July 18, 2009


There to and fro she paced through many a day
Of the warm summer, from a belt of flax
That girt her waist, spinning the long-drawn thread
With backward steps.
William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage," 1797, lines 459-462

Baines' Spinning Wheels, Spinners & Spinning cited lines from Wordsworth in one or two places.

I knew that Wordsworth made a practice of looking at the little details of ordinary things as a way of looking at the meaning of life, and thought there was a chance he could shed light on how people used to spin.

I dipped into my copy of Major British Poets of the Romantic Period and found the quote above.

The spinner in the cottage had a husband who used to weave in their cottage:
I have heard her say
That he was up and busy at his loom
In summer ere the mower's scythe had swept
The dewy grass (lines 121-124)
There was a war and an economic downturn, and one day she found he had gone to war. So she always looked for him to come back:
Yet ever as there passed
A man whose garments shewed the Soldier's red,
Or crippled Mendicant in Sailor's garb,
The little child who sate to turn the wheel
Ceased from his toil, and she, with faltering voice,
Expecting still to learn her husband's fate,
Made many a fond inquiry (lines 462-468)
You can see that Wordsworth describes a particular type of spinning. The method seems odd.

The wheel is turned by a child rather than the spinner, the spinner keeps her fibre at her waist rather than on a typical flax distaff, and the spinner walks backward but does not control the wheel as with a great wheel (spindle wheel).

It's enough to wonder whether Wordsworth got it wrong.

However,in Spinning Wheels, Spinners & Spinning, Baines describes a method of spinning twine for fishing lines and nets, and provides an illustration taken from a painting that makes it look like Wordsworth did get it right. The method in question acts more like a rope machine than a spinning wheel.

Everything matches up with Wordsworth's poem. In Baines' description, on pages 63 and 64, there is more than one woman spinning. Each spinner ties flax around the waist. A child turns the large wheel, which rotates hooks above it. The spinners walk backward, making two strands each on a hook, then walk forward twisting the strands together. The strands are supported in mid-air by what look like upside-down rakes every so often; you can see them in the book, where they are called wooden skirders.

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