Originally published in The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #60, April 2008
In the late 1930s and the 1940s a number of makers in New Zealand began to produce wheels in a variety of designs that ingeniously got the utmost functionality from readily available, economical materials. An example is the little wheels produced by George Henry Schofield, a builder then living in Wellington.
Schofield’s wheels were apparently quite widely used in schools and technical colleges, and the wheel illustrated, which came with no history and has no markings, was no doubt one of these. It is very light and easy to carry, weighing only 3.75 kilos (about 8 pounds). Its height is 84cm (33”) and its footprint is 45cm x 37cm (about 18” by 14”).
The flyer and wheel hub are oak; the rest is southern beech, a popular furniture-making timber at the time. The construction is economical. The knob securing the back end of the spindle is labelled “Pedigree” and was presumably either recycled from a baby pram or obtained as surplus from the Pedigree company. A brace of stiff wire joins the front and back feet, reminiscent of the sturdy New Zealand tradition that anything can be fixed with no. 8 fencing wire.
The Schofield wheels introduced a most unusual tension system which is known as a flyer frame. The curved metal strip that holds the spindle pivots at the support posts. At its left-hand end a cord is attached at a hole in the metal. This cord passes over or under the bobbin groove. (I have set it to pass under, as this is the way one in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection is set up, but either way should give about the same contact with the groove.) Then it goes through a notch in the right-hand end of the frame, and down to attach to a spring and a threaded metal rod, which are fastened to a bracket behind the front post. There is also a drive band from the wheel to a single-ratio spindle whorl. By tightening a small nut at the bottom of the rod, the frame is tilted and to sdjust both the drive-wheel tension and the bobbin tension– at least, this is how the wheel appeared at first to be set up.
However, tightening the drive-wheel tension to a spinnable level made the bobbin brake tension impossibly tight. This was resolved by adding a tight cord between a second, otherwise inexplicable notch in the right-hand end of the flyer frame and a little eyelet screw in the right front post, which I had at first assumed was to hold an orifice hook. Thus the control of the wheel tension is separated from the bobbin tension, and the wheel now spins reasonably well, though not with ease by our modern standards. There is also a deep, almost horizontal notch at the back of the flyer frame for which no explanation has been suggested, so perhaps it is a survival from some previous use of the piece of metal.
In the early 1960s William McDonald, also of Wellington, made spinning wheels closely based on the Schofield design. The most noticeable difference is that the drive-wheel is made from plywood.* Like Schofield, McDonald pivots the metal frame at the top of the posts. However, rather than string and a spring, he uses just a metal rod with a screw knob at the top to tilt the frame, which adjusts only the drive-wheel tension. There is a separate brake band from one end of the frame to the other across the bobbin groove, making this a regular scotch-tension wheel. The frame has a semicircular insert of wood at the right-hand end to which are attached both the bobbin-brake peg and the knob that adjusts the rod for drive band tension. The feet are held by braces of no. 8 wire, as with the Schofield wheel.
Both these inexpensive, lightweight wheels were designed to be useful for teaching. There is even an undated newspaper clipping showing a Schofield and a McDonald wheel in use by students in Indonesia.
At about the same time in Auckland,Philip Poore, who was already making small horizontal wheels under his brand name Pipy, designed a compact double-drive upright wheel, the Wendy. This is a much more sophisticated wheel, with three ratios.
The flyer frame idea has been refined and improved. A curved band of metal in a near-oblong shape pivots on the post and holds the spindle at the left. On the right, where the ends of the metal strip meet, is attached a two-part rod secured at the bottom to the support post. The two parts, one with a left-hand thread and one with a right-hand thread, meet in a wooden ball so that by turning this ball the visible rod is lengthened or shortened to alter the angle of the flyer frame, thus adjusting the tension.
If the spinner wishes to use scotch tension, a block containing a peg for the brake cord can be attached to the flyer frame. This solves the problem of balancing drive wheel and bobbin tension. Wendy wheels spin reliably well and many were sold in New Zealand and abroad.
In 1982 the Pipy name and company were taken over by Ray Chisholm. He redesigned the Wendy, substituting angled wooden maidens and mother-of-all for the flyer frame. The angle is adjusted by a metal loop and a short metal rod, which alter the tension. There is a knob for a bobbin brake. The system is not as satisfactory as the Wendy’s one-piece metal frame with its longer rod; the owner of the illustrated wheel reports that it is not pleasant to use as the tension is unstable. This wheel, named the Cleopatra, did not achieve the popularity of the Wendy.
In the late 1970s, G.W. Madigan designed a portable folding double drive wheel (Fig. 8) of which he eventually made about a hundred from recycled oak and mahogany. Family members recall that he talked about the Wendy wheel, and he used the screw-and-rod idea. However, instead of a metal frame there is a long strip of wood pivoting between the tops of the twin posts, with the flyer on the left. At the other end a long metal rod connects to the post, and the tension is adjusted by a wooden screw knob at the top of the rod, tilting the wooden strip. The wheel can be folded without disturbing the setting of the drive-band tension.
Around 1990 Ken and Sheila Green, in response to demand for the no-longer-made Wendy, commissioned the construction of a batch of wheels they called the Keneila Imp. These have a wooden frame that functions similarly to the Wendy’s metal frame, with the rod and at its top end a ball for adjustment. About a hundred were made, most of which were sold in the United Kingdom.
The flyer frame with its tilting adjustment contributed to several spinning wheel designs in New Zealand, notably the outstandingly successful Wendy. Each maker used it in his own way, refining and changing it. Its origin, however, is a mystery—did Mr Schofield invent it, or find the idea somewhere? Perhaps readers can help.
* McDonald’s plywood drive-wheel with its cutouts is closely modelled on John Moore’s horizontal Karure wheels which we know he was familiar with: there is a 1965 photograph of him spinning on one in the archives of the Eastbourne Spinners.
Author’s note: More information about these makers and their wheels can be found on my website www.nzspinningwheels.info. I am grateful to Lyndsay Fenwick, Emma Alger, Philip Poore, the late Bill Madigan and his daughter Joy Milne, Sheila Green, Ron Shearman, and the Eastbourne Historical Society for their help. The photographs of the McDonald and Madigan wheels are by Lyndsay Fenwick.