Spinners and Weavers

| Comments (4) | Misc Overthinking
The process of turning raw wool into fabric by hand is extremely time consuming. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the production process operated in a pyramid, with a large number of carders supported a smaller number of spinners, supporting an even smaller number of weavers [Note: weaving is much faster than the other two major technqiues for turning yarn into cloth: knitting and crocheting]. I've heard varying numbers, but Wikipedia claims that the ratio was around 9:3:1.

Isn't it interesting, then, that when you look at the list of common American surnames, which are often associated with occupations, that "Weaver" appears at position 190 (.05% of the population) but "Spinner" appears at 1/50th the rate, at position 7393 (.001%). Carder is at 4255 (.003%); Carter is, I would assume, a different profession. [The first 10 names, btw are: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor].

I'm not attempting to claim that there's some direct relationship between last name frequency and historical occupation rates, but it's still entertaining to speculate on the cause. My initial suggestion was that carding and spinning were more likely to be women's work and of course in the West women's surnames don't get propagated. Mrs. Guesswork suggests that spinning and carding weren't professionalized the way that weaving was [prior to the invention of the spinning wheel, spinning technology was extremely low-tech], so you might spin or card in your spare time, but weaving requires enough capital equipment that you would expect it to be done professionally and thus be more likely to get a surname attached to it.

Equally likely, of course, is that it's just coincidence, but what fun would that be?


One wonders if the name frequency difference is less about how many weavers existed vs spinners or carders, and more about how successful each group was at reproducing. For example, if weavers tended to be wealthier, they might have had better access to mates, food, health care, etc.

There's probably also a prestige element. You're not known for being a carder (you wish you were, all they talk about is that one incident with the sheep). But your weaving! The quality of that tapestry just leaves them all breathless. Lower echelons of the production chain are more distant from the final product that people recognize and the latter-stage producers are more likely to get credit for it, and more likely to be known for what they do and named for it. That may tie in with the "part time" theory of Mrs Guesswork too.

I agree with Craig. For example, think of the number of people with the surname "King", compared to, say, "Peasant"...

A historian at UCDavis does a similar calculation on surnames/occupations (but is less surprised by the output) here - http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~gel115/115CH9.html

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