Time to confess, Christina Petty! Has this amazing medieval textile expert ever cheated? And what does she think of Hollywood's weavers 'n' spinners ...
You may have missed part one of my interview with Chris Petty (rather careless of you), where she explains the processes of early medieval fabric production.
Before we get into part two, however, I just want to answer a query from @Huscarl1066, who wants to know what a niddy-noddy looks like. Don't we all?
Well, Chris very kindly has given us some links to a couple of images: Niddy-noddy 1 and Niddy-noddy 2. (My monastic scruples over copyright issues will not allow me to reproduce the images directly on my website.)
Chris also tells me that the niddy-noddy helps you to 'put yarn into long, even loops that can be twisted around to make skeins for easy storage, or have enough space between the individual strands to allow for dyeing without it becoming a tangled mess'.
So there you go, @Huscarl1066, now you know what to do with your niddy-noddy!
I can see this taking off ... maybe I should start advertising my services on here: Get your new niddy-noddies now from the Anglo-Saxon Monk!
OK, I know ... I'm obsessed with the word niddy-noddy. Six (now seven) niddy-noddies in one introduction. Must be a monastic record.
ASM: What have you produced yourself using early medieval techniques? Do you ever cheat?
CP: I’ve woven four experimental pieces using different wools and patterns, with a fifth now on the loom, to see how the warp weighted loom behaved and how different configurations of the loom worked.
I generally only wear the plaid [that's 'check-patterned' to us British folk] mentioned earlier as a cloak. The rest of the fabrics are draped over furniture around my house as display items. They all do get taken to various lectures and re-enactment events as demonstration pieces.
I do ‘cheat’ with the spinning, though never with the dyes, depending on how much available time I have. I often use my spinning wheel to produce enough yarn when I have a time constraint, as it usually takes me 15-20 seconds to spin a yard of yarn on it, and I don’t have to wind the spun yarn off the wheel as often as I do with a drop spindle.
The end product is indistinguishable from something made with completely authentic tools and I still spun it myself by hand, so I feel that is a legitimate cheat.
ASM: If we were trying to imagine a typical Anglo-Saxon weaver or a spinner, who should we be imagining?
CP: Okay, imagine any female over the age of four or five. Got that? Now add in invalid men with good manual dexterity. There you have it – a typical spinner for early medieval Europe.
As far as we can tell, there were no societal boundaries to the activity, though the quality of fibres and tools may have varied, depending on social class.
Queen Asa, buried in the Oseberg Ship in the early ninth century in Norway, was interred with a golden drop spindle and several other pieces of weaving equipment for smaller, therefore likely more ornamental, pieces.
Other spindle whorls that are found in the archaeological record have been barely-shaped lumps of dry clay with no distinguishing markers, so would more likely have belonged to the lower classes.
Because of the enormous time investment, and the huge number of things that we as human beings surround ourselves with that are made of cloth, every available hand was needed so that they could spin as much as possible.
I can spin while I’m walking somewhere, so I’d imagine that would be what the average woman would do. Later medieval pictures show women with spindles tucked into their belts, ready to spin whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Walking with the goats, watching the children, talking with the neighbours, all could be moments to add a few dozen more yards of thread to the spindle.
Dark presents no difficulties for a practiced spinner as after the first couple of years, the skill is all in the fingers, and you don’t have to watch what you are doing anymore.
Weavers are a lot harder to pin down, because there are fewer archaeological clues. Warp weights, the primary indicator of weaving activity, can and are found pretty much anywhere. Most of the Anglo-Saxon style warp weights are doughnut shaped, made of clay, sometimes fired into ceramic, sometimes not, and take the skill of a five year old to make.
The weavers mentioned in legend and myth do tend to be women, though Egil, from the Icelandic saga of the same name, is known to have done some form of textile work, because he’d learned that was a really good way to meet girls.
From a purely physical stand point, a weaver has to be able to lift between twenty five and seventy pounds with her triceps to move a heddle bar, which changes which threads are on the front of a piece and which threads are on the back.
Height may or may not have been a consideration, as the warp weighted loom is essentially a frame made of large sticks that can be made to size in fairly short order, though if a loom already existed it would be more likely to be used.
She would also have to be healthy enough to stand for hours because that’s how the loom is used. Being old enough to keep a pattern in her head and have the concentration to stay on task for hours is also a plus. So, I would imagine girls (for the most part – there was nothing keeping men from weaving) would be at least twelve before they were allowed to use the loom.
ASM: Thinking, then, about the way the medieval world is portrayed for entertainment purposes, particularly how weavers and spinners are depicted: Have you ever found yourself screaming at the TV (or, worse, vigorously protesting in a movie theatre) because they’re not showing it right?
CP: I have had – shall we say – criticisms about weaving, spinning, and costume in general when watching shows, though I can also set it aside. The grumbling tends to come later when my husband and I talk about the show. I have occasionally muttered about it in the theatre loudly enough to get a few looks, but I try not to disturb others.
I do find it very encouraging that the entertainment and documentary industries are at least coming to understand the historically appropriate tools to use.
I’ve seen Penelope in more recent versions of The Odyssey using an actual warp weighted loom, and know of a warp weighted weaver who was asked to set up several looms as part of a set for Biblical era Jerusalem. The lead actors have no idea how to use them, of course, but at least progress is being made.
ASM: What got you into medieval textiles yourself?
CP: I grew up in an extended family where fibre crafts were just part of what you did. I learned to tat (a lacemaking craft) at my great grandmother’s knee, and to crochet from my mother when I was eight.
My cousins and I would play under the quilting frame where the older ladies were working until we got old enough to reach the top of the quilt and could help. Sewing, embroidery, costume design for theatre … it has always been part of my life.
For the medieval part of the equation, I was a young mother with three small children when I started to wonder what medieval women did with their days. I figured spinning had to take up some of the time, so I found a woman in my church who could teach me. She started me on the drop spindle, which I didn’t know was a medieval tool at the time (spinning wheels are late medieval, and only became a household item around 1600).
Needing something to do with all the yarn I was spinning, I looked into weaving, taking classes in basic floor loom work and tapestry weaving. I kept poking at the craft, learning as much as I could find out, and eventually came across the warp weighted loom after I started my undergraduate work in my mid-thirties.
Then I made the serendipitous mistake of telling one of my professors about my interest. He and one of the other professors in the Humanities department brought a proposition to me in 2000. The university’s Medieval Society would pay for materials for a warp weighted loom that I could keep if I created and researched the loom, spun up enough yarn for a piece of fabric, and have the loom up and working for an educational display. Of course I said yes. What a research opportunity!
The catch was I had two months to do this, while keeping up with my studies, raising three kids, and helping my disabled husband. Three hundred and fifty hours of work and many sleepless nights later, I had my first loom set up working in time for 30,000 visitors to observe and ask questions about the weaving and the loom.
The rest, as they say, is history.
ASM:If someone wanted to get involved, what would you say to them?
CP: Firstly, a lot of people make the mistake that you have to be brilliant at something to attempt it. Relax! In textile work, it’s just string. We can always make more.
The first few pieces that you do are for making a spinner/weaver/dyer or whatever, which is valuable in and of itself. There are also things you can only learn by doing, and crafts of any sort can be deeply satisfying.
Secondly, with the internet we are now a group of craftspeople with international connections. Contact someone you think might be able to help you find out what you want to know. (I’m easily approachable, for example.)
Chances are there is someone close to where you live that can help you or at least point you in the right direction. The internet also has the advantage of videos that can remind you of what you have learned, and expand on your skills.
I recommend learning from someone in person first, however, as these are three dimensional skills, and a teacher can correct mistakes or suggest alternate solutions if a movement is difficult.
Textile history is comparatively new in the academic world, and we can use all the help we can get!
Chris has very kindly provided a link to her MPhil thesis: Warp Weighted Looms Then and Now: Anglo-Saxon and Viking Archaeological Evidence and Modern Practitioners
I can spin while I’m walking somewhere, so I imagine that's what an Anglo-Saxon woman
would have done. Walking with the goats, watching the children, talking with the neighbours,
all could be moments to add a few dozen more yards of thread
to the spindle.
The weavers mentioned in
legend and myth do tend to be women, though Egil, from the Icelandic saga of the same name,
is known to have done some form of textile work, because he’d learned that was a really
good way to meet girls.
I know of a warp weighted
weaver who was asked to set up several looms as part of a set for Biblical era Jerusalem. The
lead actors have no idea how
to use them, of course, but
at least progress is being made.
A lot of people make the
mistake of thinking you have to be brilliant at something to
attempt it. Relax! In textile work, it’s just string. We can
always make more!