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!)

Memories of a maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another of his early wheels looks very Norwegian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is more about Ron Shearman’s wheels here:

New Zealand Spinning Wheels site – moved!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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