Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

From Spindle and Distaff to Mass Production: Spinning in Art

Art State of Mind

From Spindle and Distaff to Mass Production: Spinning in Art

There are multiple artistic representations of women spinning – created across time and in various places. Let’s take some of the great depictions for a spin (pun intended!) and learn more about this activity.

Spinning as a Daily Domestic Activity

Spinning consists of twisting together of drawn-out strands of fibers to form yarn. It is the major activity of the textile industry, practiced since ancient times, mainly by women.

Uno Troili, An Italian Woman Spinning Flax, 1847, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

The basic tools used to spin the fibre were spindle and distaff. A distaff is designed to hold the unspun fibers, while a spindle is a straight spike usually made from wood on which the fibre is being spinned. The most commonly used fibers in Europe were wool and flax. A woman spinning flax, as depicted by Uno Troili, was a popular motif. The motif gave the artist an opportunity to create an elegant composition, with the arm and hand sensitively holding the thread. The woman is sitting in a niche on a stone, which places her in an ancient Roman environment.


A similar focus on hands is visible in the painting by Jozef Hanula. The concentrated spinner is depicted in profile, is pulling a piece of fibre. Similarly to many other portraits by Hanula, the model is wearing a traditional folk costume.

Jozef Hanula, Spinner, 1904-1910, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Spindle and distaff remained in use in households until the 19th century and beyond, mainly because of their simplicity. Yet, a new invention appeared in Europe in the middle ages – a spinning wheel. It became a crucial tool in the cotton textile industry and laid the foundations for future machines, developed during the Industrial Industry. Being such an important device, it has been depicted in many artworks – from medieval manuscripts to 19-the century domestic scenes.

Woman at a spinning wheel with a man seated nearby on the ground, and a monstrous bird in a tree. from BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 147, The British Library.
Edla Jansson-Blommér, Old Woman at Spinning Wheel, 1846, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the industrial spinning became more frequent. From an activity performed at home, it transformed into employment, with many women working together at the same time. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the bigger parts of the work became automated.

Maximilián Kurth, Spinners, 1904, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Symbolic Meanings of Spinning

Next to multiple realistic representations of spinning as daily work, some paintings represent a more symbolic meaning of this activity, where a spinster at work is approached by an admirer. Just like in the painting by Pieter Pietersz.

Pieter Pietersz (I), Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, 1550, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In the artwork, depicting an elegant couple, the man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice. Another, mythological meaning of spinning is related to a destiny with yarns representing lives.

Jan Harmensz. Muller, after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem ,Three Fates, 1587 – 1591, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

On this painting, the three female fates spin the thread of life and determine its length as well as where it ends. Clotho, in the middle, holds the distaff, Lachesis spins the thread and Atropos bites the thread with her teeth.

BONUS: Fierce Spinners


And here’s what happens when you get on spinners’ nerves… We’ve already explained the way spindle and distaff work. Below you can see an alternative use.

Detail from BL Harley 1766, f. 76v, 1450-1460, The British Library, London, United Kingdom.

This is a miniature from a medieval manuscript, representing Orpheus lying on his back, protecting himself from Thracian women armed with spindles and distaffs. Why? According one of the multiple versions of the myth, after he had descended into the underworld to find his beloved wife, Eurydice, and had lost her, Orpheus withdrew into solitude. Feeling rebuffed, Thracian women set upon him.

Salomon Savery after Joos Goeimare, Man gets a beating from three women, 1610, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

On this artwork, we see a spinning wheel and distaffs, the attributes of the housewife and symbols for domestic activity. Yet, instead of calmly working, the women are beating up a man. According to the caption, the man is being punished for his alcoholism. A lesson to learn: don’t mess up with spinners!

This article is featured as a part of our collaboration with Europeana, Europe’s platform for cultural heritage. Their project Europe at Work shares the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present. Visit their collection on Industrial Heritage and explore artworks, photos, and documents illustrating working life in Europe across time.

We transform the world with culture! We want to build on Europe’s rich heritage and make it easier for people to use, whether for work, for learning or just for fun. Visit us at www.europeana.eu

Comments

More in Art State of Mind

  • Art State of Mind

    Football in Art and Art in Football

    By

    Art History and Football are not commonly linked together. However football is a beloved and reflective part of culture. Firstly, artists choose to contemplate football to show their love for the beautiful game. Secondly, the art of football becomes a critique of society. Let’s explore football...

  • REA! team, left to right, Elisabetta Roncati, Maryna Rybakova, Pelin Zeytinci, Maria Myasnikova, Maria Ryseva REA! team, left to right, Elisabetta Roncati, Maryna Rybakova, Pelin Zeytinci, Maria Myasnikova, Maria Ryseva

    21st century

    Art Fair for Emerging Artists: Interview with REA! ARTE

    By

    Article presenting the entreprise of young women who created an art fair focusing on the promotion of emerging artists

  • Abstraction

    VIPs… or VICs (Very Important Colors)? Iconic Hues in Art History

    By

    Every person probably dreams of leaving a legacy to the world. For artists this is a central goal and they try to do it through their masterpieces of course. Some people even went further though… They gave their name to a hue! Iconic artists used colors...

  • Animals

    The Lady with the Dog

    By

    The Lady with the Dog is a title that I borrowed from Chekhov’s short story. It is a story of an affair, however, in art the dog quite often has been a symbol of fidelity. As you will also see below, dogs also have been symbols...

  • 19th Century

    Around the World With a Painter: Frederic Edwin Church’s Travels

    By

    Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was a true world traveler. In his lifetime, Church visited the Arctic, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Middle East. He painted gorgeous landscape scenes based on each location. Let’s journey around the world as we...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy