18 June 2012

History in my hands

More than two years ago, I bought a couple of lead spindle whorls from eBay, listed as Roman era artifacts. Old. Really old.

These are found quite frequently by metal finders, and there are a lot of them for sale. They are very tiny, though, much smaller than I expected. Most are only a centimetre or two across, making them more like beads than whorls on the kinds of spindles we use now, and after puzzling over it briefly, I set the whorls aside for ‘someday’.

Then I discovered supported spinning. You can actually get a pretty decent spindle out of a bead and a bamboo skewer: the skinny shaft with a thicker bead at the base gets enough centrifugal force going to give a good long spin. Aha, I thought, that’s how those whorls were used, as supported spindles!

One of the supported spindlemakers on Ravelry offered to try making a shaft for the whorl, and she did come up with a beautiful teeny tiny spindle:

The whorl slips on and off, which is good, because the whorl itself is unbalanced and makes that gorgeous tiny spindle wobble. I can use the spindle without the whorl, though, which I think is amazingly cool. A spindle in my pocket!

It occurred to me that if the whorl is unbalanced, what I needed was an unbalanced shaft … a stick, in other words. A plain, ordinary stick from outside.

So I went outside and broke a couple of branches off the dried poplar trees that are serving as my (in need of repair) garden fence and got the Dremel tool out. Sitting on the step with the wind blowing the dust away from me, I sharpened one end of the stick into a twirling point and fitted the whorl over a knot in the wood that seemed to counterbalance the spot on the whorl where it was missing a little piece. I kept sanding and shaping, holding the stick up and turning it slowly, looking for areas that stuck out to one side, twirling it in a dish to see if it was balanced yet, taking off more and more until it finally turned reasonably well. Then I sanded it and smoothed it and twisted the whorl a few times until it was balanced. A bit of wool wrapped around the shaft to help hold the whorl in place, and voila: a working spindle:

It likes my wooden salad bowl (found at the thrift store for about 75 cents) better than the glass dish I use for most of my spindles. You can see that it works just fine:

The second whorl is smaller and lighter, so I made a shaft for it too. The second one only took me about half an hour.

It’s thinner at the tip, and doesn’t spin quite as long because it is lighter, but it also works just fine.

It was pretty neat to be sitting out there, shaping a stick to fit an ancient spindle whorl. People did this centuries ago. They used a knife, and a file, and a stone to rub the wood smooth, so it would’ve taken them much longer. I’m not particularly skilled with a carving knife, but I do like the Dremel’s easy maneouverability and light weight (as well as the speed).

It’s amazing to hold history in your hands like this. I thought spinning on a century old wheel was cool (I still do) … spinning on a whorl that’s from the time of the Romans … wow.

It’s really quite something.


  1. Gruselwusel9:31 am

    Great post, and I could just imagine you sitting outside with your equipment, making those spindles. I'll have to try that too! Keep on spinning!
    Take care,

  2. Awesome! I love using this VERY old technology, too. It is so cool to be connected to ancient skills like this! I've thought about getting a teally old whorl, too, but haven't done it yet. Kudos to you! <3


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