Making Yarn at Home

Before the 20th century, the spinning wheel was the only machine in most rural homes. In outbuildings, there might be lathes, treadle-driven grindstones, and hand-cranked or horse-powered flax breaking machines, but only the spinning wheel added a whirring, creaking, moving presence to the living space. Women would use the spinning wheel for many hours at a time, making it a common factor in domestic work and quiet evenings at home. Even later in the 20th century, many people would continute to associate the sound and movement of the spinning wheel with days spent with a grandmother or other older women in the family or community. In some parts of Estonia, such as Kihnu Island, spinning continued to be an active craft at least into the 1990s, and many women still remember how to do it today.

Truth and Justice

"The women were at their spinning wheels every day, working late into the night and beginning again around four or five in the morning. Krõõt never used the baby as an excuse to spare herself. She continued to do the work of any able-bodied woman, for otherwise what kind of a farmer’s wife would she be? Her work was measured in only one way; she spun until she fell asleep at the wheel. Spin, spin – her foot danced on the treadle, as she pulled and moistened the flax or hemp fibre until her fingers could move no more. The spinning wheel whirred on a little longer, as if unable to stop, but when it did, Krõõt would wake at once and begin anew, repeating the whole process." (Tammsaare [1926] 2019, 80)

A spinning wheel used on Tammsaare's family farm at Vargamäe.

Today, handspinning and other traditional crafts can sound like part of a balanced, even idyllic, way of living and being close to nature, but they were also part of the constant toil of rural life in Estonia and elsewhere. This was captured by Anton Hansen Tammsaare in perhaps the greatest work of Estonian literature, Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice).

In the book, Krõõt is portrayed as an ideal, hardworking woman who does farm work, maintains the house, and provides handmade clothing for her family and even their hired laborer, to whom she promises “two pairs of socks, a pair of hemp trousers and another pair of half-woollen trousers” in addition to his pay if he stays on for a second year (Tammsaare [1926] 2019, 81).

Tammsaare understood rural life. Born in 1878 in Vetepere, Järvamaa, he was raised in a poor farming family, and the details of handwork and daily life in Tõde ja õigus are vivid and clearly informed by personal, tactile experience. The book describes spinning as part of an endless cycle of work tied to the agricultural year. The majority of this particular burden fell in winter, when outside work was largely impossible but cooking, cleaning, mending, animal care, and childcare continued.

While we should recognize the artistry of rural people in everyday life, what we think of now as creative crafts were part of daily labor for people who did not have a choice in the matter. Spinners and spinning wheel makers were involved in a shared struggle to survive in often adverse physical, economic, and social conditions. The spinning wheel was one of the tools that bridged the gap between what was traditionally women's work and men's work. Through it, woodworkers and textile makers collaborated to fulfill the need for clothing and home textiles, some of the most fundamental items in everyday life.

Andrei Viin spins flax tow for making cords, rope or twine using a spindle. Hiiumaa Island, 1925. Photo by Ferdinand Linnus.

Spinning for the manors

Women were also required to spin for the manors during the feudal period, which officially ended in 1816, although there was little real change before reforms in 1860 that increased the mobility and self-determination of rural Estonians. Before this, each family was required to contribute a number of spinning days determined by the number of hooved and horned animals they kept.

"In 1806, Kaarli manor in Halliste parish required the following labor from the farms: a family with 4 men, 3 women, 2 horses, and 5 horned animals owed 9 spinning days. A family with 5 males, 5 females, 4 horses, and 13 horned animals owed 13 1/2 spinning days." (Koern 1942)

By the late 17th century, spinning wheels appeared in manor inventories, and some noblewomen were instrumental in spreading the use of spinning wheels to rural Estonians, surely at least in part to guarantee increased production of fine linen thread for the manors. Estonian women and girls would carry their own spinning wheels to the manor to work, but spinning for domestic use was done at home with the family.

Some types of spinning were also done by men. After the spinning wheel was widely adopted by women to produce yarn and thread, the spindle became a man's tool for making twine and other coarse string and rope from hemp and flax tow. Estonian spindles from this period are surprisingly large and would not be practical for making finer thread. Men also used a tool called nöörikonks, a hooked stick used to twist coarse fibers.

Nöörikonks: Ruhnu (SM _ 2090 E 526)

Spinning wool on Kihnu Island

On Kihnu Island, some people still use a traditional wool spinning technique when making yarn on a spinning wheel. When paired with the wool from the Kihnu Native Sheep, it produces a yarn that is warm yet durable, perfect for mittens, fishermen's sweaters, and wool skirts worn in Kihnu's wet and windy maritime climate.

In June of 2020, Kalju Elvi, one of the islands master craftswomen, demonstrated the Kihnu spinning technique at the Kihnu Museum. Turn up the sound to hear the clatter of her locally made, 100-year-old spinning wheel.