I have been given a very special wheel, which, sadly, an old friend can no longer spin on. It’s a long way from home!
My friend and her husband found it in a local second-hand shop some years ago.
Such wheels are sometimes called Canadian Production Wheels (CPWs) – the ‘production’ part is because they are designed to produce a lot of yarn fast, but ‘Canadian’ is not strictly appropriate as they were made only in the French-speaking townships of the province of Quebec, from about 1875 to 1955. Plenty of other spinning wheels have been made in various parts of Canada over the years, but these are a special group.
So what makes them different? Here is the definition from the CPW Lovers group on Ravelry, from whose members I have learned pretty much everything I know about them.
A CPW has:
• Tilt tension (lots of nice big Canadian antique wheels exist, including some lovely ones made by makers who also made CPWs, but those with screw tension are not what we call CPWs)
• A large drive wheel (usually 29-30 inches, but there are tilt tension wheels with drive wheels ranging from about 26 to 32)
• Its origin in Quebec in about 1875-1955
Maybe you are looking at the photo above and thinking ‘But Mary’s wheel has a tension screw on the end of its table! How can it be tilt tension?’
Nope. That’s just a handle or something – in fact it’s not solid enough to be much use as a handle either. Why most makers added them, we don’t know, but they are handy for hanging the threading hook on.
The style of these wheels developed among the descendants of the first French settlers, who farmed in what is now the province of Quebec. It was subsistence farming – most families ‘grew crops that satisfied their own household needs for food and clothing rather than grow crops to sell on the market’ (quoted from Wikipedia under ‘habitants’). There were few opportunities for other careers, but every family needed a spinning wheel. They spun to weave, not just for clothing but blankets, curtains and other household needs. That is why these wheels have generally only one bobbin – they didn’t ply their yarn.
More than 20 maker names are known, many of them with several family members involved. A look through the photo supplements to Fabricants de Rouet (see Sources, below) shows many variations in details of these wheels, particularly in the way their tilt-tension mechanisms are constructed. Most involve iron, and the commonest type is like mine – if you slightly loosen the little wing nut, it is easy to adjust the tension.
Others have various sorts of metal straps over the MOA, which may be cradled in a wooden fitting.
Then there are the ones with the MOA carried on a little post, the bottom end of which pivots in a slot in the narrowed end of the table. Once the wing nut is loosened (it’s out of sight in the photo below, on the other side of the wheel) the tension can be adjusted by rotating the MOA using the convenient handle. The wonderfully descriptive Ravelry jargon for these is ‘pinch-nose’ wheels. Here’s one:
I thank Lynne Broughton for this photograph of a wheel by Lucien Paradis
Now I can’t resist a digression – does something about the above wheel look familiar? Compare:
John L. Moore made these in Havelock North, New Zealand during World War 2.
See the way the MOA pivots on a narrowed end of the table? And there’s even a handle for adjustment.
There are huge differences too, of course – Moore’s wheel has a Picardy-style flyer, in front of the maidens not between them. It’s scotch tension, not double drive like the Quebec wheels. And the table-end is between the supports for the MOA, not the other way round. But one can’t help wondering whether the idea for the simple tension adjustment came from seeing a Quebec pinch-nose wheel, or perhaps a picture of one.
Iron was also often used for treadles of these wheels. Mine is typical
but other designs are known, and some makers used wooden treadles. One or two ventured as far as double treadles, and even occasionally an extra, accelerating wheel – years ago I was startled to see this outside an antique shop in Montreal.
So what do we know about my wheel? Well first of all, here’s the information that came from the dealer who sold it:
“This spinning wheel has been in the … family for 180 years. It was brought out here by Mrs …, and it was her great-great grandmother’s. They are a French Canadian family, and the loom [presumably he means the wheel] was made on a wagon train traversing Canada. As can be seen the wheel has been made of old fashioned Colonial chairs etc”
There is one little bit of truth in that – it comes from a family with a French-Canadian surname and we can accept they brought it to New Zealand. But can you imagine making a spinning wheel on a covered wagon bouncing across the landscape? No, its origin is firmly in a family workshop in the province of Quebec. And not one tiny piece of it comes from a chair!
It’s smaller than a lot of Quebec production wheels, with a drive wheel diameter of only 67cm (26½ inches) – compare an Ashford Traditional’s wheel at 56cm (22″) . Many Quebec wheels have drive wheels up to 80cm (32 inches) – they are indeed designed for productivity.
My wheel belongs to a group that was mysterious for some years. They had no labels. Identical wheels turned up, then triplets, then quadruplets… finally as more and more came to light they became known as tuplets. They look similar in many ways to wheels made by members of the Bordua (or Borduas) family in and around St Hyacinthe, southeast of Montreal, where several other spinning wheel makers were also based. Foty points out that there was a foundry there, which would have been convenient for obtaining the metal parts (see Sources, below). Frédéric Bordua began making spinning wheels in the mid 1870s and continued into the 20th century. His son Théodore worked with him and eventually took over the business. Their wheels, however, were normally marked with their name, and are bigger than the tuplets.
Finally a few tuplets were seen with a label, but not a maker’s – it was the label of a big Montreal department store called Dupuis Frères (Dupuis Brothers). Advertisements in the store’s mail-order catalogue proved interesting – here is one from 1945-6:
The text of the picture means
Spinning wheel of solid construction and one of the most durable. This spinning wheel is made in Quebec, entirely of hardwood except for the rim, which is of selected pine. DIameter of the wheel 30 inches. Spin your wool or your hemp; weave your local materials. (I’m intrigued by the mention of hemp!)
And then this article was found, from a local paper in 1954, when Théodore Borduas was 61 years old. The photograph shows him with an earlier, more elaborate wheel and a skeiner. In the background are simpler wheels like mine!
Translated, it says
For lack of customers, the Borduas will no longer make spinning wheels
By Arthur Prévost
They have been making spinning wheels in St-Hyacinthe for eighty years. At the present time, the last family artisan enterprise which specialises in the construction is assembling the last items, so that in a few weeks the picturesque industry will soon become part of history.
It is at St-Joseph, just outside St-Hyacinthe on the Drummondville Road, that the likeable craftsman Monsieur Borduas has his workshop as well as a grocery in which his wife and daughter work.
“Back in the day, when years were good, I used to make six to seven hundred wheels a year with my father Frédéric Borduas” he told our reporter. In 1920, he continued with legitimate pride, “we even reached the total of a thousand.”
It was in fact their biggest year, with half of their production sold to their regular customers in the province, and the other [half] sold at big department stores. At that time, the locally made spinning wheel found such ready demand that it was thought good to list them in the mail order catalogue.
M. Borduas senior devoted forty-eight years of his life to this industry, while his son counts thirty-two years in it – not counting, the latter tells us, “the years when we worked together.”
The elements of a spinning wheel are divided into three main parts: the wheel, obviously, the head or spinning part (fuseau, which more often means a spindle) and finally the base with its treadle. Then there follow various secondary parts. To make the wheel of the spinning wheel M. Borduas junior uses four pieces of wood which he fits together, smooths and finally turns on a lathe.
At the very beginning of the family enterprise, the motor force which drove the lathe was provided by a horse. Before electrification, a windmill was substituted for “the most noble friend of man” in this important function, and that went on for many years. When there was no wind? “Well, my goodness,” replied M. Borduas, “my father got to work to finish the pieces which he had to machine by hand.”
If one takes into account that the Borduas, father and son, made on average 650 spinning wheels a year, one must conclude that in all their career, 52,000 of these domestic instruments, which are today just so many souvenirs, came out of their workshop.
The photo caption reads M. Borduas, last in his family industry from which came fifty thousand spinning wheels, shows here an early model with skeiner.
So I have one of many wheels made by Frédéric or Théodore Borduas, between about 1880 and 1954. What is it like? How is it to spin on? I’ll write about that next time.
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Most of what is known about these wheels is thanks to a group of wonderful researchers who contribute to the CPW Lovers forum on Ravelry. One of them has written an invaluable reference:
Caroline Foty, Fabricants de Rouet – (1st edition 2011; photo supplement 2nd edition 2014; 3rd edition 2018). Available as a download through the Ravelry group.