Look, I can spin! My friend Wil from work, who is really quite amazing when it comes to anything fibre or cake related, recently taught me how to spin with a spindle. He lent me one of his spindles (it's an Ashford top-whorl drop spindle) and very kindly gave me some roving to spin on it.
On the left is the roving, which is a fibre (in this case wool) which has been washed and carded. Carding is like combing the wool, so all the fibres lie in the same direction, ready to be spun. On the right is the yarn I've spun so far. After a while the spindle gets too full and it has to be wound off onto something (an empty toilet roll tube in this case).
As a long-time knitter and general crafter I picked up the basics pretty quickly, but it's still very laborious and slow. Before spinning wheels were invented (in around the 11th century) all thread was spun on drop spindles, like the one being used by the woman on this ancient Greek vase, dating from around 490 BC. It's amazing to think that for thousands of years this was the only way to spin all the thread that was needed to make fabric for clothing and things like sails for ships!
Attic white ground oinoche , c 490-470 BC, British museum
Medieval woman spinning with drop spindles. The roving is tied onto distaffs, which they hold under their arms. From their outfits they look like upper-class women, but I imagine that spinning was something done by all classes of women as such a large volume of thread needed to be produced.
Women spinning, from Augustine, La Cité de Dieu, c.1475, Koninklijke Bibliotheek manuscript collection
Although men did spin (Ghandi was one notable practitioner) it was usually a womens' job, hence the word "spinster" coming to mean an unmarried woman. The subject of a woman with spindle and distaff was a fairly popular subject for artists, although I must say these women look a lot more graceful spinning than I do!
Young Woman Spinning Wool, Abraham Solomon, 1862
Venetian Women Spinning Wool, Marius Michel, 19th century
The Spinner, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873
The Spinner, Goatherd of Auvergne, Jean-Francois Millet, 1869
The Child Mary Spinning, 18th century, Peru
And let's not forget Sleeping Beauty, who pricked her finger on a spindle, although most illustrations show her pricking it on the distaff attached to a spinning wheel. Here are a few illustrations where the old woman is actually spinning with a spindle.
Walter Crane, from The Bluebeard Picture Book, 1875
If you've ever wanted to have a go at spinning, do give it a try, it's quite a soothing, meditative thing to do. One day I might even have a go at spinning silk!