Soapstone spindle whorl

Hand-spun wool on my hand-made spindle

Hand-spun wool on my hand-made spindle

For one of my Kingdom Arts & Science entries, I wanted to do some Naalbinding… using hand-spun yarn. I only learned how to spin with a drop spindle (I haven’t yet learned how to use a spinning wheel, since I don’t have one, and a drop spindle is a lot more portable!) this past summer, but already really enjoy it – even though it takes AGES!

I decided that for the entry I wanted to spin my own yarn… and set myself a “stretch goal” of also carving my own drop spindle whorl from soapstone as well.

I’m thrilled… that I was able to do it!

Now.. it’s not perfect. It’s not totally even, but for my very first attempt, I am actually really, really happy with it. Despite the fact that it’s not totally even, it works perfectly, and has a really good spin! I even spun up some yarn with it!

I didn’t spin up wool specifically for the naalbinding project with it though – unfortunately I had to wait until we had a Chinook and the weather warmed up enough for me to work outside to do the carving. I didn’t want to put off spinning that long, so I spun on my regular purchased wooden drop spindle instead.

This isn’t specifically part of my entry – but rather to add depth to my experience and the presentation I’ll be able to give to the judges. With that in mind I used a mix of hand tools that are period-informed…. and electric tools which certainly aren’t, for speed. I needed to get this done in a window when my garage was available and I had enough light in the winter.

Montana Soapstone from Green's. This one I thought would work for a spindle whorl. (iPhone photo)

Montana Soapstone from Green’s. This one I thought would work for a spindle whorl. (iPhone photo)

Cutting off excess with a hand-saw.

Cutting off excess with a hand-saw.

I started off with piece of light green Montana soapstone from Green’s Lapidary in Calgary. (above) The piece was quite small, and only $3. It had one smooth cut edge, and the rest was rough – I knew I’d lose a lot of rock in the shaping, but I thought it would be about the right size for the whorl.

The first thing that I did was drill a guide hole with a small drill bit, and then enlarged it with a larger drill bit (my largest bit… I really need to get a selection of larger bits!). I could have used the hand-drill that I have, but I was nervous about the amount of daylight I’d have available, so I opted for the electric drill instead.

I used a pencil, built up with a bit of tape to hold the stone in place, and drew a circle on the flat edge  evenly around from the hole. From there I used a mixture of a Dremel and a hand-saw to trim away a rough circle from the bottom of the whorl.

Shaping with a dremel

Shaping with a Dremel

Once the bottom was trimmed away, I smoothed the base of the whorl (and re-cut it again -my original circle was a little less even than I had hoped…) and then moved to shaping the top of the whorl. Again I used both the Dremel and the saw. I had anticipated needing the rasp for this, but it didn’t seem to make enough of  a difference in getting the big bits of stone off my whorl.

A safety note – I used both goggles and a dust mask while working with the soapstone, and wore washable clothing to deal with the dust. There was a LOT of dust, especially with the Dremel. I ended up working with the rotary tool in my left hand, instead of my dominant right hand, so the dust wouldn’t spray in my face… still there was a LOT of dust. 

Sanding with garnet paper, the first of five grades of sandpaper

Sanding with garnet paper, the first of five grades of sandpaper

Once I had the shape of the whorl cut out, I used several grades of sandpaper to smooth the whorl.

… one scary moment – at this point I DROPPED the whorl on the cement floor. I’m pretty sure there’s a chip because of it. I also noticed that there was some unevenness… I was concerned that with the chip (and what looked like a flaw in the stone) if I worked at it even more it might fracture, so I opted to leave the shape as-is. I’m happy with it as a first attempt.

I’ve subsequently dropped the whorl twice, each time noting tiny bits of damage… which means I almost certainly won’t be using this whorl to make the yarn for my project… and will stick with a sample instead for display.

For sanding, I mounted the pencil in an electric drill to have it rotate – hoping that the central spot would allow me to sand it evenly all around. Although in period a lathe would have been hand-powered, I think this would give a similar effect to the lathe-turned whorls found from Viking Age finds. I started with a very coarse paper (garnet paper) and then moved up to a very fine paper (400 grade I think). I took the whorl on and off the pencil to be able to sand the top of the whorl smooth as well. Sarah Goslee indicates that not all whorls found in period were smoothly finished – though most of the ones I had seen from museum exhibits appeared to be.

The whole thing was super-messy… as seen in the photo below. I have goggles on my head, my dust mask on, and am wearing two hoodies over a sweater plus a toque to stay warm! Everything is covered in the talc from the soapstone!

I got a little messy (mirror selfie)

I got a little messy (mirror selfie)

 

Oiling & finishing

The next step which is totally optional, is cleaning and oiling or waxing the soapstone.

I washed the stone, and tried to remove the price on the bottom with nail polish remover – but that didn’t work. I should have sanded off the price instead, but by this point it was cold and dark outside again, and I didn’t want to wait more time to finish the project and test it out… so it still has the price on it!

I didn’t want to risk putting the stone in the oven to heat it for the wax, so opted for oil instead. I read that there were a few different kinds of oil that would work, so just used my coconut oil from my beauty counter.

Before oiling the stone had some visible scratches from the sandpaper and was rather dull, but after oiling the colour pops out nicely, and the scratches nearly vanish! In practice, the lanolin from the wool would have polished up the whorl nicely, but the wool I have has been scoured and doesn’t have as much lanolin in it… and I didn’t want to wait for the simple oils from my hands to polish up the stone.. I wanted it functional and pretty.. NOW!

For the spindle shaft itself, I just used a dowel. I had thought of cutting my own from a piece of birch from my backyard, but ran out of time (and daylight). I started with just sandpaper to narrow one end, but that wasn’t working, so I used a utility knife to shave down one end instead, and then sanded it (almost) smooth. I thought of notching the shaft like a more authentic spindle, but have found that kind much harder to use – so I went inauthentic and used a metal cup-hook instead, like the purchased wooden spindle I own, which I find MUCH easier to use.

The cup hook also has the added benefit of being slightly larger than the whorl hole, so if just tension doesn’t keep the whorl on the shaft – the hook will!

In period, spindle shafts would be tapered on both ends, my version is only tapered on one end. (Since I was working with a pre-made dowel, I didn’t see any practical advantage in tapering both ends, though this might relate to how the spun yarn was wound on the shaft.)

Spinning

I was nervous at first – but gave the spindle a twirl…. and it spins up beautifully!

Hand-spun wool on my hand-made spindle

Hand-spun wool on my hand-made spindle

My finished whorl is approximately 100 grams, which is similar to the heaviest whorls found at Birka, Sweden. It is 42 mm in diameter, has a 7 mm hole, and is 17 mm tall – all measurements within the average ranges for stone whorls found at Birka. The flat-convex shape is similar to stone finds at Birka and other sites as well.

My whorl is larger in all aspects than the two lathe-turned soapstone whorls found at Bjørkum, Norway, which have been dated to the Late Viking Age (10-11th century).

Icelandic finds from prior to the 11th century support the use of imported soapstone used for spindle whorls, though I was unable to find the same kind of specific measurements for Icelandic Viking Age whorls.

Some period examples

Below are some period examples of spindle whorls I’ve seen at museum exhibits. The one with the long spindle and multi-strand necklace is from a Swedish exhibit – there is a small stone whorl (plus tablet weaving cards) at the top left. The remaining examples (and partial examples) are from the Iceland National Museum exhibit.


My attempt at a soapstone whorl is most similar to some of the examples from Iceland, since that’s where my SCA persona is from, and I thought the easiest shape other than a flat disc. (Which would also be period-correct.)

Viking Age spindles & whorls

Sarah Goslee’s Viking Textiles relates that small “spindles are used for thin threads because they rotate faster, and heavy spindles are used for plying yarn”. She notes that both over and under-weighted spindles were used, and the average household would have a variety of spindles and whorls for a variety of purposes. She also relates that there are “no temporal trends in spindle size or shape”  throughout Viking Age Scandinavia, and that whorls were made from a variety of materials including bone, antler, wood, amber, and soft stone (like soapstone).

In Viking Worlds: Things, Spaces and Movement, the author writes that whorls from 15-30 grams were used for a range of yarn types, with lighter whorls up to 15 grams used for fine yarn, and whorls more than 30 grams being used for coarser yarn types.

Along with the weight of the whorl, the shape of the whorl also impacted the kind of yarn produced according to Ingvild  Øye. “A large spindle whorl does not spin as tight a thread as a small and relatively heavy one, and a conical spindle whorl turns more quickly than a disc-shaped one”.

Soapstone whorls in particular, were most common in areas where soapstone was readily available; Norway and western Sweden. The making of both whorls and spindle shafts in early Viking Age in Scandinavia and England appears to be a domestic process, with individuals using what was available locally. (Goslee)

Viking Age Birka whorls & spindle shafts

Eva Andersson Strand specifically discusses whorls from the Birka, Sweden area, sharing that 50% of the 429 whorls found in the area were made of stone. Sarah notes that two were definitely soapstone, likely imported from Norway. Some notes:

  • Stone whorls were usually discs or flat-convex
  • Ceramic whorls (rare) were usually conical and biconical
  • Almost no spindle shafts have been found at Birka, and she does not give information about those that were.
  • Whorls ranged from 4-100 grams, with most 5-29 grams.
  • Stone whorls tended to be heavier, in the 10-40 gram range
    • Diameters of all whorls were between 25-45 mm.
    • Height of stone whorls is 5-20 mm
    • Diameter of hole in stone whorls is 7-12 mm, holes in other materials tended to be smaller.

Of the remaining 50% of spindle whorls found in the Birka area, Eva Anderssen Strand writes that 15% were bone, 33% were ceramic, and 2% were another material.

Viking Age Hedeby whorls & spindle shafts

Sarah also illustrated whorls from the Hedeby (Denmark/Germany) area, sharing that 939 whorls have been found, but only 33 were made of stone, the majority in contrast to Birka finds, were ceramic.  She noted that there was a standardized shape and size of ceramic whorls, suggesting that they were being mass-produced in this case. About stone whorls, she noted:

  • Stone whorls were flat or flat-convex, like Birka
  • Sizes of stone whorls at Hedeby were similar to Birka stone whorls.

Stone whorls appeared to have been made either by being turned on a lathe, carved with a knife, or shaped with a rasp. These various production methods suggest that they were household-produced, unlike the mass-produced ceramic whorls. (Goslee)

Eva Anderssen Strand writes that 88% of the whorls found around Hedeby were ceramic, 6% were made of bone, 4% were stone, and 2% were another material.

More organic material has been found at Hedeby area, and Sarah notes that 36 wooden spindle shafts have been found dated to the Viking Age. Some notes include:

  • They ranged from 98-215 mm in length
  • They had 5-13 mm diameters, with 7-8 mm diameters being the most common
  • Evidence on the spindle shafts suggest the whorl sat 35-45 mm from the end of the spindle shaft
  • The shape of these spindles is always thickest in the middle and tapered on both ends.
  • Yew was the most common wood
    • Spruce, beech, and elm spindle shafts have also been found
    • Reconstructions in yew weigh 2.5-7.5 grams

Viking Age Novgorod spindle shafts

Sarah relates that there have been over 800 spindle shafts found at Novgorod, Norway dating from the mid-10th century. Her notes include:

  • These were larger than the spindle shafts from Hedeby
    • Usually 250-300 mm long
    • Usually 12-14 mm in diameter
  • The spindles appeared to have been turned on a lathe, and were frequently decorated with circular lines.
    • Spindles that were not lathe-turned were carved, and usually were undecorated.
  • 20 shafts still had wool on them.

Viking Age York whorls

Additionally, Sarah offered that 92 stone spindle whorls have been found at Anglo-Scandinavian York in England, with one quarter evidently being created by being lathe-turned.

Scottish Spindle Whorl (Archaeology.org)

Similarly, Archaeology.org reported a spindle whorl found in a 7-9th century turf longhouse  decorated with “symbols that could be writing”, and identify it as a Viking Age artefact. They describe the whorl as five centimetres in diameter.

 

Viking Age Bjørkum whorls

In Viking Worlds: Things, Spaces and Movement, the author writes about the Viking settlement at Bjørkum, Norway. Finds from the settlement are dated from the 7-11th Century, and were from a number of pit-houses. There were 19 complete whorls found from this site. Additional details:

  • 16 of the 19 whorls were made of soapstone
    • 2 were “fired clay” ceramic
    • 1 was a different kind of stone

They divided these whorls into two categories, early period whorls (7-9th century) and late period (10-11th century). The early whorls are described as:

  • Four of the whorls are decorated, including:
    • lines
    • a cross “incised along the rim”
    • complex segmenting
    • freehand symbols
  • Whorls weighed between 7-34 grams
    • Three of these are for “fine thread” – 7-13 grams
    • Six are “multi-purpose” – 16-28 grams
    • One is “heavy” – 34 grams
  • Several varieties were found in one house, suggesting that “spinners had different skill sets and could employ them for the task at hand, rather than a ‘one whorl fits all’ scenario”.

The later period whorls from Bjørkum are described as

  • Seven whorls in total
    • 2 “fine” whorls – 5-14 grams
    • 4 “multi-purpose” whorls – 16-25 grams
    • 1 heavier whorl – 33 grams
  • One decorated whorl
    • This is a knife-carved whorl
    • The whorl is a “beehive” shape
  • Two of the late-Viking period whorls are lathe-turned, suggesting a direction towards more mass-production.
    • These are both 21 grams
    • One is 33 mm in diameter, the other is 34 mm in diameter
    • Both are 15 mm tall
    • Both have 8 mm diameter holes

Icelandic Viking Age spindle whorls

My main area of interest for this project is Icelandic, so I also looked for information on spindle whorls found in Iceland. I was unable to find the same depth of information, but did find some brief notes.

Spindle whorls were found in a number of Viking Age farm pit-houses in Iceland. 13 whorls were found in 10 sites of this type, several single whorls, but as many as three in the Granastaðir 3 site. After loom weights, the whorls are the second most common item found in these sites, however it’s notable that in most cases, the loom weights suggest that the houses were abandoned in favour of new dwellings – not buried as-is by volcanic activity. Thus, it’s fair to speculate that other valuable goods would have also been removed from the home. These pit houses have been dated as early as the 9th century, but appear to be abandoned in the 10th and 11th centuries. (Milek)

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir has additional information about Icelandic Viking Age spindle whorls, specifically from a shieling called Urriðakot in Garðabær, just south of modern-day Reykjavík. Three spindle whorls were found here, one a fragment dated to the Viking Age, and two from medieval Iceland. There was no evidence of weaving in the shieling, however the whorls suggest that spinning was done on site.
A shieling is a seasonal dwelling – an extension of the farm. This was a “summer house” where residents could be close to grazing livestock.
The medieval whorls are made of palagonite, a stone found in Iceland, however the fragment of the whorl from the Viking Age is made of “imported soapstone, presumably from Norway”. Soapstone is not naturally found in Iceland, however “soapstone artefacts are relatively common in excavations from the Viking” period in Iceland. This whorl has been dated to the 10-11th century, and was “most likely convex with a flat base” – the same shape as my creation. However, it was only likely 3.5 grams in total, with a central hole approximately 13 mm in diameter. The whorl’s diameter was likely 29 mm. (Traustadóttir)
The Urriðakot site also included remains of a soapstone pot, whetstones, baking plates, three glass beads, a silver ring, knives, a copper timble, and other goods. The author doesn’t identify the dating of these goods, but indicates that the shieling was used as early as the 10th century, and that artefacts were from the 10-14th centuries. (Traustadóttir)
Ragnheiður Traustadóttir also writes about 28 spindle whorls found in the Þjórsádalur valley (roughly noted in the map above). All but one (made of lead) were made of stone – nine made from soapstone, and the rest soft red sandstone. Two of the stone whorls are decorated on the convex  side. These whorls have been dated from Iceland’s settlement to the 12th or 13th century.
Ragnheiður Traustadóttir also shares information about additional soapstone finds:
  • 19 spindle whorls found in an excavation at Suðurgata, Reykjavík.
    • All but one are made of soapstone
    • Nine of the 19 have been dated to the first half of the 10th century
  • Four whorls found at Hofsstaðir in Garðabær
    • Two made of soapstone
    • Two made of Icelandic palagonite
    • Both dated to the 11-12th century
  • Eight whorls have been found at Bessastaðir in Álftanes
    • Most of these are from the 10-12th centuries
    • Six of these are soapstone
    • One of green palagonite
    • One of wood, though this is from medieval, not Viking Age Iceland
  • Six whorls found at Hrísbrú in Mosfellsdalur
    • Four of these made of soapstone
    • Two of these green palagonite
  • Nine whorls found in Reykjavík
    • Dated 11-14th century
    • Seven of these made from Icelandic stone
 Ragnheiður Traustadóttir also has information about whorls found in pagan graves. Iceland officially adopted Christianity in 1000 CE, suggesting the whorls are from then or earlier.
  • The whorl from Austarihóll is made of lead, has a flat base and a convex top.
  • The whorl from Hrísar is also made of lead and “shaped like a half bowl”.
  • Two whorls from Daðastaðir are both made of soapstone
  • A whorl from Ketilstaðir is made of grey soapstone.

She concludes that in early Iceland, whorls were largely made of soapstone, likely imported from Norway. She doesn’t specify if the whorls themselves were imported, or if the stone was imported and the whorls shaped in Iceland. She also concludes that during the 11th century, “native production seems to have expanded” as more whorls are found using local materials.

References

Archaeology.org. Unusual Viking-Era Find in Scotland. Archaeological Institute of America. June 2015. http://www.archaeology.org/news/3446-unusual-viking-find-in-scotland

Cartwright, Ben. Making the cloth that binds us. The role of textile production in producing Viking-Age identities. Viking Worlds: Things, Spaces and Movement. Oxbow Books. 2014.

Goslee, Sarah. Viking Textile Tools. Phiala’s String Page. Accessed January 2016. http://www.stringpage.com/viking/spindles.html

Milek, Karen. The Roles of Pit Houses and Gendered Spaces on Viking-Age Farmsteads in Iceland. Medieval Archaeology. 2012

Øye, Ingvild. Technology and Textile Production from the Viking Age and the Middle Ages: Norwegian Cases. Textiles and the Medieval Economy: Production, Trade, and Consumption of Textiles 8th – 16th Centuries. Oxbow Books. 2015

Traustadóttir, Ragnheiður. Spindle Whorls from UrriðakotNordic Middle Ages – Artefacts, Landscapes and Society. University of Bergen Archaeological Series. 2015.

Strand, Eva Andersson. Textile Production, Organisation and Theoretical Perspectives on Trade in the Scandinavian Viking Age. Textiles and the Medieval Economy: Production, Trade, and Consumption of Textiles 8th – 16th Centuries. Oxbow Books. 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 comments on “Soapstone spindle whorl

  1. Both beautiful and practical – what more could one ask? I haven’t tried spinning yet, but I was pleased to learn how to use a nostepinne recently. Ah, the technology of the stick…

  2. Josephine says:

    Well, that was a good read, so well researched, and your drop spindle looks great, really even spinning so it is probably balanced. I just made two whorls out of polymer clay (cheating!) but I am using wood from an actual spindle tree that is growing on our land for the spindle. As you spin the balance changes on the spindle, so smaller whorls would have been added to rebalance. One of the reasons I suppose that they found so many whorls. I loved the picture of you in all your safety gear, cool, you would not look out of place on an oil rig. Did you win a prize for all this effort? I hope so.

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