Tuesday, March 31, 2015

J. Owlet

This is the first antique wheel I ever bought.  Like many spinners with an undeveloped eye for antique wheels, I grabbed it without fully comprehending its mechanical problems, and for months felt resentment towards it simply because it needed more rehabilitation than I could provide.  A year's experience with other wheels enabled me to come back to the table with a better attitude and some new ideas.

Original flyer on the left, replacement flyer on the right

The biggest problem, one which I willfully overlooked, was a flyer that was really too beat-up to be fixed.  I loved the old repairs, and knew that a break at the neck of the flyer arms could probably be professionally repaired with the original materials, but I failed to notice that the metal at the orifice was so worn that it deformed easily with very little pressure.  At one point it was crushed in, but came back into round solely from centrifugal force when I spun the flyer as a test - that's how thin and pliable the steel was!

The wheel started to look like it was salvageable when I was lucky enough to find a replacement flyer in a box of parts at an antique store in Quebec.  I did some tune-ups over the winter and got almost all the clunks and rattles out of the wheel, but discovered another problem: the crank of the drive wheel has the tiniest bit of play at the hub.  This problem would get worse over time, until the crank hole was stripped and would no longer turn the drive wheel.  Nails of various sizes were driven into the hub at this spot, indicating that the problem had been present in the past, but at this point the crank seating needs professional repair.

When I first brought the wheel home, I was especially tickled to see that it was marked, with JO stamped on the butt end of the table.  Jeremie Ouellet was wheel maker who lived in Quebec from 1845-1903.  His family continued to make wheels into the 1970's, when Guy Ouellet, Jeremie's great-grandson, was stamping his wheels "Famille Ouellet depuis 1796".

When I think beyond the cries for attention, I am pleased with this wheel.  Like Big Louie, it is a Canadian Production Wheel - though with a 26.5" drive wheel, it's one of the smallest sizes that can still be considered a CPW.  Tilt-tensioning here is achieved with a U-bolt holding the mother-of-all to the table, and a handle to adjust the angle.  The table, uprights, and treadle - all the wood parts, really - have beautiful grain and patina.  Coming back to the JO after a year of experience with other wheels represents a neat full-circle for me, and once its drive wheel hub is properly repaired, I look forward to learning how this wheel was really meant to spin.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Holyoke Spinning Machine

So much to say about this one.  In the words of a fellow collector, this rare Canadian spinning wheel is a "mythic beast".  When I first started developing an interest in antique spinners, it caught my eye because of its elegance and the use of cast iron, and I eagerly scoured the internet to learn all I could about the unusual design.  I learned that five of them were known to exist, four of which were in museums and one in private collection.  The one closest to me was at the American Textile History Museum.  I dreamed of getting the chance to see it in person and take measurements, so when I learned some metalsmithing I could make something like it for myself.

Imagine my thrill when a sixth turned up at an antique store in Quebec.  A good soul posted about it on Ravelry, I called the store right after they opened the next day, and gave them a credit card number over the phone.  I watched the "sold" banner appear across its photo on their website, and waited impatiently for the chance to drive the fourteen-hour round trip to pick it up.

In October, I brought the mythic beast home.  The first time I tested it out, the treadle bar snapped at a spot that had clearly been repaired in the past.  A bolt had stripped threads that made it difficult to tighten the frame properly, the wheel rubbed against an upright, and the whole thing was covered with a layer of thick latex paint.  Under the paint, though, there were impressions on the wood flyer indicating that my baby had a solid history as a working wheel.

I had the treadle repaired professionally.  The spot at the break was reinforced with steel rod, then wood was added to replace what had broken away.  Stripping the flyer and whorl revealed past repairs, all of which looked to be solid and professionally done.  I added some leather and a few metal O rings in spots to tighten and cushion things up.  The last little rattles and wiggles were worked out in December, and I had a wheel that was virtually silent, steady, and smooth.  The metal drive wheel weighs ten pounds and has lovely momentum.

There are two patents associated with this wheel design.  The first was filed in Holyoke, Massachusetts by two Canadians, Vigeant and Demarais, in 1880.   Though it is clear from the drawings that their design incorporated the unusual wheel shape and materials, their patent was actually about some sort of wedge at the hub that accelerated the wheel's momentum.  (No surviving examples of this design feature are known.)  A Canadian patent in 1883 by Beauchemin specifically develops a way to add a zinc rim to the drive wheel to improve production efficiency.  This second patent refers to the wheel design as the "Holyoke Spinning Machine".

Like other Canadian wheels of this era, the Holyoke wheel has tilt-tensioning.  A thumbscrew forces the flyer assembly away from the drive wheel, tightening the drive band.  In each of the six wheels, there are design variations, including small changes in the tensioning system.  Variations also appear in the treadle design (wood treadle, "bear claw" iron treadle like mine, or traditional iron treadle).  Some of the surviving wheels have a spring-loaded MOA for holding and releasing the flyer, and at least one wheel has a flyer made of metal.

Restoring my Holyoke wheel has been an interesting journey and I appreciate the historical significance of owning a rare wheel like this one, but at the end of the day, what delights me most about it is that it is a terrific spinning machine - my favorite at the moment.  Jeekeehoo, a Ravelry member who was following my progress restoring the wheel, made a comment which perfectly expresses my feelings about the project:
It’s great that the other examples of this wheel are being preserved in museums, but there’s something so lovely, so right, about this one being SPUN on, being loved and cared for by someone who really understands that seeing it function is part of what makes it beautiful, part of what makes it worth preserving.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Cricket is built in a typical Swiss lateral frame design, with the treadle alongside the frame rather than between the supports, and the flyer and bobbin perpendicular to the treadle.  She was found in a Bavarian farmhouse and probably dates back to the early 1900's.

She caught my eye because of her beautiful turned features, especially the captive rings on the mother-of-all horizontals and the wheel hub.  (The large one on the wheel hub undulates back and forth as the drive wheel turns - just mesmerizing.)  Captive rings are created while the main piece is turned, by undermining wood from the piece being carved.  Spinning wheels with a lot of them showcase the skill of the woodworker.

This wheel was a birthday present to myself.  I found her on German eBay and watched the seconds count down with baited breath as the listing came to a close.  Unfortunately, my good luck did not extend to the next phase of the process: the seller packed the wheel and distaff most carelessly, basically sticking the wheel in a box, cramming the distaff in diagonally, and sending her on her way with a stray sheet of bubble wrap floating on top and a single strip of tape sealing the box.

Damage to the standing distaff was obvious: the base had completely snapped off, but if it weren't for the added length of that piece, the wheel would undoubtably have been stuffed into a smaller box and sustained more damage.  As it was, my heart sank when I took the box from the postman and saw the holes punctured through the sides of the box by the top finials and the crank.

The crank was loose in the hub.  It required hide glue and four days of patience, but that repair did go smoothly.  More seriously, there was a torsional crack along one horizontal support which did not want to rotate back into place.  I ended up injecting diluted hide glue into the crack with a syringe, switching the tension screws so the one that was warped was in the undamaged hole, and hoping for the best.  The wood was parched but came back to life with some boiled linseed oil.

So, I learned a lot about repair from this wheel, and in the end I felt more affection for her because of the TLC she required from me.  She came back into spinning condition very nicely. My son named her Cricket.

I've only spun on one other bobbin-led wheel, and it was a wild jerky sort of ride, so I expected Cricket to be a tough spinning experience.  I do find it more difficult to get started, and joining breaks is harder to do securely, but in general I was surprised to find that the wheel is a pretty smooth spin and yields fine singles easily.  The flyer brake system was missing, so I rigged up something using a bit of felted old sweater under the flyer lip, some baker's twine, and a lovely antique clock key that I found on eBay.

She still has a ways to go before her restoration is "finished".  Her uprights are loose in the base, so there is significant wobble that needs addressing, and the treadle pin is bent downwards, which means the treadle slides right off without thick cotton cord belting it to the frame.  I have plans to add some feet to the four corners of the base, which will allow me to make some sort of block under the treadle to hold it in the right position.

A few weeks ago I brought Cricket to a spinning retreat, where she garnered a lot of attention.  I spun up a batt of sparkly dark green fiber and told her story over and over to curious spinners, some of whom had never seen an antique wheel in action!

Thursday, February 26, 2015


This dainty parlor wheel found me through German eBay this past fall.  She was a mess of swollen wood and needed a few weeks in front of a radiator before I could get all her parts to move, but thanks to gentle persistence and a little tub of beeswax hair ointment, we worked everything out.

Elsa is called a parlor wheel because she was built for spinning, probably of silk, by fine ladies who were likely spinning to demonstrate the accomplishment in a social setting, rather than working at domestic production.  Parlor wheels are typically upright and richly decorated, making them more appropriate for display in a house's more public rooms.

Initially I thought this wheel was maybe 120 years old, but a bit of research turned up a very similar wheel in Joan Cummer's reference "A Book of Spinning Wheels".  Her wheel was traced to its origins in England in the late 18th century, much older than I had speculated.  I consulted with Owen Evans, a spinner and collector, who confirmed that the wheel is German, perhaps inspired by the English design, and likely produced in the mid-1800s.  The wheels are SO similar, though.. could Cummer be wrong?

Elsa has lovely details.  The rim of the drive wheel is lined with metal, which is functional as well as gorgeous; even though the drive wheel is on the small side, it has terrific momentum.

The reason this wheel caught my attention is because of her very unusual bobbin-winding system.  Normally the bobbin sits in the flyer, held there by the whorl screwed on at the end, and the yarn being spun is loaded onto different spots of the bobbin by guide hooks lining the arms of the flyer.  Here, the yarn always runs through the very end of the flyer arm, through a little loop, and the bobbin itself is moved in and out of the flyer.  A crank at the front of the assembly turns a screw which moves a little leather-lined paddle nestled in a groove of the bobbin.  When the paddle is moved closer to or further from the flyer, it drags the bobbin with it.

It allows for the spinner to pack a bobbin really efficiently, which is important when it is so tiny!  Here it holds barely an ounce of spun wool.

I expected Elsa to be a fussy prissy little wheel, but it turns out she is a very efficient and well-designed machine, and is happy to get back to work.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Big Louie

Big Louie represents the rich tradition of spinning wheel manufacture in Quebec from the 1870's to the 1930's.  Known as a Canadian Production Wheel, Big Louie has a large (30") drive wheel capable of fast output for the spinner who can keep up.  CPWs use a type of tensioning called tilt-tensioning, which means the wheel is adjusted by tilting the flyer assembly away from the drive wheel, tightening the drive band to increase twist and take-up.  Louie's tensioning unit is a cast iron "saddle-style" clamp tightened with a wing nut.  (Most spinning wheels of this shape tension the drive band by means of a screw at the butt end of the bench, which moves the flyer assembly backwards and forwards.)

CPWs are also marked by their use of cast iron parts, which were faster and more cost effective to manufacture than their wood counterparts.

Louie came to me after living as decor for almost 70 years.  I bought him from a woman in New Hampshire who got it from her mother's best friend, who had found the wheel in Canada some 50 years earlier.  Still, he was ready to spin with practically no adjustments at all.  (Restoration was minimal but included removing a quarter inch of axle grease build-up.)

Though Louie came to me in very good condition, he has an old, charmingly rough repair on the wheel rim, just a few pieces of wire twisted through a rim separation to hold it together.  Repairs like this are not unusual on antique wheels, which were important household tools and typically maintained at home.

CPWs and their makers have been very well researched by an enthusiastic subset of the antique spinning wheel lot.  Caroline Foty has written an impressive e-book compiling what we know about the group of makers, who made these wheels with such similar characteristics in a small geographical area.  Folks with eyes more discerning than mine have suggested that Louie is a "presumed Michel Cadorette" CPW, because his design details are entirely consistent with Michel Cadorette's work, but the maker's mark, if there ever was one, has been obscured by wear and a dark wood finish.  A marked wheel would have a stencil on the bench like this:

Michel Cadorette was born in 1853 in Quebec.  By the 1890's he was producing over 1500 wheels per year, and kept up this level of production until the early 1900's.  In 1922 he passed the business over to his son Philias, who continued in the family tradition through the Depression of the 1930's.

Big Louie's name was inspired by the main character of Trumpet of the Swan, the movie I was watching with my kids when I first got this big wheel turning.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Beast

The wheel I have come to call "The Beast" is a lovely double-table spinning wheel that I found for sale on Craig's List in San Francisco.  It was living a cushy life as decor in a home above the famous Stinking Rose restaurant in the North Beach district, and it came back to my hotel in an Uber car.  (The looks I got while we were waiting at the curb for our ride were priceless!)

Within a few hours of getting it, I was able to find information online about a wheel that was practically a twin, and had a complete provenance back to the original owner.  Because of that, I believe that The Beast originated in the 1860's in Denmark.  Double-table wheels are typically associated with Norway, Sweden, and Finland, though I found a reference (in a Ravelry discussion) to a Finnish text which traced the double-table design to Finland via Denmark in the early 1800's.

So I got the wheel home and reassembled, and sat down to try it out.  I had made the mistake of picking out a name for it before I had it spinning, some dainty Danish girl's name, but it was clear I needed more get-to-know-you time.  This wheel was all grabby-hands, a "feed me the fiber, you clumsy oaf" sort of machine.  I made adjustments until the drive band was so slack I thought it would fall off, and finally I was able to keep up.  Henceforth it was known as The Beast.

One of my new lessons in conquering this wheel: using a design feature that I failed to appreciate until after several tense spinning sessions.  The frame of the wheel incorporates horizontal pieces that are threaded into the wheel uprights so they can tweak the wheel into alignment if it isn't quite trued up.  With all my previous wheels, this was done by shimming the vertical uprights holding the drive wheel, which is prone to slipping out of place during use, throwing off the drive band and bringing all the spinning to a screeching halt.  Here, I was able to make the wheel exactly true, and it stayed there.

Many wheels have a built-in distaff - a sticky-up thing for holding a bundle of fiber at the ready for the spinner to draft out.  Antique wheels found in the wild are often missing some or all of theirs, but The Beast came with its distaff intact.  A few weeks ago I overheard my four-year-old son explaining to his brother, "This spinning wheel has a big horn; that's why she calls it The Beast."

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Anna is a German double-flyer "wedding" wheel, dated 1893.  A wedding wheel was typically given to a bride as part of a trousseau (commemorated with a nameplate behind glass), and she was designed for two-handed spinning of flax.

One of the most special things about Anna is how her path to me was made possible by a very modern phenomenon: the smallification of the world due to the Internet.  I discovered Anna on a German eBay listing in the middle of the night in New England.  The seller listed her as "pick-up only" in Hamburg.  I consulted online with a wheelwright/antique wheel collector in Australia, who confirmed within an hour that the wheel appeared to be in good condition.  I contacted another antique wheels fan in the Netherlands, who helped me communicate with a German spinners group on Ravelry, and within six hours, two people had volunteered to pick up the wheel from the seller and ship it to me.  It was a wonderful first experience tapping into the wide community of antique spinning wheel enthusiasts!

Anna arrived a little worse for wear after her long journey across the ocean.  The most pressing problem was that her back leg had snapped off.  I repaired it by pulling out the stub of remaining leg, drilling a hole for a peg through both pieces, and gluing the peg in place.  Once that was repaired, it only took a little shimming and shining and a few nylon washers to get Anna ready to spin again.

Double-flyer wheels have two sets of spinning mechanisms.  Most of the European double-flyers I've seen are driven on two separate sets of drive bands, so the flyer grooves are offset to hold the two bands apart.  The idea is that each of the spinner's hands is feeding fiber into a flyer, which doesn't quite double production but does make it faster than spinning one strand at a time.

Since I haven't mastered one-handed spinning yet, I run Anna with only one drive band set up at a time.  Both flyers work well, though one is in better condition than the other.  Most double-flyers seem to be marked with an "X" on one side or the other.  I have been told that this indicates a repair or replacement piece, and I have also heard that the "X" is meant to distinguish which flyer/bobbin goes on which side.

This wheel has some lovely finial decorations, typical of this era of German wheels.  I haven't determined whether they are bone or ivory.  Her nameplate has some water damage, but a bit of playing around with photography software brought out the "1893" with reasonable certainty.

For a small wheel, Anna is an effective little machine!  We flew through four ounces of Merino/silk blend a few weeks ago, and I wondered how long it had been since Anna had hummed along like this, doing what she was built to do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hugh Ramsey

The first time I ever spun anything on an antique spinning wheel, it looked like this:

I found this sweet little flax wheel on eBay in April of 2014, and drove to Rhode Island to pick it up.  I had no idea what I was doing with an antique wheel, but the seller managed estate sales and specialized in reselling gun collections, so he had even less experience than I did, given that I had actually spun fiber before.  In truth, I was suckered in by the beautiful patterning in the wood I could see in the eBay photos.  That pattern is caused by quarter-sawing boards from trees, which produces lumber that is stable but more expensive because of the higher ratio of waste.

I took a deep breath.  I took the whole wheel apart.  Cleaning each piece and giving it a coat of lemon oil was most rewarding: the wood glowed.

Here you can even see scribe marks made by the wheelwright (those vertical lines down the center of the bench).

Like many old wheels, this one had a lovely well-worn imprint on the treadle, made by the ball of the foot of a previous owner.

As an extra bonus treat, I discovered a maker's mark!  It enabled me to unlock a lot of information about this wheel's history.  "HR" is Hugh Ramsey, who was born in Londonderry, NH in 1753 and died in Holderness, NH in 1831.  He was the son of Irish immigrants and a Revolutionary War veteran.  His wheels share many design features with those of a cluster of spinning-wheel maker families based in Londonderry in the early 19th century.

(Spinning Wheel Sleuth #48 has two articles about Londonderry makers and Hugh Ramsey.)

It was a perfect first-wheel restoration project: my HR was completely intact and needed only minimal shimming to get everything into alignment.  I added a nylon spacer to snug the bobbin up to the whorl and part of a bamboo skewer to peg the wheel axle in place, and away we went!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Herd

One of the things that has kept me busy for the past year is a sudden and acute addiction to antique spinning wheels - particularly the ones that are languishing away as decor just begging to be tuned back into the spinning machines they were built to be.  I acquired many of them in short succession, enjoying each wheel's particular details of mechanics and geometry, and this winter I decided to turn my attention to spinning a significant amount of fiber on each, to really get to know them all well.

Here are the ones I have currently up and running:

The oldest is probably in the 1810's range, and the youngest around 1920's.  They come from Canada, America, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland.  The unifying factor among these wheels is that none them came to me directly from a spinner, so they all required some restoration and fine-tuning before they were once again working wheels.

I rummaged through my spinning fiber stash and pulled out 28 ounces of fluff to spin up on these babies, and each wheel will be getting a blog post as I go - one wheel a week - stay tuned!