Women demonstrate age-old technique of spinning

Lillian Simmons
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The art of spinning fibres to create thread and yarns has been around for more than 10,000 years. Indeed, the Vikings may not have ended up in L'Anse aux Meadows were it not for the ancient practice.
"This is what the Vikings were using when they wove," says Sissel Marit Jensen, holding up a drop spindle.

The device looks incredibly simple. It's made from a wooden disc that sits on top of a dowel. The fibre is attached to the spindle and yarn is formed through a spinning motion.

"The Vikings didn't have cotton, so all the clothes and everything were made of wool," she says, her voice soft, her accent Norwegian.

Marit Jensen and Anne Lucas have set up on the lawn in front of Shagrock Arts and Crafts in Whiteway, Trinity Bay, where they've assembled an assortment of fibres in various colours to demonstrate the art of spinning.

"The Vikings even made sails from wool," says Marit Jensen. "It would have been (from) old Norwegian sheep that's going out all day, all year. ..." She pauses, then settles for the right word. "Wild. They didn't have a barn. Without the women doing this, they couldn't have come to L'Anse aux Meadows."

She holds up her wooden drop spindle, pointing to the disc at the top.

"What (archeologists) found at L'Anse aux Meadows was this piece, which was made of stone, usually soapstone. Women kept this. It was their treasure. In the Viking graves you will find the stone."

This particular type of drop spindle is found in the rest of Europe, but made from wood.

"So that's why they knew there were Vikings there, because they were the only ones using (stone)."

"You often see in Africa or Peru or wherever, young girls sitting or walking to school spindling, making yarn as they go," Lucas adds.

Lucas owns Foggy Rock Fibres in Cupids. The two women became friends in 2000 when Lucas was in Norway teaching geographic information science, satellite remote sensing techniques and marine science at the University of Bergen. Marit Jensen had returned to university as a mature student.

Lucas returned to Canada in 2008. This summer, Marit Jensen is visiting her in Cupids.


While Marit Jensen demonstrates drop spindling, Lucas sits down at her spinning wheel. She uses a variety of fibres - yak, angora, bamboo, Persian lamb, border and bluefaced Leicester sheep.

Yak, she says, contains very soft, fine, short fibres, which makes it warm.

Angora is longer and looks like hair.

"When you spin that and put it in a sweater, it blooms. It creates this halo effect."

The bamboo Lucas points to has been dyed brown and very much resembles human hair.

"This is made sort of like they make nylon, where they mush the bamboo down into a slurry and they pull it out into these long filaments."

Excellent if you want a fibre that doesn't prickle.

"The Persian lamb is black with that nice tight curl, until they're about four days old and then it turns into this."

She holds up a rougher-looking batch of fibre.

"Out of that you would make a rug because it's a little scratchy."

The border Leicester is a long-wooled sheep with curly hair.

"When you spin this you get a yarn that's very strong, has a good shine and it's got this crimp."

There's also wool from bluefaced Leicester sheep, which Lucas has died bright green.

"There's quite a shine on the wool itself. I like to use this for rug hooking because when you pull up the loops you get this little bit of twist, this extra kink and these little knots so that the surface looks almost pebbled."


When using fleece straight from the sheep, the wool is washed, picked, dyed, carded and then spun.

Lucas holds up some fleece that has been processed in a wool mill and, for contrast, holds out a basket of fleece straight from the sheep.

"It's still full of little bits of pasture - hopefully the nastier bits are out," she laughs.

After it's washed and dyed, it has to be picked. Picking is simply pulling the wool into small pieces so the detritus falls out.

"No one wants to feel it?" she asks, holding out the basket of raw fleece with a smile.

Once the wool is picked, it's carded. Wool cards look like large cat brushes. A tuft of wool is placed between two cards and brushed in one direction, like brushing hair.

"It combs the wool so the fibres separate a little bit and go more in the same direction. So when you pull it out, it goes into a strand. If you don't do this, it will just break in pieces," explains Marit Jensen.

What comes off the cards is a long piece of fluffy fibre, ready for spinning.

Lucas sits at the spinning wheel and puts her bare feet on flat wooden bars at the bottom. She turns the wheel by pushing her feet up and down, simultaneously feeding the fibre onto the wheel, holding an end of fibre in one hand. As the wheel turns, the tension pulls the wool into a thread, winding it onto the bobbin.

"The tricky part is getting your feet, hands and mind working at the same time in the same direction and trying to keep it to the same thickness."

The simple yet brilliant technique is relaxing, almost hypnotic.

"I've been known to fall asleep at the wheel," she confesses. "You can't separate the yarn properly if you're stressed, so it comes out kind of kinked. You really do see it, so you've got to be relaxed."


Almost any type of fibre can be spun, and Lucas enjoys working with a variety of textures and colours.

"I can start with local fleece and do any colour and any combination of all those fibres, one-ply, two-ply, three-ply, four-ply yarn."

There aren't many local sheep farmers around these days, but she manages to get plenty of fleece for her studio.

"If I'm going to make something really soft for next to the skin, I'm probably not going to use a Newfoundland fleece. There are breeders working to make fleece softer, but you still have to blend it."

She usually uses local fleece for felting to make puffins, cats and owls. A barbed felting needle is run back and forth through the fleece, bringing the fibres together, creating a harder surface.

A low-impact dye that adheres well to the wool ensures that children don't ingest dye from the toys.


Marit Jensen lays downs her spindle and takes out a pair of socks she's been working on. She is combining Newfoundland and Norwegian techniques to come up with a pattern.

Norwegian knitting is done while holding the yarn in the left hand, rather than the right hand. It's a faster way to knit, she says.

"We have measured and I do it twice as fast as Anne."

She has a different way of knitting the heel as well, so there is no ridge under the foot.

"She's working on a line that we're calling Wicked Good Woolies," Lucas says. "We use a Briggs and Little yarn and we dye it funky colours."


Organizations: University of Bergen

Geographic location: L'Anse, Trinity Bay, Europe Africa Peru Cupids Norway Canada Yak Newfoundland

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