katherine kerr of the Hermitage, her site

Spindle Whorls

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Main lesson: First identity your target!
I spent around three months wracking my brains for where I had seen an example of loom weights in a blue-and-white majolica, early 16th century Italian – the perfect thing for an on-going project I have. I knew I had seen them before Festival 2016, because I’d bought some plain pottery examples there from Master Alex the Potter with the intent of painting them up to match the examples I’d seen. But where?

I looked through thousands (yes actually thousands) of my travel photos in case I had taken a shot in a museum or exhibition somewhere – at the Peruvian women’s weaving collective? the warp-weighted loom exhibition in Heraklion? the Renaissance gallery in Lisbon? Nope. I flicked through my more recent book acquisitions; I checked my A&S notebooks for random jottings; I searched and searched and searched the Internet, surely there would be something there?? But all to no avail, not a thing turned up.

It wasn’t until I plaintively asked on the Known World Laurels list if anyone could help out, that I learned what I was doing wrong – I was hunting for loom weights when I should have been looking for spindle whorls. Ahem. Suddenly there was an abundance of blue-and-white majolica spindle whorls to be found!

Chalk that learning experience up to the importance of correctly identifying what information you are seeking. And clearly keeping good records is valuable too – if I’d done the usual thing and written down or photographed the example in the first place, I would have had a much better starting point. (Turns out I’d seen the items in one of Duchess Yolande’s books on domestic life in Renaissance Italy -- see refs -- d’oh! And there was a cryptic note jotted down on the back of one of my old travel itineraries...)



Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Dennis, Flora (eds.); At Home in Renaissance Italy; V&A Publications, 2006
Bayer, Andrea (ed); Art and Love in Renaissance Italy; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press (2008)
British Museum: Spindle whorls Number: 1890,0517.19, 1885,0508.95 (named beads); 1885,0508 102 (Medici porcelain)
Metropolitan Museum: Courtship and Betrothal in the Italian Renaissance
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Portable Antiquities Scheme Database
V&A Museum: Spindle whorls

Any fibre person can tell you the difference between a loom weight and a spindle whorl. After all, the latter have been around for around 9,000 years, and are still in use today. The whorls are the roundish weight of stone, bone, pottery, ceramic, lead, glass or other solid material that sits at the bottom of a spindle rod, providing momentum and tension for the controlled spinning of plant or animal fibres into yarn or thread. Over the millennia, whorl shapes have ranged from roughly spherical beads to flattened discs, ranging from 5cm to under 1cm in diameter, depending on the materials used and nature of the spinning (V&A, Brit Mus, Portable Antiquities Database etc).

Once I had correctly identified my object, I found a number of examples of the late-period spindle whorls I was after. Various museums have majolica spindle whorls, made in Faenza or Deruta from 1510 to approximately 1560. Deruta is still highly regarded as a centre for the production of high quality majolica (aka maiolica or tin-glazed earthenware), being an early entrant into the European race to find a way to imitate Chinese porcelain. Because of the popularity and exclusiveness of the latter, early majolica copied its coloration, with a white ground painted in blue with small motifs of yellow and orange. The whorls are decorated in this fashion, in much the same way as majolica plates, bowls etc. (V&A, Brit Mus, Phil Mus)

Judging from extant examples, majolica spindle whorls were formed and fired, then painted with a generic stylisation around the top and bottom, leaving the central strip plain. This was available for a customer to have a name painted on, often accompanied by the initial B or Bella (beautiful), and fired for a second time to preserve the artwork (Bayer, pg 112). You can still read the names on a number of whorls, such as CHASANDRA B, PERLA Bella, CRISTOFORA B, and CAteRINA B (Brit.Mus, 1890,0517.19). These have been interpreted as love tokens or gifts, possibly to mark a marriage (Bayer, pg 112). These types of whorls tend to be bead-shaped, ranging between 1.3cm to 2.5cm in diameter (V&A, Brit Mus).

The British Museum (cat. no. 42) has an interesting disc-shaped version in “Medici porcelain”, an experimental Italian ceramicware technology sponsored by Grand Duke Francesco in the 1570s-80s. It is described as being a uniquely utilitarian piece amongst surviving examples of what are otherwise high-end artistic items, but wear marks show it was at some stage used for its intended purpose (Bayer, pg 113). Unlike the bead versions, this one is a flattened disc, mirroring the earler Norse and Anglo-Sasxon examples but, unlike them, it is an example of fine porcelain.

As the BM entry notes: "Medici women did not need to spin, of course, and their servants would have been supplied with more practical, inexpensive whorls for use in their house-hold tasks. This whorl, now transformed into a precious object of considerable value, must have been intended as a love token."

My Loom Weights…er…Spindle Whorls

In the bottom of my mother’s cassone lie two spindle whorls, gifts on the occasion of her marriage to my father, all those years ago in her native Venice. One has her name written on it – Caterina – the name we share, and my father never fails to remind me that the B stand for bella, for she was a beautiful woman. It carries the blue and white roses of her family, the Mocenigo. She died when I was but 10 and now her things from La Serenissima brighten my home here in Scotland.

I have a long-term project of filling my persona mother’s cassone (her wedding chest), as a means of pushing me to find out about aspects of life in Venice in the early 1500s and guiding suitable small A&S challenges to take me out of my usual interest areas and learning something new. Like now. After all, Bayer notes how whorls could arrive at home as part of a new bride's dowry or counter-dowry.

When I saw Master Alex the Potter selling unglazed earthenware whorls, I immediately bought a couple with this project in mind. At around 2cm high and 4.5cm in diameter, they are somewhat larger than the Italian examples. Their size and shape is similar to that of lead spindle whorls, as can be seen in post-medieval entries in the Portable Antiquities Database, so they are not too far off base for my purposes.

So, having learned what my pottery thingummies are properly called, I spent some time looking at the period examples. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to glaze and fire mine – the local community pottery club here closed down due to the earthquakes – but I figured I could get a similar effect with a suitable paint approach.

I first gave each whorl around half-a-dozen thin coats of gesso. The pottery was unglazed and the gesso would provide a means of sealing it for the paint layers, a technique which was used in the Renaissance to provide a flat ground for painting on canvas, plaster and stone. This was followed by a final couple of coats of goache; the zinc white has a similar slightly blue shade to that of the tin-glazed earthenware used to produce majolica.

I based the designs on those used on the bead-shaped whorls – I had found more examples of those and I wanted to paint one whorl with my mother’s name on it to personalise it for the cassone. These were painted in goache in colours similar to the examples (ultramarine and cadmium/medium yellow), and then sprayed with several coats of varnish to provide the glossy finish seen on glazed majolica . The lettering is quite free-form, in the style of the examples, though the circling rings on the extant versions are more precise than I can do – the latter because of my poor eyesight for fine work and, I suspect, the lack of a turntable which may have been used to draw the fine even lines around a revolving item.

All in all, I was pleased with how these turned out, though I could have done without the significant amount of wasted time at the start of the project!

The two original disc-shaped spindle whorls, one on Lady Iuliana's spindle, and two of the bead-shaped ones.

So there I was with a couple of spindle whorls painted up the way I wanted them, but there was this niggle…. Compare them with the extant examples and they do look like the wrong shape for early 1500 spindle whorls (pace the Medici porcelain example, but that was from the 1570s, long after Mother died).

That niggle got worse when I found out from Master Alex that the large disc-shaped whorls I’d bought were based on Viking and Anglo-Saxon examples.

So I finally gave in and pulled out some air-setting terracotta clay. Maybe I would have time before November Crown (this was three days before leaving) to make a better shape and paint them up; after all, I wasn’t expecting to use these versions for actual spinning, so I wouldn’t have to worry about perfection of form.

Just as well. Last time I’d used the pack of clay, I had clearly carefully sealed it, but at the unopened end…. Even after cutting the hardened clay into small bits and adding water, it was still a bit lumpy, but I persevered with pummelling it into three bead-shaped whorls. Drinking straws provided a means of drilling a roughly correctly proportioned hole through and I flattened them to visually match the originals, possibly a bit too much. I wasn't completely confident that these could actually be used on a spindle rod, but they looked about right.

A windy warmish day helped the beads to dry, at least enough on the surface to start painting on layers of gesso. Painting this lot wasn’t as easy as the first set – the beads were not as spherical as they should have been and the circling rings are clearly off-centre…so there’s this niggle…

...But they weren't as bad as I thought. At Nov Crown I handed the whorls over to the lovely Lady Iuliana Northwood who promptly tried them out on her spindle and demonstrated that despite my poor crafting skills, the things could be used effectively to actually spin something acceptable. Huzzah!...I was more than happy to gift her a whorl, but then I lost the market wallet holding the remainder. So I guess that's a good reason to have another go at this, this time taking a bit more time and care.

It struck me at Canterbury Faire that making these could be the start of a running A&S activity. First make the whorl, then use the woodworking area at Faire to make a spindle, then learn how the two work together, dye the resulting yarn and then finger-knit or weave it into something. Sounds like a plan in the making.

One More Thing...
Just to demonstrate that you can put a suprising amount of info into an index-card-sized documentation, here's my summary of essentials from the above:

What: Bead-shaped spindle whorls for spinning thread or yarn
Where: Faenza or Daruta, Italy
When: mid-1500s (extant examples from 1510-1560)
Materials: air-dry clay with gesso, gouache, spray varnish; chosen to match look of original tin-glazed painted earthenware/maiolica
Description: flattened bead form, pierced for spindle shank; painted with name matching original style (eg CAteRINA B) and matching colours (blue, white, yellow)
Outcome: a reasonably close match to the extant examples; more care needed in conditioning the clay and painting fine lines
References: Bayer, Andrea (ed); Art and Love in Renaissance Italy; Yale University Press (2008); British Museum Online collection: spindle whorls; Number: 1890,0517.19, 1885,0508.95 1885,0508 102; V&A: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

See, documentation doesn't all have to be long-winded!

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