A mysterious and troublesome beauty

A few weeks ago I bought a wheel on Trademe. Why? You may well ask. I have several wheels, which is plenty. But this is a Hamilton wheel.

I’ve long admired their graceful simplicity, and the lucky few who have one say they are wonderful spinners. They are also a tantalising mystery.

Tradition tells us that they were made in the 1940s. Dorothea Turner, whose Hamilton wheel is now owned by the Auckland War Memorial Museum, wrote that they were made in a Returned Servicemen’s Association workshop in Hamilton, and she thought the maker’s name was Ewison. Aileen Stace (who taught me to spin back in the early 1960s) had heard the same story.

However, forty years later when Lyndsay Fenwick and I were ferreting out the stories of New Zealand spinning wheels, Lyndsay spent a long time looking through wartime records and found no trace of an RSA workshop, or anything else similar, in Hamilton during or after WW2. It emerged that the maker of the wheels was contacted, if you wanted to buy one, through the local RSA secretary.

We do know that they were used during World War 2:

At least one Hamilton wheel is featured. Others include several by John Moore and an Atkinson (pause the film at 1.15 to see it clearly).

As for the maker’s name, Lyndsay couldn’t find any record of a man called Ewison in Hamilton who would at that time have been the right age and a potential wheelmaker. However, she did find a carpenter/cabinetmaker called Edward Hewison who would have been in his 70s, and had a workshop in Hamilton.

For a while I toyed with the idea of a Mr Eunson, a surname that could easily be heard as Ewison. It’s moderately common  among Shetlanders now living in New Zealand, and some features of Hamilton wheels do remind me of Shetland wheels I’ve seen in pictures (though they are more often small uprights). One similarity is the rounded treadle bar into which the front end of the treadle is fitted smoothly; another is the widening of the spokes near the rim of the wheel (which would probably help a bit with momentum); and a third is the little nipple at the end of the tension screw. Of course each of these is found in other places too, but added together they might be a hint.

However, I couldn’t find any record of a Mr Eunson who would fit the bill. I did learn, though, that Hewison is also a name found among Shetlanders. So Lyndsay’s discovery is the best guess we have for the maker’s name.

My new wheel has only one bobbin, the footman is in several pieces, the tension screw wasn’t budging, and the drive band didn’t fit properly. But it seemed worth taking a chance on.

After a bit of persistence the tension screw decided to cooperate, and pretty soon my wheel looked like this –

Now it was it was a case of clean and lubricate and see if the wheel would spin yarn. First it needed a general dusting.

Then I polished the flyer shaft (using steel wool with a little oil on it) and cleaned out the completely solidified gunk in the orifice (after softening it with WD40). A long-dead spider came out too.

I ran a strip of rag through the core of the bobbin. No problems there, and it spun freely on the newly cleaned flyer shaft.

I lubricated the bearings of the drive wheel, for now, with vaseline – there may be the remains of leather bearings in there that it would be good to replace some time.

It wasn’t too surprising that the tension screw had been stubborn, as the thread it screws into is in rather poor condition.

I found an old, plain white wax candle and rubbed that gently over the threads of the tension screw, and pretty soon it was working better than I’d dared to expect. (Important note: I didn’t use oil because that can make wood swell, and I didn’t use beeswax because that makes things stick, not slide.)

Then I put everything back together, with a drop of oil wherever it seemed a good idea, and put on a new double drive band. It had to be double drive because there was no little guide for a bobbin brake. It should have been like this –

But as you see below, the little guide peg on my wheel has at some point been broken off.

It would certainly be possible to replace it, if that proves worthwhile. Actually I think the one in the first picture is a replacement, as they are generally much more pointy. What I don’t want to do is put in a hook – that would be all wrong for this wheel. Fortunately I like double drive.

There only remained the footman, which looks like this –
Not worth repairing till we know if the wheel spins yarn, but string will do the job –

A lot of wheels, particularly those with no heel overhang on the treadle, work fine with a string footman. Philip Poore designed his Pipy wheels to have a string footman, and he used to say that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria it was good enough for him.

Now to try spinning. And sadly, this is where it all goes wrong – she won’t hold a drive band.

Before you ask, the drive wheel is perfectly OK, not warped or misaligned. The problem is that the flyer assembly doesn’t line up with it. I had noticed this, and was expecting trouble.

So I’ll take everything apart again and see what can be done. All is not lost. There will be another bulletin in due course.

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