Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010)Chrystel R. Brandenburgh: Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production
3 Textile production

3.2 Spinning

To spin yarns from fibres one needs a spindle whorl and a distaff. Depending on the direction the spindle whorl rotates, the threads are twisted either clockwise or anticlockwise resulting in z- or s-spun thread (fig. 4). Right-handed spinners generally spin clockwise (z-spun treads), but accomplished spinners can change the direction of spin when needed. In order to make an even stronger yarn several threads may be twisted together, resulting in plied yarn (for example a 2zS-yarn is made out of 2 z-spun threads, plied S-wise). Among the woven textiles single twisted threads are most common. Plied yarn has been used only in a few cases (table 5). This small share of plied yarns is a great contrast to the (Roman) Iron Age when plied threads were used in the majority of textiles (Bender Jørgensen 1992, 49).


Table 5. Distribution of textiles woven with single twisted threads or plied threads.

3.2.1 Quality of spinning

The quality of spinning can be ascertained by studying the thickness of the threads and the degree of regularity of the spinning. Presumably every woman in the Early Middle Ages could spin with a considerable degree of skill. Recent spinning experiments have shown that even nowadays one can, with a little practice, easily spin quite regular thin threads of about 0.5 mm with practically any type or size of spindle whorl.[7] We should however take into account that the breeds of sheep kept in the Early Medieval period had fleeces that were not as ideally suitable for spinning thin yarns as those bred nowadays. Thickness of threads has therefore been divided into 4 classes: 1.5 mm. The first category consists of very fine threads that needed careful spinning and more time to be woven into fabrics. The second category 0.5-0.75 mm may be regarded as the thickness that could easily be spun by any experienced spinner. The third and fourth categories are coarser or thicker yarns.

Wild (et al. 1998) and others have stressed the great advantages of digitally analysing the degree of twist in yarns because it enables researchers to distinguish the hand of individual spinners in a dataset and also the degree of experience of the spinner (Cork et al. 1996, Wild et al. 1998). Unfortunately this method was not available for this dataset, therefore the degree of twist has been classified as low, medium or high or, in the case of irregularly spun threads, as a combination of these. The finer threads (up to 0.5 mm) are generally spun medium to high regularity, making a very strong yarn. The 0.5-1.5 mm thick threads show a wide range of twist, from low to very high. The very thick yarns are often barely spun, making a very soft thread.

Table 6 shows that most fabrics from well-dated sites were woven with threads of 0.75-1.5 mm thickness. The finest, 1.5 mm is represented only in small numbers. There are some differences between the three major textile sites, Dokkum, Westeremden and Leens. In Dokkum there is slightly more fine spinning, whereas Westeremden has a larger share of the 0.75-1.5 class. Leens shows significantly less fine threads and more very coarse yarns of the >1.5 mm class. Middelburg shows a completely different pattern with a dominance of fine spinning, 37% in the <0.5 mm and 29% in the 0.5-0.75 mm class.


Table 6a. Distribution of the thickness of spun threads per site and per group of sites.


Table 6b. Graphic representation.

As stated before we may assume that it was possible to produce threads as thin as 0.5 mm despite the lower quality of the wool. Therefore there is no doubt that it would technically be possible to spin even finer threads. However, spinning and weaving these fine threads into equally fine fabrics would be more time consuming than spinning coarser threads and fabrics. These textiles consequently must surely have been more valuable than the coarser fabrics. The fact that more than 20% of the yarns are of this fine and time-consuming quality indicates that the people in these settlements either had time to produce this quality textile or sufficient wealth to purchase it, which may imply a certain level of craft specialization.

The majority of the spinning is of a much coarser quality. Instead of considering the technical limitations of the craftspeople, there may be other ways to explain this distribution. One very practical assumption may be that the settlements have yielded not only remains of clothes but also a large proportion of furniture or household textiles, which were not required to be of a very fine quality. Many pieces from the coarse section of the dataset however show traces of sewing and may have been primarily used as clothing. It may therefore be assumed that time was also an important factor in the choice of a certain quality of thread. As stated earlier, spinning and weaving fine threads is time consuming and had to be combined with numerous other tasks. Therefore an overrepresentation of rather coarse fabrics may indicate that the people involved generally did not have the time to put more effort into textile production. Neither would it suggest they had the means to let others do this work for them. Comparing the sites, Dokkum may perhaps be seen as an exception where there is an even distribution of threads up to 0.75 mm and thicker ones. Middelburg seems to be an important exception, but in reality it is not. The examples of fine spinning in the textiles from this settlement are in most cases only present in the warp. These fabrics have been made with a very thin and strong warp but very often with a much thicker weft. The production of these textiles is thus no more time consuming than for other rather coarse fabrics.