World War One Friction Drive Wheel – Found!

This article, co-authored by Lynne Boulter & Mary Knox, was published in Creative Fibre in September 2016. 

In March 2014, Mary mentioned in Creative Fibre magazine the F.D. (friction-drive) wheel made by the Gisborne Engineering Co Ltd and used by the Poverty Bay Spinning Society. She could discover nothing more about it. So Lynne from the Sun City Spinners group of the Poverty Bay Woolcrafters set to work to unearth one.

It has taken a while. The Poverty Bay Spinning Society is long gone – the 40-odd members spun and knitted for the troops during WW1, and Lynne learned from old issues of the Poverty Bay Herald that the F.D. wheel was invented by Mr Frank de Lautour and exhibited to members early in 1918. They were very impressed with it and 25 were ordered.

Lynne also contacted the Gisborne Herald, who published a story about the search. Then, nothing … until April this year, when she received a phone call from a Gisborne lady who remembered her grandmother using such a wheel. After long searching, family members had found it in a shed!

F.D. (friction drive) wheel

The footman attaches to the drive wheel off-centre, which means it can turn the wheel. This system is found on a number of upright wheels, including some made with old sewing machine drive wheels (but the F.D.’s drive wheel was clearly made for this wheel). A more startling feature is the orientation of the drive wheel, edge-on to the spinner! From there it gets even more interesting.

There is no drive band, or groove around the drive wheel rim. With the drive wheel at spinning height instead of down near the treadle, it can drive the flyer directly. A disc attached to the spindle mechanism is covered with what appear to be washer-like layers of leather whose edges contact the rim of the drive wheel. Below it you can see a spring, which tensions the mechanism that holds the disc against the drive wheel. When the treadle turns the drive wheel, the friction between drive wheel and disc turns the spindle. Hence the name ‘Friction Drive’.

Detail, showing the friction drive and the bobbin brake

Friction drive has been used more recently: the Louet S40 “Hatbox Wheel” would be the best known example. But it was surely unheard of on spinning wheels in 1918.

Another spring on the left tensions a cord which runs over the bobbin groove, so this is a scotch tension wheel. The bobbin tension could be adjusted by turning the wingnut at the other end of the cord.

The red arrow shows where the little lever has clicked up in the slot to hold the flyer shaft in place in the hollow spindle tube. The tube is turned by the friction mechanism, and the flyer shaft and flyer turn with it.

Changing the bobbin is straightforward but highly unusual. The flyer shaft is very long, and at its end a little lever can pivot up and down. To put the flyer on the wheel, the spinner inserts the end of the shaft into the spindle (which is a tube) and it slides right through the driving mechanism. At the end the lever is flicked up into a slot which holds it firmly (indicated in red in the picture above). To remove the flyer and change the bobbin, the spinner depresses the lever and the flyer can be slid out.

The back end of the spindle tube, furthest from the spinner, with the lever in its slot (now facing downwards – some spinning has been done since the previous photograph was taken and the spindle has come to rest in a different orientation). The layers of leather making up the friction disk that is driven by the drive wheel are clearly shown on the left.

A report in the Poverty Bay Herald on 9 August 1918 describes ‘an effective display’ by the Poverty Bay Spinning Society in a Gisborne shop widow. Along with fleeces, spun wool and knitted soldiers’ comforts, the exhibition featured Shetlend type wheels, a Strickland Silent Spinner and ‘the F.D. (friction-drive) wheel, [which was the type] mostly used by the society’.

The Shetland type wheels were perhaps family heirlooms that had accompanied earlier generations settling in New Zealand. The Strickland came from Australia; they were invented by Sir Gerald Strickland, 1st Baron Strickland of Sizergh Castle (1861-1940). A colourful character, he was Governor of New South Wales for two stormy years from 1915 to 1917. During that time, he used his hobby of mechanical engineering to design these wheels for the Australian Red Cross to help their war work. Up to seventy Strickland wheels were made, and two made their way to New Zealand.

One of them came to Gisborne in late 1917. Mr and Mrs Frank de Lautour, on a trip to Sydney, were delayed there by an extensive strike. While her husband was attempting to conclude his business, Mrs de Lautour ‘engaged in the spinning industry initiated in connection with the Red Cross movement.’ When they returned home she brought a ‘spinning machine’ with her, planning to start a spinning society in Gisborne.

Strickland Silent Spinner

Frank de Lautour has clearly taken some ideas from the Strickland when he designed the F.D. wheel. The solid wooden post stabilised by a heavy treadle assembly is similar in concept, and Strickland has already moved the drive wheel from the usual position to halfway up towards the flyer, though it still requires a driveband. De Lautour made more use of metal to create the elaborate friction mechanism and also a metal flyer.

The new Poverty Bay Spinning Society was inaugurated in December 1917, and started work in February 1918 with just three members who knew how to spin. By August they had forty knitting and spinning members, and had turned fleece donated by local farmers into much appreciated socks and other comforts for men in the trenches. Six F.D. wheels had been donated to their Depot in Customhouse Street and a further 18 had been sold to individuals, with other orders waiting to be filled.

Now, though, the war was coming to an end. On 10 March 1919 members of the Society met to consider their future. From February to November of 1918, 33 people had been taught to spin, there had been spinning in the Depot every weekday, sixty-one pounds of wool had been spun and 120 items for the troops made – waistcoats, balaclavas, scarves, mittens, and seventy pairs of socks. With thanks to all those who had helped, the society ceased its efforts. Many spinning wheels must have put away, perhaps with a sigh of relief.

But that was not the end for our wheel. Like several of the other F.D. wheels it was brought out in the 1940s, when World War II caused a desperate shortage of knitting yarn to knit for the troops.

Spinning wool for World War II forces, Gisborne 1940 (photograph: East Coast Museum of Technology)

The wheel spun again in the 1970s, with the revival of traditional crafts, before languishing forgotten in a shed till memories were jogged by modern spinners.

It’s rather heavy, as one would expect, and could be awkward to move. The single ratio is 6:1. Its inventor called it a ‘spinning machine’ and it certainly reflects engineering more than woodcrafting skills. It has a certain functional appeal, though, and the curves of the drive wheel spokes are striking


And now, we can report happily, its flyer is whirring again. After plenty of oiling, it still feels a little stiff and tired and is a little clunky (which further adjustment may fix). But it spins quite nicely.

The Poverty Bay Herald, various issues 1917-1919, accessed on the Papers Past website
Elizabeth Harvey, ‘The Strickland Silent Spinner’, The Spinning Wheel Sleuth 83, Jan. 2014

The authors thank The Sun City Spinners Group of Poverty Bay Woolcrafters, The Gisborne Herald, the East Coast Museum of Technology at Makaraka, and of course the owner of the wheel for all her help!