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The Saami Art of Tin Thread Spinning

Tugging on a bit of pewter thread has led me down a new path of unraveling some of the intricately beautiful textile crafts of my ancestors.

Tin Thread Embroidery

Pewter
The first use of pewter dates back to the Bronze Age. Pewter was used by the Egyptians and later the Romans, and came into use in Europe for tableware and jewellery from the Middle Ages.

Pewter is a malleable metal alloy, traditionally 85–99% tin, with the remainder consisting of copper, antimony, bismuth and sometimes, less commonly today, lead. Silver is also sometimes used. Copper and antimony act as hardeners while lead is common in the lower grades of pewter, which have a bluish tint.
Wikipedia – Pewter

Although pewter was an alloy of tin and other metals such as lead, in modern day pewter or tin thread,heavy metals are no longer used. Silver is added to stabilize the tin instead.

Thread spun from metals such as gold and silver have been found in Viking age textiles in sites such as Birka. Pewter or tin could also be spun into thread and used for the making of jewellery or decoration for clothing. Pewter became known as the poor man’s silver. It is thought that the use of pewter thread has only been produced by the Saami. Earliest evidence of the use pewter thread has been found in Saami textiles from the 1600’s, though fragments of pewter have been found 500 years earlier.

Saami Embroidered Tin Bag

Saami Tin Embroidery

Saami Embroidered Tin Collar

Tin Thread Making Tools
The tools for making pewter or tin thread are a die made from reindeer antlers and a spindle. The die is carved from a reindeer antler and has as many as 60 different sized holes drilled into it. The tin is dragged through the successively smaller holes until a fine tin thread is produced.

Die for Dragging Tin
Die made of reindeer antler, used for dragging and making tin thread.
tenntrad die
Spin Cross
Spindle for spinning tin thread
Spin Cross

Linnaeus: Tin Dragging and Spinning
Linnaeus Drag and Spin Tin

Dragging Tin Thread
The tin thread was produced from bars of tin or from tin melted down from pewter plates and tableware. The tin is formed into narrow bars with a knife and hammer. It is pounded and shaped into a rod or dowel and pulled through the holes in the die with the use of pliers or even teeth.
to make it easier to pull through the die, the tin is dipped in fat, produced by melting reindeer hooves.

Tin is being pulled through the die with the use of pliers.

Tin thread is being pulled through smaller holes in the die.
Dragging Tin Thread

Fine tin thread is being dragged through the die with the use of teeth.
Dragging Tin with Teeth

Spinning Tin Thread

After the tin has been dragged, it is plied with a core thread using either a drop spindle or a Spin Cross.
Spinning Tin onto Spin Cross
Tin Spinning

The core thread should be the same thickness as the tin wire, in order to produce an evenly spun thread. The tin wraps around the core as it is spun using a similar plying technique as with other core spun yarns.

Tin Thread
Tin Thread Spinning
Tin Thread Core
Tin Thread Spindle

Tin Thread Embroidery
The spun tin thread can now be used for embroidery. It can be sewn directly onto tanned leather, though wool fabric or wadmal is used more often as the base for the embroidered thread.

Sewing Tin Thread

The core thread is sewn to the back of the fabric to fasten the tin thead in place.
Tin Thread Embroidery

The tin thread is stitched to the top side of the leather or fabric with very small stitches.
Tin Thread Embroidery
Tin Thread Sewing

Wadmal
Wadmal is a coarse, densely woven wool fabric that has been felted so that the weave structure is no longer visible. This creates a very warm and windproof fabric.
Instead of embroidering onto wadmal, I thought that I would try to embroider the tin thread onto handmade felt instead, as the felt would have a similar weight and consistency as wool felted yardage. I felted a small sheet of 21 micron merino wool and stitched a small sample of tin thread embroidery. I was quite pleased with the result.

Tin Thread Embroidery on Felt

References:

Västerbotten nummer 2/1980, sidorna 115-128 “Om tillverkning av platt tenntråd”
Västerbotten nummer 3/1970 “Sameslöjd”
Reindeer Antler Die
Vadmal and Other Woolens

More Saami Crafts

Saami Reindeer Bracelets
What is Sami Duodji
Weaving on a Sami Rigid Heddle
How to Make a Tin Embroidery Key Chain

Reindeer Leather and Tin Embroidery PurseReindeer and Pewter Purse
Reindeer Leather and Pewter Purse on Etsy

Saami Music – Itunes

Binna Banna – Kikki Aikio
Áphi (Wide As Oceans) – Sofia Jannok
Ulda – Ulla Pirttijärvi & Ulda
The Kautokeino Rebellion (Music from the Movie) – Herman Rundberg, Mari Boine & Svein Schultz
Beaivi, Áhcázan (The Sun, My Father) – Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

 

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This page last edited on April 25, 2015

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