Author Archives: maryinnz

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.


A spinning wheel emergency

Recently the Wairarapa Spinners & Weavers Guild(1) was sitting happily in the shade of lovely big trees at a member’s farm –
– when someone’s wheel came apart. It’s a Beulah by Peacock, and at the bottom of the footman/conrod the wooden shaft had come out of the casing that attaches it to the treadle connector. The poor spinner didn’t have any knitting or other craft with her. All she could do was sit and mutter about finding some glue when she got home.

So a couple of us got to work with a piece of string. I’ve arrowed the two bits that had parted company.

That didn’t work. It came loose and got tangled up and the conrod fell apart again. I tried again and tied it up really well –
– too well, because now the wheel wouldn’t turn.

So I cut it all off (fortunately someone had scissors), shredded a bit of the string, put a couple of shreds over the end of the wood as a shim, and jammed the wood into the socket. Bingo – she spun happily till it was time to go home. Never underestimate the usefulness of a shim!(2)

A tiny wisp of wool would have done the job just as well, but the string was in my hand and already coming apart.

The owner says that when she got home, her husband was most impressed with how well the emergency fix had worked. And now, with the aid of glue, things are more permanently in place and she can spin without worrying.

1. Actually that’s only about a third of the Guild – we’re a big group, but a lot of people are away on summer holidays.
2. I’ve written about shims before, at

Spinning wheels in the wider scheme of things

A couple of years ago my elder daughter (she’s a writer – it’s the younger one who does circus derringdo) asked if she could interview me for a book she’d been commissioned to write. Interview me about spinning wheels.

Spinning wheels? In a book about people who stand up against pollution and destruction of habitat and loss of heritage? Was she sure? Yes, she was and so was her editor.

It made me think hard about why I spend so much of my time tinkering with wheels and writing about them. The number one reason is that I happen to enjoy it – but that wasn’t nearly enough of an answer. Why are spinning wheels, and the history of spinning generally, worth studying and trying to preserve?

There’s the age-old history of the craft, of course. More often than not, the history is about women, and hasn’t had as much attention as it deserves. That won’t be news to most people who read this blog. But Johanna’s book is about looking after New Zealand’s heritage.

It’s called Guardians of Aotearoa, Aotearoa being the Māori name for New Zealand (the word has traditionally been translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ though there is some uncertainty about this).

So I talked about the clever New Zealanders who have made wonderful spinning wheels, and how worthwhile it is to look after the wheels and find out their stories. It truly is a tale of human achievement, often under difficult conditions. We have a tradition about ‘kiwi ingenuity’ which can make or fix anything with a bit of number 8 fencing wire. Sadly it’s less true than it used to be, as our lives centre more and more around big cities and our farms are increasingly taken over by multinational companies. It’s enshrined, though, in the many, many wheels created, in their thousands or in ones and twos, by ingenious makers using materials to hand and imagination to solve problems.

Now the book is published, and I’ve read it from cover to cover. Most of the people in it I had never heard of, but I’m delighted to have heard of them now. They are people who’ve given large chunks of their lives to what they believe in, campaigning fiercely or working with quiet persistence. People who save native animals, preserve cultural heritage (notably Māori language and traditions), struggle against social injustice … I could go on and on. I’m thrilled and humbled by all the stories – never, ever, have I been in such inspiring company.

The superb photographs by Jess Charlton are uncaptioned, and mostly they speak for themselves, but there’s one that you might wonder about – so what’s that spinning wheel? It’s by Harold Martin, and an example of a wheel perfectly designed to suit its purpose. Martin is among my wheel-maker heroes. I feel a connection with this particular wheel because it belonged to Dorothea Turner, one of the most wonderful people I’ve known – I hope to write something about her one day. It’s now in the collection of the Wool Shed Museum in Masterton, and if I’m there and called upon to demonstrate spinning, it’s the wheel I always go for.

As you may have noticed, this is not an impartial book review. If you want to read one of those, take a look at .

And here are more details from Bateman, the publishers:

STOP PRESS: Guardians of Aotearoa has been chosen as Book of the Year by the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Spinning and wheel maintenance instructions

Recently I’ve received two sets of instructions, by two of New Zealand’s best spinning wheel makers. They aren’t about setting up their particular wheels; they explain about how wheels work and how to spin on them, and one even has something on knitting. So they aren’t (for now, anyway) going in the Spinning Wheel Leaflets section, but they are too interesting not to publish.

The first is by Philip Poore, who made Pipy, Wendy, Poly and Sprite wheels. It’s titled ‘Brief spinning instructions for a double driving band spinning wheel’ and it’s here:
Pipy Spinning instructions.

He begins with instructions about preparing wool for spinning, assuming you are starting with a fleece. Then he gives excellent advice for a beginner just learning to spin, starting with treadling practice, followed by illustrated notes on how double drive bands work, including drive band thickness.

Finally we find three pages of ‘Hints for knitting handspun wool’ with acknowledgement to Bess D’Arcy Smith; she was a prominent woolcrafter and a member of the inaugural executive committee when the New Zealand Spinning Weaving and Woolcrafts Society (now Creative Fibre) was first formed in 1969-70. Her hints contain good advice about everything from fleece selection to seams and buttonholes.

The second set of instructions, by Mike and Maggie Keeves, makers of Grace wheels, is called ‘Getting the best from your spinning wheel’. It’s here:
Grace spinning instructions

It starts with a description of how a spinning wheel actually works, something that is a mystery to a surprising number of spinners:
‘A basic understanding of the following sequence of events will help you to trace any faults in your spinning wheel.

‘The motive power is supplied by your feet via the treadle. The Footman arm conveys the power to the crank which turns the wheel. The energy is stored in the rotation of the wheel and taken to the whorl by means of the drive band. The whorl and flyer are driven round drawing in and twisting the fibre and winding it onto the bobbin.’

We should all be familiar with this, because ‘Any undue friction, misalignment or drag that interferes with this sequence causes wear and tear on the machine, [and on] the spinner, and can cause the most astonishing language to be used.’

Maintenance is discussed in some detail, under the headings of the various parts, from orifice to treadle and legs, concluding with advice on lubrication.

It’s an excellent little primer, though the authors point out that it should not override manufacturers’ instructions for their products.

A big thankyou to the helpful people who have sent me these documents – you know who you are.

Spinning wheels can get you in all sorts of trouble

A few years after we moved to the Wairarapa, I received an alarming letter.The debt-collection company went on to threaten immediate legal action. The huge (by my standards) debt was apparently owed to the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). This is an official body in New Zealand whose job is to compensate accident victims and cover their medical costs. It’s a sort of compulsory insurance scheme. Part of its funding comes from levies on employers and on self-employed people. Of course I telephoned ACC right away.

It seems they get information about people’s incomes from their tax forms, but this hadn’t included my up-to-date address. When there was no response to their invoices (because I hadn’t received them) they called in the debt-collectors.

It turned out the cause of the debt was my income from the spinning wheel book. I had dutifully declared to the New Zealand Inland Revenue Department my expenses and income from the book, which over the three years it was on sale had resulted in a profit of around NZ$1,000. (No sympathy is required – I hadn’t intended to make  that much from it.) Eventually there were three invoices, adding up to over $4,500.So how come they were charging me so much levy on tiny earnings? It was because I was a full-time dairy farmer. Dairy farmers in New Zealand pay quite a high levy because it’s a somewhat risky occupation: cows kick, tractors tip over, and so on. And there are minimum levies – however small a livestock farmer’s income, they have to pay no less than a certain amount.

“I didn’t know you were a dairy farmer” you may say. Well neither did I. I have never owned a dairy cow or other type of cattle in my life and I don’t even much like them. I’m dairy intolerant, so don’t drink milk. I can only assume that I’d been confused with someone else. This is definitely not me:

A flurry of documents and telephone calls followed. Finally they made some changes. I received a new invoice. I wasn’t a dairy farmer any more, but I still owed them plenty of money.Now I was a full-time beef cattle farmer! How did that happen? More telephone calls, more exchange of documents. I must say that in all this frustrating time, everyone I spoke to on the telephone was courteous and patient, and did their best to help. ACC’s computer system, however, seemed to have an agenda of its own.

After a couple of months of this, success.Finally, there was nothing to pay. But then I looked near the top of the page.I’m still a beef cattle farmer! Back to the telephone. No good. “We can’t change that – the computer won’t let us change any details because you don’t owe us anything!”

So that was that, until on this year’s tax form I had to declare $144 profit earned teaching a workshop about preparing and spinning greasy, unprocessed fleece. My heart sank when an envelope arrived the other day with this in the corner.

Sure enough, they still thought I was a full-time beef cattle farmer and they wanted me to pay $1,363.81. It was back to the phone again. I’d so much rather be tinkering with spinning wheels. However, I have now been promised a statement that I owe nothing, and am listed as part-time (which should make a difference) with no cattle involved. I’m waiting in hope.

Oh dear, have these two been looking over my shoulder? Do you suppose they are plotting some fresh mischief?

Some hybrid spinning wheels

This is what you may get if you cross a Sleeping Beauty wheel  and a Pipy saxony.

Just as some orchardists cross varieties of (for example) apples to produce new ones, so a few wheel makers have crossed varieties of spinning wheel to create something new. The most prolific hybridiser in New Zealand has been Ray Chisholm, who took over both Pipy and Sleeping Beauty. The offspring above has retained the characteristic Sleeping Beauty maidens and the tilting mother-of-all, but look at the metal flyer bearing with its hook to keep the flyer in place, so typical of Pipy.

The drive wheel has spokes that are more Pipy than Sleeping Beauty, but two grooves round the side of the rim; the table is somewhat shaped but the legs and treadle are pretty much Sleeping Beauty. (I’m tempted to ramble on about dominant genes, but that would be taking the metaphor much too far.)

Chisholm didn’t stop at the saxonies, either – he clearly loved to experiment. This appears to be a late Thumbelina by Sleeping Beauty, right?

But look at those flyer bearings! Metal, with a hook. Here is another, with its flyer bearings on the other side of the maidens, and its owner remarks that its bobbins too are very different from Thumbelina’s; they are much longer and have a metal core like Pipy bobbins. The tilting mother-of-all is not found on late Thumbelinas either.

Not content with those crosses, Chisholm actually also combined elements of Thumbelina with the Sleeping Beauty economy model, Serena.

That’s a Serena. This isn’t:
The most obvious Thumbelina element is the maidens, but there’s more to it than that. Other examples of these have been seen, and an owner has done some measurements: for instance the length of a late Thumbelina table is 260mm, of a Serena, 270mm, and of a hybrid, 360mm! So these hybrids are not just made of collections of spare parts (the sort of thing some call a Frankenwheel). Clearly they are specially made wheels, by a maker who liked to try new ideas.

Then there are the Nagy hybrids, and they are rather mysterious.

From the mother-of-all up, you’d swear it was a Nagy. The legs are identical to those of the later Woodspin Nagys made by Peter Cottier (that’s one on the left below), and the split table and the treadle and treadle bar are like those on the special lower-orifice Nagys also made by Cottier (on the right, below).

But what about that drive wheel? I’ve only ever seen drive wheels like it, with the six cutouts, shiny finish and almost moulded appearance, on Koala wheels made by Graeme Dawes in Perth, Australia around the 1980s. Here are a Koala (front and detail views) and the smaller Koala Cub (front and side).
Unlike any Nagy ever made, they are Picardy-style wheels with the flyer in front of the maidens. But the composite drive wheels are at first sight very similar to those of our hybrid Nagys. There’s one big difference, though – the Koala drive wheels have two grooves, of different circumferences, so a wide range of ratios is available.

How might we explain the similarities and differences? First of all, it’s known that Dawes commissioned parts for his Koalas from other craftsmen, and he assembled them. Secondly, local knowledge tells us that not long after Peter Gubb took over Woodspin from Peter Cottier in 1983, he died in an accident, and his father endeavoured to keep the business going but was soon reduced to selling off the remaining parts.

So perhaps these hybrid Nagys were made by someone who picked up some Nagy parts, and obtained a few drive wheels (possibly from whoever made the Koala wheels for Graeme Dawes) and put them together skillfully to create a new wheel style. We don’t know where this person got the parts – Australia, New Zealand, the US? There can’t have been many made; I’ve only heard of three, including one in the US and one in Canada.

Another wheel has been seen in Australia that has Nagy flyer assembly and drive wheel, but the rest of it looks almost (but not quite) like an Ashford Traditional. Have you seen any other types of hybrid wheel? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Quite different of course are wheels that have had missing or broken parts replaced. My little Wilson wheel now has not only a flyer by Mike Keeves, but a also replacement strut that keeps it stable when spinning, changes that are part of its special history.

It’s proving a very relaxing wheel to spin on. The new strut with its round profile doesn’t look like the original, in fact it looks rather odd, but it’s very strong. It was once a trapeze bar which my daughter used, and I like to think that it would never have let her down. I don’t have a video of her using one of those, but here she is flying with a very different apparatus:

Do you have a wheel with a history that future spinners might like to know about? I have written the Wilson wheel’s identification and history under the treadle – an idea I recommend if you have a rare or interesting wheel.

Stuck whorl? – don’t panic …

If a spinning wheel comes to you that has been unused for a long while, perhaps sitting in an attic or a barn, one of the most likely problems is finding you absolutely cannot unscrew the whorl off the flyer shaft. Here’s what to do.

1. The first thing to know is that you need to be very, very careful not to break a flyer arm. That would be a major repair! (You can’t trust glue to hold a flyer together when it’s rotating at speed.) So before you do any serious twisting, put something strong like a screwdriver through the holes in the shaft so you can hold onto that:

Do not twist while grasping by the flyer arms!

2. Try to find out which way you should be unscrewing it. Many whorls screw the opposite way from what we are used to: not ‘righty tighty, lefty loosey’, but ‘righty loosey, lefty tighty’. Look at it with the orifice pointing away from you. If it’s an older wheel, it’s very likely to be ‘righty loosey’– that is, turn the whorl clockwise to unscrew. My 50-year-old Norwegian is like that:

If it’s a newer wheel, all bets are off. Many will undo clockwise (it’s a bit of a tradition) but not all – for example a Sleeping Beauty unscrews anticlockwise:

If you don’t know and a gentle twist each way does nothing, try to find out the right direction from someone with the same make of wheel.

There is a very small chance that your whorl may have a tapered press fit rather than a screw thread. If the flyer shaft is round, in a round hole, the method below should still work if you pull a little towards you while also trying to twist it. If the hole in the whorl is square and fits onto a square-section part of the shaft, you may ruin it if you twist hard. But this is really rare; I’ve only heard of it once or twice.

3. Still not budging? Time for some medicine. You need two ingredients: WD40 or any good penetrating oil, and patience.

First of all stand the flyer securely on end, whorl uppermost, somewhere it won’t be disturbed. You need to protect the surface under and behind it from spray or drips. You can stand it in a container, like this plastic jug:

Or you can lean it in the corner of a room, with the carpet and walls protected by newspaper:

Spray or squirt a drizzle of WD40 or whatever you are using onto the flyer shaft where it goes into the centre of the whorl.
Then walk away.
Don’t touch it till the next day.

4. Come back to it a day later, put that screwdriver through the holes in the metal shaft, and (holding the screwdriver not the flyer arms) try to twist the whorl off. There’s an excellent chance that it will now unscrew, but don’t despair if it doesn’t.

5. If necessary, repeat steps 3 and 4. I’ve never yet had one still stuck after two repeats with WD40, but I think it would be worth trying every day for up to a week.