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The Spinning Wheel - De-Constructing an Original

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Well, it seems my brother had been keeping great great granddad's old spinning wheel - I had forgotten the box that it was in when I left the homestead, and he had been storing it for me. After reading the last piece I did on spinning wheels, he must have read it and remembered he had it -and got it out in the mail to me - because it arrived a week or so afterwards:

Old spinning wheel

It's missing some pieces, but there's a good majority of it still there. The legs and pedal are gone, and it's missing the two pieces that hold the bobbin/axle.

It's an interesting piece to me on several counts... First, it was made by great great grandad... Second, it's a study in wooden machinery - everything has a purpose and yet it's still elegantly constructed. Third, it's an example of true frontier craftsmanship. I'm not sure of the exact date, my best guess would have been somewhere near the 1870 to 1890 range, in the Dakotas. This would have been made with the most meager set of tools, and quite far out in the country... I think I remember reading the nearest flour mill at the time was a full day away.

Parts of a Spinning Wheel

To have a discussion about the construction of the old wheel above, it would probably help to review just what the parts are called... I got much of this information off of various web sites, including The Joy of Handspinning, which is a wonderful resource for the enthusiast - I'm more interested in the construction, but that doesn't do you much good if you don't know how the thing works!... I'm using dad's wheel, which is a replica of the old one I'm looking at:

Parts of a Spinning Wheel

 

Tension Knob: A threaded knob, turned to raise or lower the bobbin and flyer assembly thusly reducing or increasing tension on the drive bands.

Maidens: The upright posts that hold one end of the bobbin and flyer assembly

Flyer Whorl: The pulley that drives the flyer - it has several different diameters so different speeds can be achieved

Flyer: The U-shaped piece with hooks - the hooks are there just so the fiber can be spooled evenly onto the bobbin. This is what spins the fiber.

Bobbin: A spool that collects the spun fiber

Orifice: Where fiber is fed into the wheel as it is spun

Drive Bands: Twine or string that drives the flyer whorl from the fly wheel

Mother of All: The upright piece that holds up the tension knob, bobbin, and flyer

Fly Wheel: The main drive wheel - the large wheel that is powered by the treadle

Footman: Hard to see in the photo above, it's behind everything- it's the wooden piece that connects the treadle to the fly wheel

Treadle: the foot pedal at the bottom

 

 

It's made from at least three, but more likely four distinctively different woods, from what I can see - and I think you can tell somewhat in the top photo. I'm not positive of the exact species, but from my experience with wood and my knowledge of the trees native to the area in which it was made, my best guesses would be birch or elm, maple, and basswood or poplar. I will get into where each was used as I deconstruct the thing.

Metal pieces would have been difficult to fabricate and expensive to purchase, so their use was kept to an absolute minumum. Could he have bought the metal pieces, or had a machinist make them for him? It's a possiblity. The pieces could have been ordered via mail order and shipped to the closest dry-goods store... yet they do all show at least some amount of fabrication. That eveidence could just be the technology of the time showing through, however - I'm just not qualified enough to say.

The only metal pieces are the axle/treadle drive on the fly wheel, the metal hooks on the spinner/flyer, and the axle for the flyer/flyer whorl assembly. The metal reinforcement on the flyer (the U-shaped piece in the photo below) shows signs of hammering to shape, and is riveted in place with metal pins and is surely of his own making.

bobbin

The part that would have probably been the most difficult to make would have been the axle for the bobbin/flyer assembly... It appears it was made from something else, and made to work. I'm not exactly sure what it would have originally been had he fabricated it - it might even be two pieces, I can't really tell. The center was drilled out from the end and from the side to create the orifice that allows the fiber to be fed through it.... Both holes are off center, and show some evidence of being drilled and filed by hand.

Axle

You can see the orifice on the axle of the flyer on the right in the above photo, where the fiber is fed into the wheel. The far end of the axle in the photo above has a small taper to it - and is also threaded to hold the bobbin and flyer whorl on. It looks to me like the tapering was done by mounting the bolt in a wood lathe and tapering it using a file while turning. Fine metal work would have been difficult on the prairie in those days... and this is one of the things that lead me to believe this piece was at least partially fabricated by old great great granddad.

The bobbin (on the left in the above photo), the flyer, and the flyer whorl are all made from a very dense, close-grained wood - my guess is maple, though it could be just about anything of a similar nature. It needed to be, as the walls of the pulleys on them as well as the U-shape of the flyer makes using a strong wood imperative. The bobbinis made from a single piece... You can see by the breaks that it was made from a straight piece of about 3" round wood. The hole the axle slides through goes all the way through the bobbin, obviously - my best guess as to how this was made would be to first drill the hole through the rough blank - then mount the blank in the lathe and turn the bobbin to its final dimension. This would assure the axle hole would be centered on the bobbin. The far end of the bobbin is actually the first pulley you would use as part of the flyer whorl assembly - you see it in the next photo and the one two down that shows the whorl in it's place.

Here you can see the far end of the bobbin and the leather "bearing" that the axle is pushed into (the flyer whorl is not in this photo - it would take up the space between the bobbin and the adjuster piece the leather bearing is pressed into):

Leather bearing

Both ends of the axle were mounted in leather bearings... but unfortunately the maiden that holds the closer end was missing on the original. Using another wheel made by granddad's brother, he fashioned the maiden with a leather bearing similarly to how that wheel was constructed:

Leather bearing

You can see that it was simply a thick chunk of leather, glued into the maiden. This allows for the bobbin assembly to be easily removed from the wheel, simply by turning the maiden. There's not a lot of pressure on these bearings so they function quite well (as evidenced by dad's copy), and the leather would simply have been replaced as it wore out. Lubrication, if any, would have been tallow or beeswax.

The flyer whorl is made with two different sized pulleys so you can adjust the speed of the flyer - faster for more twists per inch in your yarn, and slower for fewer. More twists made for a stronger thread - but took more raw fiber. Fewer produced more "fluffy" yarns, good for sweaters and the like.... at least that's what I think - I have no experience spinning my own yarn. I still have the flyer whorl for the original, though unfortunately only half of it - but it does show how it is constructed pretty well:

Gear

You can see the differing diameters of the pulley to allow the flyer to spin at different speeds depending on where you placed the drive bands. The bobbin spins freely on the axle so is independent of the flyer whorl.  It is driven by its own pulley on the end next to the whorl that is a slightly different diameter - this is so the bobbin would spin at a different speed than the flyer.  Otherwise the yarn would only spin in place - with the different speed it slowly spools onto the bobbin as you feed more fiber into the orifice.

This is known as a "Scotch Brake"...  it basically means the yarn spools quite slowly onto the bobbin, while being twisted (for strength) many, many times for each single time it spools on the bobbin - which is the major function of the wheel.  It is this twisting that gives the yarn it's strength - without it, it would simply pull apart.

A good spinner feeds fiber into the orifice at a steady rate, thusly avoiding thinned out or lumpy yarn that is strong enough to knit.  More twists per inch results in a thinner, stronger thread - fewer provide fluffier, more insulating yarn.

The drive bands would have been simple twine or leather strips, or possibly even yarn - it didn't need a great deal of force to twist the fiber, so grip wasn't terribly crucial - speed was.

You can also see the tensioner knob assembly in the photo above at the top of the aptly named "Mother of All". It's broken as well, but it shows how it was made... A threadbox would have been pretty standard fair in most shops of the time, so that's not too surprising to find. It still works quite well, even after being exposed to the elements for many years.... The Mother of All is broken here as you can see in the photo above and below, but again at least we can see what it looks like:

Gear

The Mother of All is so aptly named as it is the main structural element of the wheel - everything pretty much hangs off of it. It, along with the maidens and most of the spindle work (with the exception of the spokes in the wheel) are made from a hardwood I would say is either elm or birch - it's hard to tell exactly as the wood is aged so. But those were common woods used in local furniture of the time - especially turned furniture. Oak was available and used extensively for standard casework, but wasn't preferred for turning because of it's open grain and it's tendency to tear out. I would imagine the elm or birch was riven and turned green, much in the fashion of windsor style chairs, and wedges were used to fasten the tenons to the half-moon shaped base (which I think was made of either poplar - but could be basswood)... There would not have been any kilns in the area, any dried lumber would have been air-dried.

Which brings me to the fly wheel, the most prominent piece of the spinning wheel, has some interesting construction methods. The outer wheel was constructed from four separate pieces. The wheel is made what I think is basswood, though it could be poplar, I suppose... both are plentiful in the area. There are a couple ofreasons that basswood would appropriate here. First, a lighter weight wheel would be easier to spin. Women using these wheels would often spin for many hours on end, for many days in a row... ease of use was paramount in their design. Second, basswood is a very easy wood to work... Mounting a wheel this size and turning it in a treadle lathe would have been quite a task... the easier one could make the task, the better. Third - since these wheels didn't carry a load, like say maybe a wagon wheel would, there would be little or no structural stresses on them, so basswood met the bill.

The pieces for the outer rim were first assembled before they were turned using splines and wooden pegs to hold them in place. You can see here where one of the pegs was placed too far out and was turned into:

Wheel Joint

The outer wheel itself was not constructed in the same manner as a wagon wheel - where the spokes have tenons that mount into the outer wheel - for the reasons mentioned above. It was first assembled and then turned without the spokes - they were added afterwards. Here you can see one I've pulled out:

Wheel Joint

After the main hub was turned, the spokes were made to fit inside the outer rim, then holes were drilled through the rim into the spokes - and a wooden dowel was driven in to hold the spokes in place. There just one problem with that - how do you make sure the hub is centered in the outer rim? Well - my best guess is that the hub and spokes were made first. The hub first, then the spokes, which could then be glued into the hub. The hub could then be mounted on a temporary axle and turned, allowing you to mark the end of the spokes in the same location as you turned the hub. The outer rim could then be turned to match this dimension... It's just an educated guess, mind you - but the best I can come up with given the circumstances.

As for the hub, it's one piece, with an axle that mounts into the adjacent spindles thusly:

hub

The far side of the axle has an offset that attaches to the footman, which then is attached to the treadle. And yes - at the lower left of the hub in the photo above, that is a knot... As a matter of fact, it continues through to the other side:

hub

Why would he have used a piece with a knot like that in it, you might ask? I would put forth that it was a matter of convenience... As I mentioned above, a lot of the wood used for the contruction of this wheel would probably have been worked green. The wheel would have had to be dried wood though. Most likely that meant that it was was harvested from already dead wood - possibly even seasoned firewood. There wasn't storage space available for storing wood while it dried... The house they lived in would probably have been the size of your living room and housed 5-7 people... The barn would have been similarly small was soley for livestock. The shed that served as a shop would have been more like a lean-to, perhaps with a pot-belly stove if the owner was well-off. So dried wood was a luxury most couldn't afford, but for the wheel it would have been necessary as green wood would have shrunk and rendered the wheel useless. So it's my guess it came from whatever was available - and since it didn't need to be all that strong, it wasn't a problem structurally. Also, I should mention that the knot would not have been this pronounced when it was made - this particular wheel was exposed to the elements for many years, so has weathered quite a lot. Originally, it would have been a very tight knot.

About all that's left is the base, legs, footman, and treadle - and all I have of those is the base... The base is made of poplar, it appears. I remember hearing the half-moon shape was a sort of trademark of his, but I'm not sure of this... compared to the other his brother did later, its a unique feature and was supposedly preferred by the people who used them as they were stronger. I do recall hearing that this makers' work was highly prized by those who received it, at least within the area he lived.

I may restore this old wheel someday - no, it will never be in working order again, but I may try to get it just so it is all in one piece and has all of the parts, just for display. I doubt it's worth much to anyone but me - but it sure is fun to have around to look at and to study, to give one appreciation for the original maker and the methods and material he used in creating it.

The maker, my great-great granddad, was a very adept turner, furniture maker, and woodoworker. He used green wood quite a bit, as I think can be seen in another of his works which I will show just for reference - a crib made of elm:

hub

It appears he also used steam to bend wood, as you can see - obviously a very industrious fellow for someone truly out in the sticks... This crib was used all the way into the 1960's as I recall... It's been retired for obvious reasons since then, but still remains in the family, well over a century after it was made.

 

Comments

Comment: 

Firstly, thanks for sharing a part of your family history. I'm always fascinated by our connection to the past...where we come from...who helped shape the people we are today.

Secondly, thanks for the education on spinning wheels. I've seen a few in my day, but never really paused long enough to contemplate all the parts involved, or the fundamental design citeria such as wood selection for lightness, strength, etc. If these were being built today, I wonder if anything would change aside from the materials. I suppose you could use metal bearings for longer wear...and...I shudder to think...plastic and aluminum for the main parts?!? Bury that thought. And yes, I realize that some are still being built today, but not with the same purpose of heavy use or "need" driving the design for longevity, etc...if that makes sense. They seem to be quaint cottage decorations now...a shame.

My reason for wondering about modern production of such an instrument you ask? ;) I've been toying with the idea of building a "chevalet de marqueterie" for quite a few years now. One of the main dilemmas I'm having is whether or not I should keep it as traditional as possible, or try to re-invent the wheel, so to speak?!? to see if I can improve it somehow?  But then I think of the current "ecole Boulle" in Paris and see that they're still using the old, traditional chevalets (that they've used for centuries) and wonder at the validity of my meanderings.

Ah life...never a dull moment!

Cheers!

Louis 

Comment: 

Thanks Louis! 

I've edited the above to see if I can better explain how the thing works - I think I got it right.  Specifically, I addressed how the bobbin spins next to the flyer whorl, using a "Scotch Brake"...   It's an interesting process for sure.

A Chevalet de Marqueterie, eh?  I pondered one of those myself once upon a time.  It's still on the list somewhere, but it's getting buried because of a serious backlog building up because of lack of shop time.  I've got years worth of work, if I can only hurry up and get the shop finished!  Besides, I doubt I could do anything worthy enough with one...

I do think there are lessons to be learned from doing it "old school" first.  As an example - dad and my uncle, both accomplished woodworkers,  made their own copies of the spinning wheel above.  Both are very well made - just about everything about them is better...   yet I don't believe they work nearly as well as they should.  Why?  I really don't know for sure, but I think it's probably for two reasons.  First, they were as much or more concerned with looks than with functionality, and I think they unintentionally sacrificed some of of that functionality.  Secondly, I don't think they truly studied just how the things were made originally...  Or rather - why they were made the way they were made.  I get the feeling they simply assumed some things were done just because it would have been easier with the primitive tools that were used, and that they had a better way today.

 My specific thoughts on this can best be exemplified best with two examples, I think...  First, the leather bearings.  On the mother of all in the original the flyer axle bearing is leather...  On dad's copy, it's a small UHMW bearing.  On my uncle's, I believe he used an actual bearing.  The second example is the fly wheel itself and the choice of woods..  On the original, it's either basswood or poplar.  On the copies, it's the same wood as the rest, maple in one, walnut for the other.

So - what's the deal?  For the leather bearing, I think it was a good choice to replace with a better material.  It's generally hidden, and the UHMW or metal bearing will wear better, turn more freely, and not wear as quickly.  But what if using the modern materials make it spin too easily?  I seriously doubt that's the case (I would say the modern bearings are a definite improvement), but until you have used it, you don't know for sure.  There may have been a specific reason for using leather - I just don't know.

The same is true for the flywheel.  Looking at the original, you sure would think he could have chosen a better wood than basswood.  It's brittle and would damage easily.  Though it could have been simply because the basswood is easy to turn on a lathe, I believe he was fully capable of turning the wheel out of just about any of a number of different woods available to him.  There was certainly woods available that didn't have quite as many knots in them.  I've seen other work of his from the time and for the most part they are exquisitely done.  Sure, there are knots, but they are minimal or hidden, much better than what this wheel is made from.  And wouldn't the knots have at least partially negated the "easy turning" part?

No, I think that wood was a deliberate choice.  I can only surmise his reasons, but my best guess is for ease of use over a long period of time.  When grandmother spoke of using a spinning wheel, it wasn't with any sort of misty-eyed, melancholy remembrance of simpler times...  No, she regarded them with complete disdain - she hated the things.  If I remember right, it was because of the hours upon hours upon hours of labor in their use.  I do remember her purchasing skeins and skeins of yarn and subtly implying the ability to do so was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

That says to me that basswood was chosen for a functional reason, to make the wheel easier to spin for long periods of time - though I have no direct way of proving it.  It could have been simply for the ease of turning it... But there again, dad had a better way.  He didn't turn the wheel - he made a jig and used a router - which I think may have robbed him of some lessons on the wheel's construction.  Now that he's gone and I have his wheel, I find myself wishing he had made it an exact copy - as much out of respect for the original as anything, as I don't believe he ever intended for it to be used anyway.  Had he made it to be used, I might think differently...

These are the kinds of things that need to be known first, before reinventing the wheel can be attempted - which isn't to say the wheel can't be reinvented. just that there's some invaluable learning that can be done by seeing how it was done "old school" first by studying an original in as great a depth as is possible.

But I've rambled on far too long - you can see how this subject captures my interest so...  I love seeing how and why things were done from this time frame, it seems like so very many things were so elegantly crafted (though I'm sure they had their fair share of crap, too!).

In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing your marquetry chair, if you go forward with it.  I'm hoping you do, it sounds like a wonderful project...

 

Thanks, and good luck Louis!

Leif

Comment: 

 

Leif,
 
You should really restore that wheel, it is a very nice flax wheel.  I have put together (restored, repaired) over 50 old wheels of all sizes and a many in far worse condition than your old one.
 
Keep as much of the original as possible and glue on 'Dutchman's' of matching species and shape to match original.  Don't glue the Leather bearings in, they are held with pegs, wedges or nails, so they can be replaced.
 
You can actually get this back into working order, once it is restored, it can and probably should be used.  Lovely old machines and facinating to watch someone who can twist up fibers into string.
 
Stephen Shepherd

Comment: 

Thanks, Stephen

I should, shouldn't I?  It's pretty rough, though - I think the hardest part to restore would be the mother of all, as the main piece is broken.

Thanks for the tip on the leather bearings...  The one on the back of this one is just pressed into place, but it's missing the large one in front and the piece that holds it.  Another interesting piece to make will be the flyer's whorl - I have the original, or should I say I have just under half of it....  At least there's enough there to gauge the size of a new one, anyway.

It probably won't be for a year or two, but when it does come time I might fire a question or two your way...

Leif

Comment: 

Louis:

> And yes, I realize that some are still being built today, but not with the same purpose of heavy use or "need" driving the design for longevity, etc...if that makes sense.

> They seem to be quaint cottage decorations now...a shame.

Interestingly, there are still people producing handspun and specialty fibre yarn (mohair, alpaca, quiviut), for handweaving and knitting.

When I was in the business of building spinning wheels (25 years ago) we sold several dozen to one co-op that produced industrial volumes of mohair yarn annually, while operating as a rural cottage industry.

As for applying modern technology to spinning wheel design, have a look at Louet's products (www.louet.com), which are substantially easier to use than traditional equipment. This reflects a lot of hard work on the part of the two industrial designers responsible for them, as well as 30-odd years continuous development incorporating customer feedback.

Comment: 

Thanks for commenting, evang...

Yes, it seems there are still many people spinning their own yarn.  I'm quite sure the modern day wheels work better than tradtional equipment...  it's just to my eyes the old stuff looks so very classical and the modern so - to use your own words - industrial.  I realize it's apples and oranges when it comes to functionality, but I can't help myself.  Just like windsor chairs, there is a quality to them that gets lost when they get "industrial". 

There are a few modern makers whose work looks quite interesting, though I cannot speak to their functionality... Kromski makes a very fine looking traditional wheel, as and the majacraft suzie alpaca looks like a fascinating modernist view...  But as I said, I can't speak to their usability, just their aesthetics.

There is a fine history of New Zealand makers located at nzspinningwheels.com for anyone interested in looking deeper into the subject.  It appears that New Zealanders are/were prolific spinners from the disproportionate amount of information that originates there...

 Leif

Comment: 

Leif:

I take your point.

I still keep an antique "walking wheel" around, just because I like the look of it. It's only suitable for making fine yarn, and is much harder to use than a treadle wheel because you have to spin fast and one-handed (the other hand is turning the wheel). My great grandmother used a similar type of wheel. Apparently after shearing time she used to load her wheel in the wagon and spend a month or two travelling around to other farms, spinning yarn for them, then moving on to the next.

Those wheels look interesting - I hadn't seen them before.

The New Zealanders have some really great wool breeds, and a LOT of sheep. Like many others, I learned to spin on a NZ wheel (an Ashford kit I put together for my wife).

Enjoyed your article and photos on your family's spinning wheels.

Evan

Comment: 

"They seem to be quaint cottage
decorations now...a shame".

I have to disagree!  I have a Kromski Polonaise and I can assure you it is not a quaint cottage decoration.

It is VERY well built and shall last for years to come.  It has already endured a good deal of constant use and not batted an eye.  I would not have paid so much for a "quaint cottage decoration"

Mr Van Eaton would take issue with you I am sure..along with Alden Amos and those who still build spinning wheels in 2009.

B. Rickman

Shelton CT

Comment: 

I would agree that spinning wheels are most definitely not a "quaint decoration" - there are some out there today being manufactured and used that are quite popular. 

I do notice that many of the modern designs - while structurally sound, and likely far easier to use - are nowhere near as elegant as some of the older designs however.  The same can be said for much of today's furniture, however...

But there are some that are still towing the line.

Leif

www.norsewoodsmith.com

Comment: 

 I love your detailed photos!  I bought a wheel just like it but missing the tensioner knob, leather bearing and the flyer and bobbin!  So I've now got an idea how the missing parts fit into the whole!  Now I just need someone to build me the missing parts! :)

Comment: 

Thanks!

You might also want to check Stephen Shepherd's site for some of his work on spinning wheels:

http://www.fullchisel.com/blog/?p=223

Leif



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