I’ve been thinking about spinning since . . . well, since I had a go at it the other day. I took a lovely trip to Twist Fibrecraft with my knitting buddies, and the inevitable happened – – I returned home with a drop spindle and some satisfying packets of what Tom referred to as skyfluff, but the rest of us know as fibre. What you see above is my first couple of attempts with some icelandic and alpaca, just as it came off the spindle. Now, the spinners among you may justifiably fall about laughing at these uneven fuzzy squiggles, but to me they represent some kind of berloody miracle — I mean, I made yarn.
As I was spinning, I started thinking about this portrait of Emma Hamilton by George Romney, which has always intrigued me:
It intrigues me for a number of reasons: because it is Hamilton (who I always find interesting), and because she is spinning (and not paying much attention to her work). While I’m sure Emma Hamilton probably could spin, I doubt she did very much of it, and certainly not by the time Romney was painting her in the 1780s. Romney liked painting Hamilton because of her ability to be so many different types of woman — and here she is performing a particular kind of femininity for his painterly benefit. What Romney produced here is much more than a portrait of his favourite model, and more, indeed than a celebration of the virtuous, industrious, domestic woman that Hamilton is supposed to represent. The spinning wheel is an important fiction. For by the time Romney was painting this, many women’s first-hand experience of spinning would more likely to have been in the interior of a large commercial mill than sat at home at their wheel. Romney’s spinning woman sentimentalises the ideal of domestic labour on the very eve of industrialisation. She suggests the persuasive eighteenth-century fantasy of a cottage retreat from modernity.
Sentimental spinning wheels abound throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, by the late twentieth century the spinning wheel’s ornamental and sentimental associations — its capacity to suggest a domestic ideal — almost entirely eroded its status as a functional object. In terms of my own experience of the 1970s domestic interior, spinning wheels were things very much like porcelain thimbles — gew gaws with which the mothers of ones more middle-class friends adorned their homes. Few of the women with wheels in the corner of their living rooms sewed or knitted, let alone spun.
Such a wheel popped up the other evening in an episode of The Good Life, which I was watching while knitting, and drinking a beer (all of which may suggest to you what it is like in my entirely un-ideal domestic interior). Margo (above, in hat) purchases an expensive spinning wheel. To Jerry (her husband, right) this is yet another useless excess, but to Tom (her next door neighbour, left) it promises the next stage in Surbiton self-sufficiency: spinning and weaving ones own clothes. After half an hour of arguments and resolutions, the wheel finally arrives. But Tom’s dreams of homespun cloth prove to be short lived — the object is not actually a spinning wheel, but a music box in the shape of a spinning wheel. In Margo’s non-functional non-wheel, what’s starting to happen in the Romney painting is taken to its logical and entirely absurd conclusion. Some of you may think I am making an obvious marxist point about the way that capitalism neatly severs the meaning of labour from the tools and objects of labour. And I probably am.