Spinning Wheels I’ve Known and Loved

It was thirty-five years ago; I had an eighteen-month-old daughter and was newly pregnant with my second child. Husband Norm and I had just moved from Rapid City, South Dakota to Australia and were settling in. Norm was a teacher; I was a homemaker and didn’t know many people at all.At a teacher’s evening get-together, one of the wives asked me if I liked being in Tumut, the town we had moved to. I replied that I loved it but was bored, as I didn’t know many people. She, Margaret, asked me what I liked doing and I told her that I liked crafts like sewing and embroidery.

Margaret, who later became my closest friend, told me there was a guild that met every week that perhaps I would be interested in checking out. She offered to babysit my daughter, Joy, while I went to a meeting to see what was going on.

So, one beautiful spring day I went to the small, two-room cottage with a lovely rolling lawn surrounding it. In the sunshine were about twenty spinning wheels with the spinners all active in whirling those wheels, almost in unison.

“I have GOT to learn how to do this!” I stated. One of the kind ladies sat me down at her wheel and the rest is history! To be honest, I cannot remember if it was difficult or easy for me to start spinning; I only know that I was hooked for life!

In the beginning, I rented a wheel from the Guild until I could prove to Norm that I, indeed, NEEDED a wheel of my own. I purchased an Ashford Traditional, which served me well, and is still working wonderfully. A little bit of oil, a little bit of tightening of lose parts, once in a while, and it works like a charm!

When I started working at Historic Murphy’s Landing, the only wheels we had on site were antique ones that didn’t work very well. My boss, Deanna, approved the purchase of a new wheel. I wanted one, of course, that would LOOK old; I chose an Ashford Elizabeth. Norm took off the plastic parts and replaced them with leather ones. We stained with it a dark walnut oil to make it look older. It “passed” very well, as the general public thought it was old!

The Elizabeth was the first wheel that I used with the traditional double drive system. The Traditional had a single drive, which is “modern,” and was, therefore, not acceptable to me, as I insist on all of my tools being as period correct as possible. I found that I preferred the double drive system, myself.

Norm and I started going out to demonstrations that were not connected with Murphy’s, so I didn’t feel that I should take the Landing’s wheel with me. I then decided on an Ashford Traveler (see the trend here?); it is built on the lines of the antique uprights that have been built for centuries. However, it had plastic parts that were difficult to replace with leather, even though it spun like a dream. I started looking for another wheel to replace it, but that has taken years.

I began looking for an antique wheel that would work for demonstrations as well as spin very well. On e-bay, a great place to find anything – if you are careful, I found a small wheel that Norm just fell in love with and had to have (although he does not spin). It is a small upright that we feel (after research) is a ship’s wheel – used to spin linen on board. Norm did a little bit of tweaking on it, and then made extra bobbins for it. It makes a good demonstration wheel for a short amount of time, but the wheel is small and the treadle is very close to the bottom of the wheel, so I need to use only my toes, not my whole foot for treadling. I call this wheel Minnie Mouse because she is so little and so cute. I love the color combinations, which are original on her.

About that time, my dad brought me the wheel that had been in our house since I was in High School. This is a Scandinavian wheel that was built in the 1830s. It doesn’t work, but Norm – someday – will hopefully get it to work. Until then, it sits in a corner where I can look at it and delight my eyes.

During our Murphy’s years, I was teaching spinning so I needed more wheels. I purchased several Traditional wheels to use for lessons. Now that we are living in our “Forever Home,” I do not teach as much, so I sold all the Traditional to students and am now back to my original one.

One of the Traditional paid for part of my newest wheel, a Kromski (breaking tradition, here!) Mazurka; this is a reproduction of an 1850s Polish wheel. It is totally period correct with no parts that wouldn’t have been made in the 1800s. This is a beautiful wheel but unfortunately, it does NOT spin as well as the Traveler – the tension is difficult to adjust. So, although the Mazurka pleases my eye, it does not please my hand as much as the Traveler does.

So I spin for demonstrations on the Mazurka but spin the important yarns on the Traveler at home.

So that’s the way my spinning wheel situation stands, for now: four working wheels and one decorative one.

While working at Historic Murphy’s Landing, my two granddaughters joined me occasionally. They started coming out when each of them were two years old. As they grew in age, they also grew in craft abilities. By the time each of them were about six years old, they were embroidering and helping me spin and weave. This grew into each of them being able to spin on a drop spindle, with differing skill levels; now both can spin, still with differing levels, on a spinning wheel.

My oldest, Ashley, now nearly twelve years old, wants her own spinning wheel, but does have her own drop spindle. My youngest, Jessica, nine years old, is happier weaving but does spin on the wheel. The drop spindle drops too often for her tastes.

Then, two years ago, my sister moved closer to me and wanted to learn to spin and weave. She borrowed the one remaining Traditional until she purchased a Lennox Fiona, an Irish Castle wheel.

Each time my girls came “home” to the farm, Ashley runs to the Traditional, which she claims as “hers,” and start spinning. I have some wool that has been designated hers so she knows she can use it without asking. She continually asks for a spinning wheel of her own.

Not too long ago, my daughter Joy started playing with Ashley’s drop spindle, then playing with mine when she was here. So for Christmas this past year, I got her a Turkish spindle so she could spin at home without “stealing” Ashley’s. When here, she started spinning on my Traveler.

My sister Candy has complained that Joy learned to spin well without practice, but I reminded Candy that Joy has been watching me since she was two years old!

Joy is a knitter; she does socks, mostly, but makes the most awesome shawls – I have some yarn I am spinning that she will knit into a shawl for me.

This past visit, Joy got Minnie Mouse out, had Norm tweak her even more and started spinning on her. So I allowed Joy to take the wheel home; that made Ashley excited beyond breath.

During this time, I have been spinning on my sister’s Fiona when over at her house. When Candy and I visited the dangerous store, Detta’s Spindle, I fell in love with the shorter version of Fiona, a Bonnie.

So now here is where I stand: I have three working wheels at home; the Traditional, the Traveler and the Mazurka. However, I just sold the Traveler to a friend and neighbor (on the condition that I re-teach her to spin; she took lessons several years ago) and have started payments on the Lennox Bonnie. She, like Fiona, is a double treadle wheel that spins like a dream; there is no excuse to have poorly spun yarn on her! I will give the Traveler to Jody sometime soon, when she’s ready for it and will collect Bonnie when the weather gets better, as we have to travel three hours to Detta’s store. Of course, that trip will also include Joy, Ashley and Jessica – they now need wool of their own to spin.

So, that’s the story of my obsession. I started with Ashford wheels and have moved on to other makes and models. I have encouraged younger generations to learn to spin. It’s a fantastic feeling to watch my daughter and granddaughters taking over my studio and working on skills that I love. This craft of spinning will not die in MY family!

About cpthegreat

Connie (aka Spinning Grandma) lives on Ash Lane Farm in southwest Minnesota. She is an expert on spinning, weaving and knitting and a former history interpreter.

2 thoughts on “Spinning Wheels I’ve Known and Loved

  1. oh now Joy MUST GET an Ashford Joy. I am learning to spin on mine and I love it. And you really should have a reason to pass the Ashford tradition down