The Spinning Wheel in History and Folklore

Technology for Spinning Yarn and Inspiration for Spinning Yarns

View Of Spinning Wheel
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The spinning wheel is an ancient invention used to transform various plant and animal fibers into thread or yarn, which are subsequently woven into cloth on a loom. No one knows for certain when the first spinning wheel was invented. Historians have come up with several theories. In "Ancient History of the Spinning Wheel," German author and science historian Franz Maria Feldhaus traces the origins of the spinning wheel back to ancient Egypt, however, other historical documentation suggests that it debuted in India between 500 and 1000 A.D., while other evidence cites China as the point of origin. For those who accept the latter theory, the belief is that the technology migrated from China to Iran, and then from Iran to India, and finally, from India to Europe during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

The Evolution of Spinning Technology

A distaff, a stick or spindle upon which wool, flax or other fibers are spun by hand is held horizontally in a frame and turned by a wheel-driven belt. Generally, the distaff was held in the left hand, while the wheel belt was slowly turned by the right. Evidence of early handheld spindles, from which spinning wheels would eventually evolve, have been found in Middle Eastern excavation sites that date back as far as 5000 BCE. Distaffs were used to create threads for the fabrics in which Egyptian mummies were wrapped, and were also the primary tools for spinning ropes and the material from which ship sails were constructed.

Since spinning by hand was time-consuming and best-suited to small-scale production, finding a way to mechanize the process was a natural progression. Although it would be some time before the technology reached Europe, by the 14th century, the Chinese had come up with water-powered spinning wheels. Around the year 1533, a spinning wheel featuring a stationary vertical rod and bobbin mechanism with the addition of a foot pedal debuted in the Saxony region of Germany. Foot power freed up the hands for spinning, making the process much faster. The flyer, which twisted the yarn as it was spun was another 16th-century advancement that increased the rate of yarn and thread production dramatically.

The Industrialization of the Spinning Wheel

At the dawn of the 18th century, the technology to produce thread and yarn was falling behind the ever-increasing demands for plentiful, high-quality textiles. Resulting yarn shortages led to an era of innovation that would eventually culminate in the mechanization of the spinning process.

With British carpenter/weaver James Hargreaves' 1764 invention of the spinning jenny, a hand-powered device featuring multiple spools, spinning became industrialized for the first time. Although a vast improvement over its hand-powered predecessors, the thread spun by Hargreaves' invention wasn't of the best quality.

Further improvements came via inventors Richard Arkwright, inventor of the "water frame" and Samuel Crompton, whose spinning mule incorporated both water frame and spinning jenny technology. The improved machines produced yarn and thread that was much stronger, finer, and of higher quality than that produced on the spinning jenny. Output was greatly increased as well, ushering in the birth of the factory system.

Spinning Wheel in Myth and Folklore

The spinning wheel trope has been a popular plot device in folklore for thousands of years. Spinning is cited in the Bible and also makes its appearance in Greco-Roman mythology, as well as various folktales throughout Europe and Asia.

Sleeping Beauty

The earliest version of "Sleeping Beauty" appearance made its appearance in a French work, "Perceforest" (Le Roman de Perceforest) written sometime between 1330 and 1345. The story was adapted in the collected tales of the Brothers Grimm but is best known as a popular animated film from the studio of Walt Disney.

In the story, a king and queen invite seven good fairies to be the godmothers of their infant princess. At the christening, the fairies are fêted by the king and queen, but unfortunately, there was one fairy who, through an oversight, never got an invitation but shows up anyway.

Six of the other seven fairies have already bestowed gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song, and goodness on the baby girl. Out of spite, the miffed fairy puts an evil spell on the princess: The girl is to die on her 16th birthday by pricking her finger on a poisoned spindle. While the seventh fairy can’t lift the curse, with her gift, she can lighten it. Instead of dying, the girl will sleep for a hundred years—until she’s awakened by the kiss of a prince.

In some versions, the king and queen hide their daughter in the forest and change her name, hoping that the curse won’t find her. In others, the king orders every spinning wheel and spindle in the kingdom be destroyed, but on the day of her birthday, the princess happens on an old woman (the evil fairy in disguise), spinning away at her wheel. The princess, who has never seen a spinning wheel, asks to try it, and of course, pricks her finger and falls into an enchanted slumber.

As time passes, a great thorny forest grows up around the castle where the girl lies sleeping but eventually, the handsome prince arrives and braves the briars, finally awakening her with his kiss.

Arachne and Athena (Minerva)

There are several versions of the cautionary tale of Arachne in Greek and Roman mythology. In the one told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Arachne was a talented spinner and weaver who boasted that her skills exceeded those of the goddess Athena (Minerva to the Romans). Hearing the boast, the goddess challenged her mortal rival to a weaving contest.

Athena's work pictured four tableaux of mortals being punished for daring to think they equaled or surpassed the gods, while Arachne's showed gods abusing their powers. Sadly for Arachne, her work was not only superior to Athena’s, the theme she’d chosen only added insult to injury.

Enraged, the goddess tore her competitor’s work to shreds and beat her about the head. In desolation, Arachne hanged herself. But the goddess wasn’t through with her yet. "Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one,” Athena said, “but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!" After pronouncing her curse, Athena sprinkled Arachne's body with the juice of Hecate's herb, “and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, Arachne's hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web."

Rumplestiltskin

This fairytale of German origin was collected by the Brothers Grimm for the 1812 edition of their "Children's and Household Tales." The story revolves around a social-climbing miller who tries to impress the king by telling him his daughter can spin straw into gold—which of course, she can't. The king locks the girl in a tower with a roomful of straw and orders her to spin it into gold by the next morning—or else face a harsh punishment (either decapitation or lifelong imprisonment in a dungeon, depending on the version).

The girl is at her wit's end and terrified. Hearing her cries, a tiny demon appears and tells her he will do what's been asked of her in exchange for a trade. She gives him her necklace and by morning, the straw has been spun into gold. But the king still isn't satisfied. He takes the girl to a larger room filled with straw and commands her to spin it into gold by the next morning, again "or else." The imp comes back and this time the girl gives him her ring in trade for his work.

The following morning, the king is impressed but still not satisfied. He takes the girl to an enormous room filled with straw and tells her if she can spin it into gold before morning, he will marry her—if not, she can rot in the dungeon for the rest of her days. When the demon arrives, she has nothing left to trade but the demon comes up with a plan. He'll spin the straw into gold—in exchange for her first-born child. Reluctantly, the girl consents.

A year later, she and the king are happily married and she has given birth to a son. The imp returns to claim the baby. Now a wealthy queen, the girl begs him to leave the baby and take all her worldly goods but he refuses. The queen is so distraught, he makes her a bargain: If she can guess his name he will leave the baby. He gives her three days. Since no one knows his name (other than himself), he figures it's a done deal.

After failing to learn his name and exhausting as many guesses as she can come up with over the course of two days, the queen flees the castle and runs into the woods in despair. Eventually, she happens on a small cottage where she chances to hear its occupant—none other than the awful imp—singing: "Tonight, tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the baby I take. The queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name."

Armed with the knowledge, the queen returns to the castle. When the imp shows up the next day to take the baby, she calls out the evil trickster's name, "Rumpelstiltskin!" In a fury, he disappears, never to be seen again (in some versions, he gets so mad he actually explodes; in others, he drives his foot into the ground in a fit of rage and a chasm opens up and swallows him).