The Spinning Wheel: The Beginning of the Medieval Textile Industry

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The Spinning Wheel: The Beginning of the Medieval Textile Industry


The spinning wheel revolutionized the production of yarn, which increased productivity and led to the establishment of a thriving medieval textile industry. In turn, this helped set in motion forces that would create a perfect environment for the beginning of the Renaissance. Finally, the spinning wheel would help elevate the economic and social standing of medieval women.


Textiles have played an important part in human history. Originally our ancestors used animal skins for protection against the elements. Over time this close connection to animals allowed early humans to use a number of fibers from goats, sheep, wolves, and rabbits to create the world's first textiles. The same eventually held true for fibers obtained from plants, such as flax, cotton, and hemp.

Archeologists believe that the history of textile manufacturing extends back almost two million years. Research has also established that wool was probably the original fiber used to develop the first textiles. This is due to the fact that sheep easily adapt to a vast number of environmental conditions. Woolen artifacts dating from the fourth millennium b.c. have been discovered in archeological sites from modern day Iraq to the plains of Central Asia. Historians believe that the early pastoral people of Central Asia were the first to domesticate sheep for this purpose.

The earliest manufacturing of linen cloth dates back to about 6500 b.c., on the Anatolian peninsula. The ancient Egyptians were also successfully cultivating flax and manufacturing high quality linen by the middle of the fifth millenium b.c.. Linen was not only used for clothing, but it also played an important role in the Egyptian religion. Researchers have discovered mummies wrapped in as much as 2,953 ft (900 m) of fine linen.

The use of linen migrated from Egypt to the great classical civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin. Both the Greeks and the Romans used linen in their clothing. Along with the expansion of the Roman Empire, the use of both linen and wool spread into Western Europe and would play an important role in both the late classical and the medieval economies.

Cotton entered the world of textiles from South Asia. It had been cultivated for millennia in the rich fertile soil around the Indus River Valley. It became a staple of textile manufacturing in the Mediterranean Basin, introduced by the returning veterans of Alexander the Great's (356-323 b.c.) army.

Attempts to cultivate cotton were made in Malta, Egypt, and the lands adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Each of these attempts achieved some success, but they were never able to attain the quality of Indian cotton. By the early medieval period, historians found evidence of cotton cultivation around the Black Sea and as far east as China, but none of these varieties could match the quality of the South Asian species.

China's major impact on the textile industry revolved around the production of silk. Archeologists have been unable to pinpoint the exact beginning of the use of silk, but evidence suggests that it was widely used by the middle of the second millennium b.c. Widespread Chinese trade in silk began about 1700 b.c. under the control of the Shang Dynasty. It was during this period that a highly organized silk industry developed. The politically powerful Shang bureaucracy established and controlled the entire process of this new industry. In the second century, with the founding of the Han Dynasty in China an extensive Eurasian trade complex was established between the Chinese and Roman Empires. The trading network, known as the Silk Road, was in full operation by 100 b.c., with silk products found as far north and west as Scandinavia.

Every one of these cultures used the labor of women for the task of spinning. Spinning is the process of twisting fibers together into a continuous thread. This skill was identified so closely with women that the implements used in the process became symbols of the feminine gender. Both the terms "spinster" and "distaff" have been widely used in the West for centuries, the former designating an unmarried woman, and the latter describing the maternal side of the family. Greek and Roman women spun yarn from a hand distaff. This was a slow process and severely limited the production of cloth. The invention and implementation of the spinning wheel in the later Middle Ages increased the amount of yarn available for the production of textiles. This would have an important social and economic impact on Europe.


The success of the spinning wheel created a textile revolution in Europe. So important were textiles to the economy that Europe experienced the formation of textile guilds. These organizations regulated both the quality and price of this valuable product. They afforded their members significant political, social, and economic power.

Trade fairs that specialized in textiles became the center of medieval economic life. The vast majority of new trade routes were created to connect these great "cloth fairs." The cities that grew up around these textile fairs would be the centers of change as Europe moved from a traditional agricultural economy to a new one based on commerce. This new economic reality was based upon textiles and trade and created the necessity for a new model of exchange based upon a vibrant set of economic variables.

The movement of large quantities of valuable goods created the need for an extensive longrange banking system whereby merchants from different countries could safely exchange and store the significant amounts of money needed to buy, ship, and sell on such a large scale. Over time, certain families established themselves as Europe's first class of international bankers. The most prominent of these families were the Medici and the Fuggers. These banking institutions established the price structure that formed the basis of the new commercial economy. Additional opportunities for wealth were created because of this new system. Great financial success could be achieved by concentrating solely on the movement of textiles. A revitalized shipping industry created a class of middlemen whose wealth was based upon the movement of textiles along the great water routes of Western Europe.

A new class of professionals emerged that were necessary for the day-to-day conduct of business within the textile industry. Great quantities of money in the form of profits, wages, and investments necessitated accurate bookkeeping. Experienced, talented men who kept accurate account of the movement of this money were of vital importance to this new economy. Lawyers also had an important role to play. New legal concepts centered on long-term contracts and international trade required the development of new statutes to regulate and protect the individuals taking part in this trade. The search for legal precedents concerning long distance trade was one of the important factors leading to the onset of the Renaissance. Lawyers on the Italian peninsula searched archives looking for ancient Roman legal manuscripts. The Roman Empire had an extensive trade network and developed legal codes that allowed the empire to function successfully. These legal scholars came into contact with the writings of Roman lawyers, scholars, philosophers, scientists and their commentaries on the intellectual leaders of Greece and Rome. This was the beginning of early modern Europe's love affair with the classical world, which today is known as the Renaissance. In addition, the financial backing for the research that created the European humanistic worldview came from wealthy banking and textile families such as the Medici.

The invention of the spinning wheel also helped change the lives of medieval women. Three distinct cultural forces influenced the medieval world: the classical world, Christianity, and Germanic culture. The classical world relegated women to second-class status. Both the Greeks and the Romans believed women were basically flawed and incomplete. Christian theology, which minimized both the pleasures of this world and the sanctity of women, helped perpetuate the view of women as second-class citizens. The celibate life of the Christian clergy emphasized poverty, chastity, and obedience. Medieval theologians depicted women as physically, mentally, and morally weaker than men. This misogynistic worldview sanctioned coercive treatment of women, including wife beating.

The most prominent early Christian, Saint Paul, described marriage as "a debased state." Saint Paul's famous statement, "It's better to marry than to burn," lowered marriage to a religious state whose sole purpose was to sanction sexual relations. Paul encouraged widowers not to remarry, but to dedicate their remaining time on earth to the life and welfare of the Church.

These negative practices toward women were challenged by ancient Germanic custom. The same German tribes that brought down the Roman Empire were among the most egalitarian societies in the world. Their laws allowed women to inherit both money and property. The spinning wheel gave women both economic and social power. Since women had traditionally dominated the craft of spinning, they naturally adapted very easily to this new technology. As their productivity and power increased, women were able to demand and receive important concessions within medieval society. The greatest success was that women were granted the freedom to form their own craft guilds. This allowed them to control both the quality and price of the product. In time, unmarried women could own their own shops and become economically self-sufficient. If they were widowed, women had the right to pass the business on to their daughters. This was the first step in the centuries-long march toward equality. Hundreds of years later, twentieth-century author Virginia Woolf would write, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write." The craft of spinning and the guilds they produced were an important advancement in that direction. The spinning wheel also helped establish a textile industry that would be the first to successfully use the technology of the Industrial Revolution.


Further Reading

Duby, George. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Gies, Francis, and Joseph Gies. Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Crowell 1978.

White, Lynn T. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

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The Spinning Wheel: The Beginning of the Medieval Textile Industry

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