A Mysterious ‘Asian wheel’

by Mary Knox and Mike Keeves

This article was first published in The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #102 (October 2018), pp. 6-8.

Earlier this year in an antique shop in Auckland, a spinner called Annie became the new owner of something labelled ‘Asian spinning wheel’. Baffled about how to make it work, she took it to wheelmaker Mike Keeves near Nelson. After dealing with rusted metal and frozen bearings and experimenting with drive bands he was able to get the mechanism working. It’s not large: overall height is 85cm (33½” including the reel as it turns) and the drive wheel diameter is 36cm (14⅙”).

Fig 1. The “Asian spinning wheel” with drive bands fitted

It requires two separate drive bands. The reel’s circumference is 56cm (22”), and that of its attached pulley is 47cm (18½”). This is driven from a beautifully made little wooden pulley on the axle beside the drive wheel, which has 5 grooves. The largest groove, which has a 10cm (4”) circumference, drives the reel around once every 4.7 treadles; the smallest, which has a 6cm (2⅓”) circumference, takes 7.8 treadles to turn the reel once.

The drive wheel drives (via an idler pulley) what we suppose we must call a flyer, at a ratio of approximately 20:1. Some slippage in the system means that these ratios are all approximate. There is no way to adjust the tension.

Fig. 2. The flyer and the unmoving orifice

The orifice is a wooden tube 6.6cm (2½”) in length and 0.8cm (⅓”) with a hole through the centre of 0.25cm (⅒”) diameter. It does not turn, held in place in the frame by the metal bolt above it. This orifice tube sits inside the flyer and has tolerance to allow for yarn to be wound around it, presumably to allow oil or grease to soak in for lubrication.

The outer flyer rotates. A thread passing through the wire gate at the side of the flyer becomes twisted between hand and orifice. The wire gate opens by springing the keeper to one side, which is quite stiff to operate.

Now it seemed ready to work – but Mike found that no matter what he did, his yarn, after twisting before reaching the orifice, drifted apart by the time it reached the reel. He had contacted Mary, and we discussed the problems in back-and-forth emails. At the same time Annie asked the shop for more information about her purchase, and learned that they specialise in old items from Kyoto in Japan. We were also sent two photographs of a very similar-looking machine by a correspondent in Kyoto.

By now we were assuming it was for one of the processes in silk production, because of the Japanese provenance and the tiny orifice. Mary took over custody and began to experiment with crochet cotton as a substitute for silk threads, using two bright contrasting colours to show up what was happening. Soon we realised that the flyer created twist in one direction on one side and in the other direction on the other side, leaving no appreciable permanent twist.

Fig. 3. What happens: S-twist approaching the flyer, and a little residual Z-twist remaining when it exits the orifice tube

This process, false twist, is what happens when you put a pencil between two lengths of cord and rotate it: S-twist forms on one side of it and Z-twist on the other. As soon as you remove the pencil, the twist is gone.

Fig. 4. Demonstration of false twist

False twist is used in modern industry to add texture to extruded synthetic fibres(1) and to avoid breakages in wool and cotton processing. What, we wondered, is its rôle in silk production? Not adding texture, clearly, since texture is not desirable in silk.

In his monumental study of textile technology in China, Dieter Kuhn discusses silk-reeling in great detail: how the filaments from three or more cocoons were drawn from a pan of hot water and combined into a single thread which is then wound onto a reel. From at least as far back as the 1400s, silk-reeling frames operated by a treadle are depicted.(2)

A high quality silk thread must be strong, round and even, and ways to ensure this included ‘a method of self-crossing the threads … a most ingenious technique which squeezed off the water during the process of evening and rounding’ (Kuhn p.353). He illustrates two different ways the same result was achieved later in the European silk industry: one device which crosses a single thread (filaments from a number of cocoons) around itself, and another which took two threads and crossed them around each other.

A single-thread device is illustrated and described by Michael Cook.(3) The cocoons in their pan are held at just below boiling. He uses about fifteen cocoon ends to make the thread, which is wound by hand on a Japanese type of reel.(4) However, between hot pan and reel it makes a loop and twists around itself for a short distance, the croissure (crossing). Cook says the croissure squeezes out much of the water and agglutinates (glues together) the filaments with sericin. (Sericin is the gum the silkworm creates to stick together the fibres of its cocoon.) The croissure makes a much better quality of silk.

Among Mary’s experiments was an attempt to create a kind of croissure by separating the two coloured threads into different coils of the wire guide.

Fig. 5. Attempting to insert a croissure

It worked for a few moments, but reeling was slowed and soon overtwisted crochet cotton formed a corkscrew blocking the orifice. Wondering whether it might be possible with the much finer silk, she tried again with two strands of sewing thread. This was almost successful, except for a tendency of the threads to jump from one coil to another. A skilled operator using silk, which would be even finer, might do better.

The extreme fineness of silk probably accounts for the high speed of the flyer. The amount of twist is too much for crochet cotton, which we used for visibility, but high twist would be appropriate for silk. It’s possible too that the speed of the flyer may help to shed water as the thread approaches it.

We don’t believe this device was intended to produce a croissure. It seems much more likely that the coiled wire guide is equivalent to hooks on a spinning wheel flyer, just a convenient way to fill the reel evenly (which is apparently important with silk). The similar machine in the photographs from Kyoto has only one loop of wire guide (it would be movable by bending its wire stem) so no croissure would be possible.

In the absence of a croissure, could the false twist our device imparts be for a similar purpose? We found an 1844 US patent for something variously called a Silk Spinning Machine and a Silk-reel, which has similarities to Annie’s Japanese reel.(5)

Fig. 6. Silk reel patented in 1844, which uses false twist

The patent actually applies only to one spring, designed to prevent undue tension, but James S. Harris describes the whole machine under the heading ‘Silk-reel’. It can reel two threads of silk side-by-side at one time, but they remain separate; there is no croissure. A treadle drives a flywheel on whose axle are two pulleys for each thread. One pulley drives a reel, the other something Harris calls a contra twister. His fig.4 illustrates one which looks uncannily like our so-called flyer. There is a revolving metal tube driven by one of the pulleys on the axle, and on the far end of the tube an eyelet sticks out through which the thread passes, equivalent to the gate in our flyer. The result, false twist, would be the same. Another style of twister, involving a glass or metal spool, is shown in his fig.5. Harris writes ‘In either method of putting twist into the thread it will escape before it winds on to the reel.’

Presumably there was a good reason for this little contra twister, and it seems likely that the idea was adapted from Japanese silk reels like the one we have studied. We suggest that contra twist or false twist, in much the same way as a croissure, helps to remove moisture and make the finished silk a rounder and stronger thread.

(1) http://www.polyspintex.com/educational/false-twist-texturing-principle/ (accessed 12 August 2018)
(2) Dieter Kuhn, Textile technology: spinning and reeling (Volume 5 Part IX of Joseph Needham, Science and civilisation in China) Cambridge University Press 1988, especially pp.345-433
(3) http://www.wormspit.com/newreeling.htm (accessed 18 August 2018)
(4) Spinning Wheel Sleuth #45 (July 2004) 7-9
(5) Patent No. 3684, James S. Harris, July 30 1844, https://www2.cs.arizona.edu/patterns/weaving/patents/SAMPLES/00003684.gif (accessed 18 August 2018)

We thank Annie for letting us play with her ‘Asian spinning wheel’, Charlie Wong for telling us about false twist, and Masumi Honde of SpinHouse Ponta in Kyoto for her photographs.