Object: Spindle and Spindle Whorl

E/1955/30/62
Spindle with Spindle Whorl Weight
Mazatec – Popoloca Indians
Central America: Mexico
Unknown age
Materials: Wood and Clay

This object is a spindle and spindle whorl weight that was used either by the Mazatec or Popoloca Indians from southern Mexico. It is small, only 12 inches long by 1.25 inches in diameter at its largest point. The spindle, or the long thin shaft, is made of wood while the round spindle whorl weight is made of clay. The spindle is tapered on both ends to a narrow point, and the dark brown wood is polished from much use. The clay weight was either molded or machine drilled and also has a polished surface.

Figure 2    Image of a woman spinning painted on a Greek vase
Figure 2 Image of a woman spinning painted on an ancient Greek vase

The history of spindles and spinning is a fascinating one, beginning at least 10,000 years ago. All around the world, as long as people have been able to spin plant fibers such as wool, flax and cotton, they have been able to create a wide range of useful and decorative textiles such as clothing, blankets, rugs, bags, etc. Hand spindles, such as this one from the Ethnology Department, have been used since ancient times to twist fibers into yarn that can then be woven, knitted, sewn or otherwise turned into a useful object. This type of spindle is known as a support spindle because it is set on a flat surface and spun like a top. Thread is created by pulling the fibers away from the spinning object and then letting the thread gradually wind onto the spindle.

Spindles have been used for thousands of years all around the world from places like Africa and Asia to Europe, North America and South America (among many others). This includes the Popoloca and Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico. The Popoloca Indians reside in the state of Puebla while the Mazatec Indians reside in the nearby state of Oaxaca. Both the Popoloca and the Mazatec are predominately agricultural peoples, relying on crops like maize (corn), beans, squash, and chilies, supplemented by grains and fruit. Settlements are loosely organized around village centers. Rectangular houses are typically built of vertically placed poles covered with thatched roofs, although sometimes mud bricks are also used. Crafts such as weaving and pottery were once much more common among these people, but such traditional crafts are becoming scarce, with their products replaced by commercially-made goods. Using objects such as this spindle and spindle whorl weight to spin thread and yarn is increasingly becoming a thing of the past for many indigenous cultures of Central America.

To see an example of how a supported spindle works, take a look at this useful video:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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