This topic considers woodworking in the context of crafted objects essential to other craft practices, such as spinning wheels, looms, and presses. It focuses on spinning wheels as a case study. A spinning wheel is more of a machine than a tool, and many makers of the best (and most beautiful) wheels have had an engineering background. It’s not just a matter of woodworking.
by Mary Knox
A spinning wheel should not be first looked at in terms of its aesthetics, but its function. The primary job of a wheel is to spin wool.
A good wheel needs to be made of good wood. There is a fine balance between the look and feel of a spinning wheel and its function. The wheel represents an understanding between the maker and wool spinner. No matter how handsome it looks, if it won’t make yarn it’s not a spinning wheel.
An opportunity and a challenge
Making spinning wheels is a tempting project. They look distinctive, and show a woodworker’s skill. Woodworking one of a particular group of crafts that make essential tools for other crafts, a special challenge since there are moving parts.
A large floor loom, or a wine or printing press, must work smoothly. However, apart from screws or beams rotated by hand, its parts move in straight lines: up, down, forward, back.
A spinning wheel is more complex. First it converts the vertical motion of the spinner’s foot to the circular motion of the drive wheel. Speed is increased when that impetus is transferred by the drive band to a smaller pulley connected to the flyer, putting the essential twist into the fibres. And finally, a difference in turning speed between the flyer pulley and the bobbin pulley winds the yarn on the bobbin.
Wood and some metal
Over the centuries wood has provided the ideal material for spinning wheels: it is beautiful, generally available, easily worked, and it comes in a range of timber species with different qualities. For example the flyer is sometimes made from a particularly durable wood, different from the rest of the wheel – it may rotate more than 30 times a second when a fast spinner is making fine yarn.
Yet wood is not the whole story. A few vital parts need to be made of metal: the axle and crank, and the central shaft of the flyer (the mandrel). They must be strong, straight and shiny-smooth, and the mandrel also includes the hollow orifice (or sometimes a hook) providing a path for the yarn from the spinner’s hands to the flyer hooks which will wind it on the bobbin. Many makers are able to work metal, but some have commissioned their metal parts from other specialists.
Making do in wartime
In both world wars there was a need for warm garments – socks, scarves, balaclavas, gloves – for the troops overseas. All around the country, people got together to knit ‘for the boys overseas.’ With yarn hard to obtain, spinning was the answer. There were old spinning wheels in barns and attics, some brought by immigrants and a few made here in earlier times. Now craftsmen copied traditional designs or created simpler ones that would do the same job. In WW2, one such was artist and naturalist John L. Moore, in Havelock North.
His original Kārure wheel proved too expensive for some at four pounds ten shillings, so he devised the smaller Miro to sell for three pounds. Unusually, Miro wheels have their axle, as well as its crank to turn the wheel, made of wood. Shavings of pencil lead were recommended for lubricating the axle. Moore warned purchasers that these economy wheels were “Not quite so silent. Good for schools, or for those who have less time to spin.” Indeed they were noisy, but they made many miles of useful yarn.
'First learn to spin'
When Istvan Nagy, a Hungarian immigrant to New Zealand, decided in the late 1960s that he wanted to make spinning wheels, he asked maker John Beauchamp for technical advice. Beauchamp, convinced that only a spinner could truly understand how a good wheel works, agreed to help – after Nagy learned to spin wool. It’s said that Nagy grumbled but went off to practice, and returned eventually with an acceptable skein or hank of yarn.
Nagy went on to produce some of the finest wheels ever made in New Zealand. In his workshop in Wellington, he and the craftsmen he employed produced two styles, both smooth, versatile spinners. To make sure of quality control, he commissioned Beryl Rountree, Wellington spinner and spinning teacher, to come and test each new batch. His wheels are simple and graceful, and their owners love them.
Beautiful and useful
Traditionally, spinning wheels have been designed to be attractive as well as functional. Grace wheels are no exception. In the 1970s Mike Keeves and his wife Maggie learned to spin on a borrowed wheel. Dissatisfied with the way it worked, he thought his background in joinery and engineering meant they should be able to make a better one.
After much trial and error Keeves produced the Grace wheel, which not only spun well but also looked the way he wanted. Like Moore, but under very different circumstances, Keeves chose marine grade plywood for the drive wheel because it holds its shape. The cutouts near its centre are to remove excess weight. Hearts, a favourite folk motif, are a nod to the European tradition.
The Keeves' had not intended to sell wheels, but spinners wanted them. In his home workshop near Nelson Mike and Maggie have produced more than a thousand wheels of several different models, and they are still sought after. Like other makers, he has found great satisfaction in creating handsome spinning wheels that in turn enable spinners to create lovely yarns.
Header image: The happy marriage of wood and metal shows in this Nagy flyer, with its pulley and bobbin. The arms are plywood for strength. Photographed by Mary Knox; all rights reserved.