Spinning & Weaving

Woman spinning George Walker.jpg

Women spinning and carding wool. Geroge Walker 1814. It actually shows the Great wheel back to front - it should have two legs to the left and one to the right - he was not always correct in his interpretation of the facts.


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Spinning has been carried out since the earliest times, mainly spinning wool, cotton and flax. When coton was first introduced into Europe, it was thought to be from a plant which bore sheep.  John Mandeville, writing in 1350, stated that "There grew there a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry."

The different fibres required different methods of preparation - wool needed to be cleaned and carded (the fibres separated using a carding comb), flax was 'retted' - soaked in water until the cellulose rotted away leaving the fibres - a very smelly process - and banned at the time of Elizabeth 1st in her vicinty.

The fibre was originally spun using a distaff and spindle whorl, but from the early medieval period the spinning wheel speeded up this process. 

Nuns spinning and carding.jpg

The type of spinning wheel used in spinning woollen yarn in this area was the hand operated ‘Great Wheel’, although for a long time distaff spinning was preferred for producing warp. A distaff is a tool used to hold the unspun fibres, keeping them untangled.



Bogg Eggs handloom weaver.JPG Hand loom weaver - Jack o' t'Bog Egg

The warp is the set of lengthwise fibres that are held in tension on a weaving frame or loom and the weft is the fibre that is woven across them. 

The earliest looms were usually vertical or warp weighted looms, but by the 12th century a very different type of loom was being used. This was the horizontal loom which was worked by foot treadles, while a shuttle was passed back and forth. It was the narrow single weaver horizontal loom which was used in this area rather than the broadloom which required two weavers.  This technology probably originated in China and spread slowly westwards through the Byzantine empire.  

These innovations, the spinning wheel, the horizontal loom, and the fulling mill, transformed medieval textiles and gave rise to true woollen cloth, which is a fulled (felted) and cropped cloth with a soft napped surface.

Warp and weft.jpg

Calderdale weaving 'beater'

Gorple Paddle Laser Scan.JPG-Gorple Paddle Laser Scan

This beater or sword was found by Brian Howcroft in 2007 at Gorple reservoir during a dry summer when the water had receded.

It is suggested that this is a weaving sword or flax beater, dating back to the Bronze Age and that it possibly would be “grave goods” – artefacts which were buried with people.

According to Dr Henry Chapman of Birmingham University,

“Paddles and beaters of various forms and sizes are used in a variety of ways in a broad range of industries. In particular, historic records of flax processing highlight the use of wooden beaters in the early stages of processing. Asymmetric flat bladed and circular flat bladed artefacts dating from the prehistoric through to the historic period have been identified as possible flax beaters (Earwood 1990: 128) and provide the closest parallel for the Calderdale 'paddle'.

Similar sized, although more symmetrical items have been assigned as possible weaving swords, used during the operation of looms. Artefacts assigned as possible weaving swords date back to the Early Bronze Age in continental Europe (Earwood 1993: 140). Wooden beaters are relatively rare items. If the Calderdale 'paddle' dates to the Bronze Age, as has been suggested, it would represent a rare and unusual find.”

Although we can't be sure, it is generally thought that this is a weaving 'beater' which was used with an upright loom worked by two women who passed the weft thread from one side to the other. The beater was used to beat the weft threads tightly together. This type of loom was still being used in medieval times and it was considered important not to mention anyone's name whilst weaving - hence the phrase 'weaving a spell'.

There are prehistoric graves on Gorple Lower Reservoir and evidence of other grave goods from that era. Another find in 1996, of a flint dagger, is evidence of high status people living in the area at that time. The flint dagger can be seen at Heptonstall Museum.