Coast Salish Spindle Whorl

The Coast Salish people lived on the east coast of Vancouver Island, the southwest coast of British Columbia, in Washington State, and along the Fraser River. They depended on the ocean and the rivers for their livelihood. They hunted deer, elk, black bear, mountain goats on the mainland, beaver, and occasionally raccoon and waterfowl. They also used cedar for clothing and canoes as well as for making masks, rattles, and many other items.

Coast Salish women had a distinctive weaving style, using wool from a special breed of dog, mountain-goat wool, waterfowl down, and fireweed cotton. These materials were spun with a large spindle, a method not used anywhere else. The material was then woven on a two-bar loom with a continuous warp. In weaving, warp threads are threads stretched lengthwise on a loom that remain relatively static; weft threads pass over and under the warp threads to form the body of the fabric. The weaver fulled (cleaned and thickened) the wool by beating a certain kind of soft, fine-grained earth into it, which served as a filter. The wool was then twisted into a loose roving (a sliver of cotton or wool drawn out and slightly twisted) which the weaver then spun on a spindle into a thick yarn.

The spindle had a shaft that was up to four feet long, with a wooden whorl attached, that was up to eight inches across. The weaver held the spindle below the whorl in two hands. The roving was attached above the whorl after passing through a ring or over a beam to maintain thread tension. Once the wool was wound, it was woven into blankets, which were also made into robes.

Many Salish spindle whorls have sophisticated and powerful carved designs—human, animal, and geometric. The whorls are carved in low relief and were made by men. The carved surface is convex, and is the side that faced the weaver so that she saw the designs. Designs on the whorl could indicate purification and might have signified the spindle whorl’s importance in transforming wool into wealth. The whorl was placed on a wooden spindle to add the weight needed to maintain the spinning motion of the spindle and to prevent the wool from falling off the rod as it spun. As the whorl turned, the designs blurred together, mesmerizing the spinner. This trance state was considered vital to the process: it gave the spinner the ability to create textiles imbued with special powers.

spindle whorl

RBCM 10504 Courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

Copyright 2008, Open School BC