“You’re Doing It (Even More) Wrong!” or How The Great Wheel Survived

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
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….

(pp.335-7)

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.
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 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.”  [15]

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:

http://www.ravelry.com/groups/spindle-wheels/pages/Great-Wheel-Basics

Also, check out The Guild of Longdraw Spinners.

An elegant great wheel. By Jacob.jose (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

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

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37 thoughts on ““You’re Doing It (Even More) Wrong!” or How The Great Wheel Survived

  1. Could you please tell me how to obtain a spindle for a great wheel. My wheel came without one. Could I make a spindle? If so, what material? Wood? Metal?

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    1. Hi Claire

      I don’t know where you’re located but your best bet is to track down a wheel-maker and ask them to help out. Some, not all, will have experience of Great Wheels and be able to help. In the UK there is only one active wheelmaker I know of – and I’m not sure whether he repairs wheels or not – but there are others, like Woodland Turnery, who routinely fix various wheels and if you’re in the UK, they would be a great place to ask. The alternative is to study them, preferably see a few firsthand in museums/auction houses/antique shops/wool shows and have a go, yourself.

      If you’re in the US, you might be able to track down a Mother of All. I’d find the relevant Group for your area, on Ravelry.com and post that you’re ‘In Search Of’ of Mother of All for a Great Wheel. You might strike lucky. I’ve just done a quick search – second post on this page might be interesting to you!

      https://thewoolmerchantsdaughter.wordpress.com/2013/02/

      I have seen both wooden and metal spindles.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this well-researched rebuttal, much appreciated!
    I might add, in reference to your early note:
    “two types of spinning wheel…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’ ”
    it’s is not quite strictly such a clear division 😉
    There were (and are) hand-driven spindle wheels small enough to sit at, all over India and across Turkey and into Eastern Europe. And charkas of course. Also, the flyer/bobbin was invented separately from the foot-treadle; there are images of hand-driven flyer wheels earlier than the treadled ones. And to confuse the simple 2-types concept a little more, you can add in the modern Rio Grande wheel (oooh I want one!) which is a foot-treadle-driven spindle “great” wheel.

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  3. Great article and very timely as I am about to take my American Walking wheel with Benjamin Pierce accelerator head to the Rare Breeds Show at Singleton, Chichester. The visitors there are generally very interested in the history of spinning and you have given me lots more to say. Thank you!

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  4. If you would like to see a spindle wheel in action there are daily displays at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal near Wilmslow in Cheshire, UK. I was fortunate enough to work there for over 20 years as a spinner/ weaver until health problems stepped in. It is a lovely sitting wheel, made by David Bryant whose lovely wife Val used to be my boss there. In earlier years we used an original wheel which I have a feeling Val said she found in an antique shop, long time ago so my memory may be skewiff, but it was a joy to spin with, felt like touching history, but the copy is a beautiful wheel too. Would expect nothing less from such a craftsman. Thanks so much for a fascinating read.

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    1. Hi,

      I have a Jack Greene wheel- hasn’t played me up despite some heavy use during the last 10 years. It’s in use at Chiltern Open Air Museum during early august this year- and if spinners do want to try it- then I am open to giving the occasional lesson/try!

      Judith

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      1. I think the problem with mine was we stored it in separate pieces – last year in the heat, it was throwing the driveband (presumably the wood shrunk a bit) but we realised if we set it up a day or so before we used it, it would then be OK… The past few months we have started storing it (behind the sofa!) assembled, so now it’s fine! It went through a tempremental phase last summer, though!

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  5. Hi,
    Great article- thank you, I’ve been trying to educate public when demonstrating a great wheel in an 18th century cottage for many years- most are, as you say, fascinated by the rhythm and the fact that one can actually see what is happening if the spinner slows the process down, Thanks for lots of details and good research- great wheels are also one of my things!

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  6. What’s his whos’its is a bit of a blowhard and an ignorant one to boot. I wasn’t surprised at all to find that his was “the blog” to which you pointed. I stumbled across him when researching gansey knitting.

    That said, I find your blog delightful and informative. If I lived on your side of the Big Water, I’d be taking a workshop (and doing some genealogical digging myself)!

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  7. A very interesting article. I enjoyed it.

    Here in Denmark we had ‘spinning houses’ that were basically prisons for women and children picked up from prostitution and begging. They spun on great wheels very late – maybe up til close to 1800.

    Fun fact: a flyer wheel in Danish is a ‘rok’. A great wheel is a ‘skotrok’.

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  8. I’ve spoken to someone who has seen him spin (a wheel maker and not his beloved AA). Apparently, he can spin at a consistently fast speed and this is mainly because of all the alterations he has done to his wheel. I was told he has some interesting ideas but nothing that compelled the individual I was speaking with to rush out to his shop and make. As a bonus, he added that one of the biggest problems with AA’s book is that things as put forth as facts when they are AA’s opinion.

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    1. I always feel a bit sorry for AA as The Blog has probably cost him a lot of new potential readers – ie: he’s damned by association. Not an association he’d seek out, am sure. Which is a pity as his book has a lot to offer. And, right or wrong, his opinions are based on decades’ worth of solid experience and knowledge.

      Re. the wheel adaptations, I can’t help wondering whether the time and money wouldn’t have been better spent on, whisper it quietly, a faster wheel in the first place? And it would all be vaguely interesting, however much credibility it lacks, if he left the ‘history’ out of it, as that is so glaringly, obviously inaccurate. (Accelerators didn’t exist for great wheels? What? But flyer wheels had accelerators routinely? What?) Talking of which, I found this fascinating site yesterday with variations on the Minor’s Head if you search the site:

      http://resources.osv.org/collections/collection_viewer.php?N=1.350.1

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      1. I own a copy if AA’s book and refer to it despite the Blogger. AA is opinionated. On balance though, I agree he has a lot of valuable information.

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  9. sigh…..his latest post is just as ridiculous. Your carefully researched, well written, and always entertaining and informative blog is a breath of fresh air. And when is the River Ganseys book coming out? I know I asked a while ago…having just gotten the book on Dutch fishermen’s ganseys, I’m dying to read yours!

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    1. Oh thanks! River Ganseys is literally having its last edit from me today – I’m just putting in a new chapter heading where an old one fell out somehow, and then it’s captioning the images and we’re finally done… So it can’t be long! I still haven’t got the Dutch book yet but will get it soon as it sounds brilliant. I hope someone going to this show Blogger mentions will film him in action, treadling like an Olympic athlete (argh! just buy a faster wheel already!) We all need to see what it is he’s on about. Someone linked to a video of the excellent Abby Franquemont spinning on a fast wheel (Lendrum?) and Abby made it look so leisurely and relaxing – his ‘fast’ spinning sounds frantic and a little bit miserable. Fun is the whole point and I think he missed it. I do enjoy his blog and his intriguing ideas but when he strays into the territory of ‘history’… it gets embarrassing. For whichever university he’s an alumnus of, anyway. All opinions, nothing to back it up and always the ‘history’ twisted – or let’s be honest, totally fabricated – to fit a point. I don’t get it. Just don’t mention it, if you know nothing about a subject. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “It is better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and to remove all doubt.” History is a subject upon which Blogger should remain utterly silent.

      PS: Ooh just clocked the latest one about “The Cisterns”. Couldn’t make it up. Does he mean Cistercians? Reminds me. Must drop a new one of them blue toilet duck things in my cistern… And the ‘Victorian ladies’ have reappeared.
      Victorian Lady

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect that he may not have a degree from any college or university. Given the claims he’s made about his variety of work experiences you’d think he’d be bragging about his education too. His ‘claim to fame’ title at the engineering firm where he worked indicates that he was little more than a paper pusher.

        I was alerted by someone that his blog had been recommended in a blog post on the Knitty site. But the author added a disclaimer that they had been alerted by someone that he may not be the expert he pretends to be.

        Glad to hear your book is coming out soon!

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  10. I was wondering if they spun fatter as it is faster to get through a pound if it is a fatter yarn as opposed to thin. If you weren’t getting paid much to begin with, why take a lot of time with it unless you had a good work ethic.

    Enjoyed the article.

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  11. Well, passive-aggressive swipes at a particular spinning teacher via the Peruvian tradition is probably more accurate.

    But anyway, I was just mulling over your fascinating post, and wondered whether half the complaints about yarn quality were the standard scripted trade whinges-for-the-sake-of-whinging that have sod-all to do with reality. Every occupation has them.

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  12. Wonderfully done, with bonus refutation of those offensive claims a few weeks ago about ‘subsistence’ spinners with other chores to do being unable to produce quality high-twist yarn. Passive-aggressive swipe at the Peruvian tradition, I suppose. Proving yet again that messy real history is far more fascinating than a load of self-aggrandizing fantasy any day. Although (groping desperately for positives) at least the blogger appears to have given up his daft theory that great wheels were used by a specialised profession of pliers.

    Thank-you.

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  13. Having run into The Blogger myself, I found this article amusing as well as informative!!!! I am in that queue of frustrated people! I have a question about the quality. You said that in the 18th much, most? of the yarn was of poor quality. Yet, the linen was smooth, fine, and see through, even the coarser linen was smooth. The broadcloth was to die for, and only the “coarser” handknit stockings (worsted sockweight, ~14sts/in) show much
    in the way of slubs. Or was it simply that they had to put up with beginners while waiting to get them good? Or they used plying to even it out? (Working wear clothing is found in walls and under floors, so ordinary cloth is available to study). Interesting article! Thank you for sharing your research!

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    1. Yes, I’ve seen some beautiful broadcloth and linen as well. But I wonder if that survived because of its extremely high quality – those clothes were less workaday, and more valued? The vast majority of cloth woven would not have been the ‘superfine’, but the thicker, more serviceable stuff (plus a lot can be hidden by milling and tentering!) So whilst we know what they were capable of, in the past, a lot of the things woven would not be of the same quality as some of the fabrics in the finest quality clothing, which survived in greater numbers?

      Although I was emphasising the clothiers’ disenchantment with a lot of spinning, there, as that is what comes across in the sources and that is what contradicts Our Hero. ;o) I think the majority of the spinning I am talking about there, though, was for things like fustians, stuff, callamancos, sayes etc that maybe weren’t as great as broadcloth (we buy fabric for re-enactment from Hainsworth’s and the broadcloth from them is about the same as it would have been in the 19thC – it is amazing).

      What I’m challenging there is the idea that everything in the past was spectacular, and the spinners were competitive and the spider eyelashes he is talking about, were standard (that cloth was the most expensive precisely because they weren’t standard!)

      For warps I don’t think they plied and more than one old clothier interviewed mentions sorting the spun yarn into two piles – softly spun for weft and hard spun for warp. So I think they were relying on at least a percentage of the spinners to be good enough to come up with warp. Blogger seems to have a romantic idea that people deliberately set out to spin speshul warp yarn. I don’t think, from what contemporaries say, spinners had much say in the matter and as they weren’t paid extra for being ‘the best’, they’d have had little incentive…

      One source I didn’t quote mentioned clothiers using shopkeepers as middlemen. When that happened, they’d be afraid to offend their regular customers by rejecting ‘poor’ spinning, so it all was paid for and taken! Totally get your point though and maybe I over-emphasised there. ;o)

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  14. “I still can’t fathom what he means by ‘an accelerator’ on a flyer wheel?”
    My bet is that it means anything he wants it to mean and will change depending on the circumstance.
    From my little knowledge, there is only one way to make a flyer wheel spins faster – increase the ratios. You can achieve that by making the drive wheel larger ( and then changing the whole wheel to make the new drive wheel fit), or by making smaller whorls.
    The problem with making smaller whorls is that you’re limited by the diameter of the flyer shaft and the intrinsic properties of the material used to make the whorl (aka, if you carve too deep into the wood, it will break ;P).

    I could be wrong (I can never read that blog long enough to (try to) make sense of what is being said – my eyes roll and I get angry), but I think some of the numbers being tossed around there are lies wrong.

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  15. Thanks for a lovely, educational and engaging post. I’ve never spun on a great wheel, but the little knowledge I have, plus some logical thinking tells me that a great wheel is the best choice for production work.
    It baffles me that someone who claims to be a physicist has forgotten about the basics when it comes to ratios and their relation to speed – why else would production flyer wheels have bigger drive wheels?

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    1. “…the basics when it comes to ratios and their relation to speed – why else would production flyer wheels have bigger drive wheels?”

      Is a point that hadn’t occurred to me! But yes, that has to be right. Thinking of those Canadian and Scandinavian production wheels… I always remembered Ella Baker writing in the great wheel themed Spin Off: “… The ratio of my wheel is 322:1 (by count)…” she goes on to say slippage is a factor, but I think when we’re talking 322:1, all that is a bit academic! You’re stopping and starting a lot on the great wheel, to wind on – but it’s surprising how little that actually slows you down, with longdraw as I’d stop to let the twist build along the drafted slub, in any case, so there is always a rhythm going on where you are stopping and starting anyway, even with a flyer wheel when doing longdraw, in a sense.

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      1. The fact that he tosses away common physics knowledge like that to make his point is one of the (many) red flags that lead me to believe that his BS goes further than just “you can’t spin as well as I do, because you ain’t got a Y chromosome”.

        “You’re stopping and starting a lot on the great wheel, to wind on” Interesting. I’ve never seen anyone spin on a great wheel, and thought that you could time it in such a way that you’d use the decreasing of speed to wind the singles/yarn on the spindle, so by the time the wheel had almost stopped moving, you’d be close by it to make it spin again. (do I make sense?).

        I only spin short draw, but stop a lot too because I’m always picking something out of the roving.
        For a while I was selling my handspun and have looked into a production wheels. I didn’t consider a great wheel as one of my choices because:
        a) space
        b) can’t do long draw to save my life
        I never had any doubt that a great wheel is faster, though – maybe because I remember my high school physics classes.

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      2. I still can’t fathom what he means by ‘an accelerator’ on a flyer wheel? Let alone that strange statement about great wheels never having ‘accelerators’ when it’s a matter of common knowledge they did – and some still do..? It seems almost willful.

        The stopping is because you have to reverse the spindle a bit, to wind the wool you have just made on. At this point, you’re no longer putting twist into it (unlike a flyer that twists til the yarn is on the bobbin). Which may be why the contemporary commentators seem to think it was ‘better’ for worsted – because you can stop drafting and continue putting twist in, in a very controlled way and as much as you like – as well as woollen – because you could also stop putting twist in precisely when you wanted, to wind on. And I guess as the yarn isn’t being sucked onto a flyer, you can see precisely what you’re doing with it! I also found that point James made fascinating that they spun from the fold on the great wheel, as people have often assumed no worsted was ever spun on the GW because you never see one in a picture with a distaff. Also too many sources mention that it made better warp yarn that was high twist – and that totally blows Blogger’s thesis out of the water, that only a flyer can make perfect warp…

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  16. Well-cited research! How remarkable! 😉 Many thanks for this–educational, witty, and fascinating, even for a non-spinner.

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  17. Excellent article, as I’d expect from you! Honestly, there’s be an enormous queue to bash the Blogger on the head with his own distaff! (I’m planning a handspun General Carleton soon…)

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  18. That blog is so full of skewed statements and self-glorifying twaddle!

    Although several other spinners and I have been speculating for years, we still have been unable to decide on his aims. I suppose the general consensus is that he plans to write a book. What a very bad book it will be.

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  19. Thanks, Kate. You’re not wrong! I used to have a wheel with a Minor’s Head, made by Timbertops in the 1990s, and it was unbelievably fast with the head, but fast enough for me without! I think it was one of the contributors to the famed ‘great wheel’ edition of ‘Spin Off’ (Spring 1993), who said all bets are off in terms of great wheel speed. You can forget ratios etc as they cease to be relevant. I’m not sure how true that is but it’s certainly how a lot of great wheel spinners feel! Not that speed for speed’s sake is a good thing – I think spinning is about fun. But I just wanted to correct the idea being floated there, that the great wheel was superceded by the flyer wheel – when every source suggests the opposite is true

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  20. Fascinating, and I share your irritation (*shakes head in dismay that people might take those assertions for reality*), My immediate thought was of the illustration from George Walker, but there are many others. Oh dear…

    A couple of years ago there was someone at Wonderwool from the National Wool Museum who was demonstrating a great wheel. The speed was wonderful – certainly a match, if not better, than a flyer wheel. I was itching to have a go!

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    1. If we have enough space, and a choice, we often would take a great wheel to a living history demo rather than a flyer wheel because the public seem to find the GW so fascinating! I think there is a rhythm and a magic to it – the way you walk and stand, and how you have to hold your arm… Whenever I see a medieval illustration of a GW spinner, I love it because what you’re seeing is precisely the way you do it, too! The older I get, the less I like the ‘walking’ of the walking wheel – apparently they made smaller ones to sit down to, as well, to spin cotton! I suppose a charka might be fun!

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