Woman At Spinning Wheel, The source of this file is http://www.llgc.org.uk. National Library of Wales. NB: Looks like this image has been reversed!
I’ve hesitated about writing this post. In the same way I hesitate about commenting on YouTube videos that claim to be showing a certain spinning technique – and aren’t.
But great wheels are one of my ‘things’. And I couldn’t bear to see inaccuracies stand as ‘facts’.
So in the spirit of preserving this craft (only a handful of British spinners can great wheel spin)… and after some thought, I decided I’d like to examine the historical ‘facts’ about great wheels, found on a blog. For no other reason than the internet can perpetuate some extreme inaccuracies, and opinions stated as ‘fact’ can confuse the unwary.
Just as there is Bad Science in the world, there is Bad History. History not backed up by sources, or hard facts. What we’d like to believe was logical or right for the past, as most re-enactors/living historians know, is not what we should believe.
NB: To ‘get’ this post you need to know that there were two types of spinning wheel. The first, invented in medieval times, was ‘the great wheel’ – a simple spindle mounted sideways, driven by a huge wheel. This was faster than the older method of spinning with a hand-spindle. Then, around the 16thC, the flyer wheel – a smaller wheel the spinner could sit at. The wheel was now driven by a treadle, freeing both hands for the spinner to work. It also evolved a ‘flyer’ – the wool now automatically wound on a bobbin. These two types of wheel continued to co-exist but evidence suggests the great wheel never died out because it was faster and more efficient at spinning some yarns. Meanwhile, the little flyer wheel was better for spinning flax because you need two hands for that and it is slower than spinning wool.
One reason I want to do this is that sometimes ‘bad history’ can lead us to the motherlode. By teasing apart misconceptions, we can get to the truth. And I guess what I really want to do here, is to go on about great wheels and why this medieval invention did something wonderful and unaccountable – surviving first the flyer wheel’s introduction, and later, machine spinning. As the great wheel co-existed with both – the flyer wheel for hundreds of years and the spinning mule by decades. I’m always amazed, reading about the history of spinning, we aren’t more taken by this particular miracle. So, to The Blog. Let’s see what we can learn.
Apparently, according to The Blog, there are a “significant number” of flyer wheels with “accelerators”.
Are there? Where? What do you mean by ‘accelerator’? I’ve seen more ‘old’ spinning wheels than I can shake a stick at. But never seen one with an ‘accelerator’, let alone ‘significant numbers’ with accelerators. I’m not even sure what is meant here, by ‘accelerator’.
When there were large numbers of professional spinners and hand spinning was a competitive industry, they knew about accelerators to allow them to spin faster.
Did they? Where’s the proof? Why don’t they exist in museums or on the old wheels many of us own? How do you know what people in the past ‘knew’? And if they knew this – why don’t we see any evidence of them doing this?
The romantic, rather fetching, concept of ‘professional spinners’ betrays a lack of understanding of how the system worked. If you’re talking about the UK, anyway.
Spinners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the West Riding at least, did more than just spin. At halfpence per pound spun and, at best, a pound spun per day – there was little incentive to become Britain’s Next Top Spinster.
Great Wheel hub and spokes
Spinners’ wages were so low, they would often decamp to the fields – being an agricultural labourer, generally the poorest of the poor, was still better paid than spinning. Clothiers, or their agents, might travel considerable distances to find their spinners. Writing in the 1850s, John James interviewed an elderly Otley (Yorkshire) clothier who recalled employing spinners as far afield as Cheshire and North Derbyshire. William Jennings, an “aged manufacturer” recalled finding his handspinners “twenty or thirty miles distant” (James, p.325). In the age of handspinning, spinners were hard to find, and in demand. Yet being ‘in demand’ in a capitalist system, does not always translate into being ‘well paid’. Spinning was not a skilled job or a ‘mystery’ and you didn’t have to pay a years’ wages for three years for an apprenticeship to learn it. So it was undervalued. The late 18thC even saw spinners’ wages dropping, at times and there were points, throughout history, where the later spinner was paid precisely the same per day as the medieval spinner had been.
Clothiers accepted sub-standard yarn – and wove with it. Spinners were not paid extra for excellence. There was little or no incentive to be the ‘best’ spinner for a clothier. To think it was ‘competitive’ is very romantic. But untrue.
Sometimes the clothiers employed shopkeepers or farmers, local to their spinners, as agents, to distribute the wool and gather up the spun yarn. Sometimes, spinners themselves would act as agents, to earn more money. Spinners were not ‘professionals’ working in cottages with roses round the door with a wonderful work ethic and a determination to spin perfect yarn. It was very much a last ditch ‘job’ – witnessed by the large number of charity schools from Tudor times onwards, who made the poorest children into spinners, at least to make them ‘useful’. Heaton, the foremost textile historian who wrote the definitive book on the Yorkshire woollen and worsted industries, says:
The work was largely carried off by the female members of the family or by the children… Around the spinning wheel has centred the Arcadian conception of eighteenth-century bliss; but like most popular opinions of the charms of ‘the good old times’, it must be taken with a great deal of caution….
He describes families fitting in the spinning around other household chores, and daily life. Worse still, the use of child labour meant the product was never perfect or uniform:
… The employment of children was a cause of imperfect workmanship, and the clothier had to pay for the tuition of his future work people in uneven and badly spun threads. Also, it was well nigh impossible to secure uniformity of yarn…
Rough and ready original repair on a great wheel’s rim.
In various sources, clothiers are always bemoaning the quality of handspun (see book list below). Most warp chains were made from a random mix of the work of at least ten spinners. The concept of there having been any one perfect, wonderful, ‘professional’ spinner providing an entire warp or weft for any one clothier, is ridiculous.
In ‘Reminiscences of an Octogenarian’ by Hall, printed in John James, a clothier said of spinners:
some spun to 16 hanks per pound, others to 24 hanks. When the manufacturer got his yarn back it had to be sorted, and the hard yarn used for warp, the soft for weft. ( 339)
Does this sound like “a competitive industry”?
16 hanks per pound would be one 560 yard hank of 1 ounce weight. This is coarsely spun yarn. Not the superfines mentioned in the blog as standard. 24s would be pretty fat yarn, too!
Not even out of paragraph 1 of The Blog, and yet another incorrect ‘fact’:
…they knew about accelerators … They did not put them on great wheels.
The Minor’s Head is a figment of our collective imaginations, then..? As someone who has owned and used one, I must have been imagining it for the past 20 years. So was the doyenne of spinning, Mabel Ross, who wrote in her ‘Encyclopedia of Handspinning’:
MINOR’S HEAD A developed form of the spinning head of the great wheel, incorporating a simple gearing which increases the speed at which the yarn can be twisted… invented in America by Amos Minor about 1810…
I think you’ll find they did put them on great wheels. The Blogger appears to believe accelerators were made for flyer wheels. The original patent may be lost, but anyone who has seen or used one, knows it can only attach to a spindle wheel.
Minor’s Head, image courtesy “Lynne-marie”, from Ravelry ‘Spindle Wheels’ group.
Minor’s Heads were put on great wheels in their thousands. In the US. Britain is a different story. By 1810, handspinning was in its death throes in the UK. Cotton had been spun by machinery for decades, but it was not widely adopted for worsted spinning til the 1790s. Bradford only got its first mill to machine spin worsted as late as 1800. Spinning wheels – specifically great wheels – were still very, very common on farms and in houses all over Britain. But once the mills had perfected the process, the wheels fell slowly silent.
In 1813, Seacroft toff George Walker was touring Yorkshire, recording the clothing of ordinary people for ‘The Costume of Yorkshire’ (1814). One working woman’s costume he documented was a ‘woman spinning’. Walker wrote:
Since the general use of machinery for…manufacture, the spinning by a wheel…has been very much laid aside. It is however still in some degree necessary, particularly for the warp of woollen stuffs, in which a strong hard twisted thread is required…
The wheel Walker illustrated? A great wheel, of course. Which contradicts our Blogger’s assertion that warps must have been spun at very high speed only on flyer wheels:
When you must spin a great deal of fine worsted, it [a doctored flyer] is the tool of choice.
It may well, but just because you can do it on a heavily doctored Ashford Traditional, doesn’t mean that MUST be how everyone did it in the past. And as we shall see, contemporaries believed the great wheel made a superior worsted warp thread as well as a superior lightly twisted woollen weft.
Like other sources (See Heaton and James), Walker quotes the spinners’ “low wages of about one halfpenny per pound weight”.
The constant mention of low wages for spinners also militates against our Blogger’s determination to prove that flyer wheels were the only way wool was spun for warps. Spinners bought their own machines, and had them at home not in manufactories. J.Geraint Jenkins wrote: “… Spinning was carried out on a great wheel, the value of which in the late eighteenth century varied between 1 shilling and 6 pence and 5 shillings…” Flax (flyer) wheels were more expensive, and seen as the province of the flax spinner or a toy for the middle class or wealthy.
In ‘Wool Manufacture of Halifax’, R Patterson described the standard type of spinning wheel used in the West Riding, around the end of the eighteenth century and typical amount spun:
… This was the great wheel, or the one-thread wheel… a spinster could spin about 5lbs of fine yarn or 7lbs of medium yarn per week. This meant continuous work for twelve hours per day, including Sundays…
Our Blogger asserts:
Great wheels were the Medieval technology of choice. The Renascence tool was the flyer, and the flyer was faster and more compact. Certainly great wheels were cheaper and deeply bedding in myth and romance, but as a tool for a professional spinner was the tool of choice. No great wheel can keep up with a flyer/bobbin wheel properly designed for the grist; not spinning worsted or woolen.
Ah. Where to start with this lot? Let’s look at what people who were contemporary to both great and flyer wheels being in use had to say. Our Blogger would have us believe the great wheel was on its way to becoming defunct after ‘The Renascence”. But the sources tell a different story.
Traditionally, great wheels were seen as producing a superior woollen thread; flyer wheels more suitable for flax spinning, ‘hobby’ spinning of grand ladies who wanted a pretty wheel, or worsted spinning. Later, as we can see from George Walker’s words, the great wheel was also seen as spinning a superior worsted. Maybe because you can stand still once you’ve drafted back and keep putting as many twists per inch as you like into great wheel spun yarn. You can control the twist in ways flyer wheel spinners can only dream of.
The great wheel was also called ‘the one-thread wheel’ ,amongst many other names. This distinguishing it from the double drive band of the flyer wheel.
A sixteenth century writer said:
‘ Spinnings of wooll are of three sortes, viz either upon the great wheele which is called woolen yarne…or upon the small wheele, which is called Garnsey or Jarsey yarne, bicause that manner of spynning was first practiced in the Isle of Garnsey… or upon the rock, which is called worsted yarne… Jarsey and Worsted yarnes be made of combed wooll…. Jarsey yarne maketh warpe for the finest stuffes…’
[Thomas Caesar, 1596, quoted in ‘Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660’, Edited by Stuart Peachey, 2001, p8].
In 1875, Edward Baines remarked in his ‘Account of the Woollen Manufacture of England’:
“…Woollen [yarns] were spun on the big wheel, worsteds on the…flyer…”
One contemporary eighteenth century commentator didn’t reckon flyer wheels even came into it:
‘In my memory,’ stated the writer of a treatise on Silk, Wool, Worsted, Cotton and Thread (1779), ‘wool was spun on the long wheel only..’
[From ‘The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries’, E Lipson, 1921]
‘The long wheel’ was a common name for the great wheel. Great wheels – not flyer wheels – remained firmly the weapon of choice in the West Riding, powerhouse of world wool production – right into the early nineteenth century; long outliving flyer wheels as a ‘serious’ tool in the industry and even co-existing with machine spinning for decades, before finally being subsumed.
J.Geraint Jenkins describes how, in Wales, the hand spindle co-existed with the great wheel into the nineteenth century. No mention of the flyer wheel:
Until the end of the eighteenth century, these methods of hand spinning [ie: spindle and great wheel] were the only ones known to the inhabitants of Wales, indeed hand spinning was widely practiced long after the widespread adoption of Jennies, jacks and mules. Even the poorest cottages could afford a spinning wheel; for example, in eighteenth-century Montgomeryshire ‘great’ wheels, could be bought from local carpenters for as little as 5 shillings. One did not need a special machinery manufacturer to make them, so that wheels were readily available in all parts of the country….(56)
‘Woman Spinning’. From ‘Costume of Yorkshire’. George Walker, 1814.
Heaton also makes no mention of flyer wheels supplying the mighty behemoth that was the West Riding wool trade, whatsoever. He too believed only the great wheel was used:
“Spinning was done on the old distaff or on the single-thread spinning wheel. The former was still retained to some extent in east Anglia, but in the west riding it had entirely disappeared, and the spinning wheel was a common feature in the equipment of almost every Yorkshire home.” (335)
R.Patterson, writing of the wool trade round Halifax, stated that “the one-thread wheel” was the wheel used. Can all these authorities be ‘wrong’? John James, who spoke directly to many elderly survivors of the wool industry in the late eighteenth century, still alive when he wrote, goes even further, saying that the great wheel was faster for worsted (Blogger better take a seat and fan himself) and even describes a spinning method that modern spinners would recognise as the semi-worsted ‘spinning from the fold’ (ie: they were spinning worsted on the great wheel, with no distaff which is backed up by the pictorial evidence):
The main advantage of the one-thread wheel evidently arose from its capability of producing a larger quantity of yarn. Spinning by this rude implement (still to be seen in very many farm houses in the north of England,) is thus described… But in the worsted business there was a peculiarity in yarn spun by this wheel which gave it a great advantage over mill spun yarn, namely, the thread was spun from the middle part of the sliver, thus drawing the wool out even and fine. The best spinners would, on this wheel, spin fine qualities of wool to as high counts as fifties, that is where they required fifty hanks, each five hundred and sixty yards in length, to a pound of yarn… (James, 337).
This gives us parameters for the fineness of yarn, as well. From the low of 16s, (Bradford Count) quoted above, to the ‘high’ of mid 50s (generally the finest British wool was spun til the widespread introduction of merino from Germany and elsewhere in post Napoleonic times). ie: spinners were not spinning the frogs’ eyelashes our Blogger is so fond of – but realistically, spinning to count or far below it (fatter grist). Welsh spinners spinning ‘Abb’ yarn, would spin incredibly fat yarn.
In other words – when spinning wheels were producing yarn for industry, the preferred wheel for all woollen yarns and often, a semi worsted warp – was the great wheel.
Sources don’t omit to mention the flyer wheel. What they do, is mention it as a wheel suitable for flax spinning, or for children or fine ladies, ‘playing’ at spinning. In ‘The Idler’, in 1758, no less than Samuel Johnson wrote a piece purporting to be from an upper class gent, bemoaning his wife’s failure to educate their daughters with the ‘three Rs’. Instead, she preferred to teach them practical things and bought them three tiny, ornamental flax wheels to spin huckaback for the servants’ table cloth:
I remonstrated, that with larger wheels they might despatch in an hour what must now cost them a day; but she told me, with irresistable authority … that when these wheels are set upon a table, with mats under them, they will turn without noise and will keep the girls upright; that great wheels are not fit for gentlewomen, and that with these, small as they are, she does not doubt that the three girls, if they are kept close, will spin every year as much cloth as would cost five pounds if one were to buy it.” 
James dismissed the flyer wheel as almost a footnote to the great wheel, implying it was one for the hobby spinners:
Another spinning machine was also in use at the commencement of the eighteenth century, and received the name of the small or Saxon wheel. Though a more perfect apparatus than that last-mentioned, yet except in particular instances , it could only be applied to the spinning of flax. .. spinning by it formed the favourite occupation of the lady spinsters of Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (337)
Our Blogger triumphantly concludes:
Expertise in the flyer has been lost. A flyer will do a lot more than most spinners are aware.
Tell that to every single authority on the history of the wool and worsted industries. And the eighteenth century spinners and clothiers too, whilst you’re at it. As they all seemed to think of the flyer wheel as (i) a flax wheel or (ii) a toy.
For more info, check out the excellent Longdraw and Spindle Wheel Group pages on Ravelry. Some Minor’s Heads can be seen if you scroll down, here:
Also, check out The Guild of Longdraw Spinners.
Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines, Batsford, 1977
Textile History and Economic History, (Essay collection) Chapter One. D.C.Coleman, Manchester University Press, 1973
The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, Herbert Heaton, Oxford, 1965
History of the Worsted Manufacture in England from Earliest Times, J. James, London, 1857
The Welsh Woollen Industry, J. Geraint Jenkins, The National Museum of Wales, Welsh Folk Museum, Cardiff, 1969
The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E Lipson, A & C Black, 1921
Wool Manufacture in Halifax, R Patterson, ‘Journal of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers’, Vol 2, Nos 24 and 25, 1958
Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660, Edited by Stuart Peachey, 2001
Encyclopedia of Handspinning, Mabel Ross, Batsford, 1988
Costumes of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814