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‘Th'ancient Distaff’ and ‘Whirling Spindle’: measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550–1770



The purpose of this article is to estimate the workforce involved in spinning from the late sixteenth century until the eve of mechanization. In addition, the potential contribution to family earnings from spinning will be examined. Just about all of the millions of yards of woollen yarn that went into making English cloth had to be spun by women and children, but this activity has not been investigated to the extent that it deserves. Spinning was a skilled occupation where there was a great demand for the best quality product. Sources exist which make it possible to make general estimates of the amount of spinning needed in the economy, and its cost. This evidence shows that employment in spinning increased dramatically from the late seventeenth century, and continued to increase until there were probably over one million women and children employed in spinning by the mid-eighteenth century. In addition earnings increased to the extent whereby earnings from spinning could contribute over 30 per cent of household income for poorer families. This has implications for looking at trends in real wages over time, as well as for the concept of the industrious revolution.