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.