From Spindle and Distaff to Mass Production: Spinning in Art


There are multiple artistic representations of women spinning – created across time and in various places. Let’s take some of the great depictions for a spin (pun intended!) and learn more about this activity.

Spinning as a Daily Domestic Activity

Spinning consists of twisting together of drawn-out strands of fibers to form yarn. It is the major activity of the textile industry, practiced since ancient times, mainly by women.

Uno Troili, An Italian Woman Spinning Flax, 1847, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

The basic tools used to spin the fibre were spindle and distaff. A distaff is designed to hold the unspun fibers, while a spindle is a straight spike usually made from wood on which the fibre is being spinned. The most commonly used fibers in Europe were wool and flax. A woman spinning flax, as depicted by Uno Troili, was a popular motif. The motif gave the artist an opportunity to create an elegant composition, with the arm and hand sensitively holding the thread. The woman is sitting in a niche on a stone, which places her in an ancient Roman environment.

A similar focus on hands is visible in the painting by Jozef Hanula. The concentrated spinner is depicted in profile, is pulling a piece of fibre. Similarly to many other portraits by Hanula, the model is wearing a traditional folk costume.

Jozef Hanula, Spinner, 1904-1910, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Spindle and distaff remained in use in households until the 19th century and beyond, mainly because of their simplicity. Yet, a new invention appeared in Europe in the middle ages – a spinning wheel. It became a crucial tool in the cotton textile industry and laid the foundations for future machines, developed during the Industrial Industry. Being such an important device, it has been depicted in many artworks – from medieval manuscripts to 19-the century domestic scenes.

Woman at a spinning wheel with a man seated nearby on the ground, and a monstrous bird in a tree. from BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 147, The British Library.
Edla Jansson-Blommér, Old Woman at Spinning Wheel, 1846, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the industrial spinning became more frequent. From an activity performed at home, it transformed into employment, with many women working together at the same time. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the bigger parts of the work became automated.

Maximilián Kurth, Spinners, 1904, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Symbolic Meanings of Spinning

Next to multiple realistic representations of spinning as daily work, some paintings represent a more symbolic meaning of this activity, where a spinster at work is approached by an admirer. Just like in the painting by Pieter Pietersz.

Pieter Pietersz (I), Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, 1550, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In the artwork, depicting an elegant couple, the man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice. Another, mythological meaning of spinning is related to a destiny with yarns representing lives.

Jan Harmensz. Muller, after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem ,Three Fates, 1587 – 1591, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

On this painting, the three female fates spin the thread of life and determine its length as well as where it ends. Clotho, in the middle, holds the distaff, Lachesis spins the thread and Atropos bites the thread with her teeth.

BONUS: Fierce Spinners

And here’s what happens when you get on spinners’ nerves… We’ve already explained the way spindle and distaff work. Below you can see an alternative use.

Detail from BL Harley 1766, f. 76v, 1450-1460, The British Library, London, United Kingdom.

This is a miniature from a medieval manuscript, representing Orpheus lying on his back, protecting himself from Thracian women armed with spindles and distaffs. Why? According one of the multiple versions of the myth, after he had descended into the underworld to find his beloved wife, Eurydice, and had lost her, Orpheus withdrew into solitude. Feeling rebuffed, Thracian women set upon him.

Salomon Savery after Joos Goeimare, Man gets a beating from three women, 1610, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

On this artwork, we see a spinning wheel and distaffs, the attributes of the housewife and symbols for domestic activity. Yet, instead of calmly working, the women are beating up a man. According to the caption, the man is being punished for his alcoholism. A lesson to learn: don’t mess up with spinners!

This article is featured as a part of our collaboration with Europeana, Europe’s platform for cultural heritage. Their project Europe at Work shares the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present. Visit their collection on Industrial Heritage and explore artworks, photos, and documents illustrating working life in Europe across time.

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From Spindle and Distaff to Mass Production: Spinning in Art was first posted on September 27, 2019 at 4:57 am.
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