Spinning and weaving are arts of extreme antiquity, dating back even to prehistoric times. The Egyptians were especially expert in them, their white linen textures being of such fineness as to be diaphanous, while in softness their materials were almost comparable with silk. The threads used in the wrappings of the mummies of the Pharaohs were almost inconceivably delicate, the warp of the bandage around the mummy of Thothmes III. containing 150 threads and the woof 75 threads per inch. It has been calculated that one of these threads 60 miles in length would weigh only one pound. The Egyptian tomb-paintings represent the method of spinning; they show women who turn two spindles simultaneously, twisting each of the two threads from two different kinds of flax. In like manner a certain degree of skill in spinning may be presumed to have existed at a relatively early period among the Hebrews.
The raw materials in ancient times were flax, the wool of sheep, and the hair of goats and camels. At a later time Cotton and silk also were used; and the wool of sheep and the hair of camels were made into tentings and mantles, and probably also into garments of mourning ("saḳ"). The most usual materials, however, were wool and flax. The term "wool" ("zemer") by itself is restricted to the wool of sheep. As soon as shorn the fleece was washed in hot water to which alkalis had previously been added. At a later period, in case an especially fine and delicate wool was desired, the young animalwas wrapped immediately after birth in a cloth which protected its wool against any stains. The wool after being washed and bleached ("libben") was beaten ("nippeẓ") with sticks to disentangle it, and was then picked with the fingers to rid it of any knots, after which it was carded ("saraḳ"). All of these operations were originally a work of the house-hold; but in later times the carding of wool became a distinct trade.
According to the Mishnah, the wool-carder was universally despised, and wore a woolen cord about his neck as an emblem of his trade. At the present time in Palestine he performs his task with the help of a large bow, whose taut cord is kept in constant vibration by the blows of a hammer and in its oscillations divides the wool with extreme fineness. The same process of carding may have been employed in ancient times. The Mishnah describes another method which was rather a combing of the wool: the carder had an iron comb, apparently consisting of a leather back set with one or two rows of iron pegs. This comb he laid on his knee and drew the wool handful by handful through it. The hair of goats and camels was treated in a similar fashion.Preparation of Flax.
The preparation of flax is described in the Mishnah: the stalks were torn out of the ground, laid in order, and beaten with sticks to free them from the capsules. In Egypt, as is evident from ancient Egyptian paintings, they were boiled in a large vessel and thus freed from all woody substance. This same purpose is served by the flax-horses described in the Mishnah. The stalks were dried in the sun (Josh. ii. 6), and then laid in a pit of water exposed to the light, being held under the water by stones until their woody substance rotted away. The stalks were then redried in the sun or in an oven, and were beaten with a wooden mallet to free the fibers from their outer covering. Finally the fibers were hackled, so that the longer ones, which were suitable for spinning, might be separated from the shorter ones, which were used only for wicks, cords, and similar objects. Hackling was done both by men and by women (Isa. xix. 9; read ). The raw materials thus prepared were then ready for the spinners, whose task it was to spin long threads from the short filaments.
The tools were very simple, consisting of the spindle and the distaff (comp. Prov. xxxi. 19), the spinning-wheel being unknown in antiquity. The distaff ("ḳiṭor" ib.; "imah" in the Mishnah) consisted of a reed about which the carded wool or the hackled flax was wound. This was held by the spinner in his left hand, while with his right he drew out the thread. The spindle was a reed about a foot in length, with a hook at the top to which the thread drawn from the distaff was fastened. At the base of the spindle was a whorl—a perforated ball of clay or a round stone pierced with a hole or a ring of metal, which served to weight the spindle and to keep it upright during the spinning. When the first part of the thread had been spun by hand, it was fastened to the spindle, which was set in motion with the right hand, and while the thread was thus being twisted the raw material was drawn as needed from the supply on the distaff, the spun thread being then wound upon the spindle. The excavations of the English and German Palestine exploration societies have unearthed many of these whorls of clay, stone, and metal at Tell al-Ḥasi and Tell al-Mutasallim.
Spinning is now done in Palestine by men and women alike; and fellahs are frequently seen spinning as they walk. In ancient Hebrew times it seems to have been an occupation restricted to women—at least men are never mentioned as spinners—while in the praise bestowed on virtuous women spinning is mentioned as an occupation essentially feminine (Prov. l.c.; comp. Ex xxv. 25 et seq.; Tobit ii. 19).