First published in Creative Fibre vol.11 no.4 (March 2009)
The late 1940s and 50s were a time of doldrums for hand spinning. With the end of the 2nd World War many of those devoted women and men who had been spinning and knitting for the troops must have put away their wheels with a sigh of relief. Just two wartime makers that we know of, Walter Morrison and Patrick Jennings, continued to make their rather basic upright wheels, though not on a “factory” scale. Walter Ashford was left with a warehouse full of spinning wheels, which he had to sell at a discount, and Aileen Stace’s group in Eastbourne ceased to enrol new members.
By the end of the 1950s all that was beginning to change, and in the 1960s the great wave of enthusiasm for all things natural led to a rediscovery of the joy of handcrafts, to the revival of spinning and weaving, and soon to the foundation of the Society in 1969. New spinners needed spinning wheels, and some looked for higher quality than the few “economy” wartime models still available. Skilled craftsmen were quick to respond, and by 1969 spinners had quite a choice of wheels.
Among the first to cater for the growing demand was Aldo Mecchia of Hamilton, who made a small saxony-style wheel for a customer in 1960. This led to four or five orders a year until 1966 when Aldo and his son Jim began to do production runs in their Waikato Turnery. Margaret Mecchia remembers that this was quite an undertaking as the factory was so small, just a shed behind a timber mill in London St, Hamilton. There were two productions runs a year, ten saxony-style (20 inch) wheels and ten of the Norwegian-style (24 inch). Mecchia wheels are quite imposing in their size and detailing, distinguished by wooden screws and nuts.
Philip Poore and his wife Jenny were already making looms for an Auckland shop in the early 1960s, and in 1962 they were asked to make spinning wheels as well. So began Pipy wheels, their design based on a little Irish flax wheel that had been salvaged from a house bombed during the London blitz in World War 2 and affectionately named Britannia by the family.
Guy Wagg had a good background for undertaking spinning wheel making in the early 1960s, as his family had been wheelwrights and coachbuilders in Masterton for generations. He devised a most unusual tension system, with the end of the table tilting.
Norwegian-style (double table) wheels by several makers besides Mecchia soon became available. The best known are probably those by Ken Bartlett of Christchurch, who from 1963 was making beautifully crafted wheels closely modelled on a wheel by Husfliden of Bergen, Norway. Unlike most of the other makers at this time and since, Bartlett conscientiously kept to the style and detailing of his original, even choosing New Zealand woods that were as similar as possible to the Scandinavian pine. His wheels continued to be made and sought-after until about 1989, with only minor modifications (slightly sturdier construction and a larger treadle).
John Beauchamp made a variety of wheels during and after his years in the Royal NZ Navy. Many were actually made at sea. His initial motivation was Wellington’s chilly weather: after he was transferred from Auckland in 1963, his family needed winter woollies. Photographs of his early wheels show saxonies and uprights, though later he made many Norwegian-style wheels. Like several other makers, he went to Miss Stace in Eastbourne for advice on the mechanics of spinning wheels, and received much constructive criticism.
Charlie Tyler of Korokoro in the Hutt Valley was another versatile maker: in fact he claimed never to make two wheels exactly alike, though he had eight basic designs. Each of his wheels was given a woman’s name, and anyone lucky enough to own a Tyler wheel may still be able to make it out handwritten underneath the table. His wheels range from the charming little “Trixy” to saxonies and very large, smooth-spinning Norwegians that have been known to lull their spinners to sleep. (Was this the original meaning of “falling asleep at the wheel”?)
Most of these makers, at least at first, concentrated mainly or entirely on horizontal wheels. Early on, though, a few foresaw the need for more portable wheels. One of these was William McDonald of Wellington, who had been interested in spinning since 1959 and was a valued member of the Eastbourne Spinners, helping to maintain their wheels. It was probably Mr McDonald who told Miss Stace, to her great amusement, that he would come round the next day “to see about those loose maidens in the spinning club!”
Miss Stace wrote in her Spinning Report for 1961 “Mr McDonald borrowed an old schooltype wheel… and with some modifications has started to turn out a neat, light, manageable little wheel, very well liked, for which he has a sizeable queue of orders.” The borrowed school wheel must have been a Schofield, a veteran from the 1940s, as McDonald’s wheels were based quite closely on it with its unusual metal flyer frame. However, the tension adjustment has been improved (it was soon to be perfected by Philip Poore in his Wendy) and the plywood drive wheel is copied from another World War 2 wheel, John L. Moore’s Karure – we know McDonald was familiar with the Karure because there is a photograph of him spinning on one. There do not seem to be many McDonald wheels still about but at least one went to Indonesia to be used in spinning classes.
Soon the choice of wheels had grown still further. The upright wheels by Mr Dunnachie (pronounced DUNshee), based on the wartime wheels by Walter Morrison, were the most economical available in Christchurch; purchasers had to supply their own drive wheel from an old treadle sewing machine. At one time there were about 15 in use by members of the Christchurch Guild of Weavers and Spinners.
Also in Christchurch, M.D. Johnson was making the Easycraft A-line wheels, which in 1966 could be mail-ordered from a Christchurch box number for £15.17s.6d. We do not know whether Mr Johnson had yet started making his saxonies and more conventional uprights.
A group of three Christchurch makers was important in the late 1960s. The first was Reg Rudhall, a keen wood turner who made a copy of a Scottish upright wheel, and went on to produce norwegian-style and upright wheels. He persuaded his wife and daughters to take up spinning so that they could bring his wheels to life – the reverse of the usual sequence – and soon received several orders from their fellow-spinners. Through them he learned that someone else in the locality was making spinning wheels, and was astonished to find that this was his next-door neighbour James (“Jimmy”) Colthart.
Soon the two men were firm friends, and Mr Rudhall’s son recalls “going over with Dad to have a look at his lathe to discover this home-made contraption – a disk bolted to the faceplate of a washing machine motor, and the end plate consisted of a piece of 4×2 wood nailed to the end of his workbench with a 4” nail through it…” This was a surprise as they had expected, after seeing Colthart’s wheels, to find sophisticated machinery.
Brass bindings at the ends of the treadle bar and the horizontal bars that stabilise the upper table of a Norwegian-style wheel are a common (though not absolutely invariable) feature of Rudhall wheels. Some of Colthart’s wheels have similar bindings, even on the tips of the flyer arms, and they also have characteristic little brass knobs on the tips of the maidens and the wheel support posts.
In 1967 Sydney Wing’s daughter bought a wheel from Mr Rudhall, which inspired Wing to make one as well. Soon he too was making both upright and Norwegian-style wheels. Their large wheels are rather alike in design but Wing did not use the brass bindings, and his wheels can be identified by the bamboo-like turning of the legs. Rudhall and Wing horizontal wheels often have an unusual style of bobbin-holder, projecting from the table and attached to it by a wingnut and bolt. Many Rudhall, Wing and Colthart wheels are still in use, particularly the little Wing uprights.
It was not until 1965 that customer demand finally persuaded the understandably reluctant Walter Ashford to resume making spinning wheels. Patterns and jigs for the earlier wheels had not been kept, so Ian Baynes (who was to develop his own spinning wheel in the 1970s) and another employee were diverted from making kitset furniture to work on the project. Thus the now-ubiquitous Ashford Traditional was born. Ashford’s upright Traveller did not appear till 1977.
In Hawkes Bay, Frank Field produced unbeautiful but very functional upright wheels, at first for the Hastings Hospital’s Occupational Therapy Department. Soon they became more widely popular, and were known locally as “Uncle Franks” – he was the uncle by marriage of Judith Field, a life member of the Society. Eventually well over a hundred “Uncle Franks” were made.
H.H. Napier, though untrained in carpentry, had begun a wood-turning business called
Glenfield Industries in Auckland in 1965. He exported to the United States, and had a tie-in with furniture manufacturer Airest who sold his wheels under the name Mayflower. He made both saxony and upright wheels, advertised as “the most modern antiques available.”
Sleeping Beauty, an important Auckland maker in the 1970s and 80s, were just beginning in the late 1960s, with Alex Baillie commissioning R.D. Maxwell to make saxony wheels which were the direct ancestor of the later Sleeping Beauties. There must have been other makers too, whose details are not known but who made one or two wheels for family or friends.
So spinners had a wide range of wheels to choose from in 1969. They could have small and portable or large and smooth-running; basic or elaborate; traditional or innovative. The choice would shortly be even better. John Rappard had made his first wheel, for his wife Mies, in late 1968. Such was the interest from friends and other spinners that in 1970 the entire flock of hens in his egg production farm on Signal Hill in Dunedin was despatched, the henhouses cleaned and sanitised with Jeyes disinfectant, and the business that was to produce his Little Peggies and other wheels began.
The acclaimed Nagy wheels were just getting under way too. Istvan Nagy, deciding to make spinning wheels, had gone to Miss Stace who referred him to John Beauchamp for technical help. Beauchamp, convinced that only a spinner could truly understand the workings of a good wheel, agreed to help provided Nagy first learned to spin. After some grumbling he went off and practised, eventually returning with an acceptable skein of yarn and receiving the advice he needed. His very first few wheels (uprights) date from 1969.
On a much more basic level, Cecil Shields of Christchurch also began in 1969. His simple upright wheels, initially costing $20, had a drive band of a twisted bootlace. Weights in the solid drive wheel were made of lead from batteries, melted into round plugs.
Many other makers (almost all concentrating on upright wheels) began working in the 1970s. Sadly, most of this fine craftsmanship tailed off by 2000, with the older makers dying or retiring and relatively little demand from spinners to encourage new enterprises. Mike Keeves still makes a limited number of Little Grace Specials, and Jim Mecchia can put together a wheel on request from his remaining stock of components. Two other skilled makers, Collins (Cherub) and Shearman, though well into their retirement, make an occasional wheel. The three companies currently producing wheels in any quantity (Ashford, Baynes, Majacraft) rely quite heavily on overseas sales, and it is fortunate that there is a revival of spinning in North America.
Mary Knox and Lyndsay Fenwick
More information about the wheels mentioned can be found in Mary’s website, www.nzspinningwheels.info