A colourful spinning wheel maker in New Zealand

First published in The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #92 (April 2016)
Click on a photo to enlarge it, and a second time for a real closeup.

photo1When this wheel first caught my startled eye in the Central Hawkes Bay Settlers Museum in Waipawa, several years ago, I thought it a unique jeu d’esprit. However, a little research soon revealed its context. Alan Brenkley (1912-2001), the maker, was a farmer first in Norsewood, a small town in Southern Hawkes Bay, and later further north in Ormond, near Gisborne.

His mother, Jane Brenkley, was a prolific folk artist. In between farm chores, her profession as the Norsewood midwife, and bringing up her own large family, she painted and carved, working with a simple penknife and paints at her kitchen table.(1) Her creations are now celebrated and valuable. She and Alan seem to have been close, and it was he who first introduced her to carving techniques which he had learned from a Māori carver while working as a bushman in the Taupō district.(2)

Further back in the family history, Jane’s mother with her parents and siblings had made the gruelling 110-day voyage from Norway to New Zealand on the vessel Hovding, arriving with several hundred other settlers in 1873. They settled at Norsewood, founded in the forest just a year earlier for workers felling and milling the huge trees, and so named because initially most of the settlers were from Norway.

There was a strong tradition of spinning in the family. Jane’s grandmother had managed to bring her beloved spinning wheel from Norway, and it was inherited by Jane‘s aunt, Johanna Christiansen, who had learned to spin at an early age and remained a keen woolcrafter all her life.(3) I don’t know where Johanna’s wheel is now, but a 1936 photograph shows that it was a double-table wheel of the type we still call “Norwegian”.

Alan’s father Thomas Brenkley worked in sawmills, as a butcher, and then in a dairy factory, until finally he and Jane bought a farm near Norsewood. Like the rest of the family, he had little formal education.


It was perhaps inevitable that Alan should become a farmer – but equally inevitable that he would turn his hand to making all kinds of things. Not a spinner himself, he made a number of wheels and other spinning equipment for family and friends. His rather elaborate skeinwinder has three adjustable arms and three fixed.

photo4It seems he liked to challenge himself with variety and disliked making two wheels the same. I have seen two of his wheels apart from the one in the museum, both belonging to family members. The horizontal wheel (above) shows a trace of his Norwegian ancestry in its raised table but also an interest in experimenting with form and decoration. The flyer is on the right from the spinner’s point of view. Like the others, it has only scotch tension (though he did make one double drive wheel). He had a metal lathe, and was clearly comfortable working with metal as well as wood. This wheel has various metal parts including the footman and the whorl.

The upright wheel (left) has touches of gold and red paint. The footman is of wood, but he again uses metal for the whorl, and also for the screw that raises the MOA to adjust the drive band tension.

The wheel in the museum takes decoration to a new level. Alan made it for his wife Moira, and despite its frivolous appearance it was, she told me, a very good spinner. The wear on the treadle testifies to long use. It was made in the 1970s, after they moved north to Ormond where electoral rolls list Alan as “retired”. Like its simpler cousin it adjusts the height of the MOA by the knob above the higher arch.

Structurally the two uprights are quite similar, except that on the museum wheel the flyer assembly is to the right instead of the left and there are two full arches. The overall height of each is around 105cm (41½“) with drive wheel diameters of 42cm (16½ “), but this one has a higher orifice – at 79cm (31”) it is 9cm (3½“) higher than the other.(4) The flyer has 7 hooks on each side (5 on the other wheel). I cannot identify any of the wood in the 3 wheels, except that I believe the drive wheel of the museum wheel is rewarewa (knightia excelsa). Apparently Alan’s favourite was the kauri beams from a demolished bridge.

photo5All three wheels have a metal whorl, fixed with a screw to the spindle at the spinner’s end of the flyer. There is quite a gap between the whorl and the wooden flyer. I wonder whether Alan had seen one of the wheels made by Ashford in 1943-45, which are the prototype of the familiar “Ashford flyer” and have a similar separation between whorl and flyer.(5)

The arches in the upright wheels are an intriguing feature. Some horizontal Scandinavian wheels, particularly Finnish, have them either side of the drive wheel, on paired support posts, but they are much less usual in upright wheels. The two Donald Sinclairs (father and son) of Argyll in Scotland made upright wheels with two arches over paired front and back support posts.(6) Wheel No. 42 in the Ulster Museum is very similar to theirs, though not identical; it is from England but said in the commentary to be of German design.(7)

All these, however, have the arches parallel with the drive wheel, and in the uprights the top of the front, lower arch supports the orifice – there are no maidens. Brenkley arches run across the drive wheel. The higher arch holds the tension screw, but the only function of the lower one is that crosspieces between the uprights would help to stabilise the structure. Several years ago I saw a wheel on German Ebay with one arch across the drive wheel, and a picture of a German wheel may be similar but the photo is very dark.(8)

pic6So where did Alan get the idea for his arches? From Scandinavian wheels seen in his youth? – but not his great-aunt’s, which had no arches. Had he seen pictures of Scottish wheels? Or German wheels? In any case, he has adapted it to his own design.

Alan Brenkley, like his mother, was clearly inventive and technically skilled. He loved variety, and I’m told that eventually he became bored with spinning wheels and turned his attention to furniture.

I thank the CHB Settlers Museum and Curator-Manager Jana Uhlirova, and also Moira Brenkley, Annette Elliott and Joyce Griffiths for their help.

(1) Jillian Lloyd, ‘The Art of Jane Brenkley’ Art in New Zealand 82 (Autumn 1997) 66-69; Richard Wolfe, Jane Brenkley: a path through the bush, New Zealand 1999.
(2) Wolfe (above) p14.
(3) Her story has been told by O.M. Andresen, Johanna’s World (Harper Collins NZ, 2000).
(4) There is room for it to be adjusted a centimetre or two higher.
(5) Mary Knox, New Zealand Spinning Wheels and their makers (2010) p14 photo 2-6 and p84 (available at https://nzspinningwheels.wordpress.com).
(6) Yarnmaker March 2011, p.29.
(7) Spinning Wheels (the John Horner collection), Ulster Museum, reprinted 1966, p37. A similar two-arch wheel is shown in Peter Teal’s Hand Woolcombing and Spinning on p97.
(8) http://www.michaeltillheinze.de/f_k1989/spinnen2.htm (accessed 25 February 2016)