Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures

Tartan Ferret


Courtesy of Gail Kilgore & Historic Highlanders*

The spinning of wool and linen fibres into yarn has been practiced in Scotland for many centuries, as evidenced by the discoveries of early spinning devices. Early spindles consisted of a stick through the center of a flat disc attached to it for the weight. This was known as a whorl, or dealgan in Gaelic. The whorl could be made of wood, stone, and in later periods even a potato. Obviously, the ancient whorls which have survived were made of stone.Distaff spinning

The type of spinning done with this device dates from prehistoric times, not only in Scotland, but in many other areas of the world. Some third-world countries, even today, utilize this method of spinning. A bundle of cleaned fibres could be attached to a staff, or cuigeil, to aid in the spinning process. It was kept upright at one's side by being fixed in a belt fastened around the waist and steadied by the arm. This method of spinning was known as distaff spinning.

The distaff, or fearsaid, was not always used, as the spindle itself could be spun by being suspended so that the spinner could work while standing or walking, thus creating a greater length of thread. Having set it in motion by the fingers and thumb, the fibres, which have been attached to the spindle, are twisted into thread of the requisite fineness. The spinner continued to draw off fibre from the distaff, spinning until a convenient length was obtained, and then would wind the thread around the spindle, repeating the operation and removing the balls of completed yarn to be woven when a sufficient supply had been spun.

Spinning was a female task done in the home to provide bedding and clothing for the family. Most Highlanders lived in remote areas and small villages, so that all their possessions were hand-crafted. It wasn't until the beginning of the 18th century that males started to spin as an occupation as part of "spinning schools" at the very start of the industrial revolution. This occurred in the larger towns and more populous areas.

The Muckle wheel in action.

As always, any innovation was slow to find its way into the Highlands because of the remoteness, as well as the reluctance to change what had worked for them for centuries. So women continued to spin in their own homes for their families. We have the word, "spinster" and the term, "the distaff side" which come from these humble chores.

The Saxony spinning wheel

Spinning with the distaff, or "drop spindle" as it is sometimes referred to, was a slow process to create enough yarn for the weaving to begin. The first improvement was the addition of a simple wheel which produced the yarn much faster. This "muckle" or "great" wheel, however, was a static process. One rotated the wheel with one hand while the other held the fiber, walking it out as the yarn was spun. The next step was to then wind it back onto the spindle. This wheel was eventually replaced during the 18th century by the "little" or "Saxony" wheel which was operated by a treadle. Now, the twisting and winding of the yarn was done in one step, yet another improvement in the time factor.

The spinning wheel was unknown in Europe until the 13th century, and probably did not reach Scotland for another two or three centuries. In some parts of the Highlands, no kind of spinning wheel was in general use until the end of the 1700's. Distaff spinning was still being practiced regularly in the Western Highlands and Islands until the mid-1800's. The reasons for this were various, but really quite simple. Firstly, as mentioned before, the wheel was a static process, whereas the spindle was portable to the fields to tend animals, or walking back from gathering peat (in a basket supported by shoulder harness on one's back and balanced by a headstrap); thus, one's hands were free to spin! Women were extremely reluctant to give up that light-weight portable object which allowed them to perform two tasks at the same time. Another reason was cost and availability. The Highlanders were excessively poor and many had no money at all to buy an object, nor the means to travel so far to find one. Of course, the Lowlands, larger towns or ports, as well as the wealthy classes were quicker to adopt new inventions due to their accessibility.

Spinning as a source of employment and the use of the wheel grew alongside the flourishing linen industry in the 18th century. Linen garments were commonplace and not considered luxury items as we do today. The spinning and weaving of Scottish wool has always been important to the textile industry. The importance of the wheel as a source of income declined with the increasing use of mechanisation. Today, some prefer to hold to traditional methods, and do practice a "cottage industry" as we think of it now.

Obviously, tartan wool fabric is now very popular and the high value placed on it is world-renowned. The "Made in Shetland" label may only be used if the garment was actually made in the Shetland Islands. "Harris Tweed" has to made in the Western Hebrides using Scottish wool. These are more contributions which we Scots have given the world, all from the very ancient and humble traditions of our Scottish ancestors which we Historic Highlanders are proud to represent.









* Historic Highlanders is a Scottish cultural and educational organization based in New England, USA. Their objective is to preserve authentic Scottish heritage by researching and recreating elements of everyday life of Highland society from 1314 to 1746 (the battles of Bannockburn and Culloden respectively), and to share that information with the public through lectures and demonstrations.

PO Box 842
NH 03053

The Distaff for holding raw wool.


Spinning with the whrol.


Distaff spinning whilst standing

The Muckle wheel.

Woman at spinning wheel.

A Niddy-noddy

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

Site By Radiator