Spinning in the Great War – a Spinnery in Wellington

First published in Creative Fibre vol.16 no.4 (March 2014)

In World War 1 (as in World War 2) knitting yarn became scarce and costly. The Wellington Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Navy League rose to the challenge.

In April 1917 plans were announced to start a “spinning industry”, and The Spinnery was formally opened in June by the Countess of Liverpool, wife of the Governor (soon to be re-titled Governor-General) and a tireless supporter of women’s war work. Her Excellency’s Knitting Book, compiled under her supervision and published in 1915, was New Zealand’s first book of knitting patterns. At first The Spinnery was based in the ballroom of a member’s home in Willis Street, but in September it moved to rooms in Lambton Quay and in 1918 to Ballance Street, where on Fridays its members were also responsible for looking after the general office of the Ladies’ Auxiliary.

The aim was to spin and knit socks, gloves and other woollies for men of the “lesser fleets” (motor patrol boats, minesweepers etc) thus “reviving an ancient and invaluable handcraft and assisting in a great patriotic work.” Mrs Green was their indefatigable tutor, and by October lessons had been given to 16 new spinners. Spinning was “said to be a relief and change from the continual knitting.”

Satisfactory sales of handcarders and spinning wheels were reported, but a first attempt at dyeing was less successful: a Dominion columnist remarks that items dyed with “the skins of the lowly onion, and … by means of boiled dock roots … [were] curiously enough, of much the same shade, flesh colour in both specimens.”

Chapman-Taylor wheel

Only one Chapman-Taylor wheel is known to have survived – surprising, because its jarrah wood is heavy and durable. His characteristic adze marks can be seen on the edges of the table.

Some neglected old wheels were brought into use; others were made for The Spinnery by builders Mace & Nicholson; later some were presented by Mrs Lowry of Hawkes Bay. Sadly, we know nothing about any of these. But The Spinnery’s most notable wheels were made by designer-architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor. He evidently won a competition instigated by Lady Liverpool to design and build a spinning wheel, which was then to be produced and called the Liverpool wheel. We do not know how many were made, but they were used and probably also sold by The Spinnery.

Chapman-Taylor wheel, detail

A groove worn into the flyer speaks of many miles of yarn passing over it. The wire between the maidens, anchor point for a scotch brake, would be at home in old-time Britain but not on the Norwegian double-table wheels on which this design is based.

Chapman-Taylor’s wheels were based on a fairly standard Norwegian double-table type, but with his own unique touches. Able to be used in double drive or scotch tension, Liverpool wheels were made of jarrah, one of Chapman-Taylor’s favourite woods. They cost £6, a lot at that time.

It was said that Spinneries were starting in other places but I have not been able to find anything about them, though there was certainly patriotic spinning and knitting going on all over New Zealand. In August 1918 the Poverty Bay Spinning Society held a display of their work, with spinning wheels including “the F.D. (friction drive) wheel, mostly used by the Society”. This was a local invention, made by the Gisborne Engineering Co Ltd.

In October 1918 activity at The Spinnery began to tail off, with rumours that the war was coming to an end. The last mention of it is on the 26th, though the Ladies Auxiliary of the Navy League continued with other patriotic works.


Acknowledgements: I thank Johanna Knox who first pointed out a mention of spinneries, and Lyndsay Fenwick for the photographs. The quotations and most of the information are from local newspapers, mainly the Dominion and Evening Post, all found on the wonderful Papers Past website http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast. Other valuable sources are The Loving Stitch by Heather Nicholson and The Life and Times of James Walter Chapman-Taylor by Judy Siers.