Most categories of textiles are manufactured with threads, spun from several kinds of raw materials (fibres). The processing of fibres (including spinning of threads) is a multi-stage operation and the exact technical steps depend on the nature of the chosen fibre (of animal or plant origin) and on the desired quality of the targeted end product. These technical processes are extremely laborious and time consuming. In Greek tradition there is a proverb which underlines the complexity and the intensity of these preparatory procedures (“the flax's passions”, in analogy to “Christ's passions”).
For example, flax is harvested at different times in the plant's ripening cycle, according to the fibre quality which is necessary for the targeted end product. The finer the fabric to be woven, the softer and greener the fibres of the plant, therefore the earlier their harvest. After the harvest, bundles of flax stems are laid to dry under the sun and they are then shaken to drop the linseeds. Then a long and laborious process begins to extract the fibres from the stem. At first, flax stems are immersed into water for a long period of time (around 15 days), either in rivers, tubs or canals, a process which allows the stem to rot and the fibres within the stem to lose pectin, an adhering substance which keeps them stuck in bundles. After retting, flax is again dried and then the fibre extraction begins. In order to extract the fibres, the stems are broken up with a wooden rod which breaks the woody part of the stem. In all probability, this breaking process gave birth to folk tales and proverbs in Greek tradition referring to “the flax's passions”.
The next stage entails the hackling of the fibres in order to clean them from any remaining wooden pieces of the stem and to disentangle them. Hackling or combing is carried out with a comb (“lanaria” in modern Greek) and also helps bring the fibres in a parallel arrangement and to sort them according to quality and length. Then the fibres are ready to be spun.
Spinning, the process during which fibres are twisted into a long, continuous and strong thread, can be performed with our without tools. One of the techniques of making thread requires only the spinner's hands: manipulating and twisting the fibres with the fingers. In Ancient Greece the most common technique employed was draft spinning with a drop spindle, an activity often depicted in art and referred to in texts.
Traditional and ancient spinning tools include the distaff, a wooden, long, stick where the unspun fibres are placed, the spindle, a slim, wooden rod, and the spindle-whorl, usually made of baked clay, which is fixed most often on the lower part of the spindle and serves as a flywheel during the rotation of the spindle. Sometimes a metal hook protrudes from the upper end of the spindle to fasten the beginning of the thread. Another accoutrement is the indispensable basket, where the spinners or the weavers would store their raw materials, yarns and tools of their craft.
It appears that in some instances the fibres were first given a twist with the hands on top some sort of a surface. Then this crudely-made roving was spun with a spindle. In ancient art this process is often depicted on vases, where we see women twisting thread on their thighs or on their calves. A clay, semi-cylindrical tool with a rough surface, called the “epinetron”, was often placed upon the spinners' thigh in order to protect their skin during this process of twisting thread.
Spinning is performed in the following way: a small quantity of fibres is drafted with the fingers, fixed on the spindle and at the same time twisted, while the spindle equipped with the spindle whorl also rotates along its axis. When the twisted thread is long enough, it is wound around the spindle, and the rotation of the spindle starts all over again with a new bundle of fibres.
Apart from spinning with a drop spindle, another technique of making thread was also used in Ancient Greece. This alternative technique is called splicing and it results in a distinct thread type, which has been observed in ancient Greek textile fragments. Splicing is most often related to the textile traditions of Ancient Egypt, where it was used to manufacture extremely fine yarn, for high quality textiles. In essence, this technique entails splicing together the ends of separate bundles of fibers so that they form very fine, continuous threads.
During spinning, the fibres are twisted either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The direction of twist is described in international textile technological terminology as Z (in the first case) or as S twist (in the second case). Whenever the direction of twist is not obvious, the technical description is given with the letter I.
Threads can be either single-spun, when only one strand of fiber is twisted, or plied, whenever two or more individual threads are further together together. Single-spun threads are also termed as primary twist threads and are described with lower case s or z letters according to the direction of twist. Plied threads are also termed secondary (or tertiary) twist yarn and are described with a combination of letters, numbers and again letters, to give their full technical descriptive code. For example, a two-plied thread of Z direction spun from individual single threads of s direction can be coded either as s2Z or as Z2s.