop-spindle spinning without a distaff.