The Spinning Wheel Turns Fibers Into Yarn

View Of Spinning Wheel
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The spinning wheel is an ancient invention that helped to turned plant and animal fibers into thread or yarn, which were then woven by a loom into cloth. No one knows for certain who invented the first spinning wheel or when. Some evidence points to the invention of the spinning wheel in India between 500 and 1000 A.D. Other research indicates it was invented in China and then spread from China to Iran, Iran to India and then India to Europe. All that is known for certain is that by the late Middle Ages and during the early Renaissance, spinning wheels appeared in Europe via the Middle East. Nevertheless, scientists have never been able to pin down the origins of the spinning wheel.

Ancient Beginnings 

Evidence of hand spindles, from which spinning wheels evolved, are found in Middle East excavation sites dating back as far as 5000 BCE. In fact, the early spinning wheel--in its handheld form--helped to spin all of the threads for the fabrics in which Egyptian mummies were wrapped. It was also the primary tool used to spin ships' ropes and sails.

In "Ancient History of the Spinning Wheel," F.M. Feldhaus traces the origins of the spinning wheel back to ancient Egypt--not India or China--where before the development of modern technology it began as the distaff--which is a stick or spindle upon which wool, flax or another fiber is spun by hand.

Continued Evolution

It was a natural evolution that spinners invented a way to mechanize the process. The hand spindle--the distaff--was held horizontally in a frame and turned, not by hand twisting, but by a wheel-driven belt. The distaff was held in the left hand and the hand-driven wheel belt was slowly turned by the right hand. writes that the distaff version of the spinning wheel evolved into a stationary vertical rod with a bobbin, and the wheel was "actuated by a foot treadle, thus freeing both of the operator’s hands."

In 1764, a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves invented an improved spinning jenny, a hand-powered, multiple spinning machine that was the first real mechanized invention to improve upon the spinning wheel.

18th-Century Spinning Wheel also reports that it was in the 18th century when the real demand for mechanical spinning wheels began--after the improvement of the earlier version created a yarn shortage. Thus began the true conversion of the spinning wheel into a "powered, mechanized component of the Industrial Revolution."

Mythology and the Spinning Wheel

The spinning wheel inevitably conjures up one mythological tale or another. In the words of Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, "The Bible mentions spindles and spinning. ... Arachne challenged the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and was turned into a spider in Greek mythology. ... Even our modern fairy tales mention spinning, as in Rumplestiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, and East of the Sun and West of the Moon."