antique textiles handspinning West Riding

The Great Great Wheel Experiment

IMG_20161010_162509431We’re off to the British Wool Show, at the weekend.

We’ll be taking our Jack Greene-made Great Wheel, and finally trying out an experiment we’ve been threatening to do, for years.  If you’ve ever seen us demo-ing the Great Wheel, you’ll probably know what it is.

Sources mention how much it was possible to spin in a day; an experienced Great Wheel spinner, working fairly flat out.  This question has intrigued me for a long time.    But another question has also intrigued us for a long time and some experimental archaeology beckons.

In “Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning”, Patricia Baines wrote:

…It is said that spinners who worked in the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…


[Baines,  Batsford 1977 Edition, p.61]

Usual caveats apply to “It is said” as I’m sure Patricia Baines would be the first to point out.  This 30 mile figure has often been cited, including by ourselves.

30 miles. That’s 5 miles per day, assuming a six day week.  We have long threatened to try to spin for a complete day, wearing a pedometer, and just see if that even looks feasible.

I have been spinning on the walking wheel since the mid 1990s, probably.  I originally had one of the few Timbertops Great Wheels ever made, which was custom built for me.  Since sold as  lovely as it was, I couldn’t use it for multi-period Living History, like the Jack Greene wheel and let’s be honest, we barely had space for one big wheel, let alone two.  (By “barely had” I mean “don’t have”).

I reckon after 20 odd years my level of competence on the big wheel now is roughly on a par with an eighteenth century 7 year old’s.  Plus I am slow, unfit, distractable, and at shows inevitably have a lot of stop and start – which will skew our figures quite a bit. But anyway, one of the two days at the British Wool Show, I am going to attempt to spin as much as possible, and see how far I walk.  Which will at least give us a ball park realistic-ish Miles Per Day figure…. for a fat, distractable eighteenth century 7 year old’s probable distance covered.

But… 30 miles over a 6 day week (as no-one worked on a Sunday in the eighteenth century – well, actually quite a few did but that’s another blog post)..?  Will that look credible?  Let’s see.  If I have walked the required 5 miles at the end of a single day, it would, frankly,  be a miracle.  But that’s where we’re aiming.   I’m using a fairly accurate but very basic 3D pedometer which will only give me the step count not the distance, so maths may be involved.

Of course, all this pre-supposes we have enough rolags. So I’m carding our lovely Norfolk Horn all week, between other things.

If you’re planning a trip to Thirsk this weekend,  come and see how we’re getting on with the 30 mile challenge!


spinning wheel
Illustration by Marie Hartley, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, 1951.



14 replies on “The Great Great Wheel Experiment”

My Dunbar ancestors were weavers who lived south of Belfast in County Antrim. It is interesting that in one will, a father left a loom for each of his sons. Obviously prized possessions. I had never considered how labour intensive it might be to operate one until I read your post:)


Yes, and a valuable thing to leave in your will as it would have been your family’s means of making their living. Some of my ancestors on Dad’s side were wool weavers (wool as opposed to worsted) and I’m guessing that passing on their looms would have been their family’s entire future, in a way – they’d have been a valuable item! I have seen many inventories alongside wills from this area and many homes, apart from vital items like their furniture and maybe some prized silverware, and livestock the only other things listed are textile related. Glad you’re enjoying the blog!


And thank you for letting me know the distinction between wool and worsted weavers…I had no idea as I don’t know very much about weaving. It certainly gives context to the past. Thanks again:)


Doing it tomorrow! Am willing to bit I don’t have enough rolags, so will just measure steps til I run out, then do the maths… Will report back.


I will be very interested to see how you get on with this. (And if you want to spend a day trying this in a non-public space, with someone to take turns with it, I’m up for it!)


You might be interested in how some great wheel users cut down how far they had to walk and no doubt saved their repetitive stress injuries in their hands.

I went to my Pinterest boards to hunt up the only two pics I have of something women in the colonies or states used to get a longer arm reach when spinning on a walking wheel.

I came across my first one a short turned wood piece somewhat like a large peasant lace bobbin, at an antique fair in the Pennsylvania. The dealer who sold me a rather plain utilitarian one told me she had purchased a long festoon of them strong on cord. They had been collected for themselves and used like a pent (sp?) on the collectors long wooden American porch for decoration. I gathered they had been so common that person had hunted for them as a special interest since each was different and some very ornate. I was so enthralled the seller almost apologized as the decorative more beautiful ones had already sold and she only had the few I choose from, of plain functional ones. so I am sending you where to see the pics if you are interested?

From memory I believed them to be called ‘spinners fingers’ and you will have to hunt though the great wheel pics to locate them specifically. Some of the American wheels reached great dia.

There are admittedly a few prym winders and hand cranked wheel pics. But the ‘Miner head’ units will be of interest as that was an innovation to get a lot more out of any rotation. And there are a few pendulum wheels too of which I know nothing about. But Jacque Teal is seated at one and she (Mrs Peter Tea gave me private tutoring to learn to comb wool.

Have fun at the show!
mid wilts

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good heavens, I knew jack when I tried to sell him some yew for long bows and he was just starting figuring out how to stem bend wheels, since he already knew how to steam long bows.
only recently signed up here… pinterest boards have a number of; great, muckle, and walking wheel pics. If anyone wants ‘eye candy’. go to ‘Spocks Daughter’ and poke around but only if you have a lot of time to look. I am mostly just early drop spindles currently as you will notice.

Good luck I will wait to hear how it goes. Till this came in I did not slow down to realize you were in this country.

mid Wilts


Wish I could still get to Thirsk! I mss my wonderful county of birth, the people, the scenery, the traditions and the dialects – though it is lovely here in Wales and we do have a lot of sheep!

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