Three original spindle whorls

I got these from ebay last year. Now, to have a closer look at them.

Firstly, lead spindle whorls are hard to date, and there is little agreement about when they are from, because in Britain at least, there aren’t any properly dated examples. Instead they are found in the countryside where they have fallen from someone’s spindle.

Left to right their weights are:

40g, 29g, 39g.

Internal diameter, left to right,

8 to 9mm, distorted

Around 10mm

Around 10mm

Outer diameter:

About 26mm, distorted

24-25mm, distorted



about 15mm, but damaged

12 or 13mm, distorted


Now, the weight I found interesting, insofar as two are at the upper end of usual whorl weights. For instance, the Fast castle excavation found 6 spindle whorls of 15/16th century date, made from stone and one of earthenware. Their weights were of 15, 24 and a max of 33g. So obviously in my case the 29g one would be useful for the same weight of thread. It seems, according to the Fast castle write up (Fast Caslte; Excavations 1971-85, by K L Mitchell, K R Murdoch, J R Ward, published by Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society in 2001), that a light whorl is needed to spiny a woolly fleece, but the range of 10 to 34g is comparable to Northampton finds, and 11 to 31g found in Medieval Perth.

The hole in the centre is near enough identical to the Fast castle ones, which are 10 or 11mm in diameter except one which is 7mm.

The Perth stone whorls from the 13/14th century or so, seem to be more 7 or 8mm in diameter, and with weights as reported. A lot of variation, which I find interesting.

Now I think I recall from conversations with textile experts, that the weight is important depending on what you want to spin. So lead weights would be used for spinning tighter yarns?

According to this report:

on stuff found in Birka in Sweden in what we would call the early medieval period,

Although there are rather few practical requirements for spindle whorls to function optimally, these requirements need to be met. The whorl’s weight is one of the more noteworthy features and can some times indicate the type of fiber being spun and the quality of the produced thread.

Unusually heavy whorls of a bout 100g and over are used for spinning long staple wool and full

length flax.

More commonly, the weight of whorls used for spinning short fine wool is usually around 8g, while being around 30g for spinning with medium to heavy wool (Barber 1991:52, Gleba2008:103-106).

A noteworthy result of practical trials is the fact that light spindle whorls can not be used to spin coarser threads (Andersson 2003:25). Practical spinning experiments have also shown that the spinning is greatly affected if the spindle hole is even the least bit off centered. In trials with slightly unbalanced whorls, far more hand force was required in order to make the spindles spin properly. Off centered whorls also have a tendency to make the spindle wobble during spinning, and thus disturbing the process considerably (Barber 1994:38, Crewe 1998:12 , Andersson et al. 2006a:9).

From spinning experiments one can also conclude that the weight of the whorl has a greater effect on the thread quality, than the person who is spinning.

Use of lighter whorls used in these trials produce a far lighter, thinner thread, while the heavier whorls create a thicker, heavier thread. It has been noted that a weight difference of as little as 5g has noticeable effect on the thread being produced

(Andersson 2003:25, Andersson et al.2006a:14).

The high strain of a heavy spindle whorl stretches the fibres, which are then packed tightly while the with holding air is

pressed out. A lower strain on the other hand,

enables even the shortest fibres to be

spun into a thin thread (Stenberg Tyrefors 1988:23).

To some extent the diameter of the spindle whorl affects how tightly spun the thread becomes.

A more tightly spun thread can also be achieved

through a higher rotation of the spindle.

So, using a heavy lead spindle will mean you are making a heavier thicker thread.

I therefore tentatively suggest that these lead whorls are for later medieval cloth production, which requires a heavier yarn because it is going to be fulled and teased and have lots of things done to it. And, or, that home production of fluffy thick threads is better for most peasants because the resulting coats are more water and windproof even without full on, expensive treatment given to the likes of broadcloth.

This also suggests that comparing the find locations might be of use, because different cloths were woven in different places, so you would expect the whorl mass etc to be somewhat clustered, although not perfectly so because there was both production for mass weaving and production for local homespun sorts of cloth.

More information can be found here from finds in York:

From this, it seems that stone whorls were most popular throughout the entire medieval period, but of course they won’t show up in the countryside to metal detectorists. Moreover lead alloy ones were in use in Anglo-Scandinavian York, but they didn’t manage to find any lead ones in late medieval York. Several of the putative earlier ones were just plain lead discs with holes in the middle, and the Scandinavian ones were more decorated, but unfortunately they don’t properly illustrate them all, which is annoying.

It seems according to page 1743 that the Anglo-Scandinavian whorls vary from 9- 55g in weight, whereas the later medieval ones called form C, were only 15-32g. Which is interesting. On the other hand, on page 1745 the author contradicts what is written above, and minimises the importance of the weight of the whorl, which of course to me immediately says EXPERIMENTAL ARCHAEOLOGY FIGHT!!!!

Of course, after writing the above, I then heard from Kentwellie Beth the weaver, who is an expert on medieval textiles and their manufacture. She says that her and others carried out extensive experiments and showed that the weight of the whorl didn’t matter much at all, what did was technique, skill and experience. So just now, I have to go by the weight of current expert opinion which is that the weight isn’t really important, which then leads to the question of why the variations in weight?

Looking on the Finds database, the lead medieval spindle whorls are found in a variety of areas of England, but:

As you can see, there is a high concentration in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the east riding of Yorkshire. If I turn to “English medieval Industries”, I find that in the early 13th century there are strong and busy cloth manufacturings going on in the East riding of Yorkshire with cloth guilds and the sale of cloth abroad, and the same in Lincoln.

Less so in Norfolk though. The map for circa 1500 suggests that by then worsteds are being made in Norfolk, it’s till busy in Yorkshire, but less so in Lincolnshire. So in theory it might be possible to match up finds and style of whorl and where they were found and rough dates as well as perhaps finding local preferences in decoration. Only perhaps in the really industrial areas they used great wheels for spinning, which would obviate the need for lead spindle whorls. Lets face it, a bit over 1200 lead spindle whorls from most of England isn’t really a representative sample for a period of hundreds of years, especially given that so many found in towns are ceramic, so as usual we have a sampling problem.


2 thoughts on “Three original spindle whorls

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #03 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. What a great blog!
    I spin using reconstructed medieval techniques- as much as I can research them anyway. I don’t use the ‘drop spindle’ method that has become popular with the Ameracian craft revolution as I can’t document that method to medieval europe/uk. I use the traditional method that is still used in parts of Europe and the UK, which is also the method that medival pictures show and works better for the spindles that have survived.

    I find that it doesn’t impact much if the weight is a little off centre, for drop spindle spinning though it has a huge impact. Because I don’t use the drop spindle technique it doesn’t bother me so much, close enough is good enough.

    Weight of whorl has an impact in that it is hard to spin a fine thread with a heavy whorl as the thread is more likley to snap from weight, and more labour to spin a heavy/coarse thread with a lightweight whorl. In all cases it is the spinner, not the whorl, that determines the weight of the thread, because the spinner chooses how many threads to draw down from the distaff.

    I mostly spin fine wool into fine thread and for that I prefer a whorl under 30 grams. The spindle shaft also is a weight, and as the thread builds up that becomes like a whorl too. When I build up a big cop of thread I might switch to a lighter whorl or take it off completley.


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