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Using Medieval Spindles to Ply Historically Inspired Yarn

I have a plying problem. My problem is that I’ve been spinning a lot of yarn with my European medieval-style spindles and whorls but these replica spindles don’t fit on my Lazy Kate (or “Clever Kate” as I like to call it). So, I need a solution to efficiently ply my yarn from these spindles.

This got me wondering what tools medieval people used to ply their yarn. I wanted to find out, so things got a little medieval around here.

Watch the full video of this project on YouTube or keep reading below to learn more about my medieval spinning exploration.

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A Quick History of Medieval Plying

During the Middle Ages, most cloth was woven entirely from singles yarn.

That’s right — the warp and the weft were woven from singles yarn. The modern idea that you can’t weave with singles is a myth because we have hundreds of years’ worth of surviving textiles showing us that people did indeed weave with singles.

However, there are some situations where yarn requires to be plied, such as for tablet weaving and for thread for sewing. Those are two particular uses of yarn that just will not hold up without the ply. So, we know that people had to be able to ply their yarn for certain situations. Today, we use a lot of plied yarn.

Multicolored yarn on medieval style spindles resting on a brightly colored woven fabric
I love spinning with these medieval-style spindles.

So, what would be the historically accurate way to ply yarn for using spindles like this? I did a bunch of research and looked at all kinds of pictures where I could find people doing textile work. I could not find a single picture of anyone actually plying yarn so we don’t really know exactly what method or methods people used to ply their yarn. Therefore, we’re going to have to travel to the land of “historically possible” as opposed to “historically accurate” for this spinning experiment.

Medieval Plying Blocks

The plying solution that I wanted to try out is called Anatolian Plying Blocks, which were created and sent to me by Robin of The Dancing Goats. He sent these to me at no charge, except I did pay for the shipping, and the link for these is an affiliate link.

Two small polished pieces of wood with spindles resting in between them
I was so excited to find this historically possible solution for plying with medieval-style spindles.

We don’t know that these blocks are historically accurate, but they are a simple, easy-to-make design created with accessible materials, so I believe they are a possible solution for people of the past to have used to ply their yarns.

The Fiber for This Project

I had two projects that I needed to ply with the plying blocks.

First was a natural-colored Shetland wool from Three Waters Farm. I spun the wool with a spindle and belted distaff. For this, I used a variety of whorls because I also wanted to test out the clay whorls that I made for my DIY spindle whorl project plus some medieval spindle whorls I got recently. This fiber became a two-ply yarn spun from a woolen prep.

A brown-haired woman in green and white medieval dress holding a spindle and distaff
Things got a little medieval around here!

The other project was a blend of historical and modern. I wanted to play around with some soapstone and alabaster spindle whorls. Soapstone is a very commonly found historical material, especially in Northern Europe. While these spindle whorls are replicas of historical tools, the fiber I used was very modern. I used merino wool blended with silk in the form of a combed top, which is an industrial invention. While people certainly did comb wool in preparation for spinning, it did not come out like the giant ‘floof noodles’ we see today. This fiber is also considered modern because of its vibrant colors, which didn’t exist until the last century. This fiber became a three-ply yarn that I will most likely use for a future knitting project.

Historically Possible Plying Technique

I plied the yarn with the 45 Snyder spindle. I chose this one just because I really like plying with this spindle. To start, I removed all the whorls from the spindles and placed them into the holes in the plying blocks. Immediately this solved the problem I have plying with baskets — the spindles are secure and can’t slide around and fall out.

A woman plying blue yarn with historical spindles, spindle blocks, and a spinning wheel.
The Anatolian Plying Blocks were a great solution to ply with! They kept the spindles secure the entire process and even allowed me to make a 3-ply yarn.

Key Takeaways: Plying Historically Inspired Yarn from Medieval Spindles

It was a great experience plying from the plying blocks. They were so much more efficient than using a basket with holes in it or a shoe box with holes in it. The spindles don’t fall out, they turn very smoothly, and nothing got caught or hung up. The yarns also came out more consistently than I thought.

I love the idea that I can create a very usable and modern yarn using historical tools. Of course, the whole idea that we can create something that is 100% historically accurate is a complete myth. Even if we use the original tools themselves to spin, there is no way to know if our technique is completely accurate, especially because there are few surviving historical textiles to base our information on. Additionally, breeds of sheep have changed over the centuries. An image from an illuminated manuscript or a stone carving can give us some information, but certainly not the full picture.

Even though we cannot be completely sure of the historical accuracy of replicated textiles, historical reenacting is still valuable! If you are imposing rigorous standards for purposes like a museum recreation or for a specific study then that is great! But we can also learn and discover things about textiles for our own personal usage and edification in hobby spinning. So, if you’re a history nerd like me, then let’s enjoy the historically possible, take what we can learn and use from the past to create new and wonderful things we can enjoy now.

Three medieval-style spindles with multi-colored yarn resting on a table
I am so excited to have found a solution for plying yarn from my medieval-style spindles.

What do you do if you want to ply the yarn you have spun on your spindles? Do you make a plying ball? How do you manage so they don’t flop all over the place when you are getting the yarn off of them? I would also love to know what you think of the idea of “historical accuracy” versus the idea of “historical possibility.” I think this a large discussion, so share your thoughts in the comments!

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If you enjoyed this project and want to see more, you can buy me a coffee (or a floof of fiber!) to help support my next textile adventure. And remember to subscribe to my YouTube channel and join my Patreon!

If you are interested in private virtual spinning lessons, you can send me an e-mail at evie@jillianeve.com.

Happy spinning!

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