Spinning Folklore from ballards, tales, myths and rhymes.

Thorskegga Thorn

Spin me a yarn is a phrase which we all know means ‘tell me a story’. Surprising enough it does not originate from spinning wool and flax into thread for domestic use. The term originated from naval jargon. Sailors use a great many ropes for all kinds of applications and in great quantity. All ports would once have had at least one rope making workshop if not more and sailors would have been particularly familiar with the craft. Rope is made using the same principles that are employed in spinning, however because rope is so much thicker than thread the machinery is much larger and heavier and the task requires two people. The illustration here shows the method used in the last two centuries. One man turns a handle on the spinning machine which by aid of a drive band rotates several small metal hooks. The spinner himself has attached his fibres to one of the hooks and is drawing them out slowly with both hands. The mass of fibres is tucked around his middle to keep his hands free for working.

Spinning is ranked among the oldest crafts known to man and its origins are lost in early prehistory. Since that time and up to the industrial revolution spinners would have been found in most houses and for many housewives it would have been second nature to spin whenever they could spare the time. As a consequence spinning is deeply embedded in myth and folklore. The following extracts are taken from a wide variety of districts and historical periods but they show an underlying theme, spinning was the occupation of the dutiful housewife whether wealthy or poor.

At the end of each commentary the source of the text is quoted, the numbers refer to those on the booklist at the back.


There was once a farmer’s wife called Inary who lived on Tiree. She was a hardworking woman and after the chores of the day were done she would spin and weave long into the night.

One night when she was up alone spinning her yarn for her next batch of cloth, she was overtaken by a great tiredness. ‘I wish someone would come from land or sea, from far or near, to help me finish this cloth!’ Inary exclaimed.

Just then there was a knock at the door and a voice called ‘Let me in Inary I have come to help you.’ Inary opened the door to find a tiny woman dressed in green, the newcomer came straight in and sat down at the spinning wheel and started to spin. Inary had hardly time to shut the door when another woman knocked upon it and asked to be let in. Inary opened the door and another small green clad lady entered and set her hands straight to the distaff. Inary’s visitors continued to arrive until she lost count of them all. Some sat down at the loom and started to weave. Some teazed and carded wool while others boiled fulling water over the fire for the finished cloth. The whole room was full of the women and yet their clattering failed to wake Inary’s family in the next room. She realised at last that they were faeries from Burg Hill and her sleeping family were under a spell. The faeries began to complain of hunger and Inary tried to feed them all, but the more they worked the hungrier they became.

Inary was soon down to her last loaf and desperate she ran from the house and went straight to the cottage of the local wise man. Inary tumbled out her story and begged the old man to help her. The wise man was grave and told Inary that her foolish request had brought her into this trouble. Her husband was indeed in an enchanted sleep and she must get the faeries out of the house and sprinkle him with fulling water to wake him. Furthermore she must cry ‘Burg Hill is on fire!’ three times to make the faeries leave and upset all the tools and implements with which they had been working. Inary thanked the old man and went back to her house where the faeries were still at work, with all her might she cried….

‘There is fire in Burg Hill!

Burg Hill is on fire!

Burg Hill is in red flames of fire!’

The faeries cried out in alarm in fear that everything they valued in the faery hill would be destroyed, and they all ran out of Inary’s door. Once they were all gone Inary took the band of the spinning wheel, turned the loom upside down, twisted the distaff backwards and took the fulling water off the fire.

The faeries soon realised that they had been tricked and were back hammering on the door asking Inary to let them back in. Inary refused, so they asked the spinning wheel to help them. ‘How can I?’ the spinning wheel replied, ‘I am without a band.’ The faery folk appealed to the distaff to let them in. ‘I cannot.’ replied the distaff, ‘I am twisted contrary.’ Then they asked the loom. ‘I would happily let you in but I am set topsy-turvy.’ it replied. The impatient faeries appealed to the fulling water. ‘I cannot help you,’ it replied, ‘I am off the fire.’ In desperation the faeries appealed to the last loaf sitting on Inary’s hearth and it bounded across the room to open the door. Inary remembered the old man’s words and quickly sprinkled some of the fulling water on her sleeping husband. The farmer sat up and strode to the door, and when he flung it open the faeries had fled, and they never came back to trouble Inary again.

{In the Early Middle Ages woman often performed all the tasks necessary to turn fleece into cloth in their own homes. This practice was dropped as workers began to specialize and tools for certain tasks became more complicated. However in isolated areas farms had to be self sufficient. Inary is a good example and many of the tasks required are mentioned in this story. The first processes in the making of cloth are teazing and carding of the raw fibres of the fleece. To teaze, a single lock of wool is taken with both hands and the fibres are separated by carefully tearing the lock apart. Once teazed the wool is brushed between two carding combs, these resemble modern dog brushes. The wool is now ready to be spun into yarn. Inary used a spinning wheel which twists the fibres as they are pulled out of the mass by the spinner. The loom on which Inary wove was a simple upright frame, evident from the ease with which she managed to turn it upside down. Inary soaked her cloth in fulling water after it had been woven. This contained a detergent to clean any remaining grease out of the wool but it also served to shrink the cloth making the weaving more compact. The main chemicals which could be used for fulling were fuller’s earth (hydrated aluminium silicate), lye (water strained through vegetable ash) and urine. Source 1.}


To save their plaiding coats some had

Upo’ the haunch a bonnet braid

Or an auld wecht or kairding skin

To rub and gar the spindle rin

Down to the ground wi’ twirling speed

An’ twine upo’ the floor the thread.

{This is a fragment of a Scottish rhyme dating from the eighteenth century, regrettably the poet’s name is not recorded. Again this is an example of an old technique surviving in Scotland. The spinners are using a simple spindle, a stick weighted at its base with a whorl of wood, pottery or stone. The wool was attached to the shaft and the spindle was twisted and allowed to spin rapidly. This turning motion, aided by gravity drew out the wool and twisted it into yarn. This method is surprisingly fast, the spinners mentioned in this rhyme roll the spindle along the bottom of their skirts to keep it turning. This would leave their hands free to draw out the fleece evenly. They seem to need to wear an apron to protect their clothing from the wear of the spindle. Source 20.}


My young Mary do’s mind the dairy,

While I go a howing, and mowing each morn;

Then hey the little spinning wheel

Merrily round do’s reel

While I am singing amidst the corn:

Cream and kisses both are my delight

She gives me them, and the joys of night;

She’s soft as the air,

As morning fair,

Is not such a maid a most pleasing sight.

{This old ballard has since been adapted into the nursery rhyme ‘My maid Mary minds the dairy’. The farm hand is praising his industrious wife who beside washing and cooking also finds time for dairy work and spinning. It can be seen from many sources of folklore that a hard working wife was often valued more than an attractive one. In this somewhat romantic picture of rustic life, Mary scores well in both counts. The ‘reel’ mentioned in this ballard was a common tool of the spinner and was used to wind the yarn into skeins. This reel is probably a rimless spoked wheel set in an upright position, with a bar at the top of each spoke to hold the thread. Skeins had two advantages over balls of yarn, firstly if the spinner counted the number of revolutions she made with the wheel she new exactly how much yarn she had spun, and secondly the wool could be washed or dyed easily. Source 2.}


There was once a prince who was betroved to a beautiful maiden. One day he received a message that his father was dying and wanted to spend his last hours with his son. The prince promised his love that he would return when he was king to claim her as his wife, he left her a ring as a token.

When he reached his father the king was indeed closed to death and asked his son if he would marry a certain princess. Unwilling to upset his father the prince agreed. A promise the prince could then not refuse, once king he made arrangements for the wedding.

When his first love heard of the forthcoming marriage she was so upset that she nearly died. Her father greiving at her distress promised to get her anything that she asked for. The girl asked her father to find eleven maidens who matched her in face, height and build. When this was done she made a set of twelve hunting costumes, all alike. She rode with the maidens to the new king and asked if he would take them on as his huntsmen. The king did not realise that the hunters were women and he was so impressed by their hansome appearance that he employed them at once.

In the kings court was a lion who was very wise. He approached the king and told him that he believed the hunters to be women. When the king asked how he could know for sure the lion advised scattering dried peas across the floor. A man would tread firmly and not dislodge the peas but a women would skip and the peas would roll around.

One of the kings servants had become firm friends with the new hunters and warned them of this test. So when the maidens we summoned they walked firmly across the peas and they did not move. The lion was still convinced that the hunters were female and told the king that they must have been forwarned. He suggested taking them to a room filled with spinning wheels. They would be sure to go and admire them as no man would do. The king tried this test as well but again his servant warned the maidens of his plan. They showed no interest in the spinning wheels and the king had no doubt that the lion was mistaken.

By this time the hunters were firmly in the kings favour and rode with him every day. Then one fateful morning a messenger arrived with the news that the king’s betroved was approaching. His first love was so distressed to hear this that she fell from her horse. The king, fearing for his hunter’s well being rushed to her and drew off her glove. On her hand was the ring he had given her and he remembered his promise. He was so touched that he told the messenger to tell the princess that he already had a wife, and a man who has found an old dish does not require a new one.

{This tale from Brothers Grimm clearly underlines the femininity of spinning, only a women would admire a spinning wheel. It also shows that the spinning wheel was a desirable object if the lion expected the women to run over and lovingly inspect them. A spinning wheel was a costly and often elaborate piece of furniture. It was a symbol of status for a housewife and apparantly from this story a treasured item of craftsmanship. Source 26.}


White raiment enfolding their aged limbs robed their ankles with a crimson border; on the snowy heads rested rosy bands, while their hands duly plied the eternal task. The left hand held the distaff clothed with soft wool; the right hand, lightly drawing out the threads, with upturned fingers shaped them, then the downward thumb turned the spindle poised with rounded whorl; and so with their teeth they still plucked the threads and made the work even. Bitten ends of wool clung to their dry lips, which had before stood out from the smooth yarn; and at their feet soft fleeces of white- shining wool were kept safe in baskets of osier. They then, as they struck the wool, sang with a clear voice, and thus poured forth the fates in divine chant. That chant no length of time shall prove untruthful.

{This is an extract from the writings of Catullus and it gives an excellent description of the spinning methods of Roman women. This technique uses the spindle and distaff, the only tools available to spinners in this period. The spinners are described as biting the lumps out of the yarn, this practice seems strange to us now but tallys with the flax spinner wetting the fibres in her mouth to aid spinning.

This passage refers to the Fates, the three old women who control the destinies of men according to classical mythology. The whirling spindle was full of symbolism for men of the ancient world and would have been mesmerising at a time when so little was mechanised. As a result the spindle (and the potter’s wheel) was believed to be the tool of the gods for shaping the lives of men. Source 11.}


Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard

To get the poor dog a bone;

But when she got there the cupboard was bare,

And so the poor dog had none.

She went to the baker’s to buy him some bread,

When she came back the dog was dead.

Ah! My poor dog, she cried, oh what shall I do?

You were always my pride – none equal to you.

She went to the undertaker’s to buy him a coffin,

When she came back, the dog was laughing.

Now how this can be quite puzzles my brain,

I am pleased to see you alive once again.

She went to the barber’s to buy him a wig,

When she came back he was dancing a jig.

O, you dear merry grig, how nicely you’re prancing;

Then she held up the wig, and he began dancing.

She went to the sempstress to buy him some linen,

When she came back the dog was spinning.

The reel when ’twas done, was wove into a shirt,

Which served to protect him from weather and dirt.

{This tale and the cover illustration are taken from ‘Old Mother Hubbard and Her Wonderful Dog’ published in about 1800. The dog continues to perform these unusual acts including playing the flute, riding a goat, drinking, smoking and reading a news sheet. The illustration showing the dog at Mother Hubbard’s spinning wheel is especially interesting. The machine has no treadle and the dog is turning the drive wheel with his left paw. The treadled spinning wheel we know today was developed during the Renaissance but this earlier type of wheel remained very popular and was still used in Wales up to this century. The dog’s yarn is made into accurately measured skeins on a reel and probably taken to a weaver for it to be turned into cloth. It was unusual for a woman to do her own spinning because looms of this period were large and bulky. Source 21.}


Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who had reigned for many years without the queen bearing a child. Finally their dearest wish was granted and a daughter was born to them. A lavish christening ceremony was arranged and invitations were sent to seven fairies in the hope that they would bestow magical gifts on the young princess. The day arrived and the seven fairies were given places of honour at the high table, set with golden cutlery. The feast was getting under way when an ancient fairy arrived, she was so old that the King and Queen had thought her dead and she had therefore not been invited. The old fairy was angry and grumbling, although a place was made for her at the table there were no more gold knives and forks. The youngest fairy feared she might try to harm the princess and quickly concealed herself behind a tapestry so that she might give her blessing last.

After the meal the fairies gave their magical gifts to the princess, they blessed her with beauty, intelligence, grace, and gave her the gifts of music, dance and song. The eldest shook her head in spite and said that the princess would pierce her hand on a spindle and die. The court cried out in horror when they heard the old fairies words, but the youngest fairy came out from behind the tapestry. She said `Fear not your majesties, she will not die but sleep for a hundred years until the day when a prince will awake her.’

Determined to protect his daughter the King ordered that every spindle in the kingdom should be destroyed and that anyone found using one would be punished by death. Sixteen years passed and one day while the King and Queen had left for one of their country estates, the princess decided to explore the castle. On climbing one of the many towers she found a room belonging to the King’s old nurse. The old woman was now almost completely deaf and had consequently not heard about the royal ban on spindles. She was merrily spinning away with her distaff in one hand and her spindle in the other. The curious princess asked, somewhat loudly, if she could try to spin with the old nurse’s tools, which of course she had never seen. But when she tried to turn the spindle in her hand the point slipped and cut her hand. The princess fell immediately into a deep sleep.

When the King returned he remembered the young fairy’s words and arranged for the princess to be carried to her bed. The young fairy arrived and cast a spell over the whole castle so that the whole court was locked in sleep and the castle walls surrounded by an impenetrable wood.

A hundred years passed and a young prince happened to be passing the enchanted wood and saw turrets peeping out about the trees. He asked some local farmers about the hidden castle and they each gave him a different answer, the eldest however had heard of a sleeping princess from his father and this tale fired the princes sense of adventure. He rode up to the outskirts of the wood and the trees parted to let him through. The castle was unnaturally quiet with all the servants and guards asleep. The prince wandered through many rooms of sleeping courtiers until he found the princess, asleep on her bed with its cloth of gold draperies. She woke as he knelt down beside her and they talked for many hours. The spell was now broken and the royal court awoke after its hundred year sleep. The King insisted that they should be married that very evening and a great celebration was held.

(Most retellings of this tale say that the princess pricked her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel and not a spindle as told here. I am not certain which is the most accurate but childrens’ books often show highly amusing illustrations of the accursed wheel with sharp pointy bits in the most unexpected places. A modern spinning wheel with its treadle and self winding bobbin has no sharp places anywhere. A needle does exist on the spinning wheel’s predecessor, the great wheel, which was basically a hand spindle turned on its side and powered by a huge, hand turned drive wheel. This fairy tale was written by Perault in the eighteenth century when the great wheel was still very much in use. Source 23.)


You combers all, both great and small,

Come listen to my ditty,

For I am he, and only he,

Regardless of thy pity;

For I can read, write, drinke and fight,

And that is all my honour;

My failing here, I love strong beer,

I am a rambling comber.

A dozen of wool through the comb I pull,

All in decent order;

So sleek and fine like shall shine,

And by my master’s order;

And when ’tis done, downstairs I run,

And carry it to the owner;

I make no doubt he will soon find out

I am a rambling comber.

My breeches they are ragged and torn,

My stockings got no feet to;

My shoes they both have lost their soles,

My hat has got no brim to;

But yet she is always in my mind,

Let me be drunk or sober:

A pretty girl is my delight

And a glass of good October.

{A spinner who produced worsted thread had to use wool that had been combed so that all the fibres in the fleece run parallel to one another. Worsted is a strong compact yarn and was traditionally used for warp threads, as they are put under tension on the loom. Wool prepared by carding produces ‘woolen’ yarn, when spun the fibres twist loosely around one another and the yarn has a ‘fluffy’ appearance. Woolen yarn weaves into a warmer cloth and the two types were often mixed to for a strong warm fabric.

Wool combs were a pair a heavy wooden frames with three or four rows of sharp iron tines. These were heated on a stove and drawn through the wool to straighten the fibres and remove tangles. The resulting mass was drawn off the comb through a horn ring to create a long length of parallel fibres called a roving.

Wool combing was a male dominated industry, although isolated spinners would comb their own wool. Combers were itinerant, travelling from village to village in search of work. The comber in this ballard has obviously travelled far with his soleless stocking and shoes. This song was recorded in 1893 in Horsham, Sussex. Source 14.}


My mother she died, and she left me a reel,

A little silver thimble and a pretty spinning wheel;

With a high down, derry O, derry O, derry O!

High down derry O! Dance o’er the broom.

I spun all day, and I sold my yarn;

And I put in my purse all the money I did earn;

With a high down, derry O, derry O, derry O!

High down derry O! Dance o’er the broom.

And when at last I’d saved enough,

I bought me a gown of a pretty silver stuff;

With a high down, derry O, derry O, derry O!

High down derry O! Dance o’er the broom.

(This old nursery rhyme is in praise of hard work and the rewards of industry, a common theme for the dry children’s literature of the early nineteenth century. The girl seems rather over fortunate in her ability to afford a costly gown on a spinner’s wage but the underlying moral is clear. An industrious woman was considered virtuous and highly valued as a wife. Source 2.)


The woman singeth at her spinning wheel

A pleasant chant, ballad or barcarolle;

She thinketh of her song, upon the whole,

Far more than of her flax; and yet the reel

Is full, and artfully her fingers feel

With quick adjustment, provident control,

The lines, too subtly twisted to unroll,

Out of a perfect thread. I hence appeal

To the dear Christian church – that we may do

Our Father’s business in these temples murk,

Thus, swift and steadfast; thus, intent and strong;

While, thus, apart from toil, our souls pursue

Some high, calm, spheric tune, and prove our work

The better for the sweetness of our song.

(This poem was written by Elizabeth Browning, a nineteenth century poetess. It gives a clear picture of the spinner’s life. A skilled woman seated comfortably at her spinning wheel could work by feel alone. This explains why it would have been so common for a woman to have been seen lost in her singing, and unmindful of her work. Again the spinning women is taken as a symbol of virtue and is compared to religious hymn. Source 11.)


There was once a poor shepherd who lived with his wife in a small house. They could not provide enough food to keep themselves well so the shepherd went hunting every day in the mountains above their farm.

One day the shepherd took his crossbow and went up the mountainside to hunt. He spotted a goat larger than any he had ever seen before just out of range of his bow. The shepherd was so eager to catch it that without realising he pursued the goat to the very top of the mountain. Above him rose the wall of a glacier into which a door like opening had been cut. Curious the shepherd stepped inside and was amazed to find himself in a cavern glittering with a thousand precious gems. Admist the blaze of light stood three women wearing fine clothes and adorned with ornaments of gold. The shepherd recognised the women as the Goddess Frigga and her handmaidens and fell to his knees in awe. Frigga welcomed him and offered him a gift of his own choice to take back to his home. The shepherd gazed around the cavern at the gems and golden jewels, but his eyes kept returning to a tiny bunch of blue flowers that Frigga held in her hand. ‘I would count it a blessing if you would just give me the flowers in your hand, great goddess.’ he said.

Frigga smiled ‘Take them with my blessing,’ she said ‘as they remain fresh you will prosper, as they wither so will you sink and die. Take also this bag of seed and plant it on your land, you must tend and care for the crop that will grow.’ As the shepherd stepped forward to accept the seeds he was dazzled by the brightness shining from Frigga’s face and closed his eyes. When he opened them again he was back on the mountain top, clutching the flowers and seeds.

The shepherd rushed home and told his wife what had occurred. ‘What use are flowers?’ the wife exclaimed ‘Why didn’t you bring back a jewel or piece of gold that we could have sold for food?’ The shepherd ignored her and ploughed up his plot of land and planted the seeds. Time went by and the green shoots appeared which grew tall, topped with tight green buds. The plants bloomed and the shepherd was heartened to see the same blue flowers as those that Frigga had given him. His wife however complained that he was wasting good land on plants not even fit to feed the sheep.

As time passed the plants became dry and brown, the flowers had gone and the stalks were heavy with seed heads. The shepherd was saddened because the flowers had reminded him of the day on the mountain top. One day Frigga visited the shepherd and his wife and led them out to the field. She told them that the plant was called flax and showed them how to harvest it and comb off the seeds. She retted the stalks in the river and combed out the plants fibres, and with these fibres she instructed the shepherd’s wife on how spin and weave them into linen cloth.

The shepherd’s wife worked hard at spinning and weaving and was able to sell the linen at a high price. The shepherd kept the seed and sowed a larger field and thus their life continued. They soon became quite wealthy and were able to bring up their children in comfort.

Years later when the shepherd was an old man he noticed that the bunch of flax flowers Frigga had given him in the cave were beginning to wither and die. He knew that his life was coming to an end and set off to climb the mountain for one last time. The climb was hard and slow for the old man but he persevered and eventually stood below the glacier. As before Frigga was waiting for him with her handmaidens and welcomed him, ‘Come and dwell with us forever in peace and joy’, and the door of ice closed behind him.

{Although this tale has come to be associated with Frigga, the wife of Odin in Norse Mythology, it has only survived in Germany where the local goddess Holda claims the credit of the gift of flax. However the two goddesses have much in common and in Scandinavia the constellation we call the Girdle of Orion was known as Frigga’s Spinning Wheel.

Linen has long been considered superior to wool and commanded a higher price. The production of linen cloth is more complicated, both in the preparation of the fibres and in the spinning of the thread. As linen was generally a finer cloth than wool and easier to clean it was used for shirts and undergarments until the spread of the use of cotton.

The source of linen is flax, a plant which bears small blue flowers. Flax is pulled out of the ground when it is seeding. Much care is taken to remove the outer woody fibres of the plant by soaking the plants in pools of water, beating and combing, until the inner hairy fibres are ready to be spun. Source 3.}


A frog he would a-wooing go,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

A frog he would a-wooing go,

Whether his mother would let or no.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

So off he set with his opera hat,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

And on the road he met with a rat,

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Pray, Mister Rat, will you go with me?

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

Kind Mrs Mousey for to see?

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

They came to the door of Mousey’s hall,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

They gave a loud knock, and they gave a loud call.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Pray, Mrs Mouse, are you within?

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

Oh yes, kind sirs, I’m sitting to spin.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Pray, Mrs Mouse, will you give us some beer?

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

For Froggy and I are fond of good cheer.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Pray, Mr Frog, will you give us a song?

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

Let it be something that’s not very long.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Indeed, Mrs Mouse, replied Mr Frog,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

A cold has made me as hoarse as a dog.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

Since you have a cold, Mr Frog, Mousey said,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

I’ll sing you a song that I have just made.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

But while they were all a-merry-making,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

A cat and her kittens came tumbling in.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

The cat she seized the rat by the crown,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

The kittens they pulled the little mouse down.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

This put Mr Frog in a terrible fright,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

He took up his hat and he wished them good-night.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

But as Froggy was crossing over a brook,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

A lily-white duck came and gobbled him up.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

So there was an end of one, two, three,

Heigh ho! says Rowley,

The Rat, the Mouse, and the little Frogee.

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,

Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley

{ Spinners were famous for singing while they were working, encouraged by the humming of the spinning wheel. Mrs Mouse seems to be no exception as she is not only keen to continue signing when her guests arrive but also invents her own songs. The Lovesick Frog is the sort of popular ballard which spinners would have sung. It is not only long and therefore suitable for the task but also has many repeated lines which would make it very easy to remember. An older version of this ballard gives further evidence that this was one of the spinners’ songs….

The Frogge would a wooing ride,

Humble dum, humble dum.

Sword and Buckler by his side,

Tweedle, tweedle twino.

The repeated lines in the earlier ballard suggest the humming sound of the spinning wheel and the twirling of the bobbin. In the late eighteenth century the Earl of Surrey wrote….

‘My mother’s maids they do sit and spin,

They sing a song made of a fieldish mouse.’

This may well be a reference to the Lovesick Frog, and even if it is not it shows that ballards of this kind were popular among spinners. Source 2.}


Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes marry, have I,

Three bags full;

One for my master,

One for my dame,

But none for the little boy

Who cries in the lane.

{ The sharing out of wool bales in this rhyme is attributed to the export tax imposed on fleece in 1275. The purpose of the tax was to protect the English textile industry from foreign competition and to increase the value of exports. Woolen cloth commanded a much higher price than fleece, and both were of great importance to England’s wealth.

The colour of the sheep in the rhyme must also be of some significance. Black wool is very difficult to dye and would therefore seem to have little application in spinning and weaving. However many shepherds prized black fleece and would keep one coloured sheep in a flock of white ones. When the fibre was prepared for spinning a little of the black was mixed in with the white to produce a light-grey wool. The cloth made from ‘grey’ wool was believed to be warmer and more weather proof the wool made from white fleece. Unlike the pure black wool it could be dyed without difficulty. Source 2.}


Mary MacPhee, well I like that maiden.

She is sweet and bonny, she is not haughty.

Mary MacPhee, well I like that maiden.

She is sweet and gentle since she came here.

‘Tis a joy to find her as she is with her pleasant talk and good temper.

If you were put in a room with a light at your back

You would embroider flowers on linen.

She is sweet and sunny, she can turn her hand to anything.

She can count the hundreds, spinning them with skill.

{This is a Hebridean love song which has been translated from the original gaelic. ‘Counting the hundreds’ means counting the number of revolutions the spinner makes while winding a skein of finished yarn on her reel. Hebridean spinners used a simple rod with two crossbars to make a skein called a lianradh, the English name for this tool is niddy-noddy because the frame is moved to and fro while the spinner winds the yarn. Source 16.}


Once upon a time there was a lady who had just recently married a fine gentlemen. She could not have been happier as he gave her gifts of fine clothes and jewelry. However one day her husband told her it was high time that she started spinning, for he was accustomed to the sound of a spinning wheel and the click-clack of a shuttle in his home. The lady was horrified, `Alas I cannot spin,’ she said, `for my father thought spinning too lowly a task for a high borne maiden.’ Her husband grew angry at these words and insisted that she should spin ten twelve hanks of thread each day, he called his servants to take a spinning wheel to her room.

In the following week the lady tried to spin the flax she had been given but she could barely spin one hank a day, and that was tangled and uneven. Her husband was far from satisfied when he inspected her work. `This thread could only be made into crofters’ shirts, it wouldn’t do for my clothing, it’s so coarse! I am leaving for a few days on business, when I return I want to see a hundred hanks of the finest linen thread. If you cannot manage this I will cast you aside and take another wife who can spin.

Unhappily the lady took a stroll out into glen with a heavy heart. She sat down on a stone beneath a rowan tree but before she had time to think further of her fate she heard music coming up from below. Knowing there must be fairies near she broke a twig off the rowan tree for protection and rolled aside the stone. Beneath the stone was a green cave within which were six tiny women dressed in green, sitting in a circle. One of them had a spinning wheel and was singing while she worked….

`Little kens my dame at hame

That Whippety Stourie is my name.’

The lady steeped into the green cave and greeted the fairies and they nodded in reply. They all had very lopsided mouths, bent like a fir tree in the wind. The lady asked why they bore such an unusual disfigurement and Whippety Stourie replied `We get that from spin-spin-spinning.’ The lady was instantly reminded of her predicament and bust into tears. `Why should such a fine lady be so sad?’ asked the faeries. The lady told them the whole story. `My goodness, is that all?’ said Wipperty Stourie, `If you just invite us to dinner on the evening your husband returns you will have nothing to fear!’. The lady took great heart from these words, when she returned home she left the spinning wheel and spent the week in leisure. On the day of her husbands return she had six extra places set at the table. Her husband asked nothing about the flax but he did enquire about the extra places set at the table. `I invited some ladies here to make your return more merry’ the lady replied. The faeries arrived and talked long and merrily with the husband. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he asked why they had mouths bent like fir trees in a high wind. Wipperty Stourie said `We get that from spin-spin-spinning. There is no better way to get a fine thread.’ The husband looked at his beautiful wife and was suddenly horrified that she might ruin her good looks spinning. `Then my wife will spin no more, let the spinning wheel be burnt.’ The lady was overjoyed and from that day one she lived the life of leisure she had always wanted.

(This tale underlines the reality that although spinning was a poorly paid living it was not confined to the poor. The wetting of the flax in the mouth to make a fine thread sounds somewhat disgusting today but this would have improved the spinner’s work. Flax fibres bind together better when they are damp and professional flax spinners sometimes worked in cellars to help keep the fibres moist. Spinning wheels used for flax were often fitted with a small bowl beside the distaff so that the spinner could dip her fingers in water as she worked the thread. Source 7.)


The Cattie sits in the kiln-ring, spinning, spinning;

And by came a little mousie, rinning, rinning.

Oh what’s that you’re spinning, my loesome, loesome lady?

I’m spinning a sark to my young son, said she, said she.

Weel mot he brook it, my loesome, loesome lady.

Gif he dinna brook it weel, he may brook it ill, said she, said she.

I soopit my house, my loesome, loesome lady,

‘Twas a sign ye didna sit amang dirt then, said she, said she.

I fand twall pennies, my winsome, winsome lady.

‘Twas a sign ye warna silverless, said she, said she.

I gaed to the market, my loesome, loesome lady.

‘Twas a sign ye didna sit at hame then, said she, said she.

I loft a sheepie’s head, my winsome, winsome lady.

‘Twas a sign ye warna kitchenless, said she, said she.

I put it in my pottie to boil, my loesome, loesome lady.

‘Twas a sign ye didna eat it raw, said she, said she.

I put it in my winnock to cool, my winsome, winsome lady.

‘Twas a sign ye didna burn your chafts then, said she, said she.

By came a cattie, and ate it a’up, my loesome, loesome lady.

And sae will I you – worrie, worrie – gaush, gaush, said she, said she.

(For those who require an English translation, a mouse passes a cat spinning on a spindle and stops to ask questions. The cat wants to eat the mouse and so she delays the mouse by insulting her housekeeping, forcing the mouse to answer back. The cat takes her chance when the mouse admits that her sheep’s head was eaten by a cat. Fragments of another version of ballard survive where the cat invites the mouse to join in her spinning and the two talk together at their task. Source 2.)


Turn the reel, spin the wheel,


Wind it full, with finest wool,

That every lad may wear his plaid,

Turn the reel, spin the wheel,


(This is a Scottish spinning rhyme, In houses where several members of the family span the precious spinning wheel and reel would have been used simultaneously to get the best possible value of them. The housewife sat at the spinning wheel while her daughters and servants carded or span with drop spindles. Source 9.)


Once upon a time there was a miller who had a beautiful daughter. He was a terrible chatterbox and liked nothing more than to praise his daughter. One day he chanced to speak to the King and started his usual banter. ‘My daughter is so clever,’ said the miller ‘that she can spin straw into gold.’ The King was greedy for money and demanded that the remarkable young lady should be brought to the palace the next morning. The miller was rather concerned about the outcome of his foolish boast but took his daughter to the palace as requested.

The King did not give the girl a second glance but lead her to a room filled with straw, a spinning wheel, a stool and a pile of bobbins stood in one corner. The King commanded the girl to spin all the straw into gold that very day or face serious punishment. The girl begged and pleaded with the King but he would not listen, she was locked in the room with her impossible task.

The girl began to weep and after a while a manikin dressed all in black crept into the room. He asked her why she was crying and reluctantly she told her story. ‘What would you give me if I did your work?’ the manikin asked. ‘My necklace.’ the girl replied and without another word the manikin gathered some straw and sat down at the spinning wheel. He span very quickly and the wheel turned unnaturally fast, within moments the first bobbin was full. The manikin carried on spinning faster and faster until all the straw was spun and the bobbins shone with gold thread.

When the King returned that evening he was most impressed at the work that had been done. The miller’s daughter was made to spend the night in the palace and in the morning she was taken to a larger room full of straw, a spinning wheel and a larger pile of bobbins. The girl sat down and began to weep but again the strange black manikin appeared. This time she offered a ring for his help and without further ado he sat down to spin. The King was well pleased when he returned that evening and seemed to show more interest in the miller’s daughter. She was after all very attractive. The girl begged to be set free but again she was forced to spend the night in the palace. In the morning the King led her to a still larger room full of straw and promised that if she could complete the spinning by nightfall, she would become his queen.

As soon as the King left the black manikin appeared and asked what the girl would give him in return for his aid. The girl had nothing left to give and the manikin became thoughtful. ‘If you become Queen,’ he said ‘would you give me you first born child?’. The girl was greatly alarmed by his suggestion but she could see no other option and agreed. The manikin sat down to spin and soon all the straw had been spun into bobbins of shining gold. When the King returned he was overjoyed and he married the miller’s daughter the next day.

The girl adapted quickly to her life as a queen and soon forgot her promise to the black manikin. However, months later when her son was born the manikin appeared and demanded his reward. The Queen became desperate and offered the manikin great riches which he refused. The Queen began to cry and finally the manikin relented. He told her that if she could guess his name in three days she could keep the child, he left promising to return the next evening to hear her first guess. That first night the Queen tried many names until the manikin lost his patience. The Queen was very worried by her failure and sent messengers out to far off lands to collect more lands. However their finds were to no avail and again the manikin left triumphant.

One the third day one of the messengers returned with a strange tale. He had travelled far and seen a small house in front of which a tiny man was dancing. He had heard the following song….

‘Today I brew, tomorrow I bake,

The next day I the Queen’s child take.

Little does she guess poor dame,

That Rumplestiltskin is my name!’

The Queen was greatly relieved to hear these words and that evening she tackled her task with more confidence. She tried several common names and the manikin smiled broadly. However when she finally uttered the name ‘Rumpestiltskin’ the manikin went into a screaming fit. ‘The Devil told you!’ he shouted and stamped his foot so hard that he disappeared through the floor, and the Queen was never troubled by the manikin again.

(The concept of spinning straw into gold may have originated in the increase of value created by spinning. Flax fibre is fairly similar to straw in appearance being the broken up stalks of the flax plant. As spinners often sold their yarn it represented wealth, hence straw into gold.

This tale is another moral warning that boasting about your children will get them into trouble. It has always puzzled me why the king suddenly lost interest in the gold he had married the girl for in the first place. The same uncertain ending exists in the English version of the German tale, Tom Tit Tot. Source 19.)


Cross patch, draw the latch,

Sit by the fire and spin;

Take a cup and drink it up,

Then call your neighbours in.

{ This rhyme appears to have two confused elements. The most obvious being the sociable housewife, entertaining her neighbours with tea while spinning by the fire. During the cold winter months the fireside was the favoured place for spinners. As well as being the warmest spot in the house the fireside had an additional benefit, it made the natural grease in the sheep’s wool flow more readily and made spinning easier. Linen spinners on the other hand found their fibres worked better in damp cellars where the flax could be kept moist.

The nonsense words ‘cross-patch’ were a taunt for a sulking child. This rhyme was used to cheer melancholy children and in one version the last line survives as ‘Let good temper in.’ Source 2.}


Oh tarry woo’, oh tarry woo’, tarry woo’ is ill to spin.

Card it well, oh card it well, card it well ere you begin.

When it’s carded, wove and spun, then your work is nearly done,

But when it’s woven, dressed and clean, it will be clothing for a queen.

Up you shepherds, dance and skip, o’er the hills and valleys trip,

Sing of the praise of tarry woo’ and the flock that bears it too.

Poor harmless creatures, without blame, they clothe are back and cram the wame,

Keep us warm and hearty too, weel’s on us our tarry woo’.

Sing of my bonny harmless sheep that feed upon yon mountains steep.

Sweetly bleating as they go, through the weary winter’s snow.

Hart and hind and fallow deer not half so useful are,

For kings to him that holds the plough, all are obliged to tarry woo’.

How happy is the shepherd’s life, far from court and free from strife,

Whilst his gimmers bleat and bay and the lambkins skip and play.

Who’d be a king, can any tell, when a shepherd lives so well,

Lives so well and pays his due with honest heart and tarry woo’?

He lives contented, envies none, e’en not the monarch on his throne,

Though he the royal sceptre sways he has no sweeter holidays.

And no such music to his ear, of thief or foe he has he fear.

For steady Kate and Curly too will defend the tarry woo’.

{When sheep were cut or injured the wounds were treated with Stockholm Tar. This would explain the shepherds warning to the spinners to card the wool well before using it. `Kate’ and `Curly’ are the names of the sheepdogs protecting the flock, in another version of this song the dogs’ names are given as `kent’ and `colly’, two different breeds. Source 14.}


Once upon a time there was an orphan girl who lived with her godmother in a small house on the edge of a remote village. The godmother kept them by spinning, weaving, and sewing. As the girl grew older, her godmother taught her how to use the spindle, shuttle and needle. They worked together happily for many years until the godmother fell seriously ill. With her dying words the godmother gave the orphan her blessing and told her that with the little house, the spindle, the shuttle and the needle she would always be able to provide for herself. The godmother’s blessing held firm because any of the girl’s work was sold as soon as it was finished.

A year later a prince rode through the orphan’s village searching for his bride. Although his father wished him to marry a noblewoman, the prince was not inspired by the wealthy ladies of the royal court. As he did not wish to disobey his father completely he had sworn to marry a girl who was both the richest and the poorest. The prince asked the local folk where the richest girl lived and they pointed out a fine house with beautiful gardens. When he asked where the poorest girl lived he was shown the orphan’s tiny house on the edge of the village. The prince rode to the rich girls house and saw her sitting outside, she curtseyed to the prince and he raised his hat politely and rode on. He came presently to the orphans cottage and peered through the window to see her. The orphan was busy at her spinning, when she noticed the prince at her window she blushed and carried on with her work. The prince left and rode on leaving the orphan greatly cheered by the appearance of the handsome stranger. She sang the song she had once sung with her godmother while working…..

‘Spindle, Oh Spindle, hasten away,

And bring to my house the suitor I pray.’

As soon as she had said these words the spindle leapt out of her hands and danced out of the door leaving the thread shining behind it. The girl chased after the spindle but it moved quickly and she soon returned to the house without it. Bereft of her spindle the girl sat down at her loom and carried on working. The spindle carried on dancing in the wake of the prince and reached him just as it ran out of thread. The prince was intrigued by the dancing spindle and followed the shining thread back towards the village. The orphan girl meanwhile started to sing again….

‘Shuttle, Oh shuttle, weave well this day,

and guide the suitor to me I pray.’

The shuttle jumped out of the orphan’s hands and danced to the threshold where it started to weave a beautiful carpet. Lacking both spindle and shuttle the girl sat down to her sewing, singing…..

‘Needle, my needle, sharp pointed and fine,

Prepare for my suitor this house of mine.’

The needle leapt out of her hand and flew around the room. As it travelled there appeared velvet, silk and brocade, the tiny house was filled with fine draperies. The prince rode up to the orphan’s cottage and saw the wonderful tapestry on the threshold and the fine curtains and coverings. The orphan girl stood among the finery in her ragged dress. The prince realised that this was his bride to be, both the richest and the poorest in one. The happy couple were married and the spindle, shuttle and needle were kept in great honour in the royal treasure house

{Despite the orphans poor surroundings she was able to keep herself by selling her spinning and weaving. Both of these tasks were poorly paid but it would have been enough to make the difference between starvation and survival. The blessing of the godmother giving the child the ability to sell anything she made would have been a considerable advantage. Source 19.}


There was an old woman sat spinning,

And that’s the first beginning;

She had a calf,

And that’s half;

She took it by the tail,

And threw it over the wall,

And that’s all!

{No comment, that’s all! Source 2.}


The distaff of the maiden, the distaff of the maiden,

A stocking on knitting pins, while sooty drops ooze.

The distaff of the maiden, the distaff of the maiden.

Sleep, little baby, sleep little baby,

Not a morsel have I in bag or in sacks.

Sleep, little baby, sleep little baby.

Sleep, little baby, sleep little baby,

You did not spin the white cloth, you were asleep the night long.

Sleep, little baby, sleep little baby.

{This is a Hebridean Spinners Song which has been translated from the original gaelic. Some farm cottages were built with a central open fire with a smoke hole in the roof. When the wind was too strong to allow the smoke to escape the soot clung to the rafters until it became soft like tar with condensation. The ‘sooty drops’ referred to in the song are deposits of soot dripping down from the roof of the house. It is difficult to imagine today how a housewife could perform textile work under these conditions. Source 16.}


Once upon a time there was a very lazy girl called Gerda. Her mother was close to despair as she needed the money that Gerda could have earned from spinning to buy food. Finally the enraged mother beat her lazy daughter and Gerda screamed loudly in pain.

It so happened that the Queen was passing in her coach and heard Gerda’s cries. Concerned by the noise she entered the house and reprimanded Gerda’s mother for treating her so badly. The mother was very ashamed of her daughter but felt that she must give some other explanation. ‘I can never stop my daughter from spinning,’ she lied ‘and I can no longer afford to buy flax to replenish what she has spun.’ The Queen was most impressed by these words and replied ‘I myself think there is nothing better than the sound of a spinning wheel. I will take your daughter to the palace where she can spin as much as she likes.’

And so Gerda was taken to the palace and the Queen took her to three rooms filled with flax from floor to ceiling. ‘I want you to spin all this flax for me’ said the Queen ‘and when you have finished you can marry my son as you should make a good hardworking wife.’ Gerda was horrified, it would take a lifetime to spin so much flax. She sat down and wept for three days and spun not a strand. When the Queen returned she was very surprised to see the flax untouched. Gerda said she was so upset at leaving her mother that she had been unable to work. The queen was satisfied with this explanation but promised to return the next day to make sure Gerda had started. Gerda still didn’t start to spin and in despair she stared out of the window. Three old women came walking past. The first had a huge disfigured foot, the second had a thick lower lip which hung down on her chin and the third had a huge disfigured thumb.

Gerda cried out for help and when the old ladies saw her tearstained face they asked her what was wrong. Gerda told the whole story of her misfortune. ‘We can help you,’ the ladies cried, ‘we can spin the flax for you in no time. But you must invite us to your wedding and tell the Queen that we are your aunts.’ Gerda agreed and the three women walked into the first room of flax. All three sat around the same spinning wheel and started to spin. The woman with the huge foot worked the treadle, the one with the disfigured thumb drew out the flax and the one with the huge lip moistened the thread in her mouth. They span all the flax into hanks of fine linen thread and then they did the same in the second room, and then the third room. When all the flax had been spun they gave Gerda their blessing and bade her not forget her promise.

The Queen returned the next day and was most impressed by the great piles of linen hanks. She made arrangements for the Prince’s marriage straight away. The Prince himself came to greet Gerda and praised her for her hard work. ‘I have three aunts’ Gerda told the Prince, ‘please can they come to the wedding feast and sit at my table? They have always been kind to me.’ The Prince agreed, on the day of the wedding the three old ladies arrived and were shown to the high table.

The Prince was horrified by the appearance of the three women. He went up to the first and asked ‘Pardon me, but how did you come to have such a big foot?’

‘From treadling my spinning wheel.’ she replied. The Prince approached the second old women and asked ‘ Why do you have such a long lip?’

‘From licking the thread when I am spinning’ she replied. Still curious the Prince asked the third ‘Why do you have such a large thumb?’

‘From drawing the flax while spinning.’ the woman replied. The Prince looked shocked and said ‘My own bride will look like these three women in one if she stays a spinner all her life. Gerda shall never spin again and then she will keep her beauty.’ Gerda lived happily with the Prince and at last she had the life of leisure she had always wanted.

{This tale is very similar to ‘Jeanie and the Fairy Spinners but in this version the spinners’ deformity is threefold. It is unlikely that spinners would have developed huge thumbs and disfigured feet, but rough hands and lips would have been the trade mark of a long experienced flax spinner. It is interesting to note the two common themes of spinning folklore, the hard working girl who is rewarded with wealth or even a royal marriage, and the reluctant spinner who with the aid of magic manages to live a life of leisure. The first is a moral tale to encourage industry while the second is the wishful dream of every tired housewife. Source 5.}


Old woman, old woman, shall we go a-shearing?

Speak a little louder, Sir, I’m very hard of hearing.

Old woman, old woman, shall I love you dearly?

Thank you very kindly, Sir, now I hear you clearly.

{ This is a charming rhyme dedicated to the strategically deaf. Shearing is now considered to be a man’s task but was once often undertaken by women. An old Saxon law forbade women to shear sheep on a Sunday. One can almost image a housewife of Saxon days, chasing around her wool on its four legs before she could sit down to spin. Source 2.}


The Man that is about to clippe his sheepe,

Must pray for two faire days and one fair weeke.

{ Shearing is much easier when the wool is dry hence the two fair days to dry the fleece on the sheep’s back. Once the sheep has been shorn it loses its protective warm fleece and is vulnerable to cold weather. A fair week allows the sheep to grow back some of its wool without becoming too cold. Traditionally if bad weather struck within a fortnight of shearing day the whole flock would be taken indoors. }


Long years ago while eagles shrieked

And rain streamed down from the Hills of Heaven,

Helgi the warrior, the high-minded hero,

Borghild’s son, was born in Bralund.

The Norns came to the house that night,

Those who would fashion the prince’s fate;

Great fame, they said, would mark his future,

He would be called the best of kings.

Then they wound the threads of fate,

In Braland’s castle where the hero was born

Gathered the strands into a golden rope,

And made it fast in the moon’s high hall.

East and west they hid the ends;

The prince’s lands lay in between.

Neri’s sister went to the north

And fastened one end to hold forever.

(This poem is from the Poetic Edda, the source of much of our knowledge on Norse mythology. The Vikings believed that the destinies of men and gods were controlled by three women called the Norns, the equivalents of the Fates of classical myth. The poem describes them spinning a golden thread representing the destiny of a Viking prince. Other sources tell us that one Norn span the thread of mans fate, the second measured the life of each individual and the third cut the thread as life ended. Source 25.)


Once upon a time there was a king who had a proud and beautiful daughter. The king wanted her to marry a nobleman of her own choice but the princess never found her suitors to her satisfaction. To the king’s great embarrassment she found fault with them all and insulted them.

In desperation the king summoned all of her many suitors to a great banquet hoping that the princess would at last made her choice. The princess walked up the hall insulting each noble, prince and king as she passed. Some were too tall, too thin, too fat or too pale and she voiced her opinions loudly. When she reached the last king she cried ‘Look at him! He is covered in whiskers! He should be called King Prickly Beard!’ The king was deeply shamed when he heard his daughter insult his guests, and he declared that she would be married to the next beggar who came to the door.

The next day a ragged minstrel arrived at the castle and the king had him summoned and true to his word the king gave the minstrel his daughter’s hand. The princess was horrified when she realised her fate and pleaded with her father, but shortly left the castle as the reluctant wife of the itinerant musician.

The beggar led her a long distance until the countryside was quite unfamiliar to the princess. They passed a great castle and the princess despaired of her hapless plight when the beggar told her that it belonged to King Prickly Beard. The beggar’s home was a tiny ramshackle cottage. The princess was told to prepare a meal but she did not know how and the beggar was forced to help her. The next day she was set to cleaning the house and they lived like this for several days until the beggar declared ‘We cannot go on spending money and not earning it, you must work wife. I shall cut you willows and you can make baskets.’

The Princess tried to weave baskets but the work made her soft hands bleed. The beggar then set her down to spin but she did not know how and the thread made her hands bleed even more. Bemoaning his wife’s lack of skills the beggar sent her to the market with some pots to sell. The princess did well at the market and for several days she took pots to for sale. However one day a drunken soldier came past and brushed his horse against the stall and broke all her stock. Weeping the princess went home and told her husband of her mishap. The beggar shock his head and said she had placed her stall where such disturbances were bound to occur. He declared her unfit for such work and acquired her a job as a kitchen maid in the royal castle.

Every day the princess worked in the castle kitchen and did the dirtiest jobs. One day a royal wedding was held and a parade came past the castle kitchen, the princess remembered the luxurious life that she had lost and burst into tears. Just at that moment a man came in wearing golden clothes, he grabbed and said he wanted her for a dancing partner. The princess was deeply shamed for the man was no other than King Prickly Beard. He dragged her to the dancing floor and whirled her around, the lid of her basket flew off and tipbits of food the cook had given her fell to the floor. The courtiers laughed but the princess wished that the ground would swallow her in her shame. She broke away from the king and ran towards the door but he overtook her and said ‘Don’t you know me? I am the beggar who you married and I am the soldier who upset your stall. I have done this to cure you of your pride because I love you. Now that your faults are gone it is time for our wedding feast!’ The startled princess was dressed in great finery and greeted by her parents who had been privy to King Prickly Beard’s plan.

(The concept of the wealthy lady who has never done a scrap of work is not unusual in folklore and the princess of this tale is a shining example. Such women would have been rare even among a royal court. Medieval illustrations show noblewomen pursuing all kinds of activities and these frequently included spinning and weaving. However King Prickly Beard’s wife had been evidently spoiled and had escaped such work in her childhood. Source 19.)


There was a little man came from the West,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

He married a wife, she was not of the best,

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

She wouldn’t card, she wouldn’t spin,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

She wouldn’t work all in the kitchen.

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

When this good man came home from plough,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

He says: ‘My dear, is the dinner ready now?’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

‘Oh if your dinner you must have,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

Then get it yourself, I’m not your slave.’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

For I won’t brew and I won’t bake,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

And I won’t get my white hands black.’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

This good man pulled his coat from his back,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

And made his stick go widgy widgy whack.

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

‘And if you won’t do what I say now,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

I’ll take you and yoke you to the plough.’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

‘Oh I will card and I will spin,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

And I will work all in the kitchen.’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

‘And I will bake and I will brew,

Fol de rol de rol de rol de rigeo,

And I will cook your dinner for you.’

She was the driggle draggle daughter of Peggy, O.

(A housewife had to be proficient in many tasks, many of which are mentioned in the song. Carding and spinning were very necessary, either to keep the household self sufficient in cloth or to provide an additional income to supplement food and rent. A women who refused to undertake such tasks would have been a great liability to a man who had to work all day. Cooked meals even in the first half of this century took a long time to prepare and a wife could easily match her husbands working day just in cooking and cleaning. Textile crafts were often undertaken after the others tasks of the day were finished and hard working women worked long into the evening. Bearing this in mind the ‘Little Man from the West’ was well justified in threatening to beat his wife. Source 13.)


Twinkle twinkle pretty spindle,

Let the white wool drift and dwindle;

Oh! We weave a damask doublet

For my love’s coat of steel.

Hark! The timid turning treadle

Crooning soft old fashioned ditties,

To the low, slow murmur of the brown, round wheel.

(This is an old Irish rhyme which was almost certainly sung by spinners as they worked. The words have a very romantic feeling to them. It is unclear with the reference to the lover’s armour is purely nostalgic or a survival from an age when he would have appreciated the coat to protect steel from sun and rain. Note the reference to weaving in the same household, this family is self sufficient in cloth making. Source 9.)


As a verbose preacher was addressing the congregation on a communion occasion, one by one his ministerial brethren dropped out of the church into the vestry. As the last one who was left put his head into the vestry, those who proceeded him enquired if the prolix speaker had not yet finished his address. ‘Weel,’ said he, ‘his tow’s dune lang syne, but he’s aye spinnin’ awa’ yet.’

{This tale is from a Victorian book of humourous stories. ‘Tow’ is another word for flax, so in other words the minister had run out of interesting things to say but was still talking. Source 8.}


There was once a woman who baked five pies. While they were cooling her daughter ate them and her mother was so amazed at the girls appetite that she made up a song about while she was spinning…

`My daughter has eaten five, five pies today –

My daughter has eaten five, five pies today.’

Now it so happened that the king was riding past and heard the mother singing but he couldn’t make out the words. He asked her to sing the song again. The mother was very embarrassed by her daughters greed and changed her song….

`My daughter has spun five, five skeins today –

My daughter has spun five, five skeins today.’

The king was very impressed by the daughter’s `handiwork’ and said `I have need of a wife and your daughter sounds a hard working lass so I shall marry her. For eleven months of the year she shall have all the food she wants to eat and all the clothes she desires, but in the twelfth month she must spin me five skeins a day or I will kill her for her idleness.’ The mother was overjoyed at this match and the marriage was agreed.

For the first eleven months the daughter enjoyed her new way of life and hoped that her husband had forgotten about the month of spinning. But on the first day of the twelve month he took her to a room she had never seen before which was bare but for a spinning wheel. He said `Today you must spin five skeins of flax and if you fail you will lose your head.’ The daughter was truly frightened because she had always been an idle girl and had never learned how to spin. She sat down by the wheel and wept, fearing for her life.

Just then there was a knock at the door and she went to open it. A tiny black man came in with a long tail, seeing her tear stained face he coaxed the story of her misfortune out of her. `I will do your spinning for you.’ he said. The girl uncertainly asked what he would charge to do her work. `I will charge you nothing.’ he replied, `Each evening when I return with your skeins you can have three guesses at my name. If you fail to guess correctly by the last day of the month you will be mine.’ This seemed no contest to her and she agreed.

The month passed, every morning the king brought in the flax and reminded her that her head was at stake if she failed to complete her task. The little man came and collected the flax, flying away by rotating his tail, and returned in the evening with her five skeins. But although she had all day to think of names, she could not guess the little man’s name and day by day he grew more malicious at the thought of taking her for his bride. Towards the end of the month the daughter feared that she would indeed be claimed by the little man. One the second last day the king ate with his wife in her room and told her of a tale of what had happened to him in her month of confinement. He had been out riding and had hear a voice singing from the bottom of a quarry pit. Curious he had approached quietly and had seen an amazing sight. At the bottom of the pit there was a tiny black man with a long tale working away at a spinning wheel and singing the words….

`Nimmy nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot.’

The daughter was overjoyed at hearing these words but said nothing to her husband. When the little black man arrived with her last five skeins she pretended to look frightened and made two wild guesses and names. The little man had a most evil grin but it soon disappeared when she recited….

`Nimmy nimmy not,

You name’s Tom Tit Tot.’

The little man just twirled his tail and flew away and she never saw him again.

(This fairy tale is the English version of Rumplestiltskin. It is interesting to note that aspects of Whippty Stourie have leaked in although they contain very different creatures of the fairy kingdom, one purely helpful and one mischievous. Source 18.)


The loaded distaff in the left hand placed,

With spongy coils of snow-white wool was graced;

From these the right hand lengthening fibres drew,

Which into thread ‘neath nimble fingers grew.

At intervals a gentle touch was given,

By which the twirling whorl was onward driven;

Then, when the sinking spindle reached the ground,

The recent thread up its spire was wound,

Until the clasp, within its nipping cleft,

Held fast the newly-finished length of weft.

{A fragment of a poem by Catullus, (who also wrote the description of the Fates above). Again this gives an excellent description of the technique of drop spinning. This time the spinner is not described biting the lumps out of the yarn, this may have been considered an unladylike practice. However it is far more suited to the fates measuring out the threads of life. Source 22.)


As the yeres do growe so cares encrasse and thyne will move to loke to thrifte, thogh yeres in me woorke nothing lesse yet for yore yeres, and new yeres gifte this huswifes toy is now my shifte to set you on woorke some thrifte to feele I sende you now a spynneng wheel. But oon thing firste, I would wishe and pray leste thurste of thryfte might soone you trye only to spynne oon pounde a daye and play the reste, as tyme require, swete not fling rocke in fyre God sende who sendeth all thrifte and welth you long yeres and yore father helth.

(This charming passage was written for the presentation of the gift of a spinning wheel to a woman who had previously spun using the distaff and spindle. She is told to spin only a pound of yarn a day, quite a generous quantity by todays standards, so she would have time for leisure. The spinning wheel was more than an object to be given, it greatly speeded the work and would have been invaluable to a busy housewife. Source 9.)


Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who ruled over a small kingdom. He was a great war captain and cared greatly for his people, but he never seemed to be able to find a woman suitable for a wife. When the townspeople sent an orator to the prince to beg him to take a wife for the good of his mind and the continuation of his dynasty he voiced his problem clearly. `I understand the sense in taking a wife,’ said the prince, `But as soon as a woman leaves her own family she tries to lay down the law for her husband, they can be continuously disapproving, adulterous, critical or spendthrift, but they all have one thing in common -disobedience! Find me a beautiful woman who is not vain and will obey me, and I shall marry her.’

Frustrated by the question of marriage the prince left immediately to go hunting with his men. It chanced that he lost the hunt and found himself in unfamiliar terrain. The prince was overwhelmed by the tranquillity of glade and spotted a beautiful shepherdess spinning by a brook. She blushed deeply as she heard him approach, impressing the prince with her modesty. Lost for words the prince admitted that he had lost his way and the girl agreed to guide him back to a forest road. They walked back towards the town with the prince carefully noted landmarks on the route.

The next day the prince came back to speak to the shepherdess again and found her cottage with ease. She told him that her name was Griselidis, that she lived alone with her father and she spun and wove all the clothes they needed herself. The prince felt great love for this modest young maiden and announced to his court the next day that he would soon marry a local maid. Great expectatancy was caused by this announcement of the long awaited wedding. The young ladies in the town knew the prince disapproved of vanity and wore longer skirts, higher necklines and attempted to look modest, hoping to be chosen.

On the day of the wedding the crowds assembled to see the royal wedding. The prince rode out of the town with his courtiers and headed straight for Griselidis’ cottage. The shepherdess was just leaving in her best dress to go and see the prince’s wedding. The prince told her of his intentions and asked if she would consent to marry him and promise to obey him. Griselidis was overwhelmed and said that even if she married the poorest man in the village she would still obey her husband.

The marriage celebrations were held with great pomp and Griselidis quickly adjusted to life at the royal palace. The prince could find no fault in his bride and they lived happily until Griselidis gave birth to a girl and insisted on nursing the baby herself. The prince’s mistrust of women came back upon him like a madness. He decided to test her loyalty time and time again. He had her confined in the palace, took away the fine jewels he had given her on their marriage but her love for him remained strong. Finally he took her daughter away from her to be brought up secretly in a convent, Griselidis was heartbroken but she knew that her husband was testing her and her love for him did not diminish. The prince was still not convinced that her seemingly impeccable virtues were genuine and tested her again, her told her that her daughter had been killed. Griselidis was beyond grief when she heard this news but when she saw her husbands faked tears she felt more pity for him than for herself. Their love grew stronger, fifteen years went past with the prince occasionally upsetting his wife in order to strengthen their marriage. By this time the daughter, still safely cared for in the convent had become lovers with a nobleman. The prince approved of this match and an idea formed in his mind. He told Griselidis that she was too low bourne to be his wife and she was to return to her cottage in the woods. Griseldis was devastated but dressed herself in her old clothes and left without complaint.

Only days later the prince came to see her and commanded Griselidis to come back to the palace and instruct his new bride to be in his requires of his wife. Unhappily Griselidis obeyed but when she saw the princes ‘bride’ she reminded her so much of her daughter that she was filled with joy. At the wedding ceremony, the prince announced to all the assembled courtiers that he had been merely testing his wife and the marriage was for the young princess and her lover. The whole family rejoiced, Griselidis was reunited with her daughter, the long testing was over and her virtue was acclaimed throughout the kingdom.

(Like the ‘Princess of Sleeping Wood’ this fairy tale was written by the French writer Perrault. It is little surprise that this tale is not better known. The prince is almost totally unlikable and while King Prickly Beard’s harsh treatment of his wife was justifiable, in this case it is completely out if place. Griselidis has all the virtues of ‘The Industrious Little Girl’ and the heroine of ‘The Spindle, The Shuttle and The Needle’ and her punishments are more abhorrent than entertaining. It is interesting to note that Griselidid made all her own clothes from the wool she span, making her not only a spinner but also a weaver, fuller, dyer and seamstress. Source 23.)


It’s Droylsden Wakes, an’ we’re comin’ to town,

To tell you sommat of great renown;

An’ if this owd jade’ll let me begin,

Aw’ll show you how hard an’ how fast Aw can spin,

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe,

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe.

Thou brags of thysel, but Aw duuno’ think it’s true,

For Aw will uphold thee, thy faults aren’t a few,

For when thou hast done, an’ spun very hard,

Of this Aw’m well sure, thy work is ill-marred.

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe,

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe.

Thou saucy owd jade, thou’d best howd thy tongue,

Or else Aw’ll be thumpin’ thee ere it be long,

An’ if ‘at Aw do, thou’rt sure to rue,

For Aw can ha’mony a one good as you.

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe,

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe.

What is it to me who you can have?

Aw shanno’ be long ere Aw’m laid i’ my grave,

An’ when ‘at Aw’m dead, an’ ha’ done what Aw can,

You may fing one ‘at’ll spin as hard as Aw’ve down.

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe,

So its threedywell, threedywell, dan dum dill doe.

(This song is from Lancashire and originally accompanied a comical play performed by two men in fancy dress. One would be dressed as a woman and sitting atop a cart with a spinning wheel. The two would sing the verses alternately imitating a domestic quarrel. The refrain threedywell may mean either ‘tread the wheel’ or ‘thread ye well’. Source 13.)


Six little mice sat down to spin;

Pussy passed by and she peeped in.

What are you doing, my little men?

Weaving coats for gentlemen.

Shall I come in and cut off your threads?

No, no, Mistress Pussy, you’d bite off our heads.

Oh, no I’ll not; I help you to spin.

That may be so, but you don’t come in.

{Another tale of the cat and mouse variety but this time the mice are showing less recklessness than their colleague in ‘The Cattie and the Mousie’. Source 15.}


Hercules once went to Delphi to learn how he could obtain absolution for a murder he had committed. Apollo, the patron of the shrine, was so appalled by Hercules’s actions that he refused to grant an oracle to the hero. There followed a great conflict between Apollo and Hercules and Hercules threatened to take the sacred tripod from Delphi and get his oracle elsewhere. Zeus was angered by the argument and intervened, ordering Apollo to give the oracle. Hercules was sent to serve Queen Omphale of Lydia as a slave for the period of one year. Omphale swapped garments with Hercules and paraded around in his lion skin while he spent the year spinning with Omphale’s maidservants.

(This tale of a very humiliated demi-god comes from part of an ancient Greek comedy. The fact that the concept of Hercules wearing a ladies gown and being forced to spin was so clearly amusing to the people of the ancient world shows that spinning was exclusively practised by women. This has remained the case up to the twentieth century with very few exceptions. ‘Spinner’ does not exist as a surname although the more masculine craft of weaving survives in many surnames including ‘Web’ and ‘Webster’. Another indication of women’s monopoly of the craft is the expression ‘distaff side’ which has been used to describe the female sex for many centuries. Source 24.)


There was once woman who lived a alone with her lazy daughter and her kind and beautiful stepdaughter. The stepdaughter was treated harshly and made to do all the work about the house. When the housework was done she was expected to sit by the well outside the cottage and spin.

One day she was spinning so long that her hand started to bleed and the spindle was stained with blood. She dipped the spindle into the well to clean it but she lost her her grip and the spindle dropped into the water. The girl went to her stepmother and explained that had happened, and she was told to get the spindle out again. The poor stepdaughter was at a loss and jumped into the well. Instead of water she found herself in an unfamiliar landscape. After a short walk she came to a bread oven. The bread cried out to her ‘Let me out let me out, I shall burn!’ The stepdaughter took the bread out of the oven and soon she came to an apple tree. ‘Shake me, shake me!’ cried the tree ‘My apples are ripe! Shake me!’ The stepdaughter shook the tree and gathered up all the apples into a pile. She then came to a small cottage occupied by an old, larged toothed women. The women introduced herself as Frau Hulda and asked if she would do her housework in exchange for food and lodgings. The stepdaughter agreed and worked hard for Frau Hulda and shook her feather bed every day until the feathers flew.

She stayed with Frau Hulda for many days until she was overcome by a great tiredness and realised that she was homesick. When Frau Hulda learnt that she wanted to leave she took the girl to a door in the cottage, when she opened it a gold shower fell and the pieces of gold stuck to the stepdaughter. ‘That is your reward for you hard work’ said Frau Hulda and handed her the spindle that she had dropped in the well.

The girl found herself back home and the cockrel cried.. ‘Cock a doodle doo, your golden child’s come back to you.’ She was well received by her stepmother and stepsister on account of the small fortune of gold that she carried. She told them everything that had happened and her stepmother was eager for her own daughter to be so blessed. The lazy daughter took the spindle to the well. She pricked her finger on a thorn, stained the spindle with blood and dropped in down the well. When she jumped into the water she found herself next to the bread oven. But she would not listen to the bread’s pleas, ‘I will only get my hands dirty.’ she said. She passed the apple tree and again the pleas were ignored, ‘I won’t shake you, an apple might fall on my head!’ the lazy girl exclaimed.

When she reached Frau Hulda’s cottage she immediatly offered her services and theold women took her on. For the first day she forced herself to do the housework. The second day she did little and the third day she did none. Soon she refused to even leave her bed. Frau Hulda gave the lazy child her notice and lead her to the door. As it was opened soot rained down on the lazy daughter. In her mother’s village the cockrel cried ‘Cock a doodle doo, your sooty childs come back to you.’ and the soot never came off.

{Frau Hulda is a figure from German folklore and her role varies from that of a beautiful Goddess (see Frigga and the Gift of Flax) to the old witch wife of this tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. Hulda was particulary associated with spinners and in some areas she was beleived to prowl around the streets checking that spinners were hard at work. She rewarded hard working spinners with new distaffs or stricks of flax and punished the lazy by tangling their threads or breaking their tools. The stepdaughter span outside which was always a favoured place for spinners to work while the weather was fine. They could benefit from good light and speak to passers by. Source 26.}


O distaff, friend to warp and woof,

Minerva’s gift in man’s behoof,

Whom careful housewives still retain,

And gather to their households’ gain,

With me repair – no vulgar prize –

Where the famed towers of Nileus rise;

Thither, would Jove kind breezes send,

I steer my course to meet my friend.

The ivory distaff I provide,

A present for his blooming bride.

With her thou wilt sweet toil partake,

And aid her various vests to make.

{A poem written by Theocritus for the presentation of an ivory distaff to the bride of his friend Nician. Roman ladies used highly decorative distaffs made of gold, ivory and even amber. Such items would have been greatly treasured being a combination of beauty and practicality. Source 22.}


O hi ri, ho ro bho o hug o,

O hi ri, ho ro bho o hug o,

O hi ri hi ri bhi,

Hi li ri bhi o ro bho,

O hi ri, ho ro bho ho, o hug o.

{This is the song of a spinner from the island of Skye. The words have no meaning but they have an enchanting feel to them. Source 16.}


There was once a wealthy women who was accustomed to sit up late and spin while the family was asleep. One evening when she was carding wool there was a knock at the door and a voice called `Let me in. I am the witch of the one horn.’ Mistaking the witch for her neighbour the lady let the women in. She had a large horn growing out of her forehead and held a pair of wool combs. The witch sat down by the fire and began to card with great haste. Another women knocked at the door crying `Let me in! I am the witch of the two horns.’ The lady felt strangely obliged to obey and let in the second witch. She had two horns growing out of her head and carried a spinning wheel. She sat down and started to spin as quick as lightning. The witches kept arriving until the numbered twelve, all with a different number of horns. The worked at speed at the ladies carding, spinning, reeling, and weaving. By now the lady was truly frighted, the witches were working with unnatural speed and singing, but the lady was unable to move. One of the witches cried out `Get us a cake, woman!’ The lady searched for a vessel to get water from the well for baking but she could find none. `Use the sieve!’ cried the witches so she took the sieve to the well and tried to fill it with water but of course ot ran straight through.

The lady sat down and wept but she held a voice speaking from the well `Plaster the sieve with mud and moss and it will hold water.’ The lady did as she was bidden by the well and the sieve held water. The voice came again `You must go to the door and cry “The mountain of the Fenien Women is on fire!” three times.’ The lady did so and the twelve witches came running out screaming and headed off to Slievenamon. The well spirit told her how to secure her house and she followed his instructions. She poured water she had used to wash her childrens feet over the threshold, she broke up the cake the witches had made in her absence with blood and put the pieces in the mouths of her sleeping children, she put the witches weaving half in and half out of her linen chest and locked the lid, and lastly she bolted the door.

The witches soon returned screaming for vengeance. They called to the water to let them in. `I cannot’ the water replied, `I am scattered on the ground.’ They called to the door to open. `I cannot’ the door replied, `I am firmly bolted.’ With increasing rage they called to the cake to let them in. `I cannot’ replied the cake, `I am broken and my blood is on the lips of the children.’ On hearing these words the witches fled through the air back to Slievenamon screaming curses at the spirit of the well. One of them dropped a mantle which was kept by the lady’s family for many generations.

(This is a variant of the tale of ‘The Good Housewife and her Night Helpers’ and comes from Ireland. However through Inary’s helpers were innocent in appearance the horned witches give this tale a far more sinister note. Source 17.)


  • 1) Scottish Folk Tales and Legends, Barbara Ker Wilson – Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • 2) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie – Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • 3) Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes, Barbara Leonie Picard -Oxford University Press, 1953.
  • 4) The History of Spinning, Thorskegga Thorn – Darr Publications, 1993.
  • 5) Spinning Wheel and Stepmother, Doris Charlton – Blackie, 1974.
  • 6) Sheep and Man, M.L. Ryder – Duckworth, 1985.
  • 7) Scottish Fairy Tales, Grant Campbell – Scholastic Publications, 1980.
  • 8) The World of Wit and Humour – Cassell and Company Limited, 1899.
  • 9) The Complete Spinning Book, Candace Crockett – Watson Guptill, 1977.
  • 10) Spinning Wheels Spinners & Spinning, Patricia Baines – B T Batsford, 1977.
  • 11) Craftsmen All, An Anthology, Edited by H.H. Peach – Dryad, 1948.
  • 12) Shepherding, John Vince – Sorbus 1992.
  • 13) The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Edited by R V Williams and A L Lloyd – Penguin Books Limited, 1959.
  • 14) Everymans’s Book of English Country Songs, Edited by R Palmer – J M Dent & Sons Limited.
  • 15) The Mother Goose Treasury, Illustrated by Raymond Briggs -Puffin Books 1973.
  • 16) Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, Margaret Fay Shaw – Rouleledge and Kegan Paul Limited, 1955.
  • 17) Fairy Tales of Ireland, W.B. Yeats – Collins, 1990.
  • 18) Folk-Tales of the British Isles, Edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland – Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • 19) Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Blackie & Son Ltd. 20) Chamber’s Encyclopedia – William & Robert Chambers Limited, 1901.
  • 21) Pictures and Stories from Forgotten Children’s Books, Arnold Arnold – Dover Pulications 1969.
  • 22) Great Industries of Great Britain – Cassel & Company, circ. 1870s.
  • 23) Tales from Perrault, translated by Ann Lawrence – Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • 24) Venus de Milo the Spinner, Elmer G Suhr – Exposition Press, 1958.
  • 25) Poems of the Elder Edda, Translated by P Terry – University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
  • 26) Household Tales, Brothers Grim – Pan Books, 1977.

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