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:

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