A couple of years ago my elder daughter (she’s a writer – it’s the younger one who does circus derringdo) asked if she could interview me for a book she’d been commissioned to write. Interview me about spinning wheels.
Spinning wheels? In a book about people who stand up against pollution and destruction of habitat and loss of heritage? Was she sure? Yes, she was and so was her editor.
It made me think hard about why I spend so much of my time tinkering with wheels and writing about them. The number one reason is that I happen to enjoy it – but that wasn’t nearly enough of an answer. Why are spinning wheels, and the history of spinning generally, worth studying and trying to preserve?
There’s the age-old history of the craft, of course. More often than not, the history is about women, and hasn’t had as much attention as it deserves. That won’t be news to most people who read this blog. But Johanna’s book is about looking after New Zealand’s heritage.
It’s called Guardians of Aotearoa, Aotearoa being the Māori name for New Zealand (the word has traditionally been translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ though there is some uncertainty about this).
So I talked about the clever New Zealanders who have made wonderful spinning wheels, and how worthwhile it is to look after the wheels and find out their stories. It truly is a tale of human achievement, often under difficult conditions. We have a tradition about ‘kiwi ingenuity’ which can make or fix anything with a bit of number 8 fencing wire. Sadly it’s less true than it used to be, as our lives centre more and more around big cities and our farms are increasingly taken over by multinational companies. It’s enshrined, though, in the many, many wheels created, in their thousands or in ones and twos, by ingenious makers using materials to hand and imagination to solve problems.
Now the book is published, and I’ve read it from cover to cover. Most of the people in it I had never heard of, but I’m delighted to have heard of them now. They are people who’ve given large chunks of their lives to what they believe in, campaigning fiercely or working with quiet persistence. People who save native animals, preserve cultural heritage (notably Māori language and traditions), struggle against social injustice … I could go on and on. I’m thrilled and humbled by all the stories – never, ever, have I been in such inspiring company.
The superb photographs by Jess Charlton are uncaptioned, and mostly they speak for themselves, but there’s one that you might wonder about – so what’s that spinning wheel? It’s by Harold Martin, and an example of a wheel perfectly designed to suit its purpose. Martin is among my wheel-maker heroes. I feel a connection with this particular wheel because it belonged to Dorothea Turner, one of the most wonderful people I’ve known – I hope to write something about her one day. It’s now in the collection of the Wool Shed Museum in Masterton, and if I’m there and called upon to demonstrate spinning, it’s the wheel I always go for.
As you may have noticed, this is not an impartial book review. If you want to read one of those, take a look at https://www.nzbooklovers.co.nz/blog/guardians-of-aotearoa-protecting-new-zealand-s-legacies-by-joanna-knox .
And here are more details from Bateman, the publishers: https://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=1&ProductId=1638
STOP PRESS: Guardians of Aotearoa has been chosen as Book of the Year by the New Zealand Herald newspaper.