Spinning wheels are an object commonly associated with fairy tales, even though they only feature in a handful of tales. Aside from being mere objects, they add some degree of symbolic meaning to the stories they are present in.
Firstly though, what actually is a spinning wheel?
We probably know it’s a wooden thing with a big wheel that does something concerning yarn. At least, that’s about all I knew until I visited a friend who owns one. Basically, spinning wheels were (and still are, just not as widely) used to turn animal fleece into yarn, or wool. In order to do this, you have to feed in a thin clump of fleece, and get it hooked around the spindle. Then, as you turn the wheel, the spindle turns as well and coils up the fleece as you feed it in. Some have a foot pedal which you use to keep the wheel going steady, so that the yarn remains a consistent thickness.
I have tried spinning on a couple of wheels and also with a drop spindle (a handheld method of spinning). Suffice to say that it is one of the most tedious activities I have ever done! My yarn always breaks, and to fix this you have to sort of twiddle the broken ends together and spin rapidly to bind them before continuing. And the pedal makes my ankle ache after awhile, plus it is hard to keep it going in time with the wheel. However, if I ever do it for long enough to get semi-good at it then I would probably find it therapeutic. The wheel makes a nice sound, and once you fall into a rhythm it’s quite relaxing.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ (and all its variations) is the probably the most well-known spinning wheel story, followed by ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ In this tale, a miller’s daughter is locked away by a king and forced to spin straw into gold. She cannot do it, but a little man (who is later revealed to be Rumpelstiltskin) appears and does it for her, but asks for her first child in return. The only way she can get out of the deal is to guess his name. She does, and in rage Rumpelstiltskin tears himself apart.
Some lesser known fairy tales also feature spinning wheels, such as the Czech fairy tale called ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ In this, there are two identical sisters. One is kind, and the other malicious. Their mother favours the latter. The kind daughter is left at home to spin, whilst her mother and sister visit the city. One day, a king comes upon her spinning. They fall in love, and he says he will return to marry her once she has spun enough yarn for her wedding shift. She does so, and they wed. However, the mother and malicious sister are outraged. When the king goes away, they kidnap the kind girl and mutilate her, then abandon her in the woods. They then go back to the palace, taking some of her limbs with them, and the malicious sister takes her place. A hermit finds the kind sister’s body, and discovers she is not quite yet dead so he nurses her. He has a helper, who gives a golden spinning wheel, distaff, and spindle to the malicious sister in exchange for her sibling’s limbs. The hermit re-attaches these, and the kind sister is well again. When the king returns, he asks his wife to spin. The malicious sister sits down at the golden spinning wheel, but as she turns the wheel it sings of her’s and her mother’s evil deed. The king immediately goes off into the woods, where he finds the kind sister, his real wife, in the care of the hermit. They rejoice and travel back to the palace together, where they are told by the servants that the devil appeared and carried off the wicked sister and mother.
In the Scottish folktale ‘Habitrot,’ a girl who hates spinning hands her work over to a group of old women to complete instead. She passes their work off as her own, and a Lord sees it and is so impressed by her skill that he wants to marry her because of it. She plays along, but once they are wed she reveals her secret. The old women show her new husband their lips, twisted by years of wetting their fingers to draw thread, and warn him that his pretty young wife will end up like them if she is allowed to spin. The Lord immediately forgives her for deceiving him, and declares that she shall never touch a spinning wheel. There are also some European variants of this tale, where it is called ‘The Lazy Spinner‘ or ‘The Three Spinners.’
Spinning wheels bring varying kinds of symbolism to each of these stories. They have three main connotations in fairy tales, which affect the underlying theme of the story depending on which one is prevalent.
Connotation 1: Social
Spinning wheels are domestic objects. They belong in the home, and so over the centuries have come to be associated with women. So much so that the term ‘spinster‘ came about to describe unmarried females, particularly those past the usual age of being wed. Spinning seems to have been a desirable skill for a woman to possess — certainly all the men in ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel’ and ‘Habitrot’ were keen on it. The implication here is that women needed to know how to spin in order to find a husband, and if they didn’t find one they would end up becoming a spinster.
However, the ending of ‘Habitrot’ humorously counters this by showing the Lord how unattractive the spinsters are. This scares him so deeply that he changes his mind about wanting his wife to spin, in order to preserve her beauty. This shows him to be shallow, as he wants her to look good rather than be useful. This story also shows how spinning is relegated to women who have nothing better to do. The old spinsters have no husband/home/ability to have children to care for, so they take the task away from the young woman who has all of those things to occupy her.
The act of spinning in itself also nurtured storytelling. You might have heard the phrase ‘spinning a tale’ used when someone is exaggerating, or ‘having a yarn’ to refer to people having an in-depth conversation. Whilst spinning, women had to amuse themselves somehow. Stories were often the answer to that. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar says that ‘the spinning of flax often crossed over from the storytelling context into the story itself’, which provides a possible explanation as to why spinning wheels feature in fairy tales. If this is true, then tales such as the above (and the variants of ‘Sleeping Beauty’) could well have started life as stories told whilst spinning.
Connotation 2: Sexual
The story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is often regarded as being an analogy for sexual awakening. Tatar notes this as well:
‘The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to a passive, introspective period of latency.’
(The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p.242 note 8.)
In any version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the main protagonist pricking her finger on the spindle or flax can be seen as a metaphor for maturation. Her father’s decision to burn all of the spinning wheels fails to prevent this from happening, showing that it is an unavoidable part of growing up. The long sleep afterwards occurs because of the stress maturation can cause, especially as she wasn’t prepared for it. The girl’s isolation from spinning wheels makes her curious when she sees one, and is what draws prematurely draws her to her maturation.
For a more detailed analysis of the sexual content of Sleeping Beauty, you can have a read at my previous post about it.
The connection between spinning wheels and sexual awakening also fits in with the social side of things I discussed above. The turning of the wheel is a symbol of the cycles of life, which are often associated with women due to menstruation. In many Pagan religions, the triple goddess symbol is worn to celebrate the Maiden, Mother and Crone. These three stages of a woman’s life are a cycle in themselves, and relate to spinning as it is the young women, the maidens, who spin before they are married. Then, once they have a husband, they can move on to become mothers. Finally, once their years of fertility are over, they become crones, wise from their experiences and with the time to take up spinning once again.
Indeed, in every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ it is an old woman she finds spinning on the spindle which invokes the curse. This shows a sort of passing of the torch, passing on spinning, and womanhood, from generation to generation. Due to her ignorance of spinning, the girl is unprepared for the move to being a mother. Therefore, her sleep symbolises her preparation for the next stage in her life.
Connotation 3: Spiritual
Spinning isn’t a term exclusive to yarn. In Greek and Roman mythology, there were three goddesses who were know as the Moirai or Parcae respectively, but have come to be known as the Fates. They were said to control the lifespan of every mortal by spinning the threads of their lives, and cutting them when it was time for them to die.
The existence of such goddesses would mean that lives are planned out, and that fate cannot be changed. This act of spinning focuses on the creative element, instead of the social or symbolic. When spinning, yarn is made. Or in this case, lives. It shows the true significance of spinning is in the product, not how it’s done or who by.
Fate is a strong theme in Sleeping Beauty, and despite attempts to alter it the girl’s long sleep is unavoidable. Looking at the tale as a metaphor for maturation, this makes sense as it is inevitable that we should all keep growing until we reach adulthood. We are all at the mercy of this fate, like Sleeping Beauty – whether it is spun for us or not. None of us can prevent time passing and lengthening our ethereal threads.
Today, spinning wheels are regarded as a curiosity. You might see people spinning at country fairs, exhibiting how things were done in the ‘olden days.’ For some die-hard knitters they are still a tool, albeit an archaic one. Given the choice, I’m sure many knitters would rather buy wool than spin it. However, like any antique, their charm is undiminished. Fairy tales help to keep it alive, and keep the legends and origins of the spinning wheel known.
Featured image from Education Scotland