Have you ever wondered when and where spinning started in history? Well I have, and I can not answer that question, but I have been reading about the textile history in the Viking (700-1100 AD) tradition here in the Scandinavian countries. There has been some archaeological research on the production of yarns and fabrics of the Vikings. I am basing my article on Eva Andesson’s book : Tools for textile production from Birka and Hedeby. Birka was a trade settlement between 750 and 950 AD, in Sweeden. Hedeby was a similar settlement in today's Denmark.  

Raw materials and preparation:

What did the Vikings have to make fabrics and garments of?  Wool is the obvious choice, but flax, hemp and nettle fibers have also been found.  Sheep's wool was definitely the most common fiber for garments and fabrics, just like in other areas.  The sheep in the Viking era were smaller than today’s sheep; they estimate that 1.0-1.25 kg washed wool was harvested from a ewe and 1.75-2.5 kg from a wether.  These sheep were one of the forerunners of the Shetland, Icelandic, and Old Norwegian Short Tail Landrace breeds that still exist today. Spælsau are the closest modern sheep breed we have to what the Vikings most likely used and raised.  The quality and type of fiber varied from sheep to sheep and some areas had sheep with finer fiber than others.  The wool was collected from the sheep with scissors and in the Viking age, these were beautifully crafted out of iron.

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Viking Replica Shears


After the wool was shorn off the sheep it was hand cleaned and washed. I have not found any proof as to how the fiber was washed or dried but E. Andersson states in her book that they did wash the wool before spinning, which was common practice in other historical sites. The Vikings did not have carders, instead they used hand combs.

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Drawn by Nina Lilledahl
 

There is evidence of iron spikes used for combing wool and the most common thread found is worsted, which indicates a combed preparation, as carded fibers make woolen yarns. The combing was done in the same way as now, according to Andersson, by filling one comb ¾ full of wool and combing with another from the top and sides. Then the long hairs were pulled out by hand. There is no known evidence of using a diz, but the diz could easily be classified as something else, such as jewelry, beads or other items.

Spinning:
The most common textile tool found in the digs from this age is the hand spindle. 429 spindle whorls were found in Birka, a Viking age trade settlement of about 600 inhabitants. The whorls were made of stone, ceramic, bone and in some rare cases other materials such as amber, metal and glass. The weight of the whorls varied from under 5 grams to over 130 grams, with most of them weighing between 5 and 30 grams. The whorls between 10-14 grams were most common. The shapes varied from conical, bi-conical, flat, flat-convex, and joint-ball type.

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Drawn by Nina Lilledahl


The shafts were made mostly from wood and since wood deteriorates so quickly, very few of them have survived.  There is evidence that they also made the shafts out of bone. There is no mention of wooden whorls, but as the shafts, they too could be destroyed by time and the environment.  The were likely used for whorls because this material was so readably available and easy to shape.

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Drawn by Nina Lilledahl


The Vikings used both top and bottom whorl spindles, but since most of the whorls are found without shafts it’s hard to say which was most common. There are also findings of a wooden rod, called a spinning hook. It’s simply a stick they twirled around like a spindle. The weight of the whorls, suggests that the Vikings spun yarn of different weights. It is interesting to see that the lighter whorls were very common. The yarn they spun with these would have been thin and used to make fine fabrics.  After the yarn was spun it was wound on a reel, or a niddy noddy. Reels have been found, for instance , in the Oseberg grave in Norway.

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Drawn by Nina Lilledahl
 

The Viking age people cut wool from their sheep with scissors, combed it into top and spun it on spindles in a large variation of thickness and quality.  Then it was wound on niddy noddys or a reel. Just as many of us today spin and skein our yarns, this tradition remains with the spinners of today. The difference being that what we do as a hobby was a necessity for them, it could take as much as 3 kg of raw wool to produce a garment, and Andersson estimates that spinning time for that, including preparation of wool, is about 100 days!  The women of the past had to use every free moment preparing, spinning and constructing garments to keep their families warm and clothed in all weather and conditions.  Although many of the techniques survive, many have been lost, and who knows what knowledge can be found through the important work of archaeological research. 

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