Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at email@example.com
By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:
Professor D.P. Singhal of the University of Queensland, Australia, writes in India and the World Civilization on page 176: “The spinning wheel is an Indian invention.” Apart from the economic significance of spinning wheel in reducing the cost of textiles, it is one of the first examples of belt-transmission of power. The stirrup, certainly the big-toe stirrup, is of second century B.C. Indian origin. Britannica Concise Encyclo-pedia states: “Spinning wheel is an early machine for turning textile fiber into thread or yarn, which was then woven into cloth on a loom. The spinning wheel was probably invented in India, though its origins are unclear. It reached Europe via the Middle East in the Middle Ages.
The story of spinning is interwoven with the history of man. Wherever traces of early man were found, there also has been evidence of spun thread or spinning implements. Spindles and spinning are also an integral part to the mythology and folklore of many cultures. Plato likens the axis of the universe to the shaft of a spindle with the starry heavens as the whorl end of his Republic. The Bible mentions spindles and spinning. Spider Woman, a Goddess in Navaho culture, taught them the art of spinning. Arachne challenged the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and was turned into a spider in Greek mythology. In Germa-nic and Teutonic cultures the three Fates spin, measure and cut the threads of life of mortals. Even our modern fairy tales mention spinning, as in Sleeping Beauty, East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
Evidence of spinning wheels themselves do not appear in any historical records and artwork. In her book, Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines reports of written evidence to the presence of spinning wheels in Persia in 1257; and linguistic evidence that suggests they came to Persia from India, so it is entirely possible that they were in use prior to this time. The Indian styles known as charkha wheels, were not rimed wheels at all, but rather had a string running through holes in the tips of the spokes connecting them in a zig-zag fashion, thus supporting the drive band. The drive band was connected to a spindle turned on its side where the whorl might be, and powered by a hand crank. The spinner would turn the hand crank with one hand and spin off of the end of the spindle with the other hand — thus the term “spindle wheel.” While these rimless spindle wheels were in use in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Italy and Switzerland, they did not reach Europe until the late 13th century. Baines reports a mention of spindle wheels in Speyer (now Germany) dating from 1298 that forbids the use of wheel-spun warp threads in weaving. Spindle wheels, as they can spin fibers with less gravity and twist, created a softer yarn that would not hold up to the warp tension as well as strong-spun warp threads. Baines notes: “The need for such a regulation surely indicates that spinning on the wheel was an established method by that time.” Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence in the document to define what fibers were being spun and what kind of wheel was being used.
Regardless of the method and device used, as long as you are twisting fibers together to create yarn, you are spinning. You can get a good quality drop-spindle for as low as $5 that will give you yarn just as good as you can get on a spinning wheel, which usually starts around $300. No matter how much you spend on your tools, or how historically accurate your methods, as long as you are creating yarn and enjoying yourself, you are keeping this once vital part of our history alive.
— Grandpa’s blessing