səl̓səl̓tən (Spindle Whorl)

About this object

History of use

A rod, called a spindle, was placed through a hole in the centre of the disc, or whorl. The whorl’s two sides were shaped differently. The side facing away from the spinner was flat and undecorated. It formed the platform on which the spun wool accumulated in a symmetrical cone. The side facing the spinner was usually curved and sometimes, like this one, carefully carved. The spinner would watch the design turning as she twirled the spindle. Homer Barnett (1955) notes that spindle whorls used by the southern Coast Salish of British Columbia are larger than those used in the north, with a shaft that is twice as long as the whorl. In the north, fibres were spun on smaller whorls that were "twirled between the leg and palm (1955:118)." By contrast, whorls such as this one were used to spin fibres that were suspended from overhead. This arrangement created a tension in the roving. Johnson and Bernick (1986) report that traditionally several different techniques were used for turning the spindle, however, contemporary weavers now make use of a spinning machine that is similar in appearance to a treadle sewing machine.

Cultural context

weaving; spinning; oral traditions; examples of Coast Salish sculpture and engraving are not as well known to the general public, since "indigenous Salish forms were not developed as tourist or curio art" ... the reason being that their art "was closely associated with private religious expression and used less in secular display" (Michael Kew, 1980).

Iconographic meaning

According to old records, the design on this spindle whorl represents a thunderbird chasing a "Szinkwa" which is his food. Whenever lightning strikes, it means that the thunderbird has caught the "Szinkwa". As the yarn built up on the whorl, a perpetual race was run between these two predators. The thunderbird is a central figure in the oral traditions of the Cowichan, and plays an important role as protector of the people. Bird designs are a common design motif on spindle whorls from the Cowichan area. C. F. Newcombe, a well-known museum collector in the Northwest Coast region, recorded that design motifs used on spindle whorls often represented personal spirit powers.

Specific techniques

Michael Kew (1980) notes that spindle whorls are typically engraved, with many exhibiting an advanced wood working technique known as block engraving in which the figures are raised and details are added with sharply incised lines and other stylized elements. Design elements, such as human figures are often done in low relief. Animals are portrayed with blunt noses and birds have straight edges to their wings. The designs are outlined on a flat surface and then given depth through incising.

Physical description

Carved hardwood disc-shaped whorl, flat on dorsal surface and convex on ventral surface. The ventral surface is engraved with a design. It features a thunderbird with a hooked beak, and backwards facing ear, chasing a wolf-like being. There are also several rings engraved around the centre hole. While the spindle whorl is round, it is not a perfect circle. A repair has been made, which is more noticeable and noted on the back of the piece. A dark red-brown finish has been applied.