Ever since I started spinning, I’ve wondered “How in the world did Sleeping Beauty prick her finger on a spindle?” Like most spinners, I learned the basics of turning fiber into yarn on a simple device called a drop spindle. In its most reduced form, spindles are little more than a straight stick with a hook on the end.
To use any spindle, you start by holding loose fiber in your non-dominant hand, and the hooked stick in your dominant hand (1, below). Hooking some loose fiber (2) and twirling the stick between your fingers creates twist (3), which locks the fiber together. As you twirl the stick, you pull your hands apart, which organizes the fibers and thins out the yarn (4). Once you can’t stretch your arms any farther apart, you wind the completed yarn onto the stick (5). Then rinse and repeat.
Drop spindles evolved from the stick spindle. Instead of twisting the stick with your fingers continuously, you now roll the shaft of the spindle along your leg, and then let it hang in mid-air spinning. A round wooden disk of some sort, called a whorl, adds weight to the spindle and helps it to keep its momentum. The whorl on bottom whorl spindles is (surprise) near the bottom of the spindle. The completed yarn is wound above the whorl, and the yarn is half-hitch looped to the hook at the top.
I hate having to re-tie a half hitch every time I stop to wind on yarn (which happens pretty fast once you have a rhythm), so I prefer the top whorl spindle. In this spindle, the yarn is wound on below the whorl, and then held in place by a notch in the side of the whorl.
Spinning wheels take the spindle, turn it horizontally, twist it with a drive band instead of your fingers, and then use your feet for power. It sounds like a leap forward, and you don’t have to stop spinning to wind the yarn on, but it also means you have to sit in one place, have a bunch of equipment, and deal with much more maintenance. With a drop spindle, you can spin and walk, spin and follow your sheep, spin and wrastle babies, etc.
Spinning on a drop spindle is a slow, meditative process, so I’ve had a long time to consider what ol’ Sleeping Beauty did to herself. If you’ve been paying attention to the pictures, you’ve probably figured it out too. At least in the Disney version, she pricked herself not on the spindle, but on the distaff. Distaffs hold unspun fiber; this kind of distaff does so by skewering it on something pointy. Spinning wheels don’t have spindles, because they ARE spindles, just very fancy ones.