The first time I saw drop spindles, they were in a series of photographs of artifacts in a local history book. How could that object produce yarn? I thought. No moving parts that I could see. I couldn’t think of anyone who would know and I left it a mystery.
This is why I like to spin in public on drop spindles, so people know.
When I spun while waiting for my flight at Vancouver International the other month, a man watched to see how the drop spindle worked. We talked. He said his family, which is Lebanese, has a painting in their home of a woman spinning on a drop spindle. No one in the family knew how a drop spindle worked, and his children wanted to learn. He watched me spin so he could tell them.
Historians that don't spin can confuse the distaff with the drop spindle. For example, Arthur W. Klinck states in Home Life in Bible Times that
she could accomplish her purpose somewhat more rapidly and uniformly by the use of a distaff, which held a large handful of unspun wool. She gradually drew it out into a strand of the required thickness, meanwhile letting the distaff hang from the twisted yarn and keeping it spinning freely.
The accompanying illustration shows a distaff, shaped like a trident, with its fluffy mass suspended freely at the bottom of a twisted thread. This will not physically work! The fluff will separate and the distaff will drop immediately.
The following description is accurate, however; it was written in a culture and at a time where drop spindles were in widespread everyday use:
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies...
In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
Proverbs 31:10,19 NIV
Note the distaff is held in place, and the spindle is grasped to turn it.
With commercially prepared roving nowadays you can get along without a distaff if you wrap the long strip of fibre around your wrist. You can also spin from individually teased locks of wool or individual cotton bolls, feeding one into the twist and overlapping its end with the next.
A lot of people ask, when I spin in public, "What if it breaks?" I horrify them a bit by tearing the fibre and re-mating it to show them this is not an irreparable mistake. They comment on how strong the twisted fibres are compared to the roving it came out of, and that's when I know they've grasped the concept. Twist introduces friction that holds the fibres together.
Plying increases the strength, which is why plying is used in another verse as an analogy about the benefits derived from strong community ties:
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:12 NIV
Guess I should move up my spinning from two ply to three.