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!

A miscellany of spinning wheels

If you want to see one of the photos larger, just click on it.

1. A unique beauty

Years and years ago, I was told that Istvan “Pista” Nagy, who used kauri for his wheels, once actually made one out of oak. I don’t remember who it was, but I remember they said he didn’t like working with oak (which is hard and heavy) and never made another.

And here is the oak wheel.

Isn’t it quite something! It has no label but we know from its paperwork that it was made in 1970. Here is the receipt.

This was not long after Nagy started making wheels, so it probably had a paper label underneath which is long gone. At that time Nagy’s workshop was in Bay Road, Kilbirnie, Wellington – later he moved it to Newtown (another Wellington district).

The wheel has the features we expect to see on a Nagy – scotch tension, sliding mother-of-all to adjust drive-band tension, smooth graceful turnings, and even the 3-layer flyer.

On the inside of the flyer arm (just under the spun yarn) between the two layers of oak a different layer is visible, possibly some other wood or perhaps still oak; in any case the grain will be running in the opposite direction. Flyers made of a single piece of wood can be vulnerable to falls and other accidents, and break across the grain. You can see on the left in the picture below (of a 1975 Nagy flyer) that if it weren’t for the strengthening middle section, the flyer arms could easily break across the grain.

The oak spinning wheel is apparently a little smaller than the usual Nagy, but rather heavy as one would expect. Its whorl and its treadle are not oak, and there is also a larger whorl. The owner still has the documentation that came with it: typed instructions for spinning and maintenance (stressing the importance of lubrication), the receipt, and this letter.

Mr Nagy writes “The wheel is a good success. I shall make more. At the moment it is exhibited at Eastbourne and collects lovely comments.” Was my long-ago informant wrong that he didn’t like working with oak? We certainly don’t know of him making any more oak wheels.

Oddly, there is an indication that he made some out of pine (pinus radiata)! An article by Keith Berry in the magazine New Zealand Woman (September 1970) tells us that at that time his horizontal wheel sold for $75, his upright wheel in kauri for $65 and in pine for $55. I have never heard of a Nagy wheel made in pine – does one by any chance survive somewhere?

2. A mysterious pair

Here is a photograph that has puzzled me for quite a few years. It’s in the scrapbooks of the Eastbourne Spinners, which contain the wide-ranging collection made by Aileen Stace.

The label tells us that it was made by a cabinet-maker in Palmerston North, but enquiries there have so far turned up no clues. Somewhere (but my memory fails me again) I have seen or heard the name Reid associated with this wheel. He may or may not have been the maker.

Since then I’ve seen another wheel that looks strikingly similar, but I know nothing of its origin.

The fine construction and and lovely finish on the wood could well be a cabinet-maker’s work. It has a lot in common with the wheel in the early photograph – particularly the “legs” which would look more at home on a piece of furniture, and the way the drivewheel is dropped into the table. The turning of course is different, and this second wheel could either be by the same person after he had refined his skills, or by a craftsman copying the basic design of an older wheel.

The flyer looks to be jammed against the front maiden, and I wonder whether it’s a replacement that is a little too long. In the detail below, we see that the front leather bearing has had to be turned out of alignment, which would not make for smooth spinning. The flyer is also made from a different wood from the rest of the wheel, though makers sometimes do this for various reasons such as strength.

These two wheels aren’t twins, but could they be siblings?

3. A little surprise

It’s clearly a nice little wheel, and if I were 1/12th of my actual size I could probably spin on it with only minor adjustments. It’s a fraction over 7½ centimetres (3 inches) tall! The mandrel and other parts that should be metal are metal, the orifice and its exit to the bobbin look as though they’d work, and of course the drive wheel turns the flyer. The wood used is New Zealand matai.

I saw it recently at an exhibition of fascinating work by the Greytown Miniature Makers (you can find them on Facebook). It was in an upstairs room of a long-ago house.

Is the wheel perhaps beginning to look a little familiar? Its realism is because the maker, Graeme Bourquin of Auckland, has used the specifications and plans for the Hebridean wheel in David Bryant’s book Wheels and Looms (London 1987) – but reduced to precisely 1/12th of full size.

Accurate detailed plans, accurately followed down to the last detail, have given excellent results even on a tiny scale.

I am grateful to several people for helpful information and photos and permissions that made this post possible: Graham Bourquin, Alison Gracey, Kaylene Thompson, Shan Wong, and the Eastbourne Historical Society for caring for and making available the Eastbourne Spinners documents.

Bother with bobbins

Bobbins are very vulnerable to damage, to the problems of old age, and to complete disappearance.

They come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, not to mention that vital diameter of the hole through the middle. Here are all the different kinds of bobbin that I currently have (I don’t have the wheels that go with all of them!) –

From longest to shortest, starting on the left, they are – Fleur, Nagy (see the lovely gleam of the kauri wood?), Shearman, Bordua from Québec, Gib Wilson, Sleeping Beauty, Hamilton, unknown, Norwegian Husfliden, and finally two unknowns.

They have a wide range of shapes and sizes. What you can’t see in this photo is the different diameters of their holes, which have to fit perfectly on a flyer shaft (a.k.a. mandrel). Of the two on the ends, for example, the Fleur has a hole diameter of 9.6mm (3 eighths of an inch), and the one at far right has a hole diameter of 6.3mm (a quarter of an inch). Very few of them would fit the flyers of any of the others, though the little oddity on the right works nicely, by a lucky coincidence, on my Husfliden. You can see that I’ve had to put several felt washers on the flyer first to stop the bobbin end binding against the curve of the flyer arms.

So it’s depressing when a new spinner asks “I bought this spinning wheel, but it doesn’t have any bobbins – where can I get them?” If it’s an Ashford, of course, or some other current wheel, all should be well, but otherwise we most likely have to give bad news. A wheel with no bobbins at all is quite a problem.

You may be able to identify a New Zealand made wheel at
or if it could be Australian made, try
If the maker is or was prolific, bobbins just might turn up on second-hand websites. Some spinning groups keep odd bobbins in the hope that they will find a use, and they sometimes appear on second-hand tables at events.

If all else fails, and if everything else is there and working (as far as you can tell without a bobbin to test), it may be worth getting bobbins made. There are lists of experts who can do this here if you’re in North America, and here in the U.K. Or your local spinning group will very likely know a good local wheel-fixer. The results are more likely to be good if the craftsperson has the parts the bobbin has to fit: the flyer and whorl – more about this later.

Then there’s 3D printing. A company called Akerworks makes bobbins for a number of wheels – the current list is here.
Or if you know someone with a 3D printer, a search here  for ‘spinning wheel bobbin’ reveals several customisable patterns.

But what if you have only one bobbin? Oh dear – isn’t that a terrible problem? I don’t find it so bad – in fact a favourite wheel, my lovely Hamilton, only has the one and I’ve never bothered having more made. This is what I do:

I can wind off easily using either my Gib Wilson wheel as here, or my Fleur. They are “Picardy style wheels” – that means the flyer shaft sticks out in front of the maidens instead of sitting between them, and you put the bobbin onto the shaft and then screw the rest of the flyer onto the shaft’s end.

The idea seems to have originated in the Picardy region of France, hence the name. Other New Zealand wheels, old and new, that use this system include Harold Martin, Hal Atkinson, John Moore, Dunnachie, Patrick Jennings, Peacock, Grace, Majacraft.
Ashford tried it briefly in 1942:

Getting bobbins made for a Picardy style wheel with the whorl and flyer shaft fixed in place? You may be able to remove the whole spinning head including them and send that. Otherwise, send the flyer and accurate measurements of the diameter and length of the flyer shaft that the bobbin has to fit.

To get back to the topic – what I do is lift the drive band (and scotch brake if it’s that kind of wheel) on the wheel I’ve been spinning on out of the grooves, so the bobbin runs free. On the Wilson or the Fleur, I unscrew the flyer and remove the brake band from the bobbin groove. I jam a bobbin (any that will go) firmly on its shaft with a bit of paper/wool/card/whatever as a shim to keep it unmoving, and fasten the yarn end to this recipient bobbin. Then I just treadle, guiding the wind-on evenly back and forth along the bobbin with a finger. Soon the original bobbin is ready for more spinning.

Of course not everyone has a Picardy style wheel. A quill attachment on a wheel should work, or a large charkha. I’ve also heard of people using an electric drill and bit to hold the recipient bobbin. No doubt there are other ways of avoiding tedious hand winding.

Maybe your wheel has a bobbin or several, but they don’t seem to work. Recently I saw a bobbin that had suddenly started to bind against the whorl, and just wouldn’t spin around. It turned out that the end of the bobbin had worked a bit loose (so the bobbin had become longer) – quickly fixed by the owner with some glue.

What if the bobbin(s) won’t go on the flyer shaft? Or can be pushed on but the fit is so tight the bobbin won’t turn freely? The first thing is to inspect the metal flyer shaft – has it become rough or rusted? Keeping it shiny-smooth is important; I generally use steel wool with a few drops of WD40 or oil (be sure to wipe the shaft clean afterwards and oil it again).

But if the shaft is OK, maybe the hole through the bobbin is too tight, either made that way or shrunk or warped very slightly, or just dirty. Clean it (a thin torn strip of material with a bit of oil added, poked through, generally works) and test it again. If all is still not well, you can use a small round file, or my favourite high-tech tool – a knitting needle with a small piece of sandpaper wrapped around it – to enlarge the hole slightly. It’s important to stop and check the fit often; the last thing you want is to make the hole too big and have a rattling bobbin. When it’s right, again clean it inside.

Bobbins made of wood (as opposed to ply or a wood composite or plastic) can often break an end along the grain of the wood. We see plenty that have been glued back together, more or less expertly.

The two on the left have had pieces glued back. The repairs don’t look elegant but won’t prevent them from working well.

The third one seems to have been chewed by a long-ago dog. Not only is it beyond repair, it has also been misleading.

It’s one of two originals that came with my Québec wheel; the other is in fairly good shape. When the previous owners acquired the wheel, they thought there should be more bobbins so they got an expert craftsman to make some. They sent him the dog-chewed bobbin to copy, and he did the best he could to get measurements from it. But he couldn’t accurately measure the hole’s diameter – I tried and got different diameters (by a critical 2mm) at each end – and is such bad shape that he clearly took the safest option, the largest diameter. This is what he was dealing with:

So the hole was too big in the new bobbins and they clattered dreadfully. He has since put extra bushings in a couple of them for me (fitting them to the flyer) and I’m very grateful for their silence.

There’s a vital lesson for us here, which is worth repeating. If you are getting bobbins made to fit a wheel, it’s important that if at all possible the craftsperson has the parts the bobbin has to fit: the flyer and whorl. A bobbin to copy is good if possible, but less vital.

Can this be a New Zealand wheel?

Here is another post co-authored with Shan Wong. Practically all the photos will enlarge helpfully if you click on them.

When Shan sent me this picture she’d received, my first thought (after “Wow!”) was “That must surely be from Norway.” The wheel had been owned by a spinner who lived in Wanganui and then New Plymouth, but there was no information about its origin. It was now in Northland and for sale.

I knew how to describe it, thanks to regular reading of the Antique Spinning Wheels forum on Ravelry. It’s a super-slanty, a design that seems to have originated in Norway. This means it slants so steeply that the two legs on the right are attached in the end of the table, not in the bottom. Here is an example of a super-slanty made in Norway about 1850.

But more than that, and much rarer, it’s also a broken-table wheel – the table is in two parts. One end is super-slanty but the other end (holding the flyer assembly) is horizontal. There’s a “break” between the two parts and they are joined with two wooden pillars. Here is one, another Norwegian from the mid 1800s.

Shan (with perhaps just a little encouragement from me) eventually bought the wheel. We were fascinated by its origin. Certain features were reminding us strongly of a New Zealand maker, Reg Rudhall of Christchurch, who along with his friends James Colthart and Sidney Wing was making wheels in Christchurch in the 1960s.  We wondered whether perhaps he had refurbished a partial or damaged Norwegian broken-table super-slanty, making new parts to replace missing ones? Or had he started from scratch, presumably with a Norwegian example to copy?

Below is another photo of the wheel, with apologies for the sun problem. (Please ignore the silvery metal piece securing the front end of the axle – it’s a fix by Shan for a missing part – more on that later.) This wheel is not, by the way, as big as one might think – the drive wheel is 53cm in diameter and its overall height, at 82cm, is 5cm less than a Rappard Mitzi.

Following it is a Rudhall wheel. Their overall shapes are different of course, and Rudhall varied his wheels a bit, but the one pictured is fairly typical.

We can see a few common features of the two wheels:
• Most obvious is the bobbin-holder, secured to the table – not the way Norwegian spinners stored their bobbins! Such a bobbin-holder, with its bobbins stacked vertically, is either present or has left traces (a hole and often some fittings) on every horizontal Rudhall wheel I know of. (Sidney Wing also attached bobbin-holders to his double-table wheels this way but his bobbins are lined up side by side.)
• The brass or copper bindings firming up the ends of the front treadle bar are a diagnostic feature of Rudhall wheels.
• Look at the shape of those treadles. Here is a better view of a known Rudhall one on the left and our mystery wheel’s on the right.

It’s not just the shape and the way the front ends are set on top of the treadle bar. See the chip carving along the back edge of each? It’s a feature too on the edges of the upper and lower tables of many Rudhall double-table wheels and on the mystery wheel:

Now, here’s a fairly typical Norwegian flyer assembly from the 1960s.

It belongs to my Husfliden wheel, with its lovely wooden tension screw. Here’s the flyer assembly of our mystery.

The 3-piece flyer, with its shaped crosspiece and copper bindings on the arms, is pure Rudhall. Of course a flyer may be a replacement for a missing part of an older wheel, so let’s look at the fittings. They are metal – the metal post that fits through the table is secured underneath by a round metal nut and washer, and the tension screw, which can be seen in the photo below, is metal. (The hole on the right is where the bobbin holder fits.) The adjustment knob has Rudhall’s favourite copper binding!
But perhaps the most convincing Rudhall feature is a small but critical one: it’s the way the axle is secured. The Rudhall wheel below is an example of his typical enclosure of the axle in an oblong metal casing with a round hole through it, set into the post and butting up against a metal plate in the centre of the hub.

Here is our super-slanty’s fitting – the same metal plate on an almost identically shaped hub, and the little oblong metal casing holding the axle in place. (As we saw earlier, the casing is has been lost from the other side and Shan has had to improvise.)
Here it’s set into the slanted wheel post and secured with a shaped wooden peg, very like (except for being on the end of a metal screw) the peg you can just see in the third photo above, of the Norwegian broken table-wheel. On Rudhall’s regular horizontal wheels with their upright wheel posts he just secured it with a further strip of brass.

The peg is just one example of the stylistic features of Norwegian super-slanties which are rather convincingly reproduced in this wheel. Another is the wooden medallions that decorate places where we might otherwise see the end of a post or screw. You can see five of them here:

Four cover whatever is securing the ends of the two short pillars that join the two sections of table, and the fifth one is over the end of a leg. The Norwegian broken-table wheel that we saw above has several such medallions too.

The overall appearance of our mystery wheel is very much in the tradition of this type of Norwegian wheels, with its half-spokes and elaborate turning on legs and wheel posts. Our maker has conveyed the general look and feel while using his own methods to create many of the vital working details.

So here’s our theory – it can’t be absolutely proved, unless some reader with first-hand knowledge kindly gets in touch  and tells the actual story. We believe that at some point in his career Reg Rudhall saw a wheel very, very similar to the broken-table on in the third picture above. (Perhaps he just saw photos of one, but they must have been excellent photos!) He was inspired to make one like it, rose to the challenge and created a wheel that not only looks wonderful, but as Shan and I can both confirm, spins beautifully.

With many thanks to Rosemary Burnby in New Zealand and to Mona (Mono) in Norway for permission to use their photographs, and to the many people who have over the years contributed pictures for the info website and the book and our often-consulted files!

Mystery wheels – with squirrels!

Most of the information about the wheels described here has been ferreted out by Shan Wong – she is co-author. And we are very grateful to the helpful people who have sent photos of their Collinson spinning wheels.

Such a lot of wheel-makers are listed in the info site that you would think we must have included them all. But no – there are many, many wheels in New Zealand that we can’t assign to any maker. Others have a name attached, perhaps on the wheel or perhaps in reminiscences by an owner, but a name is all we know.

That’s why there’s a whole section of mystery wheels there, and more are turning up all the time. Here is a particularly intriguing one.

We actually know of five of these wheels, four of them labelled with the name Collinson and a family crest. This was the first one we spotted.

We were intrigued by a slightly damaged sticker that was on it. The name looks like Cullinson but might be Collinson, and there’s a little animal with a fluffy tail holding … what?

We heard of another but have no photographs, and then there was this.

The spokes in the drivewheel are different, but everything else looks much the same. The flyer is unusual, and now looking again at the first wheel we can see that it has the same big disk at the end of the flyer, acting as a whorl similarly to the well-known Ashford flyer but differently constructed.

A photo from underneath shows how the MOA is moved to adjust driveband tension.

See the little sticker? Close up in a good light, here it is. The name is now definitely Collinson and the little creature is now definitely a squirrel.

The fourth Collinson wheel we saw (well, saw pictures of – we haven’t seen any in person, yet) has spokes like number one and maiden tips different from any others.

Its label is quite different too (I’ve lightened the photo a bit for clarity):

It has a heraldic shield, with a Latin motto below which means “Nothing without God.” Oak (?) leaves are all around, there’s a helmet above, and on top is our squirrel again. The wheel was for sale in Auckland.

The final Collinson wheel (so far) was bought from a private seller in Auckland in 1981, and it wasn’t new then. It’s made of Kauri, and the others probably are also. It looks a lot like the second one we saw above, and has an identical sticker.

Its bobbins are an unusual shape, made from a single piece of wood.

Looking carefully at the pictures of the first and second wheels above, we can see that their bobbins are similar; the third wheel may have had its bobbins replaced at some point.

So who was Mr or Ms Collinson who (presumably) made these wheels? They may have been made in or near Auckland, and clearly by a fine woodworker. And why the squirrel? What is it holding? Suggestions have been a wool comb, or a toothbrush(!) or an axe (by far the most likely).

A browse through the White Pages reveals over 60 people called Collinson in various parts of New Zealand. A Google search returns over 5 million links about people and companies all over the world. No help there. So I tried some family history and heraldry sites.

English Heraldic Book-stamps by Cyril Davenport doesn’t contain any Collinsons but two other families had crests with a squirrel, each holding (or nibbling) a nut or acorn. These heraldic squirrels are most likely the red squirrels that are native to Britain.

It seems that Collinsons have a long history in the UK, some of it very illustrious. A number emigrated to New Zealand. There are several versions of a Collinson family crest. Here is one you can buy a poster of from a British website (hence the copyright mark).

Did one of the New Zealand Collinsons find something like this and adapt it for a label on their spinning wheels? And being a skilled woodworker, did they give the squirrel an axe instead of a nut or acorn?

Why would you want a squirrel on your family crest anyway? They are cute and fun to feed nuts to (as I was doing in this photo, many years ago in Montreal) but they don’t compare with lions, boars or stags as imposing creatures to represent the family – indeed, they can be pests and would probably be a major problem if they got into New Zealand!

They are, however, a nice example of foresight and planning, in the way they store food for the winter. Perhaps that’s it.

Do you know anyone in New Zealand called Collinson? If so, please ask them whether anyone in their family has ever made spinning wheels. If the answer is yes, please let us know!

And do take a look at the Mystery Wheels page. Maybe you’ll spot another one you can help with.

Do spinners and cosmologists have something in common?

It seems that perhaps they do.

If spinners twist yarn in one direction, clockwise or anticlockwise, we find it is twisted in the same direction if we come at it from the other end. Experienced spinners know that if you spin your yarn clockwise (giving it what we call a Z twist) and then wind it onto a storage bobbin, the new outer end will also show a Z twist, and it can be plied anticlockwise (S twist) without just adding more twist and making corkscrews. Can you see that both ends of the yarn on this storage bobbin twist the same way, like the downstroke of a Z?

The photo should enlarge if clicked on, but in case that doesn’t work for you, here is a closeup of the ends showing their twist better.

But don’t panic; we have worked hard to tell the story at a simple level that I can understand. And believe me, my level of physics understanding is very low indeed.

After many years working for a research department, my husband retired – not, as he puts it, from doing physics, just from being paid for it. Now he can spend his time researching anything that interests him, such as the characteristics of matter and energy.

He says that a fundamental particle of matter is a bit like our twisting yarn. It rotates in a constant direction, clockwise or anticlockwise, as it moves through space and time. The movement combined with the rotation can be represented as a twist, or in the language of physics, a helix.

Like spun yarn, a helix is seen to rotate in the same direction, no matter which end it is viewed from. If it’s rotating clockwise the helix is called right-handed (just as you normally start your drive wheel turning to the right) and if it’s rotating anticlockwise it’s called left-handed (the direction we normally ply).

The constant direction of rotation, seen as the helix rotates away from you (no matter which end you’re looking from) is called its intrinsic chirality, or handedness.

But there’s a subtlety that becomes important for cosmology.

Fundamental particles come in different types – protons, electrons and so on – and each type has an opposite number called an antiparticle. A particle and its antiparticle are exactly the same in most ways, but if a particle and its antiparticle meet they destroy each other, usually leaving behind nothing but some electromagnetic radiation.

Physicists generally think of an antiparticle as an equivalent to its particle but moving backwards (from our point of view) in time. And books and articles often say that the antiparticle’s chirality is opposite to that of its equivalent particle.

If you look at a left-handed helix (or some plyed yarn) and imagine you are a particle travelling away from you through time, you will find yourself going around anticlockwise. Try following the path of the blue-green wool –

But now imagine your particle self walking backwards from the far end, along the same way you went – it will feel as though you are going around clockwise.

Now try again from the far end – this time, turn yourself around and come back frontwards and it will be just as it is with the plyed yarn. From either end, you are going anticlockwise.

The authors of those books and articles are not thinking about the motion from the point of view of the antiparticle, which is travelling through time in the opposite direction from them. Their future is its past. They are seeing it coming towards them from their future as though they were walking backwards with it. So what they feel they see is a right-handed helix. But the right-handedness is not intrinsic to the antiparticle.

Trying to explain this clearly, Fred was experimenting with lengths of wire that had been wound around a cylinder. He discovered that if he did two the same, both clockwise for example, they could mesh nicely together. But one clockwise and one anticlockwise could not mesh or work together in any way. This is something I gather will be relevant as he continues developing the topic.

Right now, he just wants to make it clear that equivalent particles of matter and antimatter have the same handedness, whether you see them coming or going. He devised a diagram, with a helix at its heart, and asked me to create it with Photoshop Elements. “Not a chance” I said, “spirals are much too hard. But wait – I think I have just the thing!”

A rummage in my Spinning Wheel First Aid Kit produced a spring, which I had been given for possible use on a scotch brake but which was a little larger than the usual one. It could be stretched as needed.

A rummage in a cupboard produced an old wire coat hanger. Fred got to work and combined them, adjusting the stretch of the spring to what he wanted. Now it was held still for photographing.

The spring was right-handed, but he wanted a left-handed, anticlockwise helix, because that is the direction particles rotate in our world. Flipping the picture achieved this (flipping the spring, of course, didn’t) and then the ends were cropped.

After hours of painstaking editing, we finally ended up with the picture below which was exactly what he wanted. Don’t be puzzled by “Z or S” at the far end of the helix – to physicists Z and S mean quite different things from what they do to a spinner.

After all the help Fred has given me over the years, with things like basic woodworking and the math to get knitting patterns to come out the right size, I am happy that my skills could help him.

If you would like to find out more about his work, his blog is here
and this is the post with the spring picture (which is in the second of the PDFs linked at the end)


Charles Tyler and double drive

Charlie Tyler lived in the hills overlooking the Hutt Valley, in a leafy suburb called Korokoro. He began making wheels in 1964, and from then on he was constantly experimenting and never wanting to make two wheels exactly the same. I’ve been told that if his experiment didn’t work and the wheel wouldn’t spin, he would sometimes throw it across the room. He did have eight basic shapes (note 1 below) of which he made variations.

A number of Tylers have turned up lately, and I’ve also been going through my files of photos. Most of his wheels seem to have been intended only for use with double drive, in which the yarn winds onto the bobbin because the flyer and the bobbin rotate at different speeds. This depends mostly on the grooves on bobbin and flyer whorl being different sizes.

A few Tyler wheels have fittings for scotch tension that look original, but it’s become very clear that double drive was one of the aspects of wheel-making that he experimented with – and also that no-one had ever told him that “reverse double drive” with the bobbin groove bigger in diameter than the whorl groove, is “inoperable”! (Eric Corran’s description, see note 2 below)

Among my many photos of Tyler wheels, only sixteen clearly show the setup of whorl and bobbin. A lot of photographs have been sent to me – a big thankyou to everyone who has helped in that way – and I haven’t seen the wheels in person. Even with my own photos, early in my spinning wheel investigations I didn’t realise how important a good photo of a flyer assembly might prove to be.

Tyler wrote underneath each wheel his name, where he lived, the year the wheel was made, and her name. (I don’t usually anthropomorphise wheels, but with their female names and individuality it’s irresistible with these.) The writing, in pen and ink, ballpoint, marker, or even pencil, has often become illegible, so for some wheels we can’t tell the name or the date.

Here are the eight with standard double drive – smaller bobbin groove, larger whorl groove. Some are set up with scotch tension, but you can (in some cases only just) see that the bobbin groove is smaller so double drive would be an option. Most of the photos should enlarge if clicked.

Priscilla 1966

No name visible


Ariana 1970

Emilia 1970

Cordelia 1971


Dot 1970

The ratio between flyer whorl and bobbin grooves varies but I think all of those could probably spin in normal double drive. The only picture I can find that shows the diameters almost the same is Edwina.


Edwina has scotch tension, which may be original. In any case it would generally be the simplest way to make such a wheel spinnable. The other way would be to have a wood-turner reduce the diameter of the grooves on the bobbins.

There are seven wheels whose photos show the bobbin groove clearly larger than the flyer whorl groove. As we saw back in January 2020 this “reverse double drive” can sometimes work moderately well, as long as the difference between the dimensions is quite large.

Linda would probably be happier in scotch tension, for which there is provision (the peg on the bar atop the maidens).

Linda 1973

The next wheel has an eye hook on the table below the flyer, no doubt for a scotch brake. We don’t know whether it was original.


Carmela, below, appears to be intended for double drive but there’s no yarn on the bobbin so we can’t tell if it worked.

Carmela 1969

I was able to spin a little on Gretel but it wasn’t easy or comfortable.


If I were trying to spin double drive on the next wheel, I’d move the drive band to the smaller whorl groove to get a bigger differential – it might work quite well.

No name visible

I didn’t get to spin on Trixy, but it’s clearly possible, and perhaps very satisfactory. Note the wide difference in diameter between the whorl and bobbin grooves.

Trixy 1968

The final wheel has no writing underneath – possibly at some time it has been cleaned off. The new owner was told it was “Norwegian” but this must have been because of the shape being known as “Norwegian style” – rather a misleading description. It seems better to call wheels like this “double table” describing the way there is a little secondary table raised above the main one, carrying the mother-of-all and flyer assembly. Admittedly the style probably originated in Norway, but such wheels have also been made in many other countries, including New Zealand.

No marks visible

Anyway, she is clearly a Tyler, belonging to the same group as Cordelia and Petunia. Someone has made yarn on her, at least two bobbins worth, though the double drive setup is the “wrong” way round.

I had been asked to check out this one. First I changed the drive band (which was very, very tight – it had probably shrunk over time). There is a reasonable difference between the two grooves that the drive band passes over. I didn’t measure the ratio, unfortunately.

No marks visible, detail

She isn’t seriously difficult to spin on, but there is a disconcerting little moment when you first let the yarn wind on – it doesn’t start to take up straight away but actually seems to spit a tiny bit back at you. Then things start working and the yarn is drawn in and wound on the bobbin. This is similar to what Lorraine Cross, Shan Wong and I noticed in our 1920 experiments with reverse double drive.

We theorised that perhaps with this setup the flyer takes longer than the bobbin to get up to speed. This might be because the flyer has more weight to overcome, more air resistance, more friction from bearings and from yarn passing over the hooks. Also the drive band has less contact with the smaller flyer whorl so may slip. All this could cause the flyer to be left behind by the bobbin, so a little yarn is unwound from the bobbin until the flyer gets going and the wind-on begins. Lorraine found that when she started her wheel using the treadle(s) and simultaneously flicked the flyer arm to get it started, the problem didn’t arise.

So why did Tyler make some wheels with standard double drive and some with the reverse?  The dates, where they are known, tell us that he did this throughout his wheel-making career, so it wasn’t that he switched at some point from one setup to the other. Just one of many spinning wheel mysteries!

If you’re acquiring a double drive wheel, it would be worth checking that the groove on the bobbin is appreciably smaller than the groove on the flyer whorl. How much smaller is appreciably? This varies according to the type of spinning and your preference, but most agree that the bobbin groove shouldn’t be more than 80% of the diameter of the flyer whorl groove. If you want a stronger draw-in (such as for spinning thicker yarn with less twist) the bobbin groove might be as small as 65%.

If you have a double drive wheel where there’s no difference or it’s the “wrong” way round, and if it doesn’t work well for you, the easiest answer may be conversion to scotch tension.


(1) For more about Tyler’s styles, see New Zealand spinning wheels and their makers pages 115-116. This can also be found on the internet at

(2) Eric Corran Understanding the Spinning Wheel (self published Australia 1997)