A remarkable woman and her spinning wheels

Post revised on 22 March

This picture, apparently taken around 1930, caught my eye when I was looking for something else.

Collection: PAColl-0614-1: Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library

Of course I wanted to find out more about this lady and the spinning wheel on which she is demonstrating so elegantly. Anna Elizabeth Jerome Spencer (1872-1955) was known to her friends as Bessie but among the Women’s Institutes (a movement she founded) she was Miss Jerome Spencer. Spinning and weaving were a large part of her life. I hope she will forgive us if we call her Bessie.

Brought up in Napier, she taught at Napier Girls’ High School, becoming principal in 1901. Her interests were many: she loved all things rural, but also studied (gaining her BA extramurally from Canterbury College in 1895) and read widely. With an interest in religions, she joined the Havelock Work, a movement which promoted cultural interests and also esoteric spiritual beliefs. Interestingly, two makers of spinning wheels had involvement with Havelock Work, Chapman-Taylor who laid down the foundations of their house and temple Whare Ra, and John L. Moore who lived in Havelock North for much of his life. Bessie very likely knew both of them.

In fact Moore mentions her in a 1932 letter to her lifelong friend Amy Hutchinson, whose name New Zealand readers may know from her little book Plant Dyeing. My copy is typically old and well-used.

Bessie retired from teaching in 1909 and devoted herself to running an orchard and apiary and other country affairs, living for some years with Amy and her husband at their home at Rissington (inland from Napier). From 1914 she was involved in war work, and organised sewing meetings, but in 1916 she went to England where she nursed injured soldiers at Lonsdale House Hospital in London.

On the back of this photo she has written ‘Some patients and their work’ and named several of the men, as well as ‘Fluffy, a dear little friend now dead’ (can you spot Fluffy?). Bessie herself is at the right of the back row on the steps.

In England, she came to know about the Women’s Institute there and its involvement in crafts. Back in New Zealand after the war, she spent time spinning and weaving with Amy at Rissington. In January 1921 they called a meeting and the Rissington Women’s Institute was formed. The two pictures below were probably taken in that year, perhaps at a gathering of members of the new institute.

Her little spinning wheel in these photos is very simple, made without the use of a lathe except presumably for the bobbin which unfortunately we can’t see. Enlarge the photo by clicking it and you may agree that the flyer assembly looks a bit odd, but clearly it works.

It’s pared down to essentials like the (more elegant) wheels later made by Harold Martin, and has a similar drive wheel except that this one has no thickening of the rim so probably (unlike Martin’s) was originally made for a sewing machine.

In late 1926 the New Zealand Herald reported a talk in which Bessie said there were now twelve institutes in Hawkes Bay, two in Wellington, one at Henderson and one at Swanson. ‘The members’ fee was 2s a year … A yearly programme … comprised lectures, demonstrations and exhibits of handcraft ..’

Here she is in the same year, spinning in the Women’s Institutes display at the Dunedin Industrial Exhibition surrounded by handcrafted items including skeins draped over a loom.

She is using a different wheel this time, a little upright which is equally unidentifiable. We’ll look at it again in a minute. She’s working rather close to the orifice, and doesn’t look as relaxed as in the 1921 photographs above. Behind her is the big walking wheel we saw earlier.

We can be fairly sure that she made her outfit herself. When she gave a talk, she regularly mentioned that she had spun and woven her own outfit. The social column in the Auckland Star (17 June 1929) reported on her clothes during a visit to the city:

‘While in Auckland she was delightfully attired in a hand-spun and woven woollen coat, made in the latest style. It was dyed a beautiful golden brown, with dye made from the tufted lichen, which grows on old posts and on old trees in the bush. This supplied a delicate shade of the new rich coffee brown, and is absolutely fadeless.

‘It was banded, at the bottom and on collar and cuffs, with Naples blue, dyed with indigo dye, and scarlet and cyclamen patterns of a delicate shade—one made with cochineal and the other from madder—all dyes used being vegetable, which do not fade like the chemical dyes. Her skirt was also hand-spun and woven in light beige, with pattern of darker brown, all being made from the different shades to be found in the natural wool of a light brown sheep’s fleece.’

This is clearly not the same outfit as the one she’s wearing in the first photo above, and probably not the one in the Dunedin Exhibition picture (the fringe would surely have been mentioned).

Though the institutes kept her very busy, she still found time for a great deal of spinning and weaving. There are a couple of photos of her weaving.

In this photo and another (with thanks to Shan Wong for her comments on looms, not my field at all) she is using ‘a four shaft counter-balance loom, quite similar to a Kentish loom with overhang beater.’ She is wearing a different outfit from the ones we’ve seen, no doubt also handmade.

Next we see the ‘loom room’ in the Hutchinson home at Rissington. Even I can see that this loom is not quite the same:

Its style is ‘Scandinavian barn loom, which in the old days, 4 shafts were basically sufficient. This one might be a replica/modern build.’

There’s also a little spinning wheel, which is almost certainly the same one as in the Dunedin exhibition photo above, and also in this one taken at Rissington in the 1930s.

She’s spinning long draw, with carders conveniently beside the deckchair. This time she (and the cat) look quite relaxed. But let’s look more closely at that spinning wheel – here is an enlarged detail from the 1926 exhibition photo:

Although the outlines have become a bit fuzzy, we can see that it’s set up in flyer lead/scotch tension. The bobbin brake stretches down from a cord that runs between the maidens, passing along the groove in the bobbin with its lower end secured to the mother-of-all. This was a not uncommon way of setting up scotch tension in the UK in earlier times, and the wheel might have come with her from England when she returned after the war.

When we see it a few years later (if it really is the same one, and they are very alike), in the loom room and spinning in the sun with the cat, it’s set up differently. It’s still scotch tension in the spinning photo and probably in the loom room photo but has no visible cord across the maidens, so the brake by now was probably fixed to the MOA at both ends.

Did this little wheel actually belong to Bessie, or to Amy Hutchinson? In a November 1978 article in The Web, Pamela Simcox writes she was given the wheel by Amy, and I believe the photo below confirms that it’s the same one. Of course it’s possible that Amy had inherited it from Bessie, who died in 1955. Or that it was one of the many things in their lives that Amy and Bessie shared.

Photo credited to the Hawkes Bay Herald-Tribune, from The Web, November 1978

As for the wheel on the right, it was evidently Bessie’s, and she gave it to Pamela Simcox during her lifetime. It’s a Schofield – see
They were made in large numbers in the 1930s and 40s, for use in schools and technical institutes. Their wood was very light and few have survived to the present. (I thank Carol Wingate for sending me the article and photograph from The Web.)

Bessie’s energy is astounding. Here is a drastically shortened account from the Bay of Plenty Times (26 December 1932) of a visit she made there in 1932, as Dominion President of the Women’s Institute. Arriving at Opotiki on Monday, she formed a new Institute at Otara. On Tuesday she went to Taneatua for two meetings. On Wednesday there was a School of Instruction for officers and organisers at Whakatane and on Thursday the Council Meeting of the Bay of Plenty Federation. In the evening, she met the committee of the Te Puke Institute.

On Friday morning her first stop was at Hairini where a new Institute was formed and ‘she addressed the meeting fully’. Next at Omokoroa she spoke to the members of the Institute there. ‘The aims and ideals of the movement were the subject of the address, and many points were explained.’ Moving on, she gave an address to the to the Whakamarama Institute. At 6pm she returned to Tauranga, and at 7pm met the members of the newly formed Gate Pa Institute.

On Saturday morning a School of Instruction was held in Tauranga, where ‘commencing at 10 am Miss Spencer held the attention of her audience for two hours.’ At 12.45 she spoke again, and after a digression for a ceremonial visit from the Mayor, she concluded this lecture just before 2pm. Later she gave a ‘delightful address’ on Institute work to about a hundred members from around the area. After a unanimous vote of confidence in her as President, the audience rose to sing ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ That evening she met more local members. Next morning, she met members of the newly formed Institute at The Mount, before leaving for Hamilton.

Just thinking about all that, I feel I need a lie down!

In 1937 she received an OBE for her work. By the 1940s she is slowing down just a little but we see her still in demand as a guest speaker at meetings.

Returning to our very first picture, it may have been taken at a display of handcrafts by the Women’s Institutes in Wellington in 1932. The Auckland Star (26 November) tells us that Miss Jerome Spencer gave an exhibition of hand spinning on an Irish wheel. Could this be it?

Collection: PAColl-0614-1: Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library

It probably is. The little Ulster Museum book illustrates a similar wheel from the Aran Islands (p.27), and Baines (p.61) has a c.1905 photograph of an Irish spinner using one. Let’s take a closer look at the business end (what we can see of it).

In front are one maiden and part of the flyer of a little upright wheel (not the one we looked at earlier, the maiden tips are different – thanks Shan for this correction). You’ll notice the cord across the maidens, stretching from the tip of the front maiden and vanishing out of shot. Just visible to the left is the brake, attached to this cord and running down to the bobbin whorl.

Behind that, we can see a board slanting up from the table of the great wheel and what looks like plaited straw securing the spindle to it. Both the Ulster Museum wheel and the one in Baines’ picture have such a board, to which the spindle is (or was originally) secured with straw. The straw on Bessie’s wheel looks exactly like that in Baines’ photo. So yes, this is what used to be called in Ireland a ‘long wheel’.

We’ve seen that she owned, or at any rate used, at least five different different wheels during her life.  In 1921 she had a very home-made looking wheel. In 1926 we see her using a little upright with the bobbin brake attached to a cord across the maidens, and in the 1930s she was spinning at Rissington on an upright that may be the same one with a change to the bobbin brake. This one may have actually belonged to Amy Hutchinson. Then there are the big Irish wheel, and the little one in front of it, in the 1932 demonstration. And finally we learn that she also had a Schofield wheel.

It would be good to know where these wheels are now, particularly the big Irish one. I wonder how Bessie came by it, and whether it is still lurking in an attic or barn somewhere!

All the photographs except those otherwise captioned are from the Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi – https://collection.mtghawkesbay.com/
Patricia Baines, Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, London 1977
https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/ – various newspaper articles
Pamela Simcox, ‘Wheels of interest’, The Web November 1978
Ulster Museum, Spinning Wheels (The John Horner Collection) reprinted March 1969.
Susan Upton. ‘Spencer, Anna Elizabeth Jerome’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s38/spencer-anna-elizabeth-jerome

Something old, something new

Here’s the new thing first because it’s more fun. Some members of the guild I belong to recently participated in an exhibition at the local art gallery, and their creations were (I think you’ll agree) extraordinary.
Our vice-president Janet has written about them, in an often touching, sometimes amusing, and always interesting way, with plenty of pictures. Do take a look at her post at

The old thing is the original New Zealand Spinning Wheels website, the one that ended in dot info. When we replaced it with a WordPress site, I kept it going for a while as a pointer to the new site, but when the next account came up for payment, I cancelled it. Very quickly the address was snapped up by a gambling organisation! So a spinner going to it now gets quite a surprise …

Shan and I have tried hard to make sure that all links everywhere to the old site are updated with the new address, but we’ve inevitably missed a few. So if you see that out-of-date .info link anywhere, please could you either ask the owner of the site to change it to
or get in touch with me and I’ll ask them?

That’s all for now. Normal transmission, with spinning wheels (not the roulette kind), will resume about the 20th of the month.

Some early Majacraft memories and memorabilia

— now with a supplement from a letter written by John Arlott

I thank Glynis Poad, who has very kindly shared her knowledge of the company’s history.
*Click on an illustration to see it bigger*

It’s interesting to compare two leaflets from the early days of Majacraft production. The enterprise was started by John Arlott in the 1980s, and the first leaflet reflects that era. It bears only the names Moshie and John Arlott so it must before their son Tim (after whom the Tiny Tim was named) was participating an the company.

There are three models of wheel and none of them have individual names. We can recognise Tiny Tim in the ‘folding wheel’ at lower left, but the ‘double pedal wheel’ wheel above it doesn’t match any Majacraft I’ve seen. It must be Arlott’s very early double treadle wheel, which developed into Suzie. Then there is a double table (Norwegian-style) wheel; Glynis writes ‘John was a keen advocate for Norwegian wheels which he made at the beginning and the end of his time making spinning wheels.’

In the later leaflet which must date from the early 1990s, we find Suzie and Tiny Tim, named (below). Kristen and Tim Arlott’s names appear along with Moshie and John’s, and Glynis tells me they took over after John retired which would have been soon after this.

Suzie (named for the Arlotts’ daughter) can fold, and there are other differences. Tiny Tim, which seems to have been the first folding Majacraft, looks just like the one I once owned. It was very portable and convenient, but I disliked the restricted feeling around my foot on the treadle.

Other changes can be seen in this leaflet too:
Polly has now appeared, and is clearly intended as a simple, sturdy economy model. Pollyanna, with true double treadles, hasn’t quite arrived yet. The early leaflet showed an electric spinner but now Majacraft are selling one made by Seiko of Japan. And there’s a new addition – a drum carder.

The ‘Norwegian wheel’ is still featured, and we are told ‘This is the Majacraft standard bearer.’ Yet I have never seen one, to my knowledge. Have you?
The chair is still here, and looks a little different from the one in the first leaflet. There’s also a very small (but eight-shaft!) loom.

The skeiner has been improved and other accessories added:

You might like to compare the price lists:

Most items haven’t changed enormously. Exceptions are the electric spinner (understandable as it was now being imported), the chair (why?) and the ‘Norwegian wheel’ which Glynis says probably took too much time to make. Soon Tim dropped it in favour of the Saxonie. However, in later life John returned to making them. He also made grandfather clocks!

We see already in these leaflets many of the features Majacraft owners know and love: the delta orifice; the sealed ball bearing joints that never need oiling, in fact shouldn’t be oiled; the good range of ratios; the single movable flyer hook; and above all the double treadles. John Arlott didn’t invent double treadles, of course, but he introduced them in New Zealand.

Glynis and Owen Poad purchased the business in 1996, and new developments continue.

Current Majacraft products can be found here and complete PDFs of both leaflets are here

Supplement 22 February:
To my embarrassment I have only just found, in my several shelf-metres of books, magazines and files about spinning wheels, a letter from John Arlott. It’s undated but would have been sent in late 2009. He writes:

… I was a Registered Professional Engineer and came into this market place because it was becoming known that I had retired, had some “fancy” machinery and a bent to help others less fortunate than myself, spinners and weavers with what I may call mechanical problems …

So, first wheel for a lady with one hand and one hook about 85 or 86 (probably a date not the lady’s age) first electric wheels for ladies confined to bed … and first wheels to a group in Japan in 1987.

These introductions provided me with an opportunity to establish some basic parameters, simplicity is the vital ingredient for spinners, for manufacturers, for cost.

1. Flyer shaft to be overhung, one end in bearings and the other available for bobbin changing and all adjustments without removal. (He is describing what we sometimes call a Picardy-style flyer.)

2. Single adjustable flyer hook, reduce the rotating hardware and the things upon which to snag your fibre.

3. Delta no fuss orifice, no threading hook, takes any fibre, thread with thumb and finger.

4. Ball bearings, cheap, quiet, near enough frictionless, no messy plastic or leather and oil of grease and sloppy fit.

5. Double pedal, sit straight instead of on one cheek easy on the back and easy on the backside.

The first wheels were vertical and did not fold, folding is a bit of a luxury and not so important as some spinners seem to think.

Polly and Pollyanna followed the soundly based Suzie (named after my youngest daughter) and the heavy green wheel pleased the U.S.A. customers who spin cotton and viscose.

I demonstrated these products from Savannah GA to Prince George BC and all points in between, it was a great experience …  At times we averaged 48 wheels [sold] a week and you can see I think that we started at the bottom in 1986 and made every effort to listen to the client and improve …

I reckon that it is possible to incorporate a mobile phone, flashing lights, digital readouts, texting whatever that may be and ruin an absorbing hobby.

Doing the impossible – a double drive puzzle

(updated 28 January)

First, an acknowledgement – Shan Wong and Lorraine Cross have been very helpful with his project. It wouldn’t have got anywhere without them. So please consider them co-authors.
Mary Knox

If someone tells you something can’t be done, without a clear and convincing reason why, do you immediately want to try it? I do, specially if it’s a spinning something.

Some friends and I have been experimenting.

Double drive is a system in which a single long drive band in a figure-of-eight goes around the drive wheel twice, and once each around the flyer whorl and the bobbin whorl. It’s not used as often in New Zealand as in many other countries, but it’s a lovely spinning setup, smooth and fast. This Rappard Mitzi in double drive is Shan’s current favourite.

Double drive winds the yarn on because the bobbin has a smaller-circumference groove on its end than the groove on the flyer whorl. That means when you let the twisted yarn feed in, the bobbin turns faster than the flyer (think gears on a bicycle) so yarn is wrapped around the bobbin.
When you stop feeding in and hold the yarn while twist accumulates, the flyer and bobbin become ‘locked’ together and turn as one (this is called yarn lock).

Why is it always done that way round? Why not have the bobbin groove bigger and the flyer groove smaller? We’ll call that, for convenience, Reverse double drive (RDD). If it’s the difference between the two groove circumferences that matters, surely it would work either way? Apparently not – most authorities say a correct double drive wheel has a smaller bobbin groove than its flyer whorl groove.1

Eric Corran calls RDD ‘inoperable’ and is the only writer we’ve found who tries to explain why.2 Shan and I both find his explanation unconvincing, partly because he fails to take into account slippage of bobbin and flyer and the build-up of twist during yarn lock.

Alden Amos is more balanced, saying it can be done but there’s no good reason to.3 Curiosity was sufficient reason for us. My Ron Shearman wheel has bobbins with several different groove sizes and the smallest groove on the flyer is quite small. I assembled an RDD setup, grabbed some horrible wool and tried spinning. The drive band wouldn’t stay on … the wheel was obviously trying to tell me something, but what? Eventually there were a few metres of awful ‘yarn’ which I’m not going to show you.

So I made a really fine drive band, some sort of embroidery cotton I think, and found some nicer wool.
The new drive band stayed on and I actually made a little yarn, on two bobbins so I could try plying later. It wasn’t easy – takeup was mostly very slow and jerky. The wheel would take the yarn when it felt like it but didn’t want to be fed. It was  better after I figured out that a short backward draft worked best.

Shan had been experimenting too, at first with little success (the yarn kept unwinding from the bobbin). We agreed that we should try a bigger differential between bobbin and flyer whorl sizes. I had been using a bobbin groove circumference of 17cm and a flyer groove circumference of 15cm, giving a ratio of 1:1.13 – definitely on the low side. No wonder there was poor takeup and overtwist.

We both made changes. Shan put a bobbin with a 22cm groove on her Mitzi (flyer whorl circumference 14.5cm) for a ratio of just over 1:1.5, which should be very adequate. She commented ‘There’s a funny sensation that translates to “bobbin takes when it wants to”. I can feel an occasional tug, which for me means the bobbin says, “Give me the yarn!” The sweet spot is very narrow and if the drive band is slightly too loose, it falls off.’

I discovered that the bobbins of my Gib Wilson wheel could be used on the Shearman wheel, though they rattled a bit. Their bobbin groove circumference is 20cm, and now the flyer to bobbin ratio was 1:1.33. That was so much better that I could even do a gentle long draw, until I got a little over-excited and oops…
(The problem is clear: the bobbin is too short for the flyer and has drifted so that the flyer ends hit the drive band. That was easily solved with a piece of thick felt from an unsuccessful effort in a workshop, sandwiched between two washers – you can see it below, in front of the bobbin.) Soon I was spinning again, not loving it because takeup was still somewhat erratic, but not hating it either. This time I spun the second little batch on a partly-filled bobbin, which didn’t change anything.
Meanwhile I’d emailed Lorraine in Australia about what we were doing, and she happily turned to a new (to her) Schacht Ladybug which has a good choice of whorl sizes. First she spun a little in normal double drive, and then reversed the bobbin to use its wider-circumference end. Her flyer whorl groove is 13cm around; the normal double drive end of the bobbin has a 10cm circumference groove and the other end (intended for spinning in scotch tension) has 17cm. So in normal double drive (on the left below) she had a ratio of 1:1.3 between the grooves, and in RDD (on the right) roughly the same. You can see the difference in spinning quality.
Lorraine wrote that in RDD ‘this very easy, responsive wheel was hard to restart each time I stopped spinning, but once it got going, it actually filled the bobbin pretty well. Most obviously, it was very hard to get enough twist – this fibre to the right of the photo is very underspun by my standards, even after a lot of tweaking. It was hard to slow the pull enough to allow sufficient twist – a very fine line between slowing the wheel/flyer down enough, and the wheel stopping … It certainly is possible to spin DD the wrong way round … but it was not really pleasurable.’

Now it was time to tackle plying. On my 1:1.33 RDD setup I plied each of my pairs of experimental spinning, in my normal fashion with back hand at my hip controlling the threads and front hand feeding in. I expected woe and misery, and was astonished that it worked OK.
In the top skein, the overspinning of the singles is noticeable, with poor takeup at the ratio of only 1:1.13 between the flyer and bobbin grooves. For a close inspection, as always, click on the photo. The bottom skein wouldn’t win any prizes, but it’s quite a bit better. Singles in skein 2 and all plying were at a ratio of 1:1.33.

Lorraine also tried plying and initially found it very hard to control. Later she wrote ‘With a bit more practice, both spinning and plying results were quite acceptable – apart from the unusual starting process, lesser twist, and periodic jerking of the fibre.’

So why is RDD takeup troublesome? Here is one theory, which owes quite a lot to Alden Amos.4

In yarn lock, when twist is being added but no winding on is happening, flyer and bobbin are held together by the yarn between them and turn at the same speed, relatively slowly with the drive band slipping a certain amount:
When the spinner starts to let the yarn wind on (breaking yarn lock) the bobbin, with only minimal friction between it and the well-polished flyer shaft, can speed up quickly. I wondered if, because of several factors, the flyer might take longer to get up to speed and start winding the yarn on.

First, the flyer has more weight to get moving – arms, hooks, orifice, whorl, spindle (though Shan weighed her two flyer-and-whorl combinations and found the difference to be 30gms, not enough to explain their different behaviour). Second, there’s more friction to overcome (the bearings at each end of the shaft, the friction of the yarn passing over the hooks). Third is air resistance slowing the flyer arms. And fourth, the drive band has less contact with the flyer whorl groove than it does with the larger bobbin groove, so slipping might take longer to overcome.
Could the flyer (now left behind by the bobbin) pull a little of the already-wound yarn off the bobbin before it finishes speeding up and normality is resumed? In this moment does the opposite of winding on take place, and ‘spit out’ a little of the wound-on yarn?

Lorraine, who says she’s spun on ‘far too many different, often cantankerous wheels’ mentions that she has learned to compensate for deficiencies, and enjoys getting the best out of any wheel. ‘After that first tendency for the bobbin to pull too soon, I was automatically/subconsciously starting the wheel using the treadles, and simultaneously flicking the sluggish flyer arm into action. So I had already unwittingly prevented this particular problem you had detected. Restarting the wheel using only treadles confirmed your observation.’

Shan on the other hand found that jerkiness was more likely to happen after a bit of winding on, and ‘Too loose tension results in no wind on, and too much results in strong jerk.’ Her interpretation is that the flyer winding on alters the bobbin rotation during takeup.

In any case, we now have tangible evidence that spinning with RDD is not always impossible. ‘Not always’ because I have read comments by a couple of highly knowledgeable spinners, whose expertise I respect, who when confronted with an RDD setup have found they could get no takeup at all no matter what they did. And if they say that at that time on that wheel it was impossible, I totally believe them.

So what was the difference? Could it possibly be to do with the shape of the grooves in flyer and bobbin? There is a widespread belief that for double drive, the groove in the bobbin should be U-shaped allowing more slippage, and the groove in the flyer whorl should be V-shaped to grip the drive band more.5
New Zealand makers have never bothered with this apparent necessity, and Shan’s wheels and mine all have fairly similar V-shaped grooves on flyer whorl and bobbin. Not everyone agrees that it matters, but what if it does, just a bit? In RDD, could the difference between groove shapes, now doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do, be just enough to transform RDD from unsatisfactory to impossible? Well no, there must be more to it than that, because Lorraine’s Ladybug wheel has a flat bottomed, wide groove on the bobbin whorl, and a V-shaped flyer whorl groove. She didn’t find it a problem.

We still don’t know for certain the exact reasons for the behaviour of our wheels in RDD. Subtle differences between wheels, and between spinners, certainly play a part. But this we can say –
We found that to spin in RDD isn’t too hard as long as the bobbin whorl is substantially greater than the flyer whorl for sufficient winding on. That part is definitely conclusively true. The operational range of tension too is much smaller than spinning double drive: it needs to be on the tight side.

So if you are stuck for bobbins, then by all means put on a large groove bobbin and give it a whorl! We’d love to hear how you get on. But now, for us, normal (not reverse) double drive will resume.

Quick update, 28 January:
Lorraine doesn’t give up easily. She writes ‘I tried again, using some lightly washed Romney fleece (far more enjoyable to spin than the dirty-very-fly-away-alpaca). I spun quite successfully until I had absolutely no takeup as the bobbin filled.
I then even tried changing to a larger whorl (close to the bobbin whorl size) to increase the band tension further, and to see what effect that might have… it actually very briefly helped with bobbin filling, but I have now given up. As you can see, with practice, and increasingly as the takeup reduced, I also managed to achieve more twist in the fibre.’
There are many ‘Why?’ questions still unanswered! But at least we have a better idea of ‘What happens if …’

1. For example David Bryant (p.44), Judith Buxton (pp.109-115), Eliza Leadbeater (p.6), Mabel Ross (p.60).
2. Page 47
3. Page 218 note 3
4. Pages 218-220
5. Authorities who state this include Amos (p.226), and Corran (p.109). Buxton (p.113) thinks it’s important but should be the other way round. Mabel Ross on the other hand says the difference in groove shape is traditional rather than necessary (p.60) and David Bryant doesn’t show such a difference in any of his plans.

Alden Amos The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning (Interweave Press 2001)
David Bryant Wheels and Looms (Batsford, London 1987)
Judith Buxton (or Buxton-Keenlyside) Selected Canadian Spinning Wheels in Perspective (National Museums of Canada 1980)
Eric Corran Understanding the Spinning Wheel (self published Australia 1997)
Eliza Leadbeater Spinning and Spinning Wheels (Shire Publications, no date)
Mabel Ross Encyclopedia of Handspinning (Interweave Press 1988)

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!)