Loom weights (back) and spindle whorls (front). Image © York Archaeological Trust
DO you think you know the difference between a spindle whorl and a loom weight? It is surprising how many people think they do – but are WRONG! In over 15 years of teaching about small finds in York, England, I have found that confusion over identifying these objects has come up frequently, so here is a brief examination of these two types of artefact, both used by women in textile working; hopefully, by the end, the critical differences between these objects will be clear, and you will able to confidently label these objects correctly! If you want to see the real things, do visit JORVIK Viking Centre https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk where examples of these objects, and of many others involved in textile production, can be seen on display.
Prior to the development of the spinning wheel (which probably appeared for the first time in England around the 13th century), hand spinning was used to twist together raw fibres to form yarn in preparation for weaving. This was carried out using a wooden spindle, a rod which tapered to each end; the ends were sometimes notched to secure the yarn in place.
A circular whorl was slotted on towards one end of the spindle, and acted as a weight to assist the spindle’s rotation; with the end of a roll of the raw fibres attached to the other end, the spindle was spun around, and the strands of fibre were pulled and twisted by hand into a spun thread. This could be done either while standing with the spindle hanging vertically, or sitting and rolling the spindle against the hip.
Hand spinning using a spindle with whorl. Images © York Archaeological Trust
This complete spindle from Coppergate has notches, and rather unusually has been decorated. Image © York Archaeological Trust
Spindle whorls have been found in considerable numbers in excavations in York. They are made of various materials including animal bone and stone, and less commonly, fired clay and lead alloy, and range from being crudely shaped with a knife to being turned and decorated. Roman whorls tend to be disc-shaped, and slightly smaller than whorls recovered from later sites in the city such as the Anglian settlement at 46-54 Fishergate, and the Anglo-Scandinavian settlement at 16-22 Coppergate. These whorls dating from the 8th – 13th centuries A.D. are also sometimes discoidal or cylindrical, but may also have hemispherical or biconical profiles. The stone whorls were often made of local stone, while the bone whorls would be formed from the domed end of a cattle femur which was cut off and then had a hole drilled through. Spindle whorls of this period appear to have a diameter range of 3 – 4.5cm, and a weight range of 4 – 63gms, suggesting the production of yarns for a range of fine and heavier fabrics.
Spindle whorls from Coppergate, made of fired clay (top left), animal bone (right), and stone (bottom left). All images © York Archaeological Trust
The loom weights which have been recovered from excavations in York have all been associated with the warp weighted loom, which, as the name implies, used weights in its operation. This form of loom was extremely long lived, apparently originating in the Neolithic period, but in York evidence of its use comes particularly from the 8th – 10th centuries A.D. from the sites at Fishergate and Coppergate.
Weaving using a warp-weighted loom Coppergate. Image © York Archaeological Trust
The warp weighted loom in use at both of these settlement sites would have been made of wood; two uprights were leant up against a wall, and these were joined together by a lower shed bar or cross-beam. An upper beam or roller connected the uprights at the top, and it was to this beam that the vertical ‘warp’ threads were attached. The loom weights were tied onto the warp threads and hung down to either side of the lower bar, keeping the threads under tension.
A selection of loom weights from sites in York – the weight seen below has been burnt in antiquity.
All images © York Archaeological Trust
The form of the weights is annular or ‘bun-shaped’ with a central perforation, the shape used from the 5th – 10th centuries A.D. They were simply made by hand, with a piece of local brick clay formed into a sub disc shape and the central hole pushed through – thumb prints are sometimes visible on the weights themselves – before being fired. The recovery of complete loom weights is rare; they are more frequently found as fragments, but even so they are a much less common find than spindle whorls. The range of weights recorded for complete loom weights found across England at this period is 100 – 1460gms, with most being in the range of 150-550gms. The examples from York seen here are in the range 360 – 440gms, and the diameters range from c.8.5 – 12cm.
SO, now you should be able to tell the difference between these two types of weights used in textile working! To recap: the larger and heavier ones are loom weights which are annular, ceramic, with a diameter of c.10cm and a weight usually of 150-550 gms. The smaller lighter weights are spindle whorls which are also annular, and sometimes ceramic but more commonly made of stone or animal bone, and occasionally of lead alloy; they are smaller than the loom weights, with a diameter of 3 – 4.5cm, and a maximum weight of less than 100 gms. Despite these differences, what both types of object can do is to remind us how widespread and important textile production was in the past.
With thanks to York Archaeological Trust for permission to use their images, and in particular to Rebecca Sampson and Louis Carter for their assistance