Vikings spun many types of fibres and fibre mixes to make clothing, other textiles, ropes, and even fishing line. Most spinning for textiles was with wool, but cow hair was spun to make milk strainers, horse hair was used for fishing line, and rabbit hair was mixed with wool to make the cloth softer and warmer. Plant fibres were also used to make clothing, ropes and textiles for such as tarpaulins and sacks.
The fibres had to be spun together to give them strength. Spinning for textiles was usually done with a spindle stick, with a whorl attached. The whorl was a circular disc with a hole in the middle. It added weight to the wooden spindle, making spinning easier and faster.
Whorls could be made from stone, wood, bone, ceramics, antler or metal, such as lead, and were placed at the top or the bottom of the stick. They were made in different sizes and shapes, depending on the spinner’s preference and the type of yarn being spun, and usually weighed between 10 and 70 grams, although most Viking whorls weigh 20-40 grams. Sometimes they were decorated with incisions.
Whorls are one of the most common artefacts found at Viking sites and many Viking women were buried with one or more.
To spin with a spindle and whorl, the loose fibre is attached to a string on the spindle and the spindle is set in motion by a flick of the fingers. As the loose fibre begins to twist together it becomes stronger. Using their fingers, the spinner controls the amount of fibre allowed to twist, a process called drawing. This also allows control of the thickness and evenness of the thread.
As spinning continues and more fibre is spun, the spindle moves closer to the floor. Once it has reached the floor, it is taken up and the spun yarn is wound on the stick. Spinning and winding continues until the stick is full of spun yarn and then it is wound off the stick into a ball. It can be used for weaving or other tasks at this point, or it can be held aside until more yarn is spun. Two or more yarns were sometimes twisted together (plying) which made a thicker, stronger yarn.
Some threads, such as that used for warp threads in weaving, and sewing threads, needed to be very smooth because they were continually abraded during weaving and sewing. Other threads, such as the cross (weft) threads in weaving, could be less smooth since they were simply placed in the loom.