July 13, 2020

On Spindles and a Pet Peeve, By A.M. Offenwanger


Editor’s note: I loved the outraged tone in this post! I’m very much like that about my own peeves. (I won’t get started.) I also love how Angelika isn’t just outraged; she also teaches. I’ll never see spinning the same way. Enjoy!

Enchanted Conversation recently republished an older post by Elizabeth Creith, a highly informative article on flax that is aptly entitled "Straw Into Gold." As a fairly new convert to spinning, it caught my interest—and it reminded me of one of my pet peeves where "spinning and fairy tales" is concerned. 

Full disclosure: I let my fascination with "Sleeping Beauty"—my favorite fairy tale—led me down the garden path into learning to spin. First it was a drop spindle, then a little castle wheel, and now I own an old Ashford Traditional, which is one of those really classic items that look exactly like what you'd expect to see when you hear "spinning wheel." You know, a big flywheel; a treadle; a thing that whizzes around; sharp pointy bits sticking out at every angle for unwary princesses to prick their fingers on and fall into hundred-year sleeps... 

Actually, no. My spinning wheel, which is one of the earliest iterations of this model of wheel, has no pointy bits on it anywhere. None. Zero. Nada. It does have the flywheel and the treadle and the thing that whizzes around, though. The latter item is called the flyer, and it contains, right in its center, the spindle. Which, on this kind of wheel, is a hollow tube. Did I mention "no pointy bits"?

So what, then, did the princess prick her finger on?

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it. The princess pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and... Hold on. Where did you get that idea?



Let me guess: from a movie. For example, the 1959 Disney cartoon. Or the 2014 remake thereof, Maleficent. Or its 2019 sequel. All of which are prime examples of the aforementioned pet peeve of mine: the utter lack of research that seems to have gone into the "spinning" part of filming stories that are centered on, well, spinning. I can forgive the 1959 cartoonists - they didn't have the power of Google to assist them. But the 2014 film makers? Puh-lease. Five minutes on the Internet would have told them that a real spinning wheel does not have sharp spikes poking out of the top. I have no idea what that princess-pricking thing in the Disney films is supposed to be; obviously, we're dealing with a cursed magical object here, because it has no purpose whatsoever in real spinning.

Moreover, five minutes of reading the "original" versions of "Sleeping Beauty" (by which I mean the tales as they were originally written down by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) would have told the filmmakers that the tales don't even mention a spinning wheel. "The princess should have her hand pierced with a spindle," they say, and in the Grimms, when the princess encounters the spinning old woman in the tower, she asks her, "What is that thing that is so merrily bouncing about?" Then she takes "hold of the spindle" and, well, you know the rest. All of which clearly says that the spindle in question is a hand spindle, not one set in a spinning wheel. 

"Rumpelstiltskin" films are no better on the spinning-research front. Rumpelstiltskin definitely uses a spinning wheel, not a hand spindle: the miller's daughter is given "a spinning wheel and a reel" for spinning straw into gold, and when the mannikin sits down to fulfil the task, the wheel goes "whir, whir, whir," and the bobbin is full (the original tellers of the tales knew exactly what a spinning wheel in full motion sounds like). However, in the films, once again nobody seems to bother doing any research on how spinning is actually done, not even enough to have the actors pretend convincingly. I've seen actors pull the yarn off the bobbin instead of feeding it on, have Rumpelstiltskin poking a piece of straw at the wheel as if he's trying to tickle the poor thing into submission, or just randomly pitch straw in the direction of the wheel where it precipitates out onto the bobbin as gold (no doubt occasioned by the static the turn of the flywheel generates). 



I mean, come on! How hard can it be to watch a few Youtube videos on what spinning looks like? Or figure out what the parts of a spinning wheel actually are and what they're used for? If you insist on having Sleeping Beauty prick her finger on a spinning wheel rather than a hand spindle, at least make it a wheel with a quill spindle instead of a flyer assembly. They're rare, but they do exist; I could even buy such a spindle for my Ashford Traditional, and a wicked-sharp-looking thing it is too.

Somehow, that lack of research into spinning seems to me an indication of a lack of respect for this ancient craft. For millennia, spinning was the driving force of civilization. Every inch of thread, every square centimeter of cloth originated from a woman's spindle or wheel (and yes, it was primarily women who did the spinning). Every piece of clothing, every blanket, every sail on every sailing ship exploring the high seas—they all started with spinning. Spinning, spinning, spinning, all day long and into the night. Is it any wonder that some of our most beloved stories, the ones that everyone knows, that are told over and over again, center around the craft of spinning? The least we could do is honor it when we're spinning a new yarn of a retelling of those fairy tales.

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All images by A.M. Offenwanger. The first one is of Angelika’s spinning wheel at rest. The second is of the wheel in action, and the third is of her flax distaff and spindle.

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Bio: Angelika is a reader, writer, blogger, and editor who has loved fairy tales and folklore from the time she was a little girl—so much so that when she was grown, she wrote a master’s thesis on them. Her favorite stories to read, write and study are those set in other worlds, whether that’s fantastical worlds full of magic, far-off places, or long-gone times.

Follow her blog at www.amovitam.ca or on Twitter @amoffenwanger 


23 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I grew up in a distinctly anti-Disney household, but I'm pretty sure that every illustrated version of the Sleeping Beauty story had a spinning wheel in it. I don't know that they were shown in great detail, though.

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    1. I’m fairly anti-Disney myself, and I found this fascinating. I know nothing of spinning, really.

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    2. I didn't either - until I got suckered in! If you try it yourself, beware: it's addictive.

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    3. I have friends who do it, and they love it!

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  2. In an earlier written version by Basile called "Sun, Moon,and Talia", the girl pricks her finger on a piece of flax! The stories certainly change over time, but I do wonder why Disney chose to represent the spindle from Perrault and Grimm as a spinning wheel. Maybe it has something to do with aesthetics? I have a friend who has an old school spinning wheel in her living room (she doesn't actually spin) and I do love to look at it!

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    1. That’s true! I’d forgotten about the flax. I do find spinning wheels aesthetically pleasing.

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    2. Actually, Disney aren't the first ones to give Sleeping Beauty a spinning wheel. Older illustrations do it too. By the 19th century more spinning was done on wheels than with hand spindles, so that's what the illustrators were used to seeing, and Disney, I would imagine, just followed suit - but they had no idea how the moving object actually worked.
      But you're right, spinning wheels are very decorative.

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  3. Fascinating! Not only does this make me glad I've never distorted my images of these stories with watching them on screen, but it also makes me curious about pulling out my many picture book versions of both Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin, and seeing if they do a better job. Thank you, too, for the lovely shout out to the role of spinning in history: SO inspiring! I've thought a lot about weaving, but never spinning...!

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    1. You’re right about looking at the picture books. I’d love to see the take artists have on this.

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  4. Thank you so much for the fascinating article! It makes me glad that I haven't distorted my imagery of these stories by watching the Disney versions and also makes me curious about whether picture books do a better job with this! I love the shout out to the role of spinning in history and culture, too. I have thought about weaving like this, but never, for some reason, spinning. Great piece!

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    1. I’ve been attracted to spinning. It seems meditative.

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    2. It is, very much so. I believe Gandhi said that everyone should spin every day. It's not only meditative in its repetitive movement, but is very grounding - the wool I have on my wheel at the moment comes from sheep just up the road from me, from a friend's farm.

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  5. I guess it just goes to show, the book is always better than the film...Thanks for a delightful post!

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  6. An alternative idea is that there are spinning wheels with pointy spindles: great wheels, with a spindle handily sticking out for impalements of all kinds!
    See for example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQpgKvbj_bQ

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    1. Never thought of that. I wonder what the author would say?

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    2. Yes, absolutely! Great wheels have quill spindles, as I mentioned above (here's the one I could get to replace the flyer assembly on my Ashford Traditional: https://www.ashford.co.nz/flyers/quill-spindle). If I ever saw a fairy tale film with Sleeping Beauty pricking herself on the quill spindle of a great wheel, I'd stand up and cheer!

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  7. I grew up with the movies, and I have to admit, it is very disappointing that movies portray such an interesting and talented process incorrectly. What’s worse is that people who are like me and grew up with the pointy image of a spindle can’t tell that it’s wrong, but someone throws a football wrong, and it’s quickly posted on Twitter. Your passion and attention to this amazing craft is inspiring. Thank you for this very informative piece and hopefully people can learn to research and respect the craft as you do.

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    1. This is the kind of response I hope to get from these nonfiction articles. This one has had so much interaction in 24 hours!

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    2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! One of the things about spinning is that in the past, it was so incredibly common that nobody bothered to write about it - because everybody knows how to do it, right? Well, not today we don't, hence the misrepresentation. But it's making a comeback, or perhaps never entirely went out of fashion. I love how doing the old crafts can connect me with the past.

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  8. What a fascinating article! A while back I had an idea for an alternative Sleeping Beauty story where the spinning wheel would feature more prominently, but I knew there'd be a lot of research for me to do, so I set the idea aside. But your useful article has made things a lot clearer, and maybe even given me a nudge to get writing it! So, extra thanks for that! It's so good (and inspiring) to read about long overlooked 'women's work'. :-)

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    1. That’s a great story idea!

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    2. Yes, please write that story, so someone finally does it *right*! :) See above - check out the type of spinning wheels called "Great Wheels" or "Walking Wheels"; they use what's called a quill spindle, which would be very much finger-pricking material. But they don't stick out the top!

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