A unique Rappard wheel

Note added 24 May 2019 – It seems the wheel is not  nearly as unusual as I thought. There will have to be some revision of this post.

At the 2019 Creative Fibre Festival recently, I watched the Fashion Parade. There were many stunning garments  and I should have been paying close attention. But there was also a spinning wheel, at the far end of the runway beside the commentator’s lectern. I was fixated and frustrated, trying to see it properly.

Afterwards, seen from closer to the stage, the wheel was clearly a Rappard Northern European – with 16 spokes! I knew of one other, but only had a couple of small photos of it. So it was out with the camera and notebook.

The turning is nicely detailed, but it has a sturdy, almost peasant feel. Northern Europeans are  quite different from the graceful simplicity of the Rappards’ later Mitzi, and this one has more detail than the ones we usually see.

Comparing the turning, from the feet to the maidens to the drive wheel, the usual 8-spoked model is simpler almost everywhere.

One thing all Northern Europeans I’ve seen have in common is the unusual construction of the drive wheel. It’s like this:


which would have been made by joining four pieces of wood like this and then cutting out the circle. It might be easier than the more usual method of making matching segments, but it means that end grain of the wood is being attached to lengthwise grain, which can be tricky.








There are two little retaining pins to stop the tension screw from screwing right out. Two seems a bit like overkill.

You may have noticed the unique design on the treadle.

It’s far more elaborate than any we’ve seen before. Did Maria design it for someone special?

Then I peered underneath, and found, not the usual Rappard name and numbers, but this:

– JR (John Rappard), 77 (presumably 1977) and two lines with an arrow through them. He put similar mark on just one other wheel that we know of, the one below with its charming little finials between the spokes.

Its treadle motif is the rosette, one of the standard ones, but underneath is this –

It’s marked (19)73, so it’s a really early Rappard, and it has three lines pierced by the arrow. Was the arrow symbol perhaps used on wheels which were made specially for a particular person?

And what does the symbol mean? Rex Chapman-Taylor (son of the famous craftsman-designer James Walter Chapman-Taylor, who did not mark his work) used an arrow mark on items of furniture he made (this example is on a chair):

It looks like a sign of Sagittarius, the star sign of the Archer, and Chapman-Taylor senior was very interested in horoscopes. But neither he nor his son Rex was a Sagittarian, and nor was John Rappard,  – all three were born in June. So the arrow and slash(es) mark remains a mystery.

Later I learned a little about the wheel’s history. It had belonged to Betty Healey, a colourful character who was much loved by her fellow members of the Dannevirke Spinning Club.  Longtime members still remember her with affection, and remember her big spinning wheel, though she was actually more of a weaver. it’s not known whether she had owned it from new. It ended up in a shed, but was found by her son and has been given to the Manawatu Spinners and Weavers Guild.

The wheel has some visible history. That mark in the middle of the table is actually a very rough hole which goes right through. Apparently at some point someone tried to add an electric motor to it. But that’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be a good spinner.


Hamilton wheel again

My Hamilton wheel is still mysterious, even more beautiful, and no longer troublesome.

How many differences can you spot in these before-and-after photos?
First, there’s now a serious amount of yarn on the bobbin. Spun with no throwing of drive band!

The second difference is what made that possible – the mother-of-all (MOA) and flyer assembly are no longer on a wonky angle, but straightened so that the whorls line up with the drive wheel.

The third difference was part of that process – the little brass pin you can see sticking out of the MOA.

And lastly, there’s the difference that a good clean and wax makes (though admittedly the second photo was taken in a different light). Kauri wood responds wonderfully to polishing.

The repair needed an expert so I sent this to Mike Keeves, maker of Grace wheels.

All these parts were solidly glued together – MOA, MOA collar and screw block. (And the back maiden but we weren’t worrying about that.) Carefully packed, it arrived safely. Mike sent me some photos:

The first job was to use a Forstner bit to drill right through the MOA and destroy the wooden pin securing it to the MOA collar. He said the MOA didn’t appear to have been glued originally, but stuck on at a later date.

Once the MOA was freed, he had to separate the screw block (the piece the tension screw goes through) from the collar, by drilling out the rest of the well-glued-in pin. In the picture above the screw block is still in the clamp. Then he had to drill out the remainder of the pin from the screw block, so it could be replaced with a new one and everything lined up properly.

He was concerned about the cracks in the screw block, and the damage that has at some time been caused to the screw thread where the tension is adjusted (he thought by a drill or a nail). We both believe the screw block and the tension peg that screws into it are, like the rest of the wheel, made of Kauri (recognisable by its tiny dark flecks) – it’s a lovely wood for spinning wheels, except for these vital little functional parts.Nothing can be done about the thread, but I find if I keep it well lubricated with candle wax it works smoothly. And Mike did a great job of glueing the cracks. This was one of those rare times when glue should be used to fix a spinning wheel – when something has broken apart that was originally one piece of wood, or that was originally glued when the wheel was made (or of course in a kitset wheel, if the maker’s instructions say to glue).

Many wheels have been ruined by well-meaning people using glue to fix something that wasn’t originally intended to be stuck together. And that’s what had happened to this Hamilton wheel: at some time in the past, the MOA perhaps was a little loose and twisting around. So he (it’s usually a he, but that may be unfair) stuck the MOA and its collar in place with glue. Only unfortunately he didn’t stick them quite right. I guess he had never heard of shims.

Anyway, then it was time to put things back together. Mike suggested a dry joint rather than glue to hold the mother-of-all to the collar, and putting a removable pin through the MOA to hold everything together, in case any adjustments have to be made. I was happy to agree, and that is why a little brass pin has appeared in the second spot-the-difference photograph at the top of this post. I do like to keep things original where possible, but with spinning wheels function comes first.

Here’s another before and after pair.You are looking from underneath at the end of the screw block with the bottom surface of the pin very visible (oddly, the hole for the peg widens at the bottom). Behind it is the bottom of the MOA collar, and behind that the bottom of the MOA.

The most important change is that the screw block is now perfectly in line with the MOA.

The shiny white on the surface of the collar is three thin plastic removable shims that Mike put in, in case the collar didn’t fit snugly to the table. He didn’t have the entire wheel to make sure everything fitted to it exactly. I could remove some or all of the layers if I pulled out that tiny brass pin, which you can just see the tip of at the top of the collar, but I left them in because it fits perfectly as it is.

In the second picture you can hardly see the little blemish at the right-hand end of the MOA. There were several spots of such damage – dog? small child? They are much less noticeable now, after I stained and waxed everything.

We’ve noticed several things that we feel are design faults, but none of them seem to matter much. First, there is no retaining pin to stop the tension knob from screwing right out – but it’s very easy to keep it in place when adjusting the tension. Also, Mike pointed out that there’s no clamping or holding piece under the table that keeps the MOA assembly in position – it stays put just fine, though. And there’s the use of Kauri for screw threads, which it isn’t really suited for.

Mr Hewison(?) was creating wheels under wartime conditions of urgency and shortage of materials. Was he an expert spinning wheel maker? Perhaps not, though he was a fine craftsman. The ‘faults’ don’t make the wheel any less a joy to spin with.Like other Hamilton wheels I’ve seen, it has 14 spokes in the drive wheel – not a common number. Their spacing isn’t completely even. This wheel was made in a workshop, not a factory!

I am very grateful to Mike for his skilled, knowledgeable work. The best wheel-makers and wheel-repairers are also spinners. He doesn’t spin so much these days, and remarked ‘spiders spin webs on my wheels as if to say, this is how it’s done you idle fellow’. (How wrong they are!)

Rappard Peggy timeline, and some memories

Recently my ISP warned that they are closing their free user pages. The timeline for Rappard Little Peggy and Wee Peggy wheels has therefore moved, and is now among the pages on this site. It’s listed in the main menu at the top of this page. The layout  had to change a little but all the information is there. I hope it will be useful.

I was fortunate to get to know Maria Rappard (often called Mies or Mitzi) a little during the last years of her life. The first thing I ever heard about her was that she was rather terrifying. And yes, she could be: she was tall and striking-looking, very firm in her beliefs, and very outspoken. But once she was your friend, she was caring and generous (and still outspoken).

When first I telephoned her and introduced myself, wanting to find out about Rappard wheels and their history, she told me in no uncertain terms that some things were wrong in what I’d written. I kept in touch and kept asking questions, and after a while she accepted that I was genuinely interested and wanted to get things correct.

Later I visited her and her daughter, Yuet Ngor, at the farm on Signal Hill in Dunedin. I’ve already described how John, and later Maria, came to New Zealand and the history of Rappard wheels. She told me that “after a long session of me nagging” John made her a wheel, and she showed it to me – the very first Rappard wheel:

As time went on she told me more, and I learned that she had been a child in Rotterdam during the Nazi occupation. The people there suffered terribly, and some details of her story I don’t feel free to pass on. There was one episode, though, that I don’t think she’d mind you knowing.

Like many other families under Nazi rule, they had an illegal short-wave radio to listen to broadcasts from Britain. This was kept in a locked cupboard in her mother’s bedroom. One day, when only Maria was at home, police came to search the house suspecting there was an illicit radio. Of course they demanded the key to the cupboard. Maria told them it was where her mother kept her shoes, and she (Maria) was absolutely forbidden to open it. She must have been very convincing, because they said they would come back the next day when her mother was home – but by the next day the radio was safely hidden with neighbours.

During the last winter of the war and for a time after, there was a desperate shortage of food in the area and thousands starved. Maria said she would have, too, if it hadn’t been for the generosity of the Allies. Her health was permanently impaired by the hardship.

Here is a very special gift she gave me: a tiny Wee Peggy, just 63cm tall, seen here with two Little Peggies.

‘Baby Peggy’, as I like to call her, was created as a display piece for when they were promoting Rappard wheels at festivals and other fibrecraft gatherings, in New Zealand and overseas. She stands on a little box containing an electric motor, and when plugged in and properly adjusted, she spins. You couldn’t actually make yarn on her* but she’s very charming and eye-catching. Here she is with me at a spinning wheel display, where she attracted a lot of attention.

One of the things I admired about Maria was that she didn’t hate all the German people for what the Nazis had done. I also admired her creativity, her courage and determination in making a new life in New Zealand, the part she played in building up the Rappard spinning wheel company in partnership with John, and the lovely spinning wheels she helped create.

* Actually it is possible to spin a little yarn on Baby Peggy – Owen Poad of Majacraft proved it at a recent festival. But you wouldn’t want to do much. (This correction added 14 May 2019)

A mysterious and troublesome beauty

A few weeks ago I bought a wheel on Trademe. Why? You may well ask. I have several wheels, which is plenty. But this is a Hamilton wheel.

I’ve long admired their graceful simplicity, and the lucky few who have one say they are wonderful spinners. They are also a tantalising mystery.

Tradition tells us that they were made in the 1940s. Dorothea Turner, whose Hamilton wheel is now owned by the Auckland War Memorial Museum, wrote that they were made in a Returned Servicemen’s Association workshop in Hamilton, and she thought the maker’s name was Ewison. Aileen Stace (who taught me to spin back in the early 1960s) had heard the same story.

However, forty years later when Lyndsay Fenwick and I were ferreting out the stories of New Zealand spinning wheels, Lyndsay spent a long time looking through wartime records and found no trace of an RSA workshop, or anything else similar, in Hamilton during or after WW2. It emerged that the maker of the wheels was contacted, if you wanted to buy one, through the local RSA secretary.

We do know that they were used during World War 2:

At least one Hamilton wheel is featured. Others include several by John Moore and an Atkinson (pause the film at 1.15 to see it clearly).

As for the maker’s name, Lyndsay couldn’t find any record of a man called Ewison in Hamilton who would at that time have been the right age and a potential wheelmaker. However, she did find a carpenter/cabinetmaker called Edward Hewison who would have been in his 70s, and had a workshop in Hamilton.

For a while I toyed with the idea of a Mr Eunson, a surname that could easily be heard as Ewison. It’s moderately common  among Shetlanders now living in New Zealand, and some features of Hamilton wheels do remind me of Shetland wheels I’ve seen in pictures (though they are more often small uprights). One similarity is the rounded treadle bar into which the front end of the treadle is fitted smoothly; another is the widening of the spokes near the rim of the wheel (which would probably help a bit with momentum); and a third is the little nipple at the end of the tension screw. Of course each of these is found in other places too, but added together they might be a hint.

However, I couldn’t find any record of a Mr Eunson who would fit the bill. I did learn, though, that Hewison is also a name found among Shetlanders. So Lyndsay’s discovery is the best guess we have for the maker’s name.

My new wheel has only one bobbin, the footman is in several pieces, the tension screw wasn’t budging, and the drive band didn’t fit properly. But it seemed worth taking a chance on.

After a bit of persistence the tension screw decided to cooperate, and pretty soon my wheel looked like this –

Now it was it was a case of clean and lubricate and see if the wheel would spin yarn. First it needed a general dusting.

Then I polished the flyer shaft (using steel wool with a little oil on it) and cleaned out the completely solidified gunk in the orifice (after softening it with WD40). A long-dead spider came out too.

I ran a strip of rag through the core of the bobbin. No problems there, and it spun freely on the newly cleaned flyer shaft.

I lubricated the bearings of the drive wheel, for now, with vaseline – there may be the remains of leather bearings in there that it would be good to replace some time.

It wasn’t too surprising that the tension screw had been stubborn, as the thread it screws into is in rather poor condition.

I found an old, plain white wax candle and rubbed that gently over the threads of the tension screw, and pretty soon it was working better than I’d dared to expect. (Important note: I didn’t use oil because that can make wood swell, and I didn’t use beeswax because that makes things stick, not slide.)

Then I put everything back together, with a drop of oil wherever it seemed a good idea, and put on a new double drive band. It had to be double drive because there was no little guide for a bobbin brake. It should have been like this –

But as you see below, the little guide peg on my wheel has at some point been broken off.

It would certainly be possible to replace it, if that proves worthwhile. Actually I think the one in the first picture is a replacement, as they are generally much more pointy. What I don’t want to do is put in a hook – that would be all wrong for this wheel. Fortunately I like double drive.

There only remained the footman, which looks like this –
Not worth repairing till we know if the wheel spins yarn, but string will do the job –

A lot of wheels, particularly those with no heel overhang on the treadle, work fine with a string footman. Philip Poore designed his Pipy wheels to have a string footman, and he used to say that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria it was good enough for him.

Now to try spinning. And sadly, this is where it all goes wrong – she won’t hold a drive band.

Before you ask, the drive wheel is perfectly OK, not warped or misaligned. The problem is that the flyer assembly doesn’t line up with it. I had noticed this, and was expecting trouble.

So I’ll take everything apart again and see what can be done. All is not lost. There will be another bulletin in due course.

A spinning wheel emergency

Recently the Wairarapa Spinners & Weavers Guild(1) was sitting happily in the shade of lovely big trees at a member’s farm –
– when someone’s wheel came apart. It’s a Beulah by Peacock, and at the bottom of the footman/conrod the wooden shaft had come out of the casing that attaches it to the treadle connector. The poor spinner didn’t have any knitting or other craft with her. All she could do was sit and mutter about finding some glue when she got home.

So a couple of us got to work with a piece of string. I’ve arrowed the two bits that had parted company.

That didn’t work. It came loose and got tangled up and the conrod fell apart again. I tried again and tied it up really well –
– too well, because now the wheel wouldn’t turn.

So I cut it all off (fortunately someone had scissors), shredded a bit of the string, put a couple of shreds over the end of the wood as a shim, and jammed the wood into the socket. Bingo – she spun happily till it was time to go home. Never underestimate the usefulness of a shim!(2)

A tiny wisp of wool would have done the job just as well, but the string was in my hand and already coming apart.

The owner says that when she got home, her husband was most impressed with how well the emergency fix had worked. And now, with the aid of glue, things are more permanently in place and she can spin without worrying.

1. Actually that’s only about a third of the Guild – we’re a big group, but a lot of people are away on summer holidays.
2. I’ve written about shims before, at https://nzspinningwheels.wordpress.com/spinning-wheel-ailments/

Spinning wheels in the wider scheme of things

A couple of years ago my elder daughter (she’s a writer – it’s the younger one who does circus derringdo) asked if she could interview me for a book she’d been commissioned to write. Interview me about spinning wheels.

Spinning wheels? In a book about people who stand up against pollution and destruction of habitat and loss of heritage? Was she sure? Yes, she was and so was her editor.

It made me think hard about why I spend so much of my time tinkering with wheels and writing about them. The number one reason is that I happen to enjoy it – but that wasn’t nearly enough of an answer. Why are spinning wheels, and the history of spinning generally, worth studying and trying to preserve?

There’s the age-old history of the craft, of course. More often than not, the history is about women, and hasn’t had as much attention as it deserves. That won’t be news to most people who read this blog. But Johanna’s book is about looking after New Zealand’s heritage.

It’s called Guardians of Aotearoa, Aotearoa being the Māori name for New Zealand (the word has traditionally been translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ though there is some uncertainty about this).

So I talked about the clever New Zealanders who have made wonderful spinning wheels, and how worthwhile it is to look after the wheels and find out their stories. It truly is a tale of human achievement, often under difficult conditions. We have a tradition about ‘kiwi ingenuity’ which can make or fix anything with a bit of number 8 fencing wire. Sadly it’s less true than it used to be, as our lives centre more and more around big cities and our farms are increasingly taken over by multinational companies. It’s enshrined, though, in the many, many wheels created, in their thousands or in ones and twos, by ingenious makers using materials to hand and imagination to solve problems.

Now the book is published, and I’ve read it from cover to cover. Most of the people in it I had never heard of, but I’m delighted to have heard of them now. They are people who’ve given large chunks of their lives to what they believe in, campaigning fiercely or working with quiet persistence. People who save native animals, preserve cultural heritage (notably Māori language and traditions), struggle against social injustice … I could go on and on. I’m thrilled and humbled by all the stories – never, ever, have I been in such inspiring company.

The superb photographs by Jess Charlton are uncaptioned, and mostly they speak for themselves, but there’s one that you might wonder about – so what’s that spinning wheel? It’s by Harold Martin, and an example of a wheel perfectly designed to suit its purpose. Martin is among my wheel-maker heroes. I feel a connection with this particular wheel because it belonged to Dorothea Turner, one of the most wonderful people I’ve known – I hope to write something about her one day. It’s now in the collection of the Wool Shed Museum in Masterton, and if I’m there and called upon to demonstrate spinning, it’s the wheel I always go for.

As you may have noticed, this is not an impartial book review. If you want to read one of those, take a look at https://www.nzbooklovers.co.nz/blog/guardians-of-aotearoa-protecting-new-zealand-s-legacies-by-joanna-knox .

And here are more details from Bateman, the publishers: https://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=1&ProductId=1638

STOP PRESS: Guardians of Aotearoa has been chosen as Book of the Year by the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Spinning and wheel maintenance instructions

Recently I’ve received two sets of instructions, by two of New Zealand’s best spinning wheel makers. They aren’t about setting up their particular wheels; they explain about how wheels work and how to spin on them, and one even has something on knitting. So they aren’t (for now, anyway) going in the Spinning Wheel Leaflets section, but they are too interesting not to publish.

The first is by Philip Poore, who made Pipy, Wendy, Poly and Sprite wheels. It’s titled ‘Brief spinning instructions for a double driving band spinning wheel’ and it’s here:
Pipy Spinning instructions.

He begins with instructions about preparing wool for spinning, assuming you are starting with a fleece. Then he gives excellent advice for a beginner just learning to spin, starting with treadling practice, followed by illustrated notes on how double drive bands work, including drive band thickness.

Finally we find three pages of ‘Hints for knitting handspun wool’ with acknowledgement to Bess D’Arcy Smith; she was a prominent woolcrafter and a member of the inaugural executive committee when the New Zealand Spinning Weaving and Woolcrafts Society (now Creative Fibre) was first formed in 1969-70. Her hints contain good advice about everything from fleece selection to seams and buttonholes.

The second set of instructions, by Mike and Maggie Keeves, makers of Grace wheels, is called ‘Getting the best from your spinning wheel’. It’s here:
Grace spinning instructions

It starts with a description of how a spinning wheel actually works, something that is a mystery to a surprising number of spinners:
‘A basic understanding of the following sequence of events will help you to trace any faults in your spinning wheel.

‘The motive power is supplied by your feet via the treadle. The Footman arm conveys the power to the crank which turns the wheel. The energy is stored in the rotation of the wheel and taken to the whorl by means of the drive band. The whorl and flyer are driven round drawing in and twisting the fibre and winding it onto the bobbin.’

We should all be familiar with this, because ‘Any undue friction, misalignment or drag that interferes with this sequence causes wear and tear on the machine, [and on] the spinner, and can cause the most astonishing language to be used.’

Maintenance is discussed in some detail, under the headings of the various parts, from orifice to treadle and legs, concluding with advice on lubrication.

It’s an excellent little primer, though the authors point out that it should not override manufacturers’ instructions for their products.

A big thankyou to the helpful people who have sent me these documents – you know who you are.