Spinning wheels have an important place in Estonian riddles, supernatural beliefs, and folk tales.
The spinning wheel is a moving, creaking, whirring presence in the home, and the relationship between the spinner and spinning wheel is intimate and physically intense, using the whole body and lasting for hours each day. Estonian folklore often depicts spinning as hard labor and the spinning wheel as more than a simple tool. It is often an extension of the body, a living being, or an intermediary that allows supernatural forces to manifest in the everyday world.
Estonian folk riddles often describe spinning wheels as some sort of living thing or personality. Many riddles feature animals like goats and cows.
"Kits kolme jala peal."
“A goat on three legs.”
E 458 (40) K.-Jaani.
"Kena lehm, kepist sarved. Kere sõidab jalad seisavad."
“A fine cow, horns made from sticks. The body moves but legs stand still.”
E 41473 Põide.
Other riddles feature supernatural beings like ghosts or devils.
"Tont nurgas, tüdruk kõrvas."
“A ghost in the corner, a girl at its side.”
SKS, Eisen 463 (305) Vigala.
"Kolme jalgne kurat, raud hambad suus."
“Three-legged devil, iron teeth in its mouth.”
H II 335 (1) Jõelähtme, KV 7, 162.
Using the spinning wheel was a dynamic activity involving the whole body—both hands, one or two feet, and often the mouth, if spinning flax using saliva. The spinning wheel’s relationship with the spinner is described in one riddle as though they were part of the same being:
"Pühapäeval kolme jalaga, aripäeval viiejalaga."
"On Sunday three legs, on a workday five legs."
H II 43, 707 (6) Palamuse. (Koern 1942, 172)
The spinning wheel’s sound and motion were common in daily life and are among its most noted aspects by observers. The following riddles use sound to evoke the spinning wheel in motion:
"Virradi, vurradi hammustab takku, jookseb ja neelatab niiti omal makku."
"Whirr, whirr, it bites the tow, runs and swallows the string into its belly.”
E 58454 Helme.
"Pisikene poiss ja hall ta habe, pibiseb ja pobiseb, ise räägib lambakeelt."
“A little boy, and grey his beard, muttering and murmuring, he speaks the language of sheep.”
H II, 11, 524 (129) V.-Maarja. (Koern 1942, 172–73)
The riddles both refer to the sounds of the spinning wheel, but they refer to entirely different sounds. The first riddle refers to the whirring sound of the flyer and the wheel as they turn. The second likely refers to the sound of a bobbin, flyer or wheel with worn bearings. If the flyer shaft is not perfectly true, it may rattle as it turns, and a worn flyer bearing may become too wide, also causing a low thumping or rattling sound. If the bobbin is too loose on the flyer shaft or if the hole that the flyer shaft passes through is not centered, it may chatter intermittently: it will be louder as the yarn winds onto the bobbin and quieter when the spinner is drafting and keeping tension on the yarn. A loose treadle can also thump, and a wheel out of alignment may thump or scrape against the uprights. Other sounds can result from the need for lubrication; these are usually squeaks, but they are individual to the spinning wheel.
Accounts of supernatural beings using the spinning wheel are common in Estonian folklore. Even when these beings are not seen, movement and sounds from the spinning wheel were often thought to be caused by them. A common belief and piece of advice was to take the drive band off the wheel when it was not in use in order to prevent ghosts or other beings from using the spinning wheel.
One such being is the Night Mother (Ööema), who may come and use the spinning wheel if the drive bands are left on it.
"Kui õhtul vokinöörid pääle jäetakse, tuleb öö ema öösel ketrama ja võtab ketraja töö edu omale. Kui aga keegi juhtub nägema, kui öö ema ketrab ja salaja saab vokirattast kinni haarata, see saab tööema tööjõu omale".
“If in the evening the drive bands remain on the spinning wheel, the night mother comes to spin and takes the success of the spinner’s work for herself. But if someone happens to see the night mother spinning and secretly grabs the wheel, then she takes the working mother’s ability to work for herself.”
E 59992 (34) M.-Magdaleena. (Quoted in Koern 1942, 183)
She is only heard and not seen, and in fact, since there is no evidence of her appearance, identifying her as a woman seems to derive simply from the fact that she is using a spinning wheel, thus confirming that this was traditionally only an activity for women and girls:
"I hear at night that the spinning wheel was revolving, so that it rumbled. – The Midnight Mother is really there. She really is a woman."
EFA II 30, 83 (33) Torma Parish, Mustvee – P.Ariste, Leena Mänd, 90 y. (1930). (Quoted in Kõiva 2001, 67)
Another supernatural figure associated with spinning and spinning wheels was the marras or mardus. Similar to a banshee, the marras wailed and howled as it wandered the land, heralding death. According to Matthias Johann Eisen, on Thursdays, when people on the farms did not spin, it was thought that the marras would use the spinning wheels. People could not see the marras spinning, but chickens could. If the chickens made an uproar, then this could be a sign that the marras was at the spinning wheel.
Folk and fairy tales
Spinning is also an important theme in Estonian folk and fairy tales. One famous literary fairy tale is "Kullaketrajad" by Friedrich Kreutzwald, which was later published in translation by Andrew Lang as "The Water-Lily. The Gold-Spinners" in The Blue Fairy Book. The story concerns three beautiful maidens who are forced by an evil witch to spin golden flax.
Read "The Water-Lily. The Gold-Spinners" here.
Material culture is culture made material — physical things that are imbued with meaning by cultural acts. Folklore includes material culture alongside the familiar verbal genres explored above. Because the spinning wheel is a tool that remains useful for many generations, it bears the physical signs of creative activity by both its own maker and a long line of spinners: grease stains, the slightly flattened plane of a spoke that was turned using a too-small stick, cuts in the hooks from abrasive linen, a broken flyer wired back together, a thin treadle board, and leather bearings worn wide with use. In fitting her body and movements into those of the spinning wheel, the spinner also fits herself into the physical changes left by previous spinners' bodies and habitual motions.
A lineage of practice forms, starting with the maker of the spinning wheel and extending to include the owners and users of that particular spinning wheel over time. Objects often last longer than humans, but they still speak of their makers and users who have long since passed on. What started as a more direct collaboration between the maker and the spinner, both of whom could be alive at the same time and even living in the same home, becomes an indirect relationship mediated by the spinning wheel.
Spinning on an old spinning wheel is a powerful way to connect with past makers who have largely been lost to history. It activates a relationship between the creator and her tool and invokes others whose handwork led to that moment. Just as the spinning wheel connects traditional crafts to ecology and the land, the act of spinning connects spinning wheel makers and users across time and space through these beautiful handmade tools.