Sleeping Beauty and the Spindle

Irish_spinning_wheelI found out all about spinning on the weekend. There was a Christmas crafts event in town, and a couple of ladies from the Spinners and Weavers Guild were doing a spinning demo. Actually, that demo was the main reason I went to the event – spinning is one of the old crafts I haven’t actually tried my hand at, not properly, anyway, and I’ve wanted to know for a while how it works.

And sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: every last “Sleeping Beauty” movie has got it wrong.

You know how the story goes: the wicked fairy curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday. To try to prevent it, the king bans/burns all spinning tools. But of course, as he ought to have known, that does nothing; she finger-pricks anyway, falls asleep, a century later prince shows up, etc.

So how does that look in the movies? Huge conflagration of spinning wheels, for the most part. Then the dimwitted (ahem – sorry) princess, in a trance, walks up to a wheel, which has a sharp thing sticking out of the top, goes and purposely jabs her finger on that sharp pointy thing, and on we go with the snoozing etc. etc.

Complete baloney. It’s pretty obvious the movie-makers have never seen a real spinning wheel in their lives. It’s mildly forgiveable in the film makers of the 1959 Disney movie, when research was a little more difficult to do; but in 2014, you’d think that the set designers of Maleficent could have done about ten seconds of googling, which would have told them that there are no sharp pointy things sticking out of spinning wheels. Spinners of the past would have been severely puzzled by those movie spinning wheels.

I can just picture it now. The scene: a Great 21st-Century Folklorist has been time-transported back to a 17th-century German Spinnstube (shpinn-shtoo-ba, spinning room), where the women of the village are gathered around the fire on a dark winter’s night with their spinning wheels. Folklorist rubs his hands – here’s his opportunity to tell the “Sleeping Beauty” story as he knows it, and really get it entrenched in the minds of these peasants. So there are Gretl, Liesl, Anna, Maria, Maria, and Anna Maria, all sitting in a circle, their spinning wheels humming. [No! Turn off those lights! The only illumination we have are the fire and a couple of rush lights. It’s dark, folks. Got that image in your mind now? Okay, good. Carry on.]

Folklorist: “…and on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel!”
Maria 1: “On what?”
Maria 2: “Maybe she had a poor-quality wheel; the wood might have been splintered.”
Gretl: “Oh, you mean she pricked her finger on a splinter?”
Folklorist: “No! She pricked it on a spindle! You know, that pointy thing!”
Liesl: “What pointy thing?”
Folklorist: “Well, that – um…”
Anna: “This makes no sense at all. If the bad fairy wanted the  princess to kill herself with a spinning wheel, she’d have to find a better curse than that.”
Maria 2: “Yes; if she hasn’t got a splintered wheel. What about…”
Anna Maria: “That makes more sense. I mean, who would believe anything so silly as someone pricking her finger on a spindle on a wheel? All right, Mr Storyteller, carry on, please!”
Folklorist, extremely reluctantly: “…so the wicked witch cast her curse. ‘On her 16th birthday,’ she said, ‘the princess shall club herself to death with the drive wheel of a spinning wheel…'”
The women: “Yes!” “That’s better!” “Now it makes sense.” “That’s so exciting!” “What happened next?”

Anyway, that’s a more likely scenario than this poke-yourself-on-a-spinning-wheel one. Sorry, Mr. Disney.

The device that Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on is, in fact, a hand spindle – and not a drop spindle, either, which might serve to poke out your eye or be used to inflict classic blunt-force head injuries, but isn’t really  pointy. It seems that the most likely device for inducing century-long royal hypersomnia was what spinners call a Russian spindle, which is very pointy indeed. I’d love to learn how to use one sometime (for making yarn, not putting teen girls to sleep), but I wouldn’t sneeze at getting the hang of a spinning wheel, either.

Life, the Universe, and Tales of a Spindle. Or should that be Spinster?