Knittyspin: you like yarn, so make yarn

Great wheels are enchanting. I can say this without market research to back me up because even my father (who is not a real fan of fiber) couldn’t resist the siren call of my great wheel when they first met. He approached her casually and ran a hand softly across her newly oiled finish, but even after he took a seat and pretended to be talking about other things, I saw him glancing repeatedly in her direction. The same thing has happened to a visiting electrician, carpenter, and an academic—all non-knitters. Fiber lover or not, you can’t help being curious.

I first learned to spin on a great wheel when I was a kid, during a week-long fiber workshop at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, but I didn’t have the chance to spin on another until I found myself in Norman Kennedy’s Vermont kitchen for an advanced spinning workshop at the Marshfield School of Weaving in the fall of 2010. He has several, all quirky but working antiques. I planned to focus on flax during the workshop, but before I knew it, there I was at the great wheel. I had always wanted one of my own, but every antique I encountered in my price range had too many health issues for me to take the leap, and I lacked the means to buy a custom made great wheel (although a girl can dream...). But after falling under the spell of Norman’s wheels, I ended up buying one of the great wheels that Marshfield’s owner, Kate Smith, had for sale in her barn. (I’ll let you imagine how I explained coming home with a wheel that used up two weeks of grocery money and was half the length of our dining room.)

Great wheels are driven spindle wheels and are also called wool wheels, high wheels, walking wheels, or muckle wheels (a Scottish term). Traditionally, flyer wheels were often referred to as low wheels or flax wheels in relation to the high or wool wheel. Of course, you can spin a variety of fibers on either wheel, but each machine has its particular strengths, and the old terminology was a nod to that. The anatomy of a driven spindle wheel is simple: a large drive wheel is turned by hand, with a drive band connecting the drive wheel to the pulley on the spindle. A tensioning device allows the user to move the head post closer to or further away from the great wheel to allow enough tension for the drive band to drive the pulley and thus the spindle. But there is no take up because driven spindles require the spinner to stop and wind on after each “make” of yarn is complete.

Great wheel spinning heads are generally one of three kinds: a bat head (the spindle fits into a paddle-shaped piece of wood);

a plain direct drive (basically a bat head without the paddle: the spindle is supported by two maidens and a mother-of-all); or a Miner’s head (an accelerating head with an additional pulley to increase the ratio; the great wheel drives the larger pulley on the accelerating head, which in turn drives the smaller pulley on the spindle).
The Miner’s head (also sometimes spelled “Minor’s head”) was an early 19th century invention that made the great wheel even more efficient as a spinning tool. Ratios with an accelerating head can be in the neighborhood of 230 to 1.

Great wheel spinning feels quite different from flyer wheel spinning because more of your body is involved. The spinner stands during the process, continuously walking away from the spindle to draft and then toward the spindle to wind on in a kind of rhythmic dance. For spinners who have gotten proficient at the flyer wheel, spinning on a great wheel offers new challenges and insights and the excitement of something new to explore.

Information on using and caring for great wheels is thin on the ground, so this column is going to cover the sources I’ve been able to dig up. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on great wheels, so if you know of any other books, articles, videos, or websites that deal with great wheels, feel free to drop me a line.

As always, Spin-Off is a treasure trove. Unfortunately, these older issues are currently out of print, but Interweave Press seems to be reissuing some old articles digitally, so perhaps they will consider putting together an ebook of these great wheel articles if we all email them and show our enthusiasm?

The Spring 1993 issue of Spin-Off features three articles on great wheels by Mary Spanos, Anne Landin, and Ella Baker. Mary Spanos’s piece, “Gartha and Olber Ray,” is a sweet tribute to the Rays, who began researching the craft in the early sixties when spinners were rare. It’s humbling for today’s spinners to remember a time when anyone who wanted to learn to spin had to begin with museum research because there simply were no books, magazines, or videos to be had. In “My Great Wheel and Me,” Ella Baker chronicles her experiences with learning to spin, emphasizing fiber prep as the single most important element in smooth one-handed spinning. Anne Landin’s “Spinning on a Great Wheel” is practical and very detailed, focusing on finding a working great wheel and specific techniques for the one-handed long draw, winding and unwinding, and plying.

Another extremely useful Spin-Off article is “The Thrift-shop Great Wheels” by Kathleen Wenzel and Donna Junkins (Summer, 1991). Kathleen and Donna were too broke to buy working great wheels so they hatched a plan to acquire parts and construct their own. This fabulous article actually gives instructions for how to make a great wheel from a variety of scavenged makeshift parts (one of them begins with an antique wagon wheel), and while you need to know which end of a saw to use, it’s not so complicated that only an advanced furniture-maker can do it.

The only other great-wheel related Spin-Off article listed in Interweave’s comprehensive index is one from Winter 1984: “A Practical Approach to the Great Wheel.” I have not been able to get a hold of a copy, so I don’t know who it’s by or what it covers. If anybody out there has a copy, do let me know the author and topic and I’ll update this.

The only how-to book I’m aware of that focuses exclusively on the great wheel is Katy Turner’s The Legacy of the Great Wheel: Myths, History and Traditions with Practical Lessons (Mountain View, MO: Select Books, 1980). Much of the book is actually a primer for beginning spinners, covering a bit of spinning history, selection of a fleece, washing, carding, yarn finishing, and offering a very brief introduction to nonwool fibers (flax, silk, and cotton). These topics are now covered in more detail in the many spinning books currently available (although at the time I’m sure it was helpful). There’s a lot that modern spinners would quibble with, but the meat of the book is the small section that deals with using the great wheel itself—the anatomy of great wheel heads, how to perfect your left-handed long draw, the correct angle of the spindle and drive wheel in relation to the rest of the wheel (she says you want the drive wheel to have a slight lean to the right and the spindle should not be perpendicular to the bench but angled very slightly away from the spinner). She also includes instructions for plying on the great wheel, which is not particularly efficient but can be done. Photographs are black and white but clear enough to do the job. It’s available used, but the price is often way too high in my opinion. Stalk it and don’t bite until you can find a copy at a reasonable price. And be aware: the acknowledgements page notes that parts of the book appeared in Spin-Off in 1979 (volume III), so if you get a hold of that issue, you probably won’t need the book.

Anything that helps you develop your proficiency with the one-handed long draw will help you learn to spin more effectively on the great wheel. You can find more long draw resources here. Two books by the venerable Paula Simmons are readily available and very relevant to great wheel spinning are Spinning for Softness and Speed and Spinning and Weaving with Wool. The former focuses on the one-handed long draw, and the latter actually has a chapter that covers great wheel techniques. Spinning for Softness and Speed was recently reissued and is in print; Spinning and Weaving with Wool is out of print but often reasonably priced used.

Because the charka, another driven spindle wheel, also requires you to learn to spin one handed, Stephenie Gaustad’s video Spinning Cotton (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 2011)is highly useful. The video includes an excellent chapter on spinning cotton on the great wheel, and Stephenie makes the point that the great wheel was Europe’s version of the charka. Abby Franquemont’s video Drafting: The Long and Short of It (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press) is also definitely worth viewing, and though she teaches the long draw on a flyer-and-bobbin wheel, the technique is the same.

Allen Fannin’s massive Handspinning: Art and Technique (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970; now out of print but available used) includes a short section about the “high” wheel, including a rather academic explanation of the long draw. Visual learners will find it tough going, with only a few black-and-white photos taken from a distance. But Fannin covers the building of the cop (the yarn wound onto the spindle) in detail with good clear photos, which is helpful.

If you have found an antique great wheel and are wondering about whether you can fix it up, you might check out Pat Bownas’s “Quick Fixes for Antique Wheels,” which appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Spin-Off. While not dedicated to great wheels specifically, Pat’s article has lots of useful tips for fixing up an antique wheel and at the end of the article Florence Feldman-Wood offers a list of spinning wheel restorers, very useful info for someone with a great wheel in need of repair. Pat’s article also tells you how to create new front and rear spindle bearings from braided cornhusks, which were traditionally used on great wheels. Karen Pauli’s The Care and Feeding of Spinning Wheels (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1981; out of print but available used) contains quite a bit of general information on repairs that owners of antique great wheels may find helpful, although only a few pages specifically cover great wheels (and focus on anatomy: identifying parts so you can figure out what might be broken).

As much as I am smitten with my antique great wheel, I still dream of one day owning a beautifully made new one. Alden Amos is the only one I know of who is actively making great wheels, and he’s the only one I’ve found online. None of the most popular commercial spinning wheel manufacturers offer a model. Perhaps your best bet would be to contact someone who makes custom wheels and see if he or she would make one to order (Blue Castle Fiber Arts has a list of custom wheel makers online, which might be a place to start.) You might also contact your local spinning guild for ideas or ask wheel makers who bring their wares to fiber festivals. (If you are a great wheel maker, please email me so I can add your name.)

Those interested in the many variations in great wheel construction or in great wheels as antiques might like browsing through these illustrated guides. Joan Whittaker Cummer’s A Book of Spinning Wheels (Portsmouth, NH: Peter E. Randall Publisher, 1993) contains black-and-white photos and detailed descriptions and measurements of more than a dozen great wheels, most from the nineteenth century and primarily American made.  A Pictorial Guide to American Spinning Wheels by D. Pennington and M. Taylor (Sabbathday Lake, ME: The Shaker Press, 1975) devotes a whole chapter to great wheels and a second chapter to Shaker wheels, many of which are great wheels. Both books are now out of print, but you might be able to find a copy in the library of your local spinning guild if you can’t get one from interlibrary loan. David Pennington and Michael Taylor also have a new book, just published in 2007, called Spinning Wheels and Accessories (Schiffer Press). It’s pricey, so I was only able to peruse a copy at a museum bookshop, but it has many color photos. Patricia Baines’s Spinning Wheels, Spinners, and Spinning (London: B.T. Batsford, 1977; Reprint, 1991) spends only a few pages on great wheels (in the context of the wheel developing from spindle wheels to flyer-and-bobbin wheels) and has only a few photos of them (although there is a very cool old photo of a great wheel mounted right to the wall of a Faeroe Island farmhouse that seems like a space-saving idea whose time should come again). A more readily available resource for antique wheel fans is Florence Feldman-Wood’s newletter, The Spinning Wheel Sleuth. You can subscribe or buy back issues on her website. She includes detailed topics for back issues, so you can find all those that feature great wheels. Florence can also be seen traveling with some of her amazing wheel collection, at various fiber events.

Remember the funky and charming old Foxfire series, the oral histories gathered by Georgia school kids and edited by their teacher Eliot Wigginton back in the seventies? Foxfire 2 is the one with the spinning and weaving coverage, and though it certainly won’t teach a beginner how to spin, the photos of stalwart ladies with their great wheels are lovely to peruse over a cup of tea. These books are back in print.

What we really need is a dandy new video workshop from a seasoned great wheel spinner—or better yet, from a few—to teach and inspire and preserve this art for another generation (hint, hint to Interweave Press or other video producers!).

Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel when she was twelve in a summer workshop at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She bought her own wheel in 1990, and she’s been at it since then. Lee is the designer of several patterns published in Knitty, including Shroom and Shelburne.

You can see more of her work on Ravelry.