December 4th – Barbromesse and spinning yarn before Christmas

Today is 4th of December and according to the Norwegian primstav that means Barbromesse.

A primstav is an old type of calendar used in Norway and Denmark during the Medieval period and until the 19th century. These calendars were usually made of wood and had a flat, rectangular shape – like a plank or a stave, hence the name primstav. The primstav calendars were never-ending as they didn’t have months, dates or the movable feast days on them. They had two sides, one for the summer half and one for the winter half of the year. They also had different symbols, like mittens, wet stones, horns, candles, crowns etc, marking the important dates. These dates were mainly based on Catholic anniversaries for the saints, but also on old traditional celebrations.

Barbromesse, or Barbro mass, is the memorial day for St. Barbara who died in the 300’s. On the primstav the day is marked with a cross, chains, rings, a sun, a tower, a sword, the letter B, a spinning wheel or a spinning whorl.

Photo borrowed from Catholic Online School

The legend has it that Barbara was so beautiful that her father locked her in a tower so she might get some peace from all the suitors who sought her out. While she was locked inside, she became a christian without her heathen father knowing. When he discovered this, he was so angry and tried to kill her. She survived miraculously, but her father then sent her to the authorities who imprisoned her. Here she was badly tortured in the most cruel way; she was burned with torches and she had her breasts cut off before they let her run naked through the city. Then an angel came to meet her, the angle healed her wounds and wrapped her in a white robe. Her father then became so mad that he cut off his daughter’s head. He was immediately struck down and killed by lightning from clear skies. Saint Barbara was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1989, when no evidence was found that she had actually lived. You can read more about Barbara here.

Over to the more traditional part of this day. On this day you were suppose to start spinning thread for your winter and Christmas garments, most importantly your mittens and your stockings. You would start by bringing all the clothes out, look at them and considered what needed to be repaired and what had to be thrown away or given away.

Spindle whorls are common finds from the Late Roman period, the Migration period, the Merovingian period, the Viking age and the Medieval period and is found all over Europe. Throughout history, people have been making thread to make clothes, and before the spinning wheel, they used spindles and spindle whorls to make their thread. Often, only the spindle whorls is the only thing we have left of the tool. The spindle were often made of wood and therefore less likely to survive in the ground. The whorls were often made of stone, ceramic, bone, antler, glass, amber, or metals like iron, lead or lead alloy. Some types of local materials have also been used, such as chalk, limestone, sandstone and soapstone.

Although there are only a few preserved spindles, fortunately there are some. Some of them are made of metal and some are even made of wood. Also other equipment for textile work have been discovered.

I will now show you some local finds from mid-Norway. First, there are two spindles. The first one is made of wood and is from Skaun (T4761). It is from modern times, so after the Medieval period some time. I wanted to include it so you may see how a spindle might look like. There are many modern ones preserved. The other one is perhaps more special. It is from Late Roman Period or the Migration period and it is made from metal. It was found in Bertnem (T19903) in Overhalla.

Spindle (T4761) from Eidsli, Skaun.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Spindle is from Bertem, Overhalla (T19903)

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

As I mentioned, the spindle itself is not so common to find, but the spindle whorls are much more common. We have so many of them here in Trøndelag, and I want to show you a handful of my favorites.

The first one is from the Late Roman period, found in Levanger (T14735). It is made from copper alloy. Along with the whorl, there are also a small preserved piece of the wooden spindle.

Spindle whorl (T14735) from Levanger.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU, Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The second one is from Risvik, Overhalla (T6849). This one is also from the Late Roman period, but this one is made from bone.

Spindle whorl (T6849) from Risvik, Overhalla.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU VItenskapsmuset, CC BY-SA 4.0

The third one is from Late Iron age and was found at Ranheim (T13486). This one is made from soapstone.

Spindle whorl (T13486) from Ranheim.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The fourth one from the Medieval period and it was found at Gimse, Melhus (T28000). It is made from lead.

Spindle whorl (T28000) from Gimse, Melhus.

Photo by Terje Masterud Hellan, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

The fifth one is from the Viking age and it’s made from amber. It was found in Verdal (T19010).

Spindle whorl (T19010) from Haug, Verdal.

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

There are also some pieces of preserved fabric found here and there in Trøndelag. I really want to show you one piece which not only includes finished woven fabric, but also wool that has been combed and prepared for spinning. This has been found in the city center of Trondheim and has been dated to the Medieval period (N1297).

A piece of textile and prepared wool for spinning (N1297), found in Trondheim.

Photo by Ole-Aleksander Ulvik, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Spinning thread, making and mending clothes was time consuming work, but it had to be done. There were several different thing which was important while mending the clothes, especially if you were mending them while someone wore them. One custom was to hold a wood chip in his mouth, another says to not repair the clothes at all while wearing them because you could possibly sew the luck and the happiness from oneself if one did this. If a tailor lost the sewing needle on the floor he could see if he would be lucky or not. If the tip of the needle pointed towards him, he would have luck. You were not suppose to spin yarn while your husband was in the city. You could lose your luck if you did.

There is a saying or poem about spinning your thread, which I rather like. It goes like this:

Bedre tjukk tråd enn berrt lår
Som du vyrder kleda, så vyrder du deg
Vanen kan skiftast, men vitet ikkje
Den som låner klede, vert snart ukledd.

Are you going to start preparing for Christmas by spinning some thread today? Or maybe look through your garments and see what needs mending?

Have a lovely day!

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