This was first published in the magazine of Creative Fibre New Zealand in December 2016.
Your spinning group probably has a first aid kit. That’s good, but I bet one for spinning wheels will be needed more often! Wheel ailments range from being a bit out of sorts to requiring major surgery, but many can be cured on the spot if the tools and materials are to hand.
So what might be in your Spinning Wheel First Aid kit?
Number one, of course, is oil. It’s amazing how a drop of oil in the right places can turn a recalcitrant wheel into a smooth spinner. More on oil later. Along with the oil should be one or two absorbent rags, for wiping off old oil and catching any drips.
Plenty of string, of several kinds and thicknesses, provides drive bands and scotch brakes. You sometimes see a drive band so substantial it could practically moor a boat, and replacing it with something a bit thinner can make a miraculous difference. Double-drive bands are usually best if they are on the thin side. A scotch brake needs to be fairly fine too, and a little slippy: you can even go as fine as no.10 mercerised crochet thread. It won’t last as well as fishing line, but that can get stiff over time and make takeup uneven and jerky.
Of course you also need a pair of scissors or snips to cut the string. Generally a nearby spinner will have a pair handy – except when you need it (Murphy’s law).
Springs or elastic
Springs or elastic are essential for brake bands: whichever you have will do, or even a rubber band at a pinch. Our kit includes a supply of hair elastics, and a few springs which I think were salvaged from dead ballpoint pens.
You may need a small pair of pliers – I like the sharp-nose kind. A very fine pair of tweezers is useful too, for extracting fluff etc from very tight corners that the pliers can’t get into.
One or two spare orifice hooks are a good idea, for wheels that arrive without one. You can make them out of large paperclips, or any bit of flexible wire (those sharp-nose pliers will twist them into shape). The three in the picture are, from left, an expensive hook specially crafted for antique wheels, an Ashford hook, and one I made from a bit of wire found in the garage. That one works best of all.
It’s handy to have some leather bits. Surprisingly often we need a little leather oblong to join treadle to footman on an older Ashford wheel, because after years of use and oiling they become floppy or even break. You can buy them to fit perfectly on Trademe. You can also make them from old belts, but they need to be stiff and the exact size with the holes in the right places. Then there are the flexijoints used in more modern Ashfords and some other wheels – if you’re offered a spare one of these, don’t say no.
With any luck the screws will still be in place and can be re-used, but it’s a good idea to keep a few odd screws in your kit just in case. And thin strips of soft leather (like bootstraps) will fix the treadle join on Rappard wheels and others that use a tie system; cord will work too but doesn’t last as well.
Screws need a screwdriver, and it’s best to have several – slotted and Phillips. Wheels with a screw loose are easy to fix. And with a bit of luck someone might give you a small adjustable spanner?
A piece of fine sandpaper and/or some steel wool can smooth a rough flyer shaft – or roughen a too-slick groove on a drivewheel, to stop driveband slippage. Or a slipping driveband can sometimes be helped by rubbing on some rosin (from a music shop). But if you need to do that, you should probably look for the root cause: check tension, condition and type of driveband, and condition and finish of groove.
You never know what problems the next wheel will present. Oddments of small tools or spare parts that turn up are worth saving, and take all opportunities to salvage something that looks useful.
Now, what about oil?
You want a pure one, without additives, preferably about as thick as 10w30 motor oil – in fact that is exactly what most spinning wheel makers supply for their wheels. Ashford oil is good. I’ve had problems with those white, red-lidded plastic bottles leaking, but now it comes in a syringe, which doesn’t leak and will put the oil exactly where you want it. It’s more expensive, of course, but you can refill it from the bigger bottle (which is carefully kept upright). Or you might find a tiny bottle like the little plastic one in the middle, in a sewing shop.
Sewing machine oil is also fine, but it’s thinner so has to be used more often. Gun oil is said to be excellent. I’m not a fan of 3-in-1 for spinning wheels: it contains mysterious “proprietary additives” that the makers are unwilling to disclose.
Vaseline is favoured by some spinners, because it lasts well. It’s particularly good for the flyer shaft. But it’s more likely than oil to get bits of fluff stuck to it.
Candle wax is the right thing for waxing wood-against-wood that sticks (not beeswax, which adds grip, or oil which might swell the wood and make things worse). It could be any old candle, or a tealight, or you might even save a birthday candle from a child’s party.
Vegetable oils (olive oil etc) are not recommended for spinning wheels as they may go rancid. Neatsfoot oil was traditionally used on leather to soften it, but beware of softening your flyer bearings or treadle connector too much so that they stretch or flop. On wood or metal parts it can get sticky.
Then there’s WD40. That’s not a lubricating oil – the WD stands for Water Displacement. It’s brilliant for freeing stuck whorls though (squirt on and leave overnight to work its way through the threads).
Having said all that, anything oily will do in an emergency. I’ve heard of a spinner caught with a squeaky wheel and no oil, who used the fat from her ham sandwiches! It worked, too, though I’m sure when she got home she wiped it off and oiled her wheel properly.