Some mistakes, old and new

A message to my readers first – I’m no longer going to try to publish a post on this blog each month, around the 20th. The self-imposed deadline has helped me to focus, but now at 82 I feel I can retire from deadlines.

This isn’t goodbye though. When an interesting spinning wheel or related topic appears, I shan’t be able to resist writing about it. It just won’t happen regularly. If you want to know when a new post appears, you can subscribe by clicking on ‘Follow’ and you’ll get an email notification.

Here’s a very old mistake, and a new mistake about the old one. Back in the middle ages when cotton first came to Europe (having been used in countries further east like India for thousands of years) it was apparently a puzzle. Could this soft fluffy stuff, quite unlike the familiar linen, really have come from a plant, as the story was?

If you search on Wikipedia for anything about this, you will probably find this woodcut picture with the explanation ‘Fanciful depiction of cotton by John Mandeville, featuring sheep instead of cotton bolls.’

It’s perhaps not too surprising that people speculated about this new sort of ‘wool’ and came up with a plant or tree that grew tiny lambs. They also figured out that the stems must be bendy, so that the lambs could reach down to eat grass when they were hungry.

But that is not, in fact, what we find in the 14th century book called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Mandeville (or whoever the actual author was) is for once accurate: ‘In that country and in many other beyond that, and also in many on this half, men put in work the seed of cotton, and they sow it every year.  And then groweth it in small trees, that bear cotton.  And so do men every year, so that there is plenty of cotton at all times.’

He describes many marvels he claims to have seen – men with no heads and faces in their chests, a tree which grew baby geese which eventually dropped into the water beneath it and swam off … Such speculations about distant lands were apparently popular reading at the time and all we can say for sure about whoever wrote the book is that he must have had a very good library of travel literature. His book was wildly successful. Originally written probably in 1357 in French, it was republished in a number of languages. I haven’t been able to find out for certain when and where the sheep-tree pictured above was added, but it may have been in the 1568 edition which is illustrated with woodcuts.

Much earlier, though, the ancient Greeks had a fairly accurate idea of the Indian origin of cotton, though as far as we know they didn’t actually grow or import it.

Cotton field in India (photo World Wildlife Fund)

The historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC ‘The wild trees there grow wool better in beauty and quality than that from sheep; and the Indian people wear clothes made from these trees’ (Herodotus History, Book 3 ch. 106).

Now let’s look at a couple of much newer mistakes which have become rather common in spinning wheel terminology, at least here in New Zealand. Autocorrect (sometimes derisively called autocarrot) may often be responsible for them.

Does your wheel have a break? I really hope not. This is a nasty break.

But if you spin with scotch tension (flyer lead) your wheel will have a brake.

You can see on this Carlisle wheel how the brake band with its little spring (which could be an elastic if your spring needed replacing and you didn’t have a new spring handy) is adjusted to make the bobbin turn more slowly so that the flyer winds the new-made yarn on.

So there is no such thing as a break band on a spinning wheel. It’s a brake or a brake band! You can call it a scotch brake (no capital letter) if you like.

Incidentally, if you really do have a broken flyer like the one above, please don’t put all your confidence in a drop of glue to repair it. Flyers can reach surprisingly high speeds, and if the glue fails you may have a damaging projectile flying across the room. Any break in a flyer is best fixed by an expert, who understands that the repair must be strong and that the flyer needs to be balanced.

Then there are groves and grooves. A grove is a group of trees.

You don’t want a grove of trees on your bobbin or on your whorl, but you do need at least one groove on each, for the drive band to go around both (double drive) or one on the whorl for the drive band and one on the bobbin for the brake (scotch tension – if there is no whorl and no room for a missing one, you are probably dealing with a bobbin lead wheel).

There can be more grooves. When he made this wheel, James Colthart got a bit carried away making the whorl.
It’s good to have plenty of choice, but with such a wide difference in the positions of the largest and smallest grooves, there could have been problems with the drive band being on such an angle that it would leap off. Colthart has been clever about this – see the little knob on the mother-of-all below the whorl? The whole flyer assembly must be able to slide across to correct the alignment.

Here are some links if you want to find out more about The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:
This is where I found the text: p. 191
There are other sites with it, but this one is easiest to search for what you want. There are also modern books of it but I have been unable to access one.
Much has been written about Mandeville’s Travels – here are just a few links I found interesting:

The drive wheel – a vital and tricky part of your spinning wheel

Back in 2008, I was busy turning the Spinningwheelsinfo  website into a book (now out of print, sorry, but its contents is all on this website). I emailed Mike Keeves with a question or two about drive wheels. His full and interesting reply has just turned up among papers I’ve been sorting. Some of it was included in the book but I think his complete thoughts are worth sharing, with more illustrations than I could include there. (Most of the photos should enlarge if clicked on.)

The plain text below is quoted from his email (with permission – thank you Mike). My thoughts are in italics.

The best way to think of the drive wheel is to remember the flywheels on traction engines … a drive wheel or flywheel should have its weight at the rim which should be of even density and weight to avoid the vibration that can occur if it is unbalanced.

This 100-year-old steam roller in the Wool Shed Museum, with its big red flywheel, works exactly like any traction engine. “High pressure steam flows into the cylinder to push the piston out and start the flywheel rotating. During the second half of the cycle, the flywheel pushes the piston back in and the steam leaves the cylinder through an exhaust valve. So mechanical power is applied during only half the cycle (when the steam expands inside the cylinder), but the flywheel smooths things out and keeps everything rotating during the second half of the cycle.” (

Our drive wheels do the same thing, continuing to turn when the treadle is on its up-stroke because of the momentum our treadling (on the down-strokes) has given them. This may be less important in modern double-treadle wheels and those which have an overhanging treadle so you can push down with your heel alternately with the front part of your foot, but it no doubt still helps to smooth things out.

The purpose of the spinning wheel drive wheel is to store energy, which is provided by the treadle, in a rotational form from where it is drawn off to the whorl by means of the drive band. It works in the same fashion as a piece of string with a weight on the end which can be swung around and kept in motion with little effort once started.

Some very good NZ spinning wheels have been made with metal drive wheels recycled from treadle sewing machines or old farm machinery. They have a good weight, even density, and do not warp, but may not be as aesthetically pleasing as a wooden one.

Patrick Jennings made many wheels using using metal items found on his farm and often sewing machine parts.

The construction of a drive wheel is a challenge, and the different methods used were probably the most economical for that maker with regard to the material, equipment, experience and skill available. The more complex the style, the more skill and time required, and of course the greater the cost. This is from a commercial standpoint and does not include many that were labours of love.

Surely a labour of love, this wheel is by Derek Kerwood

Most New Zealand spinning wheels seem to have been made by people following the normal practices of cabinet making or carpentry of the time, but not necessarily by tradesmen.

A skim through the section Interesting Makers will confirm this. Many New Zealand wheels show great skill in woodwork, but most of their makers came from other walks of life.

The segments of a drive wheel, clearly seen here, are called felloes. This wheel by Noel Frizzell has eight felloes:

The felloes-and-spoke style wheels are similar in construction to a wheelwright’s coach wheel, with the exception of the iron rim which not only gave a wearing surface but also bound the whole together. (For more about the work of a wheelwright see )
For a spinning wheel, which did not carry a load, this construction was fine, but as it was not “bound” the joints of the felloes needed something to hold them together. Because the ends of the felloes where one joins to the next are end grain, glue alone is not sufficient to bond them. The joint lacks any strength.

(Such felloes) have usually been made with a pair of dowels glued into each joint, or a groove cut into each end and a tongue glued into the grooves to align them and give strength. Here is a detail from  a Nagy wheel – you can see two of the little tongues holding the felloes together.

A better way was to lap the felloes together with a glued half joint and two dowels through the faces to give added strength. The more segments to a wheel the more time and effort was required to cut and prepare each joint.

There are two other fairly common systems of forming the wheel rim. The first we have called for convenience “parallel slices.” It’s fairly common in older wheels.The parallel slices require less preparation than equal felloes as their joints are square and parallel. If the two shorter sections have their grain running at right angles to the two longer sections (which is the case in all the examples I’ve seen) they will need dowelling or tongue and groove joints to overcome the lack of a good glue bond where the end grain meets the long grain. You can see the joins and their dowelling in this Hamilton wheel

The third system is less common. We have called it “transverse felloes” for lack of a better name.

They are made by, in effect, making an open square of wood, joining four pieces of equal length, end grain to long grain, around in a clockwise direction. These joints should again be dowelled or tongue-and-grooved. The inside and outside diameter (as with the parallel slices) is cut from the resultant square.

Here is a little wheel by John Thompson with transverse felloes.

Another way to make this style is to laminate two or three thicknesses of wood to make up the desired finished thickness of the wheel and offset or stagger the joints between the different laminations so that at no point do the joints fall in line. This is a strong construction and gives more stability to the shape.

John Rappard used such construction in some of his earlier wheels, including this variant of his Northern European. You can just make out the division around the inner edge of the drive wheel.

A piece of wood is not a stable thing like a block of steel. Its grain can reflect the shape in which the tree grew, and can pull round or warp to revert to its original line even if it has been milled into a flat and smooth block. A piece made from several laminations is more inclined to stay flat as the pulls from the different laminations cancel each other out and give a stronger product.

Here is a more visible example of laminations around the outer edge of a standard Northern European (it’s a pity about the alignment).

Another point to bear in mind with earlier wheels is that any glueing prior to the 1950s (approximately) would have been done with hot glue made from rendered down animal by-products. This was heated in glue pots which were set in very hot water, and the brown glue had to be applied and the joints clamped in a matter of seconds before the applied glue chilled, or the joint would not be sound. It made a good joint but over time this glue becomes brittle and begins to flake off if the wood has moved enough to start the joint becoming loose.

In New Zealand made wheels the spokes seem to have been glued into the hub and the rim. In some older wheels that I have seen, the inner rim of the wheel is recessed on one side to about half the thickness of the wheel. The spoke holes, having been bored in the rim, allow for the spokes to be positioned in the hub and rim and then dowelled in place through the spoke into the wood left on the other side of the recess. This allowed for easier adjustment or replacement.

In my Québec wheel it’s even simpler – the outer end of each spoke is flattened to rest against the wood on the far side of the recess. (You can also see the end of one of the dowels holding a joint together.)

A view from the other side of the wheel. The spokes are secured in place with tiny nails:

The number of spokes in a wheel is arbitrary. I guess for stablity the more the better but the greater the cost. A circle is 360° and easily divided into even segments so why anyone decided to put in 11 or 13 spokes is beyond me. Maybe it had some personal significance.

Above is the drive wheel of the wheel believed to have been made by Roderick Fraser of Waipu in the 1800s. It has 11 spokes. I too have no idea why. The only complete wheel and the one other partial wheel in the Waipu museum (neither of them made from New Zealand wood) both have 14 spokes.

Mike also quotes from correspondence with the late Bill Ralph, dated 2009. He was a well-respected and expert repairer of antique spinning wheels in the U.S. This comment refers more to very old wheels but is worth including here. After all, some genuinely antique wheels have made their way to New Zealand, like this one I saw in the Richmond Cottage in New Plymouth. Two of the felloes are fitted together oddly – most likely an example of what Mike wrote about makers suiting their method to what was available.

“The statement about a drive wheel “coming unglued at the joints” and “slightly open joints can be fixed” needs to be approached with caution. Antique spinning wheels do not have glued joints. The space often seen between the four sections of a drive wheel rim are in effect “expansion joints” designed to open and close as the humidity changes. Remember these wheels were designed to be used in unheated homes, where the humidity could range from 100% to 15%. Remember also that these wheels have no finish or sealer. The wood expanded and contracted with the weather.

“Any attempt to “fix” or glue these joints could cause severe warping or breaking of the wheel rim. The wheel will work fine with as much as a quarter inch of space between the joints. As for the spokes, they too are set in loosely, not glued, and need not be a tight fit. They too have to move with the changing climate. No attempt should be made to glue a loose spoke.”

We haven’t dealt with drive wheels made of solid wood, such as Peacocks, or the question of added weights. A discussion of this can be found at


A long-lost wheel found

Not long ago Shan received an enquiry through the NZ Spinning Wheels Info website from Ann Knight in the South Island, about a wheel she had just bought. The only history that came with it was that the seller’s mother-in-law had bought it over 40 years ago. None of the members of Ann’s spinning group had any idea of its identity.

After looking at some photographs, including this one, Shan searched for a maker with the initials GM which are on it in two places. (This and the other photographs can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

She found just one GM in our lists: George William (Bill) Madigan. This wheel isn’t like his usual little wheels, but could it be the ‘aluminium wheel which we have not located’? There were some metal parts.

Just look at those graceful curves!

We started looking for more clues. Madigan’s lovely little folding wheels are very different. They have a tension system like Philip Poore’s Wendy and Ivan McGreevy’s Fleur, with a metal rod that screws to tilt the attachment of the flyer, thus making the driveband tension tighter or looser.

But there is a certain love of curves visible in these wheels – most makers streamline their production by making the parts of the wheel straight where possible. Not Bill Madigan! Here is a back view of a different example –

A more specific similarity is the join between the treadle and the conrod/footman:

We already know of one Madigan wheel made with some metal. When Lyndsay Fenwick (whom we have to thank for much of the original content of the nzspinningwheelsinfo website) visited him and his daughter in Auckland in 2007, she saw and photographed another of his wheels which looks as though it could be transitional between our new-found wheel and the little folding Madigans we are accustomed to.

It’s a bit bigger than his regular wheels, with a similar rod to adjust tension, though it doesn’t fold. But look at the metal flyer and ’maidens’ (‘flyer frame’ will be a better term):

Compare the new-found wheel (now spinning – more about that in a minute) –

Like all Madigan’s wheels, it’s double drive. The tension is adjusted by a knob (green arrow in the back view below) which screws to tighten or loosen a rather solid spring (blue arrow). This can pivot the flyer frame on a rod (one end of it is marked with a pink arrow) adjusting the distance of the flyer from the drivewheel.

The wheel isn’t particularly heavy, unlike most wheels with a lot of metal unless the metal is aluminium. Ann and her husband Paul investigated the drive wheel, and identified it as definitely aluminium, under its three coats of paint (first a light mustard/yellow, then black and now the beige colour).

We are comfortable with the identification of this spinning wheel as the missing ‘aluminium wheel’.

Like so many of the best spinning wheel makers, Madigan had an engineering background, and he was also (like his wife) a spinner. On retirement from his career working on milking machines, he started with wheels by following a plan called ‘The Wheel that Won the West’ – it was probably the same plan that Ron Shearman began with, from Popular Mechanics March 1966. Here is Ron’s first wheel.

(I find it hard to imagine that such a fancy, fiddly little thing would have survived a bumpy trip across the wilds of North America  in a covered wagon!)

Madigan’s ‘aluminium wheel’ was probably the first one he designed himself. It’s a very original design, solidly constructed but graceful, drawing on his experience with metal machinery. When Ann acquired it, it needed quite a lot of work, but she and Paul were able to figure out what was required. The heavy tension spring, for example, was very stiff, but responded to spraying and soaking with CRC. Now Ann and her new old wheel are doing some very nice spinning.

Bill Madigan would have been delighted. Lyndsay recalls her visit to him – ‘He was so proud of his wheels and he was really keen to tell me his story … He was also very fussy about the way I took his photo!’

We hope he would be happy with this. Sadly, he died shortly after Lyndsay’s visit, but his wheels live on and are still much loved.

Stuck whorl – unscrew or pull?

This is a supplement to Stuck whorl – don’t panic  published here back in August 2018.
I left out an important exception.

Most spinning wheels with the traditional type of flyer have a whorl that unscrews, like my Hamilton wheel:

But recently Penny, a beginning spinner in the US, purchased a second-hand wheel with Philip Poore’s Tekoteko mark.

She found it quite impossible to unscrew the whorl using the instructions in my earlier Stuck whorl post, and contacted me to ask what to do. A photo confirmed that her wheel is a Pipy like this one

and a look at page 3 of the Pipy instructions reminded me that the whorl is supposed to push off.

So Penny tried this, but it didn’t help.

The need for special instructions suggests that the problem may not be uncommon. In fact, Poore changed the system a bit after a while. I consulted Shan Wong, who has two Pipys. Early Pipys have a spline (a ridge) on two sides of the flyer shaft, at the end where the whorl is to fit, and the whorl has little channels to slide over the splines.
This photo shows the spline on an early  Pipy flyer shaft where the whorl will fit, with a bobbin in place:

and here is the whorl showing how the wood is shaped to fit over he spline.
Shan, who took these photos, commented ‘Whorl holes get worn quite a lot. Bad design, really.’

Poore later redesigned his whorls and flyers. Perhaps he had learned of problems, or maybe the change was because, as Mike Keeves (maker of the excellent Grace wheels and always generous with spinning wheel help and advice) tells me, splines are ‘quite a tricky job to engineer.’ Later Pipys and all or most Wendys have a square end to their flyer shaft, like this –

and a fitting in the whorl to grip the shaft.

Penny’s wheel was the older type. She sent this photo.

Since pressing on the bobbin to press on the whorl, as in the instructions, didn’t work, I was of course worried that following my general instructions (letting WD40 soak in and then twisting) had caused some damage. I asked around for ideas.

Shan suggested putting the flyer/whorl/bobbin in the freezer for a little while, since wood and metal shrink differently – this could be a useful idea for future contingencies. Mike suggested first trying gently to turn the whorl, in case previous unscrewing attempts had misaligned it. Failing that, he thought the key was stronger downward pressure, and suggested levering with something like a flat screwdriver between the flyer and the brass bobbin core (not on the wooden end). I wondered, though, what if the lever slipped? Ouch!

More downward pressure did sound like a good idea – my thumbs are a bit arthritic and I doubt if I’d ever get anywhere by pressing down on anything with them. So if it were my wheel, how would I do it? I came up with this scruffy little hand-drawn diagram.

The suggestion was to lay two rods (perhaps flat pieces of wood) across the end of the bobbin close to the centre, and lean downwards on the ends .

And it worked! We are all delighted that after what my husband called an effort ‘organised on a global scale’ a new spinner now has a working wheel.

Practically all spinning wheel whorls, on old or new wheels, have a screw thread and are removed by unscrewing. But a very few have a push-fit whorl, and trying to unscrew it will do no good and possibly some damage. The only wheels other than Philip Poore’s I’ve come across so far with push-fit whorls are some of those made by Sheridan in Australia.

But there are probably others, and if you know of one, please get in touch – I’d be very keen to learn about it.

Beatrix Potter and spinning wheels

Most of the pictures below will enlarge if clicked on.

Many of us remember loving Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck and the other wonderful characters Beatrix Potter created. I certainly do.

She was a true animal lover. She was also an artist from an early age, and in the late 1800s made a remarkable series of illustrations of different species of fungus. During most of her life she drew and painted an enormous range of subjects. She must have carried a sketch book with her, and she recorded plants, animals, buildings (both outside and inside), scenes, whatever caught her eye, in careful detail.

She began her writing career with amusing anecdotes in letters to the children of a former governess, which she would illustrate with pen-and-ink sketches. These stories were the beginning of her little books.

So where do spinning wheels come in? Here’s her earliest picture of one that we have:

This exquisite little watercolour, just 12cm tall and dated 1890, was sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 to some lucky person or institution for £39,650. Any spinner (or mouse) trying to use that wheel, though, wouldn’t be at all lucky. The footman/conrod as it’s connected would scrape on the table, and for effective spinning it needs to be vertical or close to it. This one just wouldn’t work the crank. The path of the spun thread doesn’t make sense either, appearing to go directly from the mouse’s right hand/paw to wind onto the bobbin, without passing through any orifice.

Admittedly a mouse might prefer a different-shaped treadle from those we use, but I don’t think any creature could make this wheel work.

Why a picture of a spinning mouse, anyway? There’s an old nursery rhyme, ‘Three (sometimes six) little mice sat down to spin …’ In the early 1890s Potter was planning a little booklet of it, which sadly was never produced. This undated drawing may have been a preparatory sketch:

Now there is a conventional treadle, but the way it’s connected to the drive wheel is still unworkable.

She used this version of the rhyme:
Three little Mice sat down to spin
Pussy passed by, and she peeped in
‘What are you at, my fine little Men?’
‘Making coats for Gentlemen’
‘Shall I come in, and cut off your threads?’
‘Oh no! Miss Pussy, you’d bite off our heads’

Her illustrations, one for each line of the poem, are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here is the first:

The wheel we can see is just like the one in the sketch. The mouse has its little foot on an actual treadle but it’s not going to work well. Presumably the mice will use the loom on the right to weave their linen thread into fabric for making coats.

The second picture shows that wheel even more clearly (Potter has avoided complicating the pictures by obscuring two of the wheels, though we can just see part of a leg or two of each).

A sketch for the cover shows the mice with spindles.

It looks as though they are wondering how they can possibly control the spindles, with one hand/paw holding the distaff and the other needed to pull down the fibre. The distaffs (distaves if you prefer) need to be secured in some way, perhaps with stands or tucked into belts. Maybe such a change would have been made, or perhaps the spindles wouldn’t have made it into the final version (which was probably never created).

All the illustrations for the proposed booklet can be seen by searching the V and A collections (see Sources, below). As we’ve seen, Potter was careful when recording detail in her multitude of drawings. So how come she pictured unworkable spinning wheels?

Perhaps it wasn’t till later, when she was living at least some of the time in the Lake District, that she had an opportunity to see a spinning wheel in use? Unfortunately this sketch is undated.

Is it an upright or a horizontal wheel? The mother-of-all looks too close to the drive wheel if it’s an upright; I think it’s horizontal, but foreshortened. Is the unobscured drive wheel positioned at the end of the table nearest the viewer and the distaff at the far end of the table? If so, something doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s hard to tell. Let’s try flipping it:

That feels more comfortable – it’s easier to interpret it as the traditional orientation of spinning wheels that we are all used to. But now we have the lady using her left foot to treadle, which is unusual. Also, the bottom detail now has her right hand drawing down the fibre and her left hand drafting it. The fibres, incidentally, don’t look like wool, but flax – more usual on a distaff though distaffs are sometimes used with wool.

I really don’t know what to think about this drawing, except that it does show that the artist has observed somebody making yarn on an actual wheel.

Another spinning wheel drawing Potter made is interesting, and very different. The National Trust website for Melford mentions a spinning wheel in the ‘Blue Drawing Room’ but there’s no photograph of it. Potter stayed there several times, visiting her cousin Ethel, Lady Hyde Parker, and there she made this drawing.

It is inscribed ‘Melford Hall, Suffolk Nov 23, 02’ and is included in the contents photographs of both Melford Hall and Hill Top. Even without a photograph of the actual wheel, I’m fairly confident in identifying it as a ‘boudoir wheel’ possibly made by John Jameson of York in the late 1700s (Baines, pp.158-160).

The last glimpse of a spinning wheel that I have found in Beatrix Potter’s work is in Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922), one of her last books.

The rhyme on the opposing page is:
How do you do, Mistress Pussy?
Mistress Pussy, how do you do?”

I thank you kindly, little dog,
I fare as well as you!”

Here’s an enlargement of the spinning wheel –

It looks like a fairly standard, probably antique, workable saxony-style wheel. It could well be the same wheel depicted in the sketch of the woman spinning.

Potter had certainly seen real spinning wheels by this time. Indeed, several wheels were among the items she collected in her beloved home, Hill Top, near Sawrey in the Lake District. She had bought it in 1905, using royalties from her publications, and spent as much time as she could there, which wasn’t much at first because of the needs of her parents. She furnished it appropriately with old things that she loved, including a chair exactly like the ones the three mice in the pictures above are sitting in. The house and garden and the surrounding countryside form the background for many scenes in her later books.

Hill Top, now owned and managed by the National Trust, contains no less than four spinning wheels. The first one is either a Picardy style wheel with the flyer in front of the maidens (Baines 112-115) or more likely a spindle wheel or a winder. It is hand cranked by a knob on a spoke and the maidens are too close together to accommodate a flyer.

Like the rest, the next one lacks its flyer:

and the third, an upright, is also missing conrod and treadle.

The fourth still has its mandrel (flyer shaft) and even a bobbin but no flyer arms, to say nothing of no legs. There is a hole for a distaff.

It’s impossible to be absolutely sure but I don’t believe this was meant to be a table-top wheel. I think it once had legs. Possibly its flyer arms are the pair at the bottom of this picture:

– and I wonder whether the mandrel, bobbin and whorl and the single flyer arm above them might once have belonged to the second or third wheel. Spinners all know how hard it can be to prevent people from playing with our wheels, and Hill Top hosts crowds of visitors in season (or the damage could have been caused in Potter’s time or earlier). We can just see in the photos above that the National Trust have sensibly secured each drive wheel to an upright with a length of soft dark cloth, so it can’t be turned.

None of the Hill Top wheels we’ve seen looks as though it was the model for those used by the mice. And I can find no other spinning-related implements in the Hill Top inventory.

It seems unlikely that Beatrix Potter was a spinner herself, even an occasional one. In fact after reading about her life, it’s hard to imagine when she would have had time!

Wool would have been available to her, of course. In her later years she became a noted breeder of Herdwick sheep, a hardy breed native to the central and western hills of the Lake District. Herdwicks naturally live in hefted flocks – that is, the ewes know their own area and pass the knowledge on to their lambs. So the flock stays in its home range, without needing to be fenced in, and if a farm is sold the sheep are sold with it. The ewes don’t mingle with neighbouring flocks (I’m not sure whether this applies to rams).

Herdwick lambs are born black. At one year old their heads and legs are nearly white and the body dark brown; the adult fleeces are grey becoming paler with age. They are double-coated, with coarse hairy wool and a staple length of 15-20cm (6-8 inches). This is quite unlike the wool most of us are accustomed to spinning these days, but it makes excellent tweed, and there are photographs of Potter wearing a suit of tweed woven from Herdwick wool (see for example Lear’s book, illustration 56).

In her later years Beatrix Potter bought a number of farms, and worked to improve the health of the land and the sheep. Her sheep won prizes at local shows, and in 1943 she was voted president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association. She died in December 1943 before taking up that office. She left all her farms and their Herdwick flocks to the National Trust, adding over 4,300 acres to its holdings and setting conditions for their management and care. Her legacy is still with us, in the preservation of so much of the beautiful Lake District as well as in the delights of her little books.

Main sources:

Many books have been written about Beatrix Potter. The most informative I have found is Beatrix Potter, a life in nature by Linda Lear (New York 2007).

The wonderful collection of Potter’s work held by the Victoria and Albert Museum can be perused by going to and entering Beatrix Potter in the search field.

The contents of Hill Top can be searched here:, then enter Hill Top in the search field. 
Entering Melford Hall Beatrix Potter provides drawings and paintings she made there.

Patricia Baines, Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning 1977 and 1982

Website of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association:

Current enterprises creating products from Herdwick wool:

Ingenious tension systems (and a message)

“Kiwi ingenuity” has long been a tradition in New Zealand, along with being able to fix anything with a bit of no.8 wire. It’s less true now as we’ve become more urbanised, but several of our spinning wheel makers have applied great ingenuity when faced with the question of how tension on their wheels could be adjusted.

The tilting flyer frame, as used by Philip Poore in his Wendy but probably first created by Schofield in the 1930s, has already been discussed here. A number of New Zealand makers have varied the system to give the same effect: Ivan McGreevy, for example, in his excellent Fleur wheels. The photo below shows how the little knob (yellow arrow) on the end of the metal post (green arrow) screws the post up or down to tilt the spinning head, altering the tension.

In the 1970s Ian Mathieson of Cambridge had an idea that as far as I know was new: he diverted the drive band around an idler pulley whose position was adjustable to make the band tighter or looser. It can be a double drive band, or a single one (scotch tension). When the little knob is loosened, it and the idler pulley can slide along the slot.

Other makers have been ingenious in different ways. Tilting mothers-of-all that tighten or loosen the drive band (e.g. Ashford, John L. Moore and many others) are not uncommon, but around the 1960s one Wairarapa maker, Guy Wagg, tilted the whole end of the table with a big hinge. This example is in the Wool Shed Museum in Masterton.

The tilt can be adjusted after loosening the little handle at the back of the table. (It’s a pity about the broken flyer.)

There’s a second locally made wheel in the Wool Shed collection that is really peculiar in its tension. Unfortunately we don’t know the maker’s name, but at least two such wheels were made and used in the Wairarapa during WW2 to spin yarn to support the war effort, making socks, sweaters and so on for soldiers and sailors. Look at the relationship between the bobbin and the flyer!

There is no way to adjust the drive band tension – I think the old band must once have been more rubbery and stretchy. But the bobbin’s placing and its tension are very unusual indeed. It’s on a shaft that extends from the back maiden (if we can call it that) and it’s held in place by a little attachment at the end of the shaft which drops down and prevents it from falling off. A couple of washers no doubt help the bobbin to turn smoothly without getting hung up on the drop-down piece.

The maker had two further problems to solve. The first was how to tension the bobbin. The big bolt (orange arrow below) can be turned, even by hand after a drop of oil, though it’s a bit stiff. It can be made to press harder on the metal piece (green arrow) which in turn presses the coiled wire (red arrow) against a washer at the end of the bobbin. This effectively slows the bobbin, and a fine enough adjustment can be made that spinning is satisfactory. (With a slightly tighter drive band it might be even better, but there is no way to do this.)

Are you wondering how the bobbin is taken off? That was the maker’s other problem, and there’s another ingenious solution. That little attachment at the end of the shaft holding the bobbin can be straightened so that the bobbin (and the washers) can be slid off.

The problem is still there, though – the bobbin can’t be extracted from the flyer. More ingenuity has created a swivelling back flyer attachment. The bobbin can then be pulled off easily.

Are our contemporary makers still being as creative? Well, here’s the Majacraft Aura:

Again it’s the bobbin tension that’s interesting – you can already see in the right-hand photo above that something odd is going on with the drive band(s). This was inspired by a wish from innovative spinner and author Lexi Boeger for a wheel better suited to making art yarns. She wanted one that could “pull like a tractor”. Majacraft, however, were not interested in making a wheel that could only do one thing. It had to be able to spin fine and medium as well.

There are two separate and different drive bands.

The green one drives the flyer, and it’s the stretchy type that we expect to see on Majacraft wheels. The black drive band is very different: it’s fabric, and doesn’t stretch. It drives the bobbin. There are two separate pulleys: the outer one is turned by the green band and drives the flyer as usual. The inner pulley is driven by the black band, whose tension is controlled by the little idler pulley you can see on the left. The tiny knob, when turned, tightens or loosens the black band, adjusting the strength of the uptake by allowing more or less slippage.

But how can it do that? The black drive band doesn’t go anywhere near the bobbin! Here’s a closeup of the two pulleys:

On the left, outer pulley, the green drive band is controlling the speed of the turning flyer (which would be screwed onto the end of the metal flyer shaft as usual). The pulley on the right, driven by the black drive band, is fastened by a metal core (blue arrow) to a metal sleeve that goes right through the spinning head and surrounds the shaft that drives the flyer, but is not fixed to it. It turns a metal plate (set in the spinning head) which has two pins (orange arrow) that fit into two holes in the bobbin.

Only bobbins with these holes will fit, and all current Majacraft bobbins have the holes.

This means, of course, that the bobbin cannot slip freely on the shaft: it is driven by the black drive band and its pulley, just as the flyer is driven by the green drive band and its pulley. They turn at different speeds, depending on which grooves are used, but they are both driven. This is a totally different setup from our familiar scotch tension brakes, which can slow the bobbin and make it slip on the shaft according to how tight we set them.

And now we see why the black drive band is made of fabric, which (unlike the stretchy green band) can slip. If a spinner keeps treadling but holds the yarn back while it gathers more twist, the bobbin needs to slow or stop. If the Aura’s black drive band is loose, it slips on its pulley.  Then the uptake is much gentler – as when you loosen the brake band on a scotch tension wheel. So there is slippage in the system, just not where we expect to find it.

A feature of the Aura, surprising at first, is that when you start to treadle there is no delay before the bobbin gets up to speed and pulling on starts. On most of our wheels it takes a second or two to build up the momentum of the bobbin – but with the Aura you are at full speed right away, because the bobbin’s pulley immediately starts driving it. This is particularly valued by art yarn spinners, but takes the rest of us a few moments to get used to. However, trying out the Aura I borrowed while writing this, I soon  found I could spin quite fine even with my favourite relaxed long draw. In fact I think with a little practice I could spin anything I want (and some types of yarn I don’t particularly want).

I have one little point of disagreement with Majacraft about the Aura’s tension. They call it double drive, and indeed two lengths of drive band drive flyer and bobbin. But in every other way it’s different, and has a bit more in common with scotch tension in that you can adjust the bobbin tension without altering the tension on the drive wheel. But it’s actually unique, neither flyer lead nor bobbin lead. It needs a name of its own.

It seems that “kiwi ingenuity” is not entirely dead in these modern times.

I thank the Wool Shed Museum for letting me tinker with the wheels in their collection, and Marilyn Smethurst for trusting me with her Aura for a few days.

Here are a couple of sources that were particularly helpful about the development and workings of the Aura:
The full Aura manual with details of setup, use and mechanics, can be found by visiting, then under RESOURCES clicking on MANUALS and scrolling down to “Your new Aura spinning wheel”. (There is probably a way to create a direct link that doesn’t put the whole manual into this footnote, but I couldn’t find it!)
All About the Aura – a discussion is at

A message to my readers:
As I did last year, Im going to take a break from writing this blog, in order to get more done on my other website. If all goes well, New Zealand Spinning Wheels will be back about the 20th of February 2022. Meanwhile, I’ll still be happy to answer any spinning wheel questions as best I can.
Best wishes and stay safe!

Being resourceful with a wheel in lockdown

Remember this intriguing wheel? Well, when Shan sent me a new photo of it, I wanted to know more. So I started asking questions, and it got more and more interesting.

Mary: Shan, how on earth did you do that? What did you use for the distaff? And how did you fit it to the bobbin-holder of the wheel?

Shan: It’s an unplanned lockdown project, because of two unexpected events: a package of line flax arriving and our delta covid lockdown starting. I haven’t got a distaff. But of course, I always wanted a distaff!

My modifications on spinning wheels always come about because my mind drifts while the spinning comfortably settles in, and then my mind starts to wonder. And then one thing leads to another. Next thing, I’m tinkering in the garage.

I made the distaff from an old plunger handle and some Wisteria twigs. My son used the rubber part for his trumpet mute, and left me with the handle (I paid for the whole thing).

The plunger handle fits into a hollow plumbing pipe. The plumbing pipe fits on the post of the bobbin holder.

Mary: What will you do now if you get a blocked pipe in your house!

Shan: Ah, I knew you were going to ask that. I have another one dedicated to the sink.

Mary: How did you attach the wisteria twigs to the shaft?

Shan: I drilled multiple holes into the plunger holder at the top and the bottom. Then I went searching for the right wisteria twigs and made arcs by pushing the ends into the holes. With that I made a lantern distaff.

It looks a bit different from in the first photo. That’s because I didn’t like the wrapping paper I covered the pipe with in the first picture, so I changed it to a paper in the same shade as the plunger handle. The pipe itself is blah green, By the way, the container has water in it, for me to dip my fingers in. Flax is generally wet-spun: water activates the pectin, which helps the fibre stickng together.

Mary: Where did you get the flax?

Shan: The line flax came from Austria. It all started when I read the post by Christiane Seufferlei  on the SpinOff website. (I read this and it’s fascinating – Mary) I ordered a bit from her in June. It arrived in early August, and quite took me by surprise. I stared at the stricks forlornly when we went into lockdown.

Then somehow one day the idea came to me that the broken table Rudhall would be perfect. I had thought I could order an Ashford distaff, but that’s been discontinued. Oh well, there’s no stopping now.

Mary: Please could you explain about different grades of flax? Does flax need carding? Presumably line is short for linen? I’ve never spun flax and am very ignorant about it.
(Note to New Zealand readers: one of the few things I do know about flax is that phormium, which we refer to as flax here (the harakeke so wonderfully used in Māori crafts) is a completely different plant from the linum usitatissimum whose stems provide linen fibre.)

Shan: A strick is a bunch of long line flax fibre. Line/strick is grade A and tow is grade B flax. The difference between line and tow is that line flax is the longer fibre after hackling the flax, while tow is the waste product from the hackling process. The tow I have is European, and bought from Anna Gratton many years ago. The line flax isn’t carded but the tow was carded into rovings.

Spinning flax is a rather slow process, particularly spinning tow. I did spin some tow on the broken table wheel before I rigged up the distaff. I needed to know if the wheel is all right for spinning flax (ratio, uptake etc). In that instance I just hold the tow in my hands.

Mary: How did you dress the distaff? And do you ply the yarn?

Shan: I fanned out the fibre into thin layers in a semi-circle shape, basically drafting out the dense bunch.

Then the semi-cricle of fibre was wrapped about the lantern distaff

and the ribbon holds the flax fibre down.

Flax is normally used as an S-spun single, as plied flax can be quite stiff. Since I’m not that great a flax spinner, I sometimes ply the singles to hide the joins.

Mary: Does linen yarn have to be washed? And what do you plan to make with it?

Shan: I boil the linen yarn in soda and the yarn becomes silvery colour. Can you tell from the photo that the washed skein is silvery? The water ends up being tea colour, as the linen yarn sheds that yellowish look.

At the moment, I’m weaving with the yarn I spun. Here is a tea-towel I wove a while ago using handspun linen for the weft (in this photo the weft goes side to side). The towel gets softer after every wash.

Mary: So what’s next?

Shan: I am planning to cut some branches from the garden and make a straight distaff, to go directly into the hole that holds the bobbin holder. Ultimately, it’s that hole in the table that drew me to this particular wheel. Originally I had expected that the hole would be for a distaff. It turned out to be for the bobbin-holder, but it could just as well hold a distaff. It’s a relief that the wheel suits spinning flax.

I’m still looking for a straight stick to fit the hole. That’ll come later. The stick needs to be long enough to clear the length of the line flax hanging down the distaff. Otherwise, the bobbin will catch the fibre inadvertently (it has happened!).

Mary: Thank you so much Shan. The range of fibres and techniques available to spinners is enormous. Any time we get a little bored, there are always more things to try!