Some mistakes, old and new

A message to my readers first – I’m no longer going to try to publish a post on this blog each month, around the 20th. The self-imposed deadline has helped me to focus, but now at 82 I feel I can retire from deadlines.

This isn’t goodbye though. When an interesting spinning wheel or related topic appears, I shan’t be able to resist writing about it. It just won’t happen regularly. If you want to know when a new post appears, you can subscribe by clicking on ‘Follow’ and you’ll get an email notification.

Here’s a very old mistake, and a new mistake about the old one. Back in the middle ages when cotton first came to Europe (having been used in countries further east like India for thousands of years) it was apparently a puzzle. Could this soft fluffy stuff, quite unlike the familiar linen, really have come from a plant, as the story was?

If you search on Wikipedia for anything about this, you will probably find this woodcut picture with the explanation ‘Fanciful depiction of cotton by John Mandeville, featuring sheep instead of cotton bolls.’

It’s perhaps not too surprising that people speculated about this new sort of ‘wool’ and came up with a plant or tree that grew tiny lambs. They also figured out that the stems must be bendy, so that the lambs could reach down to eat grass when they were hungry.

But that is not, in fact, what we find in the 14th century book called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Mandeville (or whoever the actual author was) is for once accurate: ‘In that country and in many other beyond that, and also in many on this half, men put in work the seed of cotton, and they sow it every year.  And then groweth it in small trees, that bear cotton.  And so do men every year, so that there is plenty of cotton at all times.’

He describes many marvels he claims to have seen – men with no heads and faces in their chests, a tree which grew baby geese which eventually dropped into the water beneath it and swam off … Such speculations about distant lands were apparently popular reading at the time and all we can say for sure about whoever wrote the book is that he must have had a very good library of travel literature. His book was wildly successful. Originally written probably in 1357 in French, it was republished in a number of languages. I haven’t been able to find out for certain when and where the sheep-tree pictured above was added, but it may have been in the 1568 edition which is illustrated with woodcuts.

Much earlier, though, the ancient Greeks had a fairly accurate idea of the Indian origin of cotton, though as far as we know they didn’t actually grow or import it.

Cotton field in India (photo World Wildlife Fund)

The historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC ‘The wild trees there grow wool better in beauty and quality than that from sheep; and the Indian people wear clothes made from these trees’ (Herodotus History, Book 3 ch. 106).

Now let’s look at a couple of much newer mistakes which have become rather common in spinning wheel terminology, at least here in New Zealand. Autocorrect (sometimes derisively called autocarrot) may often be responsible for them.

Does your wheel have a break? I really hope not. This is a nasty break.

But if you spin with scotch tension (flyer lead) your wheel will have a brake.

You can see on this Carlisle wheel how the brake band with its little spring (which could be an elastic if your spring needed replacing and you didn’t have a new spring handy) is adjusted to make the bobbin turn more slowly so that the flyer winds the new-made yarn on.

So there is no such thing as a break band on a spinning wheel. It’s a brake or a brake band! You can call it a scotch brake (no capital letter) if you like.

Incidentally, if you really do have a broken flyer like the one above, please don’t put all your confidence in a drop of glue to repair it. Flyers can reach surprisingly high speeds, and if the glue fails you may have a damaging projectile flying across the room. Any break in a flyer is best fixed by an expert, who understands that the repair must be strong and that the flyer needs to be balanced.

Then there are groves and grooves. A grove is a group of trees.

You don’t want a grove of trees on your bobbin or on your whorl, but you do need at least one groove on each, for the drive band to go around both (double drive) or one on the whorl for the drive band and one on the bobbin for the brake (scotch tension – if there is no whorl and no room for a missing one, you are probably dealing with a bobbin lead wheel).

There can be more grooves. When he made this wheel, James Colthart got a bit carried away making the whorl.
It’s good to have plenty of choice, but with such a wide difference in the positions of the largest and smallest grooves, there could have been problems with the drive band being on such an angle that it would leap off. Colthart has been clever about this – see the little knob on the mother-of-all below the whorl? The whole flyer assembly must be able to slide across to correct the alignment.

Here are some links if you want to find out more about The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:
This is where I found the text: p. 191
There are other sites with it, but this one is easiest to search for what you want. There are also modern books of it but I have been unable to access one.
Much has been written about Mandeville’s Travels – here are just a few links I found interesting:

2 thoughts on “Some mistakes, old and new

  1. Karen Severn

    Hi Mary, I just wrote a comment thanking you for all you do and it would not let me post it. Regardless I am very grateful for your emails and nice stories. All the best, take things easy without deadlines. Love, Karen.

    Sent from my iPad



    1. maryinnz Post author

      That’s odd – I’m glad it let you post this one. Yes, life will be a little more relaxed now. I haven’t had much time for spinning lately but am gradually getting back to it.
      Love, Mary



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