A spinning wheel is a machine used to turn fiber into thread or yarn. This thread or yarn is then woven as cloth on a loom. The spinning wheel's essential function is to combine and twist fibers together to form thread or yarn and then gather the twisted thread on a bobbin or stick so it may be used as yarn for the loom. The action is based on the principle that if a bunch of textile fibers is held in one hand and a few fibers are pulled out from the bunch, the few will break from the rest. However, if the few fibers are pulled from the bunch and at the same time are twisted the few pulled out will begin to form a thread. If the thread is let go it will immediately untwist, but if wound on a stick or bobbin it will remain a thread that can be used for sewing or weaving.
Many different kinds of fibers can be spun on a simple spinning wheel, including wool and hairs; bast fibers which come from below the surface of a plant stem including flax (linen), hemp, jute, ramie, and nettle; and seed fibers, particularly cotton. Each of these fibers vary tremendously in length of staple, quality and strength. Different fibers require different kinds of pieces or bobbins placed on the spinning wheel and even call for spinning wheels of different size or configuration in order to spin the specific fiber more efficiently.
Man has been spinning fibers for centuries as woven cloth cannot be made without producing yarn or thread. Ancient Egyptians processed flax into linen and surely used the earliest form of spinning apparatus, known as the drop spindle. It was simply a weighted stick onto which yarn was wound with a twist as the spindle was dropped downward, pulling thread from the pack of unspun fibers. There is uncertainty about the development of the spinning wheel as some argue it was developed in China as early as the sixth century for silk and ramie spinning, while others believe it may have developed later in India for cotton. Early Eastern spinning wheels are similar in that the base sat on the ground and the wheel was powered by hand or hand crank. These wheels were rimless and soon spread to the West.
Western examples throughout the Middle Ages were both rimless and had a hoop rim. By the fourteenth century the hoop rim spinning wheels appear to overtake others in popularity. The Flemish who settled in the British Isles brought with them strong textile traditions and with that brought improvements on the traditional spinning wheel. Great wheels with very large driving wheels were known by the sixteenth century in the British Isles for the spinning of wool solely. Endless small variations were made in the wheel to ensure efficient spinning until the present, as some modern manufacturers do not reproduce old examples precisely but make their own wheels that are attractive and effective.
Spinning wheels were one of the first craft tools to be supplanted by modern machinery. Richard Arkwright, an English industrialist, developed a method for machine spinning cotton by the mid-eighteenth century and American Samuel Slater stole the system and brought it to Rhode Island. He began Slater Mill, which began producing the first machine-spun thread in the New World with machinery driven by water power. As machine-spun yarn was commercially available from that point on, fewer used spinning wheels unless it was for small, domestic needs such as the production of wool yarn for knitting from a farmer's sheep fleece. Today, spinning wheels are carved and turned of hardwood and used only by craftspeople for handspun yarns. Spinning wheels are entirely obsolete as large manufacturers use industrial spinners to produce millions of yards of thread or yarn each day. Perhaps fewer than 1,000 spinning wheels are made yearly for hobbyists within Canada and the Untied States today.
The raw materials for most modern spinning wheels are wood, wood glue, clear lacquer or urethane, and some bits and pieces of metal, primarily used as wire on the wheel. Some spinning wheels use a bit of brass as well. The wheels made on the North American continent are made of native hardwoods. Most consumers are looking for spinning wheels that not only work well but are keepsakes. For this reason, spinning wheels are made from at least three different woods depending on the aesthetic preferences of the purchaser. Maple is easy to acquire and a fine wood to turn and shape but it is not a beautiful wood nor does it take a stain well. For that reason, spinning wheel manufacturers also offer more expensive wheels in woods considered "prize" such as cherry and walnut. Cherry, from the eastern United States, fine-textured and straight-grained. It is favored by many because it may be light pink when first cut but turns a mahogany red as it is exposed to air. It is easily worked and makes a fine spinning wheel; however, it is more difficult to get and more expensive than maple. Walnut, generally American black walnut, is a dark purple-brown in color when applied with a clear lacquer. It works easily and produces a spinning wheel much prized for is beautiful wood.
While there is no single spinning wheel design, the iconic spinning wheel has three splayed legs, a foot treadle connected to a footman that attaches to the driving wheel thus making the wheel go around. A horizontal stock is the wooden plank or bed upon which most of the apparatus rests upon. The driving wheel is perhaps the most prominent feature of the spinning wheel and resembles a wheel with turned spindles in the center (thread is pulled along the outside of that wheel). The bobbin is a grooved wooden spool that fits on the flyer, which gathers the yarn after it is spun. The bobbin fits into a U-shaped flyer (a bracket with hooks on it that guide the yarn onto the bobbin and keep the yarn evenly distributed on it). The distaff and distaff arm hold a batch of unspun fiber. These are only the primary parts of the spinning wheel as the typical wheel has well over 100 small parts that fit together to ensure quality spinning.
There are different kinds of spinning wheels available for purchase, from small portable spinning wheels, to those that are exact reproductions of early American pieces, to variations on the tradition spinning wheel sometimes referred to as the Saxony Wheel. This essay will concentrate on the manufacture of a modern variation of the traditional wheel with a medium-size driving wheel. It is important to note that this type of wheel is constructed of at least 150 parts; the basic parts' manufacture will only be described below.
- First, planks of wood enter the factory. These are pieces bundled into planks that 6 in (15.2 cm) wide and about 10 ft (3 m) long. These planks are then rough cut into smaller shapes that can be accommodated on the machinery that will be used to further shape the pieces into more finished parts. The rough cuts are generally performed by hand. Larger pieces are cut into shapes that will become major parts such as the wheel rim, the turnings within the wheel, or the treadle.
- These rough cut pieces are then clamped into a mechanized cutter and shaper that is computer controlled. This machine is referred to as a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine, and it may route, shape, or turn these rough cuts into appropriate shapes for the spinning wheel. This machine enables the manufacture to create high quality routed, shaped, or turned pieces for the spinning wheel with minimal hand work. A computer-based program, often programmed by the manufacturer, is fed into the machine and the program moves the machine in order to produce the pieces. A single machine may be reprogrammed numerous times in order to produce many different parts for the same product. The hub of the wheel or other parts may all be made on the CNC router, shaper, or lathe.
- The wood pieces are removed from the CNC machine and grouped. These parts are rough to the touch and must be sanded smooth. The turnings (resembling the spokes on a wheel) are put into a lathe and sanded. The flat pieces are then run through either four or five different sanders. These sanders are both mechanical belt and drum sanders, each rendering the piece smoother and readying it for a finish.
- Some spinning wheels are sold unfinished and are now ready for assembly. Others have a finish applied to the surface. Those that will be finished may be stained, but most consumers prefer the beauty of the natural wood. Thus, a clear lacquer finish may be sprayed upon the surface. A water-based lacquer is applied to these pieces using a spray.
- All parts are gathered together by hand and readied for assembly. The operator uses furniture-grade wood glue on parts that peg or mortise and tenon through one another. Many of the largest joints are bolted together as well as glued. Sometimes the manufacturer only performs partial assembly, meaning that large parts are assembled together such as the wheel-including the rim, the hub, and spokes or turnings. Thus, the majority of the assembly may be performed by the consumer or the retailer, as shipping an assembled spinning wheel is quite impractical. It is spindly and unstable and could be smashed in shipping. Furthermore, this shipping could be extremely costly as a product of significant volume can be expensive to ship. Thus, spinning wheel manufacturers may well leave the assembly to others at point-of-sale. The company provides simple instructions for the store or consumer.
The quality control issues primarily revolve around the grade of the wood used in the manufacture of the product. North American manufacturers generally negotiate for the delivery of wood from reliable lumber suppliers who can provide goods free of knots, bug damage, and are of the minimum lengths desired. A Canadian manufacturer receives wood from the most economical and reliable suppliers and thus gets different types of woods from all over the continent, from Pennsylvania to distant parts of Canada.
The CNC machine renders parts that are only as good as the programming fed into it. Thus, the manufacturer ensures that the programmer produces a program that is fully compatible with economical manufacture and easy assembly. However, when the program is successfully designed and implemented, the machine is able to make the requisite pieces almost without end. The machines are extraordinarily reliable. Human operator error (problems with clamping or securing the pieces in the machine) or poor-quality pieces of wood (knots or other imperfections) may pose problems but are generally very minor.
There is a fair amount of wood waste after pieces are routed, shaped, and turned on the CNC machine. A manufacturer may sell the wood chips to a chipboard manufacturer for composite wood for engineered wood furniture. The wood waste may also go for saw-dust bedding for animals.
Furniture and other wood products manufacturers are quite concerned about harmful vapors or effluvia that result from wood finishing of their products. Thus, spinning wheel manufacturers may prefer to use the water-based finishes as they do not leave harmful volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, the use of which is monitored by the federal government.
The manufacture of spinning wheels is currently an interesting combination of traditional designs and streamlined manufacturing. The North American manufacturers do not make more than a few thousand pieces a year, and share the market primarily with New Zealanders who have a long history of wool processing and spinning wheel craftsmanship. Thus far, these North American manufacturers do not feel threatened by foreign competitors. However, the viability of the manufacture of wheels rests solely on the vitality of the craft of spinning by those whose hobbies include textile production. Spun yarn is easily available to all cheaply and easily and does not require the use of what is essentially an out-moded spinning wheel in order to acquire spun yarn.
Where to Learn More
Baines, Patricia. Spinning Wheels: Spinners and Spinning. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1977.
Lendrum Web Page. December 2001. <http://fox.nstn.ca/~lendrum/instructions.htm>.
Oral interview with Gord Lendrum, owner of Lendrum Spinning Wheels. Odessa, Ontario. October 2001.
"Spinning Wheel." Encylopedia Britannica CD Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994-1998.