Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday, I was watching the incomparable Abby Franquemont’s  video download, ‘Respect The Spindle’.

I’ve had the book since the week (hour?) it came out but finally got round to getting the video recently, as despite my thirty odd years’ worth of spinning, knew I’d learn something new from it. And I did.

At one point, Abby was talking about the way spinners wind cops.  (Shorter OED defines ‘cop’ as: “..The conical ball of thread wound upon a spindle or tube in a spinning machine. 1795.)”  The final shape of your cop affects how well centred your spindle is, and how it spins. Abby made the point that although we spend a lot of time thinking about the whorls on spindles we want to buy or make, we forget that the overwhelming influence on the way the spindle eventually spins, is how you formed the cop. Good point and something I know I have tended to overlook. I decided to take a look at spinners of the past and see how they formed their cops.

Learning to spin in the 1980s, I used to think of a ‘cop’ as having a conical form, with the weight of yarn at the base. A by-product of learning to spin from British and American books, most of them written in the 1970s, was that you spindle spun on a low-whorl spindle. This lent itself more to forming a conical cop.  These days, I tend to form a cop that is fatter in the middle – like this medieval monkey’s.  Incidentally, whorls may sometimes – but not always – have been removable. Monkey here has a full cop, but no visible whorl.  These days I maybe favour this shape cop but then, I tend to spindle spin on a high-whorl. This seems to balance the spindle more effectively. Insert science stuff here.

Here’s another medieval spinner who may or may not have detached the whorl. Truth is, the physics doesn’t interest me, madly. I was that kid sat in the back during Physics, Chemistry or Maths; looking out of the window – mildly amused if a science teacher’s demo of an experiment went wrong, but that was the only flicker of interest I ever had for it. I have about as much knowledge of that as this medieval nun.  So leaving the physics aside,  and sticking with the history… I love it that spindle makers have come over all sciency of recent years. But am happy to remain incurious about the laws of…  whatever it is that makes things move. I know a good spindle when I use one.

Check out the distaffs, by the way. The conical ones, bound with lots of ribbon tend to be flax which was, of course, spun worsted from a distaff. The ones that are convex in the centre and tapered top and bottom, needing less ties, tend to be wool.  These images come from different European countries but the conventions of spinning seem to be remarkably uniform.

Now this lady has a low whorl, but still builds the cop in the same way as the other two; not conical, and convex with all the weight of the yarn towards the middle. She appears to be spinning flax and there is no difference in the shape of the cop, whether it is flax or wool.

There are a surprising number of medieval images of women using their distaff as a weapon. I suppose it was the most obvious thing to hand. In images,it often seems the case that the spindle remained attached to or dangling from the distaff, when not in use.

The distaff was, of course, also the universal symbol of femininity; hence the saying “the distaff side” (ie: female) of a family.  For other living historians/re-enactors here, it is worth us noticing that the spindle is never (to my knowledge?) portrayed on its own, but always seems to have been attached to a distaff. Medieval wheel spinners are sometimes portrayed with a male or female sitting nearby, carding wool for them. But spindles always seem to be associated with a distaff; freestanding or tucked under the arm.

Medieval women also seem to have spun in that odd five minutes between other tasks. Most famously, the woman on the Luttrel Psalter, 1325-35, who is feeding a chicken of epic proportions, in a brief pause from spinning her wool. The style of drawing is, by its very nature, cartoon-ish, so it is hard to be sure but her spindle looks to be low-whorl, or maybe even the whorl is centrally placed, like some contemporary spindles.  And again, the cop is bulbous.

Like many of the other medieval spindles, it is quite loaded with yarn and yet the whorl is still attached. This tells us it is unwise to opine whether medieval spindles had removable whorls or not. It appears – some did and some didn’t.

Sometimes, artists are notoriously inaccurate at portraying crafts and activities they haven’t personally experienced and don’t really understand. But hand-spinning was such a universal, daily, never-ending task for medieval women of all classes, we can assume every single monk who ever illuminated a manuscript, probably saw spinning going on, at some if not all points in their lives. It would be like drawing someone doing the washing-up.

Finally, one of my favourites, is the image from the marginalia of the Rutland Psalter, of a woman spinning on the ducking stool. It’s a small ‘joke’ at the bottom of a manuscript page.  Well, spindlers like to get a bit of height as it saves winding on so soon. Makes perfect sense. Also, in keeping with the medieval ethic of spin in every spare moment!

What is really interesting about this is she is clearly using a top whorl spindle. With a hook! Received wisdom tells us medieval English people only used low whorl, but there are images – not just this one – of top whorl. And, of course, the Vikings were known to have used top whorl (not all of whom left Northern England in 1066, or else I wouldn’t speak a dialect littered with Norse words!) So it could be that in some areas, medieval Englishwomen did indeed spin top whorl.

To sum up: the medieval spindlers’ cops seem to have been bulbous, not conical.  Some spindles may have had removable whorls; others not. Some English spindles appear to have been top-whorl although received wisdom has it they were always low-whorl. Maybe this is the viking influence. A heavily loaded spindle might still have had a whorl. All spindles depicted seem to be attached to a distaff. In England, this was often portable as women did other jobs whilst they spun – although the European nun had a static distaff on a carved stand, which maybe reflected the sedentary nature of her life. Winding on a cop in a conical shape may be more usual once the spindle was turned horizontal, and driven by a wheel, and so when spinning was revived as a craft in the 20thC, spindling pioneers tended to assume a conical cop whereas now we are returning to the better balanced, bulbous shape, to wind yarn on.

I am slowly building my Pinterest board, ‘Hand-Spinning Throughout History’. More images can be seen there.


Monkey spinning.the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library.

Nun: from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r

Low whorl woman: Add. 42130 f.60, c.1325-1335 British Library

Chicken woman: Luttrell Psalter

Ducking stool woman: Rutland Psalter