Treadles part 2 – double

First, full disclosure: I dislike spinning on double treadle wheels. This is a purely personal opinion, and I think it’s because they insist that one sit up straight facing the wheel.

They remind me of an old book called How to Be a Lady, a book for girls ‘containing useful hints on the formation of character.’ It belonged to my great-great-grandmother – she wrote her name in it in 1856. Here is what it says about posture: ‘The human form, in its natural position, is a model of beauty. But, when bad habits turn it out of shape, it offends the eye. Avoid a stooping posture, or an inclination to either side. But sit and stand erect, with the small of the back curved in, the chest thrown forward, the shoulders back, and the head upright.’

I fear I’ll never be a lady. Depending on what and how I’m spinning, I like to lean quite far back, relax and even slouch a bit, and sometimes (specially for long draw) sit somewhat sideways. Bad ergonomics I know, but for me, comfortable. I would never tell anyone else that they should do the same.

Having got that off my (not-thrown-forward) chest, I must admit that double treadles have ergonomic advantages, in terms of both effort and posture. The owner of this Ashford Traveller converted her wheel to double treadle (the new maidens and flyer were later replacements).

The kit arrived in a smaller box than you might expect, considering how much it contained. Thanks to Millie the cat for providing a scale.

There was a new treadle bar for between the front legs, with the two new treadles already attached to it. There were two new conrods (footmen) to be joined to them, and then the axle of the drive wheel had to be removed and a different one fitted and secured in place – that was tricky. The connection of the conrods is quite complex and all these parts had to be correctly fastened.

It took a lot of time and care, but she was able to do it all herself. She’s a much, much happier and more comfortable spinner now.

Double treadles can also make it easier to get past the ‘dead spot’ which can be quite pronounced in some wheels. When the treadle and the crank have risen nearly to the top of their movement the momentum needed for the last little lift is lost, and instead of the treadle beginning the next downward stroke the crank and drive wheel run backwards. If you are having this problem a double treadle wheel may be the answer. (Another possible answer is a small weight attached to the drive wheel in just the right place.)

Some true double treadle wheels also work fine with only one foot so you may have options. A few don’t, like the Majacraft Little Gem with its unusual treadling action.

Double treadles are not nearly as modern as you might think. Alpheus Webster of New York State is credited with the invention: he patented two versions in 1810 and 1812. The axle crank was slightly different in each. The idea became popular in America, and was used in the ‘Connecticut chair wheels’ like this one. They weren’t normally made out of chairs (though a few may be) – they just look like chairs.

Photo credit: Krysten Morganti (“Hypercycloid”)

And here is one that astonished me outside an antique shop in Montreal, a lot of years ago. At least two Québec makers in the late 1800s were making this style of wheel; one identical to this one is marked M.R.

John Arlott, founder of Majacraft, introduced the idea to New Zealand in the late 1980s. There was some experimenting: the first Saxonies he made had the treadles attached like this:

Photo credit: Lorraine Cross

Apparently the mechanism proved fragile, though this one’s owner finds it very comfortable and easy to use. It was soon changed to something more like we now expect from Majacraft and other makers..

Spinners vary widely in their needs and preferences. We are lucky that ingenious makers have provided a treadle type to suit pretty much everyone.

Buxon-Keenlyside, Judith Selected Canadian spinning wheels in perspective (1980), 177-8)
Feldman-Wood, Florence “Vertical Two-Wheel Spinning Wheels,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth 15, (January 1997) 8-10
Pennington, David A. and Taylor, Michael B. Spinning Wheels and Accessories (2004), 60-63

Treadles part 1 – single

Treadles may be different shapes but they all work the same, right? Nope. Compare these two:

On the left, the treadle of my Hamilton wheel. Its front end is neatly rounded into the treadle bar. The spinner’s heel does no work at all while the front part of the foot pushes down on the centre/back of the treadle and then relaxes to let it come back up.

On the right, the treadle of my Gib Wilson wheel. This is an extreme example of a heel-toe treadle. After the downstroke with the front of the foot, the spinner can push down with their heel to help bring the treadle back up. The wheel can also be started in this way. This makes for good control of the wheel, but I still really love the  relaxed feel of the smooth-spinning Hamilton.

Do you remember the rock-hard glue left behind on the Wilson treadle after I stripped off the ancient carpet tiles?
I tried removing it with turps – didn’t work. Then I tried acetone (a.k.a. nail polish remover, from the chemist) and after several applications the glue was soft enough to scrape off. After that it was just a matter of sandpaper followed by wax. Of course the remains of writing were lost too, but I really don’t think they were ever going to be legible, or significant. I think they were off the back of the carpet tiles, not written on the wood.
End of digression

Authorities have different opinions about treadles. Eric Corran, for example, is scathing about ‘single-action’ treadles that don’t allow the use of the heel.* ‘This system involves ankle, knee and hip movements and is not recommended’ but if the heel is used to power the upstroke ‘Treadling is then just a rocking motion of the foot.’ I have to say that this is not my experience: if a wheel is in good order and spinning smoothly my body is just as comfortable using only the front of the foot. But we are all different in what our bodies will tolerate.

One thing we should be careful about is the angle of the treadle, whether single-action or heel-toe. At its lowest position, it should be approximately horizontal. If not, a spinner using it for long periods is likely to suffer real problems.

Some wheels are a compromise between double treadle and single treadle – both feet fit on the treadle(s) but move in unison. Grace wheels have a twin treadle, specifically designed for this: maker Mike Keeves says it seemed logical to share the load between both sides of the body, and the many users of his wheels seem to agree. Here is a back view of a Gypsy Grace.

And a lot of wheels have a big enough treadle for two feet even if they aren’t specifically designed for it.

(Another digression:
There might be a little problem with terminology here. Which is the “front” and which is the “back” of a spinning wheel? I have seen them described as “spinner’s side” and “public side” – the public side being the side onlookers see when we demonstrate spinning. I like to keep things simple, so by “front” I mean the side facing me when I spin; “back” is the other side.
End of digression)

But don’t be fooled. Here’s one that looks like a double treadle, but isn’t – the A-line by Easycraft (back view again).

The non-treadle on the spinner’s left (that’s at the right in the photo) is there to stop the wheel tipping over.

So even a simple single treadle isn’t all that simple. What about double treadles? We’ll look at them next month.

* Eric Corran Understanding the Spinning Wheel (Melbourne 1997) pp 120-121

Updates – always something new to find out

Here are some recent discoveries, and additions and corrections to web pages.

New wheels and information about wheels come to hand from time to time, and Shan or I will update the nzspinningwheelsinfo site accordingly. We also note the changes on the home page. If you go there and scroll down, you’ll come to a list headed Recently added to this site and you’ll see that we’ve made three additions lately, including an intriguing new mystery wheel. It’s worth checking that list occasionally.

One of the additions is better information about those ‘hybrid Nagy’ wheels that we see occasionally. Now we know I shouldn’t have called them that, and the theory about them I suggested a year ago in this blog was quite wrong. This one has a label! It’s called a Pioneer wheel, and it’s by Woodspin of Greytown. So it was a new model, most likely developed by Peter Gubb, late in the history of Nagy/Woodspin – probably as a more economical version. You can click on a picture to enlarge it.

If you are interested in Rappard wheels, you may have noticed that the page about the treadle carvings on (mostly) their horizontal wheels gets updated as more turn up. The most recent update was just three months ago.

The study of flyer-frame wheels should have included a mention of Ivan McGreevy’s little Fleur, which works on much the same principle as Madigan wheels.

Since writing about drive bands, I have discovered bakers twine! Of course each wheel has its own preference, but bakers twine works well for many, particularly for double drive and for wheels that like a fine band. If a scotch tension wheel has a thicker drive band, bakers twine may be the answer for the brake.

Reels of bakers twineWhat’s good about bakers twine? It’s not too slippery but slippery enough, it’s easy to work with, it comes in different colours, and above all it doesn’t stretch. I buy it in an 80 metre spool at Spotlight but I’ve seen smaller quantities advertised very reasonably by The Warehouse. (No doubt it’s just as available outside New Zealand.)

What do bakers use it for? I’ve no idea, and neither has Google.

If you use my book New Zealand Spinning Wheels and their makers please remember two things – first, there wasn’t room for the really rare wheels, whose makers made fewer than ten or twelve. And second, a book is fixed and can’t be altered. There’s a list here of some corrections and additional information, which I try to update when necessary.

Before you ask, no, I’m sorry, there is no possibility of a new edition. My printer is no longer in business and the cost would be prohibitive. However, it can be downloaded free of charge here.

Finally, here is a silent movie about the making of a spinning wheel in 1963, filmed in Rosenhagen, Northern Germany. The craftsman, Ernst Martin, is shown going through all the processes from rough wood to decorative turnings including captive rings, as well as the creation of the metal parts – mandrel/orifice, axle/crank – and see how he makes the hooks! It’s 52 minutes long and worth every second it takes to watch.

Like so many other fascinating things, the link was discovered by the wonderful people of the Working Wheels and Antique Wheels forums on Ravelry.

To quote Robert Louis Stevenson (in A Child’s Garden of Verses)
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
(Actually I think I’m happier than the average king – just imagine all the responsibilities they have!)

Memories of a maker

I can’t remember now how I first heard of Ron Shearman, but somehow I learned that he made spinning wheels and lived in Marton, a small township about 185km (115 miles) northwest of Wellington. Naturally I looked up his telephone number and got in touch. He was keen to talk about his wheel-making, and happy for us to come up and see him. Eventually I ordered a wheel.

Ron and Sheila were welcoming and friendly, and we visited them several times. I learned that he had started his career as an apprentice chairmaker, then progressed to cabinetmaker. Later he became a teacher of woodwork, engineering and technical drawing at Rangitikei College in Marton. He was now retired and had problems with his heart.

He showed us his first wheel, made about 1970 from a pattern in Popular Mechanics magazine.

It was called the ‘Covered Wagon Wheel’ or “The Wheel that Won the West” and said to have been derived from a design developed in Scotland, but used in the colonisation of the western U.S.

A discussion among the wonderful people in the Antique Spinning Wheels group on Ravelry has established that there is no evidence for wheels of this type being taken along on the cramped, difficult journey across the US, and in fact it’s very unlikely. It made a good story, though.

I also learned that the pattern is in the Popular Mechanics issue of March 1966 p.177 and following. The construction details are interesting, but some other remarks make hilarious reading to modern spinners; spinning is apparently a lost art, and the writer finds it all rather quaint.

In a wonderful example of how an initially dubious tradition can be further corrupted, Dorothy Lumb in Yarnmaker 1 August 2010 p.13 described an almost identical wheel (no doubt from the same pattern) being made in Britain’s Peak District, which was there believed to be a replica of an old Romany design that could be strapped to the side of a gypsy caravan!

Ron’s version is made of mahogany, and apparently works but is a bit stiff.

Another of his early wheels looks very Norwegian.

He told us how in the 1970s he saw a wheel where he was staying in Balestrand north of Bergen. Interested, he took careful measurements, and made one like it from heart kauri when he came home. It’s the only wheel I’ve seen of his with an internal crank.

In 1982 he made a simplified, sturdier Norwegian-style wheel, which found its way to Canada where it is much loved. The treadle shape is one we see in many Norwegian wheels but usually much smaller and lighter.

He experimented with other different styles, and at this time seems to have treated each wheel as a completely new project. Shan has two, for example, which have a lot in common but to her frustration their bobbins cannot be swapped. Here is one of them.

This is the wheel, in case you were wondering, that she was spinning on in last month’s post. She likes it, except for two things: the handle of the threading hook sticks out from the end of the mother-of-all so that she bumps her left knee against it,

and secondly, it looks as though it should also be able to spin in double drive. But she fears that when she puts a double drive band on it, which she’d like to do, it won’t work well. Why is this? The grooves on the two pulleys, flyer and whorl, are almost the same size. The reason why this is a problem will have to wait for a future discussion.

Like all his wheels that we know about, it has a beautifully cut wood screw and  thread for adjusting tension, and another for the piece (loose on the table in this photo) that screws up from underneath to keep the MOA from sliding. The wood used is macrocarpa, one of Ron’s favourites; elm was another.

It was in the 1990s that he began to work with expert spinner Gloria Eatwell, and created a wheel to her demanding requirements which became the first of a series. There were two models, the Westminster like Gloria’s and the Regent which doesn’t have the extra finials between the spokes. Both have an extra tension control for fine tuning, which I have to admit I rarely bother to use on mine. There is more about these wheels here.

In the course of several visits, we learned that Ron had built their house, and indeed it was something to be proud of. Because of his heart trouble, he had added a lift – yes, he designed and constructed that himself too. He gave us a ride upstairs in it to see his study, which looked out over their lovely garden.

We also saw his workshop, which (to my regret) he had tidied up specially because we were coming. There was still plenty to see – here he is with a few of his impressive and mysterious machines. He was well equipped for working both wood and metal.

This was sitting in a corner awaiting final touches – and my wheel was well under way.

It wasn’t long before I was happily spinning on it.

There’s one more special thing to show you. Where we were living at the time, there was an ornamental cherry tree which after an earlier extension to the house was in a very bad position. So my husband took it out and we asked whether Ron would like the trunk. He gave careful instructions about how it should be dried, and in due course we took it to him. Then in March 2016 Ron died, at the age of 92, and we thought no more about the cherry tree until we received a little parcel from Sheila with a note saying Ron had wanted us to have the four little bowls he’d made from our tree.

Each one is a little different – like so many of his wheels! They are a wonderful memento of a man who couldn’t stop making things.

There is more about Ron Shearman’s wheels here:

New Zealand Spinning Wheels site – moved!

For a year or two I’ve been thinking about the site, and realising that it was time for some succession planning.

The code it’s written in would probably be sneered at by an 8-year-old. My knowledge of html was basic in the extreme when I wrote it fifteen years ago, and now it’s out of date as well because html has moved on and I haven’t.

Yes, the site works OK now, but for how much longer?

Even more important, I’m not immortal. I’ll be 80 next birthday, and the existence of the old site depended on a small monthly automatic payment from my bank account. We know what happens to bank accounts when someone dies: they are frozen, and payments stop. The old website would stop too.

So it has become a free WordPress site, which can stay put indefinitely.

And it has a new administrator. I’d like to introduce Shan.

 What’s that wheel? – I’ll tell you next month!

As you can see, she is another spinning wheel enthusiast. The two of us have been working hard for some weeks, setting up the new site. And talking about wheels, of course.

We hope that the different look won’t be too much of a shock –

and that you will still be able to find the information you want. A few minor updates have been made to the content but basically it’s the same. Here it is:

I have truly loved the friendly contacts with other spinners that the old site has brought me, and enjoyed finding out about wheels from all the generous people who have sent information and photos. I’m sure Shan will feel the same.

It will be a joint effort for the first little while, and there is also some new material that we want to add very soon. Here’s a teaser.


If you have any problems or comments, you can contact Shan through the new website or me through this blog, which will continue.

Note – it seems this may be happening just in time. I have been trying to turn all the pages of the old site into a shell with just links to the new one, but the links won’t link. I am baffled. Please just use the links above, or copy-and-paste from the main page of the old site.

More intriguing Rappard wheels!

Two months ago we saw an unusual Rappard Northern European, though now it’s clear that I shouldn’t have called it ‘unique’. Now, after some discussion on Ravelry and some checking back through my files, there are six Northern Europeans with a slashed-arrow mark! Here is the earliest one, of the normal type, dated (by carving in straight lines with some sort of chisel) to (19)68!

That is remarkably early, considering that Maria Rappard told me that their commercial production of spinning wheels began around 1970.

The next is the wheel with the finials, dated 1973.

The one with 16 spokes is dated 1977.

And another three of the normal Northern European style with the slashed arrow mark have come to light (so far) dated 1974, 1978 and 1981.

I nearly weep when I remember Maria showing me this first wheel John ever made, and that I never thought to ask her if I might look underneath. There is no design on the treadle.

I’m now wondering whether there are actually any Northern Europeans without the arrow … If you have one, please could you turn it over and see what mark (if any) is underneath? And let me know what you find?

And then, in one of those wonderful pieces of sheer coincidence that seem to happen so often with spinning wheels, there was a post in Ravelry from the puzzled owner of this:

She’d been gifted the wheel and told it came from ‘that place in Ashburton’ but realised it didn’t look like an Ashford Peggy. Was it a Peggy at all, she wondered?

I was excited. For years I’d been wondering about the photo in this little flyer someone gave me. You can click on it to enlarge.

No date is shown and the shop whose stamp is on the bottom is long gone. Was the wrong photo printed in the leaflet? Or had there once been a Little Peggy like this? Now it seemed that there had.

I asked the owner please to look for any markings under her wheel. This was the reply:

The slashed arrow and initials, on a Peggy! And look at the year – 1969! Since then she has kindly sent more photos of her wheel. Here is a comparison with a Peggy (on the right) from the early 1970s –

Among the differences from the ‘normal’ Little Peggies that we know and love are (starting at the bottom):
the fancy ankles,
the slightly more angular treadle,
the straight, stick-like spokes,
the unusually shaped segments of the drive wheel (visible in the first photo of the wheel, above; this continued for another two or three years),
the less curvy main support posts,
the straighter mother-of-all with its flat ends,
and above all the maidens, which lack the graceful curves that we are used to seeing in all Rappard wheels.

Actually we can catch a tantalising glimpse of maidens like these on a little photograph Maria gave me of the very first Northern European, which was no longer in her possession –

So I am imagining that after making the first one or two Little Peggies, John took a photo to be used in a leaflet. And that about that time Maria, who never hesitated to speak her mind, told him in no uncertain terms how the turnings could be improved on the Northern Europeans. She also pointed out how Little Peggy should be redesigned to be more attractive. But the new leaflets were being printed by then and were sent out with the old picture. (That’s just a story I made up, but I don’t think anyone who knew them would find it implausible.)

There’s still the question of why John used the slashed arrow for his mark. Sagittarius, as we saw, doesn’t fit. Apparently an arrow with slashes is used to indicate an unsuccessful reaction in organic chemistry, but he wouldn’t have wanted an implication of failure!

The arrow is still a mystery.

A huge thankyou to everyone who has sent me pictures or taken part in the discussion of these fascinating wheels!

A puzzle

First impression – Mike sent me this photo which he titled ‘What’

We were baffled at first. ‘We’ was Mike Keeves and myself, and the puzzle was a very odd ‘spinning wheel’ that put twist in and then took it out again. It was a fascinating challenge. The device turned out to be an unusual sort of Japanese silk reel, which would have been used for unwinding the filaments of silk from the cocoons.

We wrote about it for The Spinning Wheel Sleuth, and our article is now reprinted here with the kind permission of the editor.