The story of our spinning wheels

 First published in Creative Fibre magazine Vol. 18 no. 3 (December 2015)

Spinning is a very ancient craft – but our modern wheels, with their flyers and treadles, have only been around for a few hundred years.

For many centuries spinners turned their wheels with their right hand, and held the fibre (or drew it down from a distaff) with the left to be spun off the point. There are illustrations of such wheels dating from 13th century Iraq (ancient Persia) as well as China. The Indian charkha is a well-known example, and probably very old. The origin of spindle wheels is uncertain but it must have been in one (or several) of these areas.

 Indian charkha, photographed at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, a centre of the struggle for independence. It looks like a modern example but they haven’t changed much. I M Vishal Bhatt

Indian charkha, photographed at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, a centre of the struggle for independence. It looks like a modern example but they haven’t changed much. I M Vishal Bhatt

Charkhas were famously popularised by Gandhi during the independence movement, to encourage self-sufficiency, and one was even on the flag adopted by the independence movement. Charkhas are still produced in India, and (rarely) by Western makers. The standing type used to be made by Ashford and the book type is still made by Bosworth.

The flag of India from 1931 to 1947. Creative Commons

The flag of India from 1931 to 1947. Creative Commons

Many Eastern wheels have no rim on the drive wheel. Instead, a cord is is strung back and forth between the alternating tips of the spokes, and the drive band runs on these: a feature not found in Europe.

Very soon after we first see them in the East, spindle wheels appear in Europe too. In 1298 a regulation is needed in Speyer (near Frankfurt in Germany) that wheel-spun yarn must not be used by weavers for warp. A spindle wheel does not lend itself so easily to making the strong smooth worsted yarn suitable for a good warp, whereas it can readily be produced on a hand spindle.

A distracted spinner: detail from the Smithfield Decretals, an illuminated manuscript of about 1350 in the British Library. Creative Commons

A distracted spinner: detail from the Smithfield Decretals, an illuminated manuscript of about 1350 in the British Library. Creative Commons

The first known pictures in Europe of spinning wheels are in several illuminated manuscripts from around 1335-1340. One even shows a woman using a pair of hand carders, exactly as some of us still do. The wheels look rather different from their Eastern counterparts; they are entirely recognisable though as the “great wheels” or “muckle wheels” or “walking wheels” that are still familiar in the UK and North America, though hardly ever seen in New Zealand.

Great wheel, now in the Fort Bend Museum, Texas. Jacob Jose

Great wheel, now in the Fort Bend Museum, Texas. Jacob Jose

This design is very simple and practical, with only a few moving parts.  Apart from the invention of the Miner’s (or Minor’s) head (patented by Amos Miner in the US in 1810) to accelerate the spindle, it has survived basically unchanged to this day. Compared to hand spindles, the wheel is generally (though not universally) thought to be a great advance – the spinner no longer has to grasp the spindle, unhitch the yarn, wind the new yarn round the spindle and hitch it on again.

There is still a pause in spinning, though: the spinner must back the wheel a little to bring the thread back from the point before turning it clockwise again to wind on.* Moreover the spinner has to be skilled at long draw with one hand – the other is busy turning the drive wheel.

The first development is the flyer and bobbin. The flyer rotates either faster or slower than the bobbin (depending on the tension system) which makes the yarn wind on. We don’t know exactly what ingenious person invented the idea, or when. We are sometimes told that it was Leonardo da Vinci, but this is wrong. (However, he did try to devise an improved design, rather similar to the popular modern US invention the “Woolee Winder” which automatically fills the bobbin evenly with no moving of hooks.)

The first picture showing a flyer and bobbin dates from the 1480s and comes from Southern Germany. It has a distaff dressed with flax, and the flyer is between two maidens. It is a true double drive, with the bobbin groove smaller than the groove on the the flyer whorl (hard to see in the picture). The right hand still has to be devoted to turning the wheel; a small peg on one of the spokes would be useful for this. The little engraving is from a ‘Hausbuch’ (housekeeping book), an illustrated compendium of handwritten texts on various subjects that would interest a well-off household. We can probably assume that the flyer/bobbin setup had been invented at least a few years before it was written, and not necessarily in Germany.

The very first picture of a flyer and bobbin, from Mittelalterliche Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg (Mediaeval Hausbuch of Wolfegg Castle), Germany, about 1480

The very first picture of a flyer and bobbin, from Mittelalterliche Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg (Mediaeval Hausbuch of Wolfegg Castle), Germany, about 1480

From the early 1500s Flemish and Dutch artists show us wheels that look more familiar, with legs (but still no treadle) and what we now call a ‘Picardy’ flyer, outside the maidens (like Majacraft wheels today, though they have dispensed with maidens too). There is a single drive band and a separate brake on the bobbin. This seems a natural development from the spindle wheel, and is probably easier to make than the flyer between the maidens.

The next advance is the treadle, which allows both hands to be used for drafting fibre. Here we are even more at a loss for evidence: all we can say is that soon after 1600, artists in various parts of Europe begin to portray spinners using two hands for drafting. At least one picture shows an upright type of wheel for the first time.

Now worsted spinning, with the fibres straight and smoothed, is much more achievable on a wheel (it was always achievable with a spindle). The versatile and diverse spinning wheels we know and love have definitely arrived. But their development has taken many, many years. ‘When was the spinning wheel invented?’ – ‘Well, that depends…’

* This can be seen happening in several youtube videos, including the lovely one by ‘riverrim’ at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrrJLAXwUBU.

Resources:

Baines, Patricia Spinning Wheels Spinners and Spinning, 1977 (Out of print but there are copies in many libraries)

lhresources.wordpress.com/workroom-textile-skills/history-and-gallery-spinning-2/ (The text is brief but there are lots of excellent pictures)

The ‘Spindle wheels’ group on ravelry is also a wonderful resource:
www.ravelry.com/groups/spindle-wheels/