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Threads of Information


  • Silk is largely the same as it was in the Middle ages.
  • Flax is a little lighter in color, but is also largely unchanged. Although retting is now done chemically instead of by rotting it in shallow ponds.
  • Wool is very different. Sheep breeds have been refined to eliminate the coarse hairy top coat, and to maximize the woolly undercoat. This means that modern wool requires less preparation. (Since the hair doesn’t have to be separated from the wool.)

Fiber Preparation:

  • Carding mixes the fibers up, but orients them roughly parallel. This is used to spin Woolen threads. Airy, light, stable, thread with lots of elasticity. (Excellent for knitting as well as weaving.) Carding is used on fibers shorter than 5 inches.
  • Combing lays the fibers parallel to one another. It is used to spin Worsted thread. The thread is heavier, dense, very strong, very durable. It has less elasticity. It is used on longer fibers.
  • Hackling is done to Flax to comb the short fibers out of the long ones, and to open up the strick.


  • Drop Spindles are ancient. (2000 BC statutes of women spinning flax with them.)
  • Spinning Wheels are mentioned in a statute from Speyer (near Frankfurt) in 1298. The statute forbids warp thread to be spun on a spinning wheel. So wheels were new enough to be producing bad thread, but well known enough to require legislation.
  • The Lutrell Psalter (Irnham in Lincolnshire) shows a spindle wheel (1335). This is one of the earliest depictions of a spinning wheel in Europe. (There are eastern pictures back to 1257.)
  • The treadle on a modern Spinning wheel is a very late addition. (1700-1800)


  • Medievally, cloth was generally made from singles, except for silk which is plied.
  • S spun is a thread twisted counter clockwise. (Commercial threads are S spun).
  • Z spun is a thread twisted clockwise.
  • Plied threads are 2 or more threads with the same twist (both z, or both s) that are twisted around each other in the opposite direction of the twist. (S-spun is Z-plied.)
  • Medievally, cloth was made from S warp and Z weft  (This is because if the warp and weft are both S then a light weight cloth will twist once it becomes wet.)
  • Twist is sometimes used deliberately to deform the cloth however. Cloth made from over twisted yarns will “crepe” when washed. (Which is how silk crepe is made.)


Baines, Patricia. Spinning Wheels: Spinners & Spinning. Robin & Russ Handweavers, USA.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The first 20,000 years. Norton (1994) New York.

Ross, Mabel. The Encyclopedia of Hand Spinning. Interweave Press (1989) Loveland, Colorado.

Kluger, Marilyn. The Joy of Spinning. Simon & Schuster (1971) New York.

Textiles and Clothing: Medieval Finds from Excavation in London.  Museum of London.




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