A spindle whorl is one of several tools used by textile producers, and it is an artifact that is just about as universal in form as we humans make. A spindle whorl is a disk-shaped object with a hole in the center, and it is used in the ancient art of making cloth. The presence of a spindle whorl on an archaeological site is an indication of the technological advance of textile production called spinning.
Spinning is the process of creating cords, yarn or thread from raw plant, animal and even metal fibers. The resulting yarn can then be woven into cloth and other textiles, producing clothing, blankets, tents, shoes: an entire range of woven materials which make our human lives supportable.
Spindle whorls are not necessary for making cords or threads, although they vastly improve the process, and they appear in the archaeological record during the Neolithic period worldwide at various times (the "Neolithic package" including agriculture and other complexities appeared in different places at different times around the world). The earliest example I found in the literature is from the north Chinese Middle to Late Neolithic, ca 3000-6000 BP.
Ethnographic Spinning Types
Anthropologists have defined three basic types of spinning which use spindle whorls.
- Drop-spinning or free-spindle: the spinner walks or stands as she spins
- Supported or stationary spinning: the spinner is seated and the spindle is supported in a bowl or other container
- Thigh spinning: the spinner is seated and the spindle is rolled between the thigh and the palm of the hand
Spindle Whorl Process
In spinning, a weaver builds a spindle by inserting a wooden dowel through the hole in a spindle whorl. The raw fibers of plants or animal wool (called roving) are attached to the dowel, and the spindle is then made to rotate, in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, twisting and compressing the fibers as it collects them on top of the whorl. If the spindle is rotated clockwise, the yarn produced has a Z-shaped pattern to the twist; if rotated counterclockwise, an S-shaped pattern is created.
You can create cords by hand-twisting the fiber, without the use of spindle whorls. The earliest fiber manipulation is from Dzudzuana Cave in the Republic of Georgia, where several twisted flax fibers were found dated to ~30,000 years ago. Additionally, some of the earliest evidence of cord-production exists in the form of cord-decorations on pottery. Some of the earliest forms of pottery are from the Japanese hunter-gatherer culture called "Jomon", which means "cord-marked": that refers to the impressions of twisted cords on ceramic vessels. Cord-decorated sherds of the Jomon date to 13,000 years ago: no evidence of spindle whorls were found at Jomon sites (or at Dzuduana Cave) and it is assumed that these cords were hand-twisted.
But spinning raw fiber with a whorl produces both a consistent twist direction, and a consistent yarn thickness. In addition, spinning yarn with a weighted spindle produces smaller diameter cords, faster and more efficiently than hand-spinning, and thus it is considered a technological step forward in the process.
Spindle Whorl Characteristics
By definition, a spindle whorl is simple: a disk with a central perforation. Whorls can be made of pottery, stone, wood, ivory: nearly any raw material will work well. The weight of the whorl is what determines the speed and force of the spin, and so larger, heavier whorls are typically used for materials that have longer fibers. The diameter of the whorl determines how many twists will occur in a specific length of cord during each twirl of the spindle.
A smaller whorl moves faster and the type of fiber determines how fast the spinning should go: rabbit fur, for example, needs to spin quickly, but the thicker, coarser materials such as maguey needs to spin relatively slowly. A study reported on a postclassic Aztec site in Mexico (Smith and Hirth) indicated that whorls likely associated with cotton production were significantly smaller (under 18 grams [.6 ounces] in weight) and had smooth surfaces, while those associated with maguey cloth production weighed over 34 gm (1.2 oz) and were decorated with incised or mold-impressed designs.
However, the results of an experiment involving replications of bottom whorl drop spindles were reported by Kania (2013) and they seem to reject the size analysis above. Fourteen spinners with variable amounts of spinning experience used five differently weighted and sized replica spindle whorls based on medieval European types to produce yarn. The results suggested that the differences in yarn grist and thickness produced by the spinners are not due to spindle mass, but rather individual spinning styles.
Spindle whorls are only a small part of the process of making cloth, which begins with raw material selection and preparation ("ginning"), and ends with the use of a wide variety of looms. But the role of the spindle whorl in quickly producing consistent, thin and strong cordage cannot be under-estimated: and their near-ubiquity in archaeological sites all over the world is a measure of their importance in technological issues.
In addition, the importance of spinning, the production of cloth and the role of the spinner in a community was a crucial one in ancient societies. Evidence of the centrality of the spinner and the objects she created to make spinning possible is discussed in the seminal work by Brumfiel (2007) which is strongly recommended. Another important work about spindle whorls is the typology constructed by Mary Hrones Parsons (1972).
Sources and Some Recent Studies
Alt S. 1999. Spindle whorls and fiber production at Early Cahokian Settlements. Southeastern Archaeology 18(2):124-134.
Ardren T, Manahan TK, Wesp JK, and Alonso A. 2010. Cloth production and economic intensification in the area surrounding Chichen Itza. Latin American Antiquity 21(3):274-289.Beaudry-Corbett M, and McCafferty SD. 2002. Spindle whorls: Household specialization at Ceren. In: Ardren T, editor. Ancient Maya Women. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press. p 52-67.
Bouchaud C, Tengberg M, and Dal Prà P. 2011. Cotton cultivation and textile production in the Arabian Peninsula during antiquity; the evidence from Madâ’in Sâlih (Saudi Arabia) and Qal’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(5):405-417.
Brite EB, and Marston JM. 2013. Environmental change, agricultural innovation, and the spread of cotton agriculture in the Old World. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32(1):39-53.
Brumfiel EM. 1996. The quality of tribute cloth: The place of evidence in archaeological argument. American Antiquity 61(3):453-462.
Brumfiel EM. 2007. Solar disks and solar cycles: Spindle whorls and the dawn of solar art in postclassic Mexico. Treballs d'Arqueologia 13:91-113.
Cameron J. 2011. Iron and cloth across the Bay of Bengal: new data from Tha Kae, central Thailand. Antiquity 85(328):559-567.
Good I. 2001. ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES: A Review of Current Research. Annual Review of Anthropology 30(1):209-226.
Kania K. 2013. Soft yarns, hard facts? Evaluating the results of a large-scale hand-spinning experiment. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (December 2013):1-18.
Kuzmin YV, Keally CT, Jull AJT, Burr GS, and Klyuev NA. 2012. The earliest surviving textiles in East Asia from Chertovy Vorota Cave, Primorye Province, Russian Far East. Antiquity 86(332):325-337.
Meyers GE. 2013. Women and the Production of Ceremonial Textiles: A Reevaluation of Ceramic Textile Tools in Etrusco-Italic Sanctuaries. American Journal of Archaeology 117(2):247-274.
Parsons MH. 1972. Spindle whorls from the Teotihuacan Valley, Mexico. Anthropological Papers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.
Parsons MH. 1975. The Distribution of Late Postclassic Spindle Whorls in the Valley of Mexico. American Antiquity 40(2):207-215.
Stark BL, Heller L, and Ohnersorgen MA. 1998. People with Cloth: Mesoamerican Economic Change from the Perspective of Cotton in South-Central Veracruz. Latin American Antiquity 9(1):7-36.