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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 flyer 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.

Some favourite websites

I thought it might be interesting to tell you about a few blogs and other sites that I like and look at a lot.
Ravelry has to be at the top of the list. It’s a treasure trove of discussions, advice, information, friendship and of course patterns (both knit and crochet; the pattern database is huge and very searchable). Under the name ‘maryinnz’ I mostly hang out in the discussion groups. You’ll often find me in ‘Antique Spinning Wheels’ and ‘Working Wheels’, but also in some of the specialised ones for different makes of wheel, or ones like ‘Historic Spinning’, or ‘The Sciences of Spinning’. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from the experts on Ravelry!
You have to join but it’s free, and there aren’t security worries. You can publicly reveal as much or as little about yourself as you want. Currently there are nearly 8 million members.
Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s blog is always entertaining, usually informative, often funny, and sometimes deeply touching. She’s a Canadian author and teacher about all things knitting (and some spinning).
Kate is a knitwear designer who lives in a beautiful spot in Scotland. Her husband Tom just happens to be a wonderful photographer so her posts are always lovely to look at as well as to read. Her designs embody a sense of place and of tradition. The story of how she has rebuilt her life (and her knitting) after a stroke at the age of 36 is fascinating and inspiring.
This one contains serious studies of the history of knitting. It can be highly entertaining too, like the  post earlier this year about shepherds in the French Basque country who used to watch over their flocks while knitting – and standing on stilts!
Google Scholar is a useful tool for researchers – this is its New Zealand interface but you’ll find it in other countries too. It will search for and bring up academic papers on any subject you can think of, and if you are specific with your keywords you won’t get too much other stuff. There are no ads. I’ve used it a lot for subjects like spinning in prehistoric times.
The only drawback is that a lot of the articles it finds have to be paid for, but there’s usually an abstract so you can get a general idea.

For sheer entertainment, here are three (oops, four) Youtube videos I love – and who cares that they are actually advertising.

First, a brilliantly animated (and amazingly accurate) history of spinning, all made of wool!

A house that knits itself to keep warm –

How on earth did they do that? Find out here:

This last one was made back in 2000, and it has almost nothing to do with yarn or spinning, but I can’t leave it out:

The story of how it was made is at

Two wheels by James ‘Gib’ Wilson (1907-1973)

Back in March I received an email from a sharp-eyed fellow-spinner who had purchased a wheel that was sold as by Joe Gibson of Wellington. She browsed on, and thought it was by Gib Wilson of Invercargill. After studying her photos I agreed.

Here are a wheel known to be by Wilson (left) and Sonya’s wheel (right). Sonya’s wheel is basically a mirror image of the Wilson. It doesn’t look exactly like any of his other wheels we’ve seen, but it has features that are typical of him and of no other maker I know of.

This jogged my memory: a neglected-looking wheel with no flyer had recently come to our Guild and been rejected as useless. In fact it was consigned to become an ornament in a member’s garden. Now I began to think I had made a terrible mistake in letting it go. Fortunately I was able to intercept it, with many apologies to the deprived gardener, before it ended up outside. Yes, another Gib Wilson wheel! This is exciting, because I’ve long wished I knew more about him and his wheels.

So far we know little about his life, except that his occupation before retirement was ‘wood machinist’. But we do know he loved making spinning wheels. I have a copy of a very touching letter dating from 2006 when Lyndsay Fenwick and I were first trying to find out about New Zealand wheels. The writer (signature illegible, perhaps Pamela) describes how Gib made her a wheel to her specifications using wood from her own property.
‘Well, dear Gib, he was terminally ill, in great pain, and I used to go down and find him huddled over a little heater in his shed at the back of his house. His eyes lit up when we got onto the wheel and he incorporated all my ideas … You have no idea how that dear little man perked up when talking wood turning, or working on the lathe – his work is quite perfect.’

This was my wheel before any cleaning or restoration. The diagonal strut is broken off, there’s no flyer and if you look hard, you may notice a bird dropping.

Wilson also made a few wheels that are more elaborate, and very beautiful. I know of three; here are two of them. They are excellent spinners and their owners love them.
As well as the cutout design of the drive wheel, they have two struts steadying the support posts instead of just one, an unusual and lovely hook-orifice (click to enlarge the photos and see it  little better) and generally fancier turning.

Wilson’s wheels share a unique system for adjusting the drive band tension.
When the wing nut (on mine, left) or the knob (on Sonya’s, right) is loosened, the two horizontals can slide up and down the support posts, moving the whorl, spindle and flyer up or down. When it’s removed completely, you can disassemble the mechanism (but it’s necessary to cut the drive band to separate everything).
However, Sonya’s works a little differently from the (admittedly few) others I’ve seen. The knob is the head of a screw, and there are two metal guides to keep the crosspiece level.

There are several other differences between the two wheels. For example the axle of mine is firmly sealed into the hub, and probably has needle roller bearings like those Mike Keeves found in the spindle assembly when he was making me a new flyer. Sonya’s wheel has the hub secured to the axle by a metal pin, somewhat like those on earlier Ashford Traditionals except that the pin goes right through the hub and sticks out on the other side. Moreover the axle on my wheel ends in a visible bearing on the spinner’s side, whereas Sonya’s is concealed in the support.
Then there are the conrods (footmen) and their connections. Mine has a complicated connection involving unsealed ballbearings where it joins the crank. These may need replacing at some point – one of the little balls is already missing. It connects to the treadle via a piece of leather and a metal fitting very securely attached to the treadle. The top of Sonya’s conrod has leather fastened to the crank with a simple nut/bolt/washer. The bottom has a piece of leather slotted into conrod and treadle, almost exactly like an early Traddy.
The flyers obviously vary. I think we can assume that my wheel had a flyer like the identical complete Wilson wheel, whose flyer is shown below left. Sonya’s flyer is so different that we have wondered whether it is a replacement. It would be stronger than the usual Wilson flyers, which (as Mike Keeves pointed out) don’t have a lot of wood at the ends of the crosspiece to secure the arms in, and it would certainly be simpler to make. The hook is very different too.
A significant difference is in the whorls: Sonya is fortunate to have three ratios (6:1, 8:1 and 12:1) whereas I have only one (8.5:1). A further refinement of Sonya’s wheel is that the little knob on top of the front post turns to adjust the bobbin brake. Mine, shown below left wearing its handsome new flyer, has a rather awkwardly placed peg for the purpose, and the knobs on both posts are purely decorative.
The contrast in the finish and detailing of the wheels (I’m beginning to want to call them earlier and later) is very noticeable. Sonya’s has more elaborate and crisper turnings. The edges are sharper and the surfaces smoother. Perhaps this could be partly due to using different wood. The complete wheel we saw above is made of White Meranti from Malaya, and I think mine is too. We think Sonya’s wheel is made of Southern Beech (nothofagus spp) which may be easier to work.

In general it looks as though Wilson may have refined his style, while at the same time simplifying some details of construction, particularly around the hub and the conrod. It’s tempting to think that towards the end of his life he saw more spinning wheels by other makers, including Ashford whose Traditional hit the market in 1965.

Sonya is delighted with her wheel – she comments
‘I love the “look” of my wheel. I really like the simplicity it has. Having the upright post knob as the bobbin brake knob and no table contributes to this. The turnings are very precise without being fussy, and the compact size is perfect for my apartment.
‘Treadling is very smooth, quiet and effortless with an easy rhythm. It is really easy to start and restart the wheel with the heel of your foot. There is a little bit of bobbin chatter, but not in an annoying way. The scotch tension is easy to adjust and doesn’t need a lot of fiddling with. Changing between ratios is very quick and once properly adjusted the drive band doesn’t jump off the wheel at all.’

My wheel is not quite ready for serious spinning yet, as it wobbles badly without its diagonal strut. Once this is replaced I believe it will spin well too, though perhaps with some signs of age. It has had a hard life, but the moderate mount of noise it makes may quieten with more oiling and spinning.

It has one more tantalising feature: some possible writing on the treadle. The wheel came to me with the treadle covered in ancient carpet tiles. When I stripped them off I was left with grainy glue residue and in one front corner, some markings under it:
I’ve tinkered with it in Photoshop and come up with this (click it to enlarge):

I like to imagine the word near the centre could be Wilson … but it’s just as likely that there were some carpet maker’s markings on the back of the tile that got transferred to the wood. Whether it will be possible to remove the worst of the glue without removing all the writing remains to be seen.

Sonya and I would both love to learn more about Gib Wilson and his wheels. If you have one, or can tell us anything further about him, do please get in touch.

I thank Sonya for her generous help with details and photos, and Mike Keeves for helpful advice and creating a flyer and bobbins that work and look at home on my wheel.