Early Islamic spindle whorls

Object M269
JIAAW, Minassian Collection

Spindle whorls are one of the most common finds in any excavation site or any historical site.  They are associated with spinning yarn, a process that took place after collecting the material and before setting up the loom. Spinning needs a lot of skill and a lot of time, therefore, in many traditional societies, we see photos of little girls spinning and women spinning while doing other jobs at the same time. Spinning and weaving are mostly considered a women’s job, but this is not true for all ancient or traditional societies.

There are many different spinning techniques around the world, but most of them use a spindle. The spindle is used for controlling the twist of the yarn and consists of the spindle shaft, which could be made by a piece of wood or bone, and the spindle whorl. The spindle whorl is important because it sustains the axis of the shaft while spinning. Spindle whorls can tell us a lot about the spinning technique and the type of material that was used.

The JIAAW collection hosts these small objects that attest to spinning in the Early Islamic period (c. 640-900 AD). Probably coming from Iran, these spindle whorls are made of bone and bear incised and painted decoration with motifs that are quite common in early Islam symbolic language.

But, where they were used? These specimens were probably used for the spinning of cotton, which was one of the fibers which people used for the production of textiles during Early Islam. Their use was widespread, following the spread of Islam and the trading networks, from Iran to Spain, and as far south as the Arabian Peninsula and Sudan in Africa. Even though there were commonalities, Early Islamic textiles are very different, as they were produced in different places with distinct pre-existing textile traditions.

The most famous Early Islamic textiles are the tiraz. Tiraz were inscribed textiles; they bore names that were embroidered onto them. They were considered the most elaborate textiles and were given as robes to ambassadors as a symbol of their loyalty to the caliphate, or served as a signifier of wealth and status.

We cannot know whether these specimens were used for the production of simple cotton cloth or an elaborate tiraz. Whatever the case they were part of a labor-intensive and skillful process.

-Gerasimoula Ioanna Nikolovieni, Graduate Student, JIAAW

See other examples of spindle whorls and lean more about tiraz textiles:

Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from the Early Islamic Period | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Inscribed textiles were highly valued in the early Islamic period and were produced until the fourteenth century in both caliphal and state-run public factories. They were given as robes of honor to courtiers and ambassadors in the khil’a ceremony, where they served as a symbol of individuals’ loyalty to the caliphate.

Spindle Whorl | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Spindle whorls aided in the making of thread by maintaining the momentum of the spindle. This semi-spherical spindle whorl made from pink-tinted bone was excavated at Nishapur. It is incised with two bands of dot-in-circles. Hundreds of spindle whorls were excavated at Nishapur, providing further evidence that the city possessed a thriving textile industry.

spindle-whorl | British Museum

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Early Islamic Period Artifacts from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for National Treasures

Spindle Whorl

The information about this object, including provenance information, is based on historic information and may not be currently accurate or complete. Research on objects is an ongoing process, but the information about this object may not reflect the most current information available to CMA.

Spindle whorl

Description Spindle whorl with scalloped edge. Two black lines on one side. Clay: Pale buff, medium hard, polished. Unglazed. Provenance From Tall-i-Bakun, near Persepolis. 1937: excavated by the University of Chicago-Museum of Fine Arts Persepolis Expedition. Assigned to the MFA in the division of finds. (Accession Date: December 13, 1945)