Learning to Spin

In May 2012 John and I visited the excellent Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, Holland to take the Intensive Textile Course with six other people run by Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood. The course provides a highly practical introduction to textiles – you learn the basics of spinning, weaving, dyeing and other processes. Gillian encourages you to find answers through experimentation.

The first day was an introduction to different fibre types and we each built up a reference collection of fibres. We developed our fibre identification skills and got to see different individual fibres under the microscope for the first time. This proved a conclusive way of telling cotton and linen apart (worn linen develops a fuzzy texture and it can be difficult to tell it apart from cotton).

One dye was used for each column

Our dyed wool. Each column shows the effects of different mordants on one dye.

We learnt about dyeing next and used natural dyes to dye wool. This was particularly interesting because we used different mordants – each mordant produced a different colour from the same dye! We can also confirm that indigo does smell of manure, although our dyeing attempts were unsuccessful. We also managed to dye madder more effectively than cochineal (see the 4th and 5th rows from the left).

My attempt at spinning wool

My attempt at spinning wool

John tries out a spinning wheel

John tries out a spinning wheel






Spinning was the next challenge, we tried out spindle whorls and spinning wheels. Neither John nor I are natural spinners and a morning was not enough to teach us the techniques and the rhythm needed to use a spindle whorl. However trying out the tools developed our understanding of spinning and reinforced the idea that for experienced spinners the process is intuitive and automatic as well as highlighting the importance of rhythm.

Recreating a textile

Recreating an archaeological textile

The result of our labours

The result of our labours

I much preferred weaving. After trying out weaving a tabby and different twills I helped Hedwig Landenius Enegren out with some experimental archaeology. We worked on recreating a design from the bottom of a garment based on a fragment of an archaeological textile. In the meantime John created a colour-coded treadle system on one of the basic looms.

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

The next few days were spent learning about decorative techniques and handling textiles from the CTR’s outstanding collection. One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing some of the linen that was wrapped around the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So what did we learn?

  • We developed our textile knowledge and gained a new understanding of the different processes involved in textile production before industrialisation.
  • Our practical understanding of textiles improved. We learnt about the physicality of the processes, the rhythm needed for spinning and the smells of dyes.
  • I had a go at experimental archaeology which can both provide (or suggest) answers and inspire new research questions. The outcome of this was that I tried growing flax to see how this changed my understanding of the fibre, the topic of another blog post.

We both heartily recommend the Intensive Textile Course as a solid foundation for academic textile research.


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Inspiration in Copenhagen

Spending a week at the Centre for Textile Research in June this year proved an inspiration. CTR brings people together to share ideas and inspiration – one of its strengths is that academic writing and experimental archaeology are undertaken alongside each other. You are as likely to see someone trying out a warp-weighted loom to recreate ancient textiles as proof-editing. Everyone at CTR (too many to name!) was extraordinarily welcoming and made me feel at home.

Joining the annual summer trip, to Christiansø and Frederiksø, two islands in the middle of the Baltic gave me a chance to get to know everyone. The following day I got a new insight into Chinese costume through the joint expertise of Manlin Wu (Chinese textiles) and Laila Glienke (embroidery).

I also got to share ideas and methodologies with Paula Hohti, who has just joined CTR and is working on a fascinating new project on the clothes worn by ordinary people in early modern Scandinavia.

When I wasn’t working in the CTR, I visited a few of the historic textiles in Copenhagen – Mette Bruun, the administrator at CTR gave a great tour of the Islamic galleries in the David Collection, which has a fantastic collection of decorative arts and saw Tiraz textiles for the first time, which were status symbols associated with rulers.

A visit to the National Museum with student assistant Sidsel Frisch was another highlight. Denmark has extraordinarily rich prehistoric survivals due to low oxygen levels in bogs. There are astonishing textile survivals (some of the images are distressing). The Egtved girl was buried c1370 BC yet her clothes still survive, including a corded skirt. Scholars at CTR have been involved in investigating the textiles and uncovered the original colours of the striking outfit from the 2nd century BC worn by the Huldremose woman.

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Viking ship museum Roskilde: inside the museum; recreation of a woollen viking sail; rope workshop.

While John was at CTR we visited the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde to meet Jörn Bohlmann an enthusiastic PhD student whose practical knowledge of boat building lays the groundwork for his thesis on sails. Jörn showed us around the museum while we animatedly talked about sails, spinning, linen and hemp and ended up with more questions than answers! The biggest questions that we asked were about the supply of yarn for sail making. Different ships require sails using different qualities of yarn, yet spinners specialised in producing a particular quality (or width) of yarn. How (if at all) did the process of putting-out change when different sails were needed? Also how did the putting-out system cope when countries went to war – how was the need for more sails managed? It is these kinds of basic, but unanswered questions that the Spinning Project aims to explore. Have a look at this Old Bailey Case t18031130-35  to see the putting out system in action – it even features childbirth! The researchers at the Viking Ship museum are keen to collaborate with people working on subjects that intersect with Vikings and boats.

This trip to CTR was the beginning of a longer research collaboration that will be developed through the Costumes, Clothing, Consumption, Cultures network.

All images are (c) Alice Dolan

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The silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Italy

The three-story silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

The three-story silk-throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

This enormous water-powered silk-throwing mill, at Caraglio in Piedmont in north-western Italy, was built in 1676-8. Mills like this were the model for the first successful English factory for manufacturing silk warp yarn [organzine] by water power, built by Thomas Lombe at Derby about 1720. The Spinning Project is currently exploring the links between Lombe’s silk-throwing machinery and subsequent mechanical inventions for spinning cotton, culminating in Richard Arkwright’s water frame of 1768. Lombe’s Derby factory used machines copied from those in Piedmont.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

The working reconstruction at Caraglio demonstrates the huge scale of this machinery and its use of a flyer mechanism similar to that employed in Arkwright’s machine.

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‘Threads of Feeling’ travels to America

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

‘Threads of Feeling’, the exhibition of textiles from the London Foundling Hospital curated by John Styles, opened at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va., USA on May 25th, 2013. The exhibition continues there until May 26th, 2014.

John was at Colonial Williamsburg for the opening event on May 29th. The previous day he gave a public lecture on ‘Foundlings, Philanthropy and Textiles in Eighteenth-Century London’.



Williamsburg ladies on their morning walk.

Williamsburg ladies on their morning walk.


At Colonial Williamsburg, he particularly enjoyed visiting the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop and talking to Angela Burnley of Burnley and Trowbridge, expert re-creators of historic fabrics.





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The wheel starts to whirr

Welcome to the website for the Spinning project, a European Research Council funded examination of ‘Spinning in the era of the Spinning Wheel.’

You can find a full description of the project on the About page, see pictures of cloth viewed through a microscope on the Gallery page, and read about our team and our colleagues.

More material will be added as this project progresses, and news of it will be added to this blog. You can keep up with our progress through our RSS feed.


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