Walking Wheel – How Many Miles A Month?

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

So how many miles could a Great Wheel spinner walk in a month? 120 miles?

To reprise; 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]

 

I wanted to see if that was even remotely accurate. Not that I doubt Patricia Baines – have learned and continue to learn so much from her book. But you know how these things get currency, without ever quite being tested out.

At the British Wool Show, on the Saturday I tried to use a pedometer.  Only to realise my highly accurate 3D pedometer is highly accurate because – it only starts counting after ten consecutive steps. It wants to accurately measure your average stride length over those ten first steps, I think.  And I was doing less than ten, per length of yarn spun!  So it was barely counting my steps at all.

So, on Sunday, we measured the average distance I walked in spinning one length of yarn; firstly, walking backwards whilst spinning and then back towards the wheel’s head, placing the newly spun yarn onto the spindle.  In making each length of yarn, I walked about two metres – half of it backwards. Slightly more than 2m, but I settled on 2m to make my final figure a conservative estimate.

We then measured, several times, how many lengths like this were spun over a period of five minutes.  And then figured out an average.

So we knew that in 5 minutes, on average,  I walked a given distance (roughly).  Bear in mind I’m mathematically challenged.

We then figured out how many metres I’d walk in ten minutes, then 60 minutes.  Then one working day (which in the late eighteenth century might typically be around 12 hours, but we took two hours off that for other household tasks/eating, child wrangling etc).  Then we assumed a six day week.

 

In all, we ended up with a figure of around 57600m in a month. Which comes in at…  35.79 miles.

Obviously, that’s just a rough figure.  But does indeed verify that 30 miles a month is possible, assuming a 10 hour day and 6 day week.

30 miles a week?  I’d have to be spinning four times faster.  (To be fair, my ‘fastest’ spinning yielded a much higher figure than this, but I was very inconsistent and usually at the slower end of the spectrum, so I made everything my most conservative estimate). A show probably isn’t a fair test of distance – home, uninterrupted, (see the child is doing the cooking in the 1814 George Walker engraving?) – would give a more accurate figure.  The difference between the amount spun in 5 minutes – ie: walking backwards and forwards – at the start of the day, and once ‘warmed up’ was significantly different.

I think all this proves, rather than disproves, Baines’ assertion.  A speed considerably faster than mine (ie: the number of times the spinner walks backwards from then back towards the spindle) would be entirely possible for someone younger, fitter, who had been GW spinning since a young age, and who wasn’t at a show stopping to chat to people!

But the uncontested highlight of my weekend was spinning on the Great Wheel whilst being told a (very apt) Yorkshire folk story by none other than Ann Kingstone.   It’s always a joy to bump into Ann and Marie. Knitting people are the best kind of people anyway. Ann is, of course, a designer of great renown – but she also is a passionate enthusiast and expert about Yorkshire lore and Yorkshire knitting history.  Ann told me about The Thrangness of Keziah Throp which was fascinating.  And I told her about the weasel – the reeling device that was used to measure the length of spinners’ skeins.

womanspinning - Copy
Grandma has a weasel (on the left).    Image from ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker. Courtesy: Yorkshire Ancestors.

I will be making a quick appearance at Ann’s Yorkshire Knitting Tour, with a talk on the history of Yorkshire Ganseys.  We’ll demonstrate knitting sticks, and all the paraphernalia of 19thC gansey knitting, etc (But not a weasel – unless I stumble on one in a junk shop in the next few months).

There were some interesting exhibitors at The British Wool Show.  My favourites included Margaret L. Glackin and Catherine Faley, who make ceramics and crafts fantastic boxes, and other things from reclaimed wood.  Some of the wood comes from demolished buildings in North Leeds, my dad’s old stamping ground – so I found the boxes fascinating as well as beautiful. I am now plotting to get to Leeds, to treat myself to one of the boxes as I regretted not buying one at the weekend!

Their ‘Craft Boxes’ look like boxes I have seen stood on the tables of old Great Wheels in pictures. I have just had a basket-maker in my village make me a mudag (well, he’s making it as we speak), so I will soon have a way to store rolags on my wheel. Otherwise one of the Craft Boxes would be perfect.  But my current Object Of Desire is one of Margaret and Catherine’s lidded boxes.  The yarn bowls look stunning too, but I can’t justify one after recently buying my fab one with a crow painted on it.

Another intriguing exhibit was the Zwirnzwerg e-spinner made by Schwabenlaud Supplies. Silent! It has a Bosch engine, apparently.

And of course, my fellow Great Wheel Spinning folk, Mad About Wool.  It makes me proud that at a wool show in Yorkshire, once the epicentre of Great Wheel spinning, you can still find not one but two Great Wheels in action. I noticed Chris was spinning from tops, worsted-style, when I wandered past. And I’d been demonstrating with rolags, woollen-style. So anyone who walked round that show, potentially got to see two very different sorts of spinning going on, on these beautiful wheels. That’s a rare thing, under one roof!

If you’re in the area, we’re doing an Old Hand knitters of the Dales talk at Tynedale Guild of Spinners, Weavers & Dyers, on Saturday morning. We won’t be in costume  (I find it hard to ‘sissy that walk’ effectively in clogs!)

Talking of which, honourable mention should also go to the lovely people from Baavet. I met the lovely gent last year, who couldn’t resist asking me about my clogs, when he heard me clomping past from a mile away, when we were demo-ing.  He used to wear clogs, he said.

He wore his clogs on Saturday this year, just to show me them.  Impressive, they were, too. Much fancier than mine.  Mine came from a farm, somewhere near Haworth and were from the 1950s or 60s, but essentially are identical to 19thC clogs.

Mr Baavet had to revert to normal shoes at some point in the afternoon of the first day of the show.  But I carried on. Because I had research to do!

So yes, we can confirm, you would be walking possibly over 30 miles a week, if Great Wheel spinning all day – if you were fast. A lot faster than me!  (I do think it is feasible as in some outlying 5 minute sections, I was much faster than others – just not feasible for me).  And I did my challenge in 1800 kit (well, no head gear – which would make me essentially a nudist in 1800). But yes – uncomfortable stays and heavy clogs.  (I did wear a dress as well…)

 

 

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Image Courtesy The Wordsworth Trust.  “G.Walton, 1846”. The finest extant pair of Dales gloves. They appear to be handspun, unlike the later millspun gloves.
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5 thoughts on “Walking Wheel – How Many Miles A Month?

  1. Ah Ha! Yes…’Mudag’ was highlighted (impressive writing style) in the text -new here and haste makes waste. My tab in full light not easy to see the blue.
    I have seen same and all being well will get you the southern term for the same storage device. How ever….me thinks getting a rolag in and out of that opening is not going to be kind to a rolag…..Tell us more!

    rrrrrrr

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  2. Wonderful Research!!

    Whats a ‘Weasel’?? Is that like a ‘Squirrel’? ( ‘Rice’, Swift’)

    And a ‘mudog’? Send translation- inquiring minds want to know.

    I have seen and lusted over a traditional Basket makers wares that included a larger than life rugby ball shaped willow basket with a ‘portal’ sort of square oblong window midway on the side…..(Name not to hand or time to hunt up but do know where the basket maker is in Devon). From memory it held what seemed to me a sm amount of fleece stored (and not instant cat bed if you know what I mean?)

    But it had no handle as for gathering fleece bits/wisps…. shed, hung on hedge and thorns, so I do not know how it was used?

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  3. How fascinating. Excellent to see this worked out like this. So glad you could do it, and sorry I could n’t get along to see you in action.

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