July 29, 2009


I enjoyed reading Anne L. Macdonald's No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York: Ballantine, 1988).

There is some information about spinning in it, mostly in the first few chapters which is understandable as the chapters are arranged chronologically.

I learned that the association of grandmother and knitting, the expectation that (only) grandmothers knit, the stereotype of sweet old grandmothers knitting, the relegation of knitting to grandmothers, and all variations on that theme have been around a long, long time.

It was cool to find stories about places I've visited. The mass spin-ins in Boston Common, for example, were very inspiring.

I wish there was an addendum to No Idle Hands, discussing the twenty years that have passed since this book's publication date that would show me the roots and development of all the fads and trends I catch glimpses of on Ravelry.

I have one quibble with No Idle Hands. Macdonald writes on page 4 about a 1642 decree by the township of Andover, MA that the men who keep cattle also spin "upon the rock," knit, and weave tape. She states that
While this ordinance might evoke a pastoral scene of children balancing their wheels on boulders in hilly grazing areas as they spun and knit, 'spinning on a rock' meant using a distaff or whorl to hold the flax or wool, not relaxing on a geologic formation.
My quibble is that Macdonald makes it sound as though the herdsmen were using spinning wheels with distaffs. I don't think they were. I think they were using drop spindles.

According to Baines on page 94 of Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, the word rock is another word for distaff. The phrase spinning on a rock is used to mean spinning with a distaff and drop spindle. If you were spinning on a spindle wheel (like a great wheel) which took rolags held in one hand with no distaff, people in the Middle Ages said you were spinning on a wheel. If you were spinning on a drop spindle, people said you were spinning on a distaff (or rock).

Baines notes, "This has unfortunately led a few, unfamiliar with the processes of yarn making, to believe that in the latter case the distaff did the actual twisting." I don't think that Macdonald, in the passage above, is stating that the distaff does the spinning. I also don't think she outright says that wheels were involved. It's just that she isn't entirely clear what was technically going on and what the township intended with their decree. I assure you that in the rest of the book's many pages and miles of endnotes, Macdonald is eminently clear and authorial on everything else.

She refers here to either distaffs or whorls holding flax or wool, but makes no distinction between teased locks and spun yarn. I can't really see how a whorl could hold unspun fibre, and of course it's not the whorl but the shaft of a drop spindle that holds yarn above or below the whorl. But because Macdonald brings spinning wheels into the discussion and does not mention drop spindles, in my opinion she leaves the reader with the impression that herdsmen used spinning wheels. This, as you can tell, bothers me.

To totally confuse the issue for a modern reader who doesn't know that the term rock for distaff came from other languages into English according to Baines, some whorls are made of soapstone, a type of rock. I mean, I don't associate the word rock with a wooden distaff or consider the distaff as a natural metonymy or stand-in for drop spindle. But people used to and it worked for them. Names are always a bit of a tricky shibboleth* creating elitist dividing lines. The whole thing where, if you don't know, you aren't "in." I feel bad for being picky enough to quibble.

One more point before I leave 1642 alone. Baines, on page 181, states
In 1686 John Aubrey in his Natural History of Wiltshire made a memorandum: "The art of spinning is so much improved within these last forty years that one pound of Wooll makes twice as much cloath as it did before the Civill warres" [1642]. This would surely be because people had mastered the art of using the spinning wheels, as he adds "in the old time...they used to spinne with Rocks; in Staffordshire they use them still.
From this, I gather that drop spindles would probably have been authentic for English colonists in Andover, MA at this time. I would add to this the greater suitability of drop spindles over spinning wheels for use beside cow pastures.

* The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he said, "No," then they would say to him, "Say now, 'Shibboleh.'" But he said, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him...
Judges 12:5,6a NASB

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