The Journal for Weavers Spinners and Dyers

Modesty and a Fine Great Wheel

Katharine Bagshaw, Online and Highland Guilds

I interviewed Michael three years ago for an article about his super-light and über-fast drop spindles and, as I was leaving, I asked him whether he had ever thought about making a spinning wheel. His wife Sarah is, after all, a former Secretary to the Association – and to the Hallamshire Guild in Sheffield; he taught himself wood turning thirty years ago mainly so that he could make things for her.

'Well, it’s interesting you should ask that!' he said, and pointed to a book, open on the table. It was David Bryant’s Wheels and Looms, Making Equipment for Spinning and Weaving (out of print, but still available).

Michael Williams in his workshop
Michael Williams in his workshop

Fast-forward three years and Michael has made two Great Wheels, one that he and Sarah demonstrate at shows, and one for a private client. The wheels have generated a huge amount of interest, and rightly so. Both are exceptionally fine instruments.

Michael was a maths teacher for many years and it shows. He did his homework, went through numerous magazines and books in search of ‘something different’.

'I didn’t want to make just another fine wheel,' he said, looking at mine, when I interviewed him again more recently. Mine is by Roderick Grant of Dumfriesshire. He says he was looking for a ‘wow’ factor, and he stumbled across it by accident. Out with Sarah, at a small exhibition of Greek and Macedonian folk costumes (in Grindleford, in the Peak District), he picked up a book, which fell open at an A5 line drawing of a Great Wheel. 'These things happen,' he says. 'I decided there and then I wanted to make one'.

He had no template. He wanted to make a three-speed wheel rather than the one-speed one illustrated by Bryant. The line drawing provided the detail he needed, and the photos that followed gave him accurate dimensions ‒ if you can scale one dimension from a photo you can do it for the rest. He drew each piece – the wheel itself, the pulley, the maidens and the bench – accurately, to scale, starting with the line drawing that gave the diameter of the wheel at 48 inches. Michael decided on 42 inches and 12 spokes. That exercise alone took him three weeks.

A hub - not BT
A hub - not BT

Michael uses ash sourced from local timber yards. It’s easy when looking at beautifully turned wood to forget the physical pressures to which it has been subjected. Wood warps, and one way of minimising this is to place the grain of different sections in opposite directions. A wheel, by definition, involves bending the rim and Michael tried hard to achieve this with a single piece of 6mm timber using steaming, but it didn’t work. Instead, he decided to make it from four sections of interleaved 1.5mm four-ply, glued back to back. He worked to 0.1mm – one-tenth of one millimetre. You need a magnifying glass to see that.

Michael’s three-speed pulley is based on Amos Miner’s patented accelerating head, thousands of which were produced in New England factories in the early 1800s. Most of the antique heads available seem to be one-speed rather than three. He also decided to place the receiving nuts that secure the wheel axle to the supporting posts flush to the surface of the post, rather than have them standing proud as is more common. This arrangement is designed to prevent the axle dropping and the wheel coming out of true, although one of the reasons that the attachment usually stands proud is to make it easier to dismantle if that does in fact happen.

There are two drive bands, one from the accelerating head to the spindle pulley which can be tensioned with brass screws; the other links the wheel to the head. This has three grooves, enabling three ratios – 1:38, 1:54 and 1:144.

A wheel in progress
A wheel in progress

The final innovation Michael is keen to point out is the way in which the spindle post is attached to the bench. The post sits in a block that can be rocked backwards and forwards within the bench, facilitating tensioning of the main drive band from the head to the wheel.

I spoke to two experienced Great Wheel spinners: Christine Jukes-Bennett, and Diane Fisher (of the Murmuring Wheel and the Arkwright Spinsters), to find out what Michael’s enhancements mean for spinners.

Both Christine and Diane spin from the fold and between them they use a variety of materials and techniques including carded rolags and raw fleece. Also, both use the medium to short staples for longdraw that characterise most spinning on a Great Wheel – although longer staples, including flax, are spun on Great Wheels, and Diane, together with the Arkwright Spinsters at Cromford Mills, has experimented at various times with cotton, angora and silk.

Great Wheels are also known as 'cottage', or 'walking' wheels and were in use long before the treadle wheels that most of us use today came along. As the word 'cottage' implies, they were used by working people to spin wool, whereas treadle wheels are more likely to have been used to spin flax, by those of greater means. A modern Great Wheel is potentially a much finer instrument than one made three hundred years ago.

Finished -  three speed accelerating pulley
Finished - three speed accelerating pulley

The different ratios, and the ability to tension the band between the wheel and the head, and the band between the head and the spindle pulley, independently, should mean that spinners can use a wider variety of fleece and spin a wider variety of yarns. 'The position of your hand dictates a lot,' says Diane. 'You can spin very fine singles if you want.' She points out that more sophisticated art yarns, particularly those involving wrapping, unconstrained by bobbin width, are also possible. The options for different tensions and speeds should help with using two hands to do three things here ‒ moving the wheel, handling the main yarn, and the material being wrapped. A three-speed accelerating head also helps with plying. I asked them both what they found different about spinning on a Great Wheel as compared with other spinning wheels. They’re too big to serve as a Margo Leadbetter-style ornament (of the TV series The Good Life) ‒ which would be a crying shame anyway, but at least that cuts out the wheel hoarders among us. Despite the fact that Michael’s wheel comes apart for transportation, you still need to be able to get a 42in wheel through your car door if you don’t have a van. Diane also points out that you can only get a limited amount of yarn on the spindle. Although Michael’s spindle is somewhat longer than most, because you are winding on in-between spinning, it is hard to imagine a modern production spinner, who is used to the efficiency of a flyer wheel, making as much progress using a Great Wheel. There is also another winding-on issue: the spun yarn is wound directly on to the spindle rather than a removable bobbin. Christine’s solution to this, for knitters and weavers, involves putting a paper pirn on the spindle that can be transferred directly to a Lazy Kate or a shuttle.

Finished Great Wheel
Finished Great Wheel

'What makes it special,' says Christine, 'is the standing up and walking slowly backward and forward, not being bent over in the same position all the time. That matters these days. With so many of us stooping and bent round-shouldered over computers all day, it’s a big physical difference and a lot more relaxing.'

And that, combined with the slow pace of the wheel compared to the pace you would need to get the same twist on a smaller wheel, particularly if there is an accelerator head, makes the whole thing a more gentle exercise. 'Almost like slow motion, even though the twist is fast,' says Christine. Both spinners use the word ‘meditative’. Watch out for ‘mindful spinning’ courses on their way over the Pond, if they are not already here, although whether they will gain any traction given our propensity to talk, remains to be seen.

Longdraw is of course itself an issue. Most spinners do not do a lot of it but like everything else, it’s a matter of practice. Diane notes the absence of a brake system to pull the yarn in as an additional factor: the yarn has to withstand the pull of the brake, even if it can be adjusted on a smaller wheel. On a Great Wheel, the spinner can make tiny adjustments to the manual pull which means a skilled spinner should need less twist. This perhaps explains why most of us over-twist when we first try to spin on a bigger wheel.

Michael, not an excessively demonstrative man, is over the moon at what he has managed to build, and Sarah clearly loves it too. He is at pains to acknowledge that he stands on the shoulders of Bryant and many others, among them Peter Penneck, a former Vice President of the Association. His wheels are based on what he learned from their books, articles and photos. The first wheel took him 200 hours (about three months) to make, the second slightly less, and Michael is currently open for commissions. He will be at Woolfest and at the Association’s 2019 Summer School.

About the author

Katharine Bagshaw spins un-dyed British fleece and is learning to weave. She is a Chartered Accountant, an award-winning author and writes articles for spinning, climbing, walking and travel magazines.

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This article appears in edition #270 of the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

The Journal is published on behalf of the Association of Guilds of Spinners Weavers and Dyers. It covers a wide range of textile subjects, including articles on historic textile techniques and cutting edge modern design.

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