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…)



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.

Boring But Useful – Knitting Needle Size Conversion Chart

cassein needles

Just finally got round to making one of these.

And I thought it might be useful for other fans of vintage haberdashery and knitters of old patterns.  Many charts available only go down in size to the more useful needle sizes for contemporary knitting – ie: around 3.25mm.

Yet many Victorian patterns call for 1mm or smaller.  You can see from gaps in the Old UK sizes’ numbers below, there were some intermediate sizes, based on old imperial wire gauges between 05.mm and 1mm – that were very non metric, therefore less easily available now. Otherwise, this is a slightly more complete Old UK/metric conversion chart; useful for vintage knitters – or rather, knitters of the vintage.

Feel free to use, or copy for your reference!


Some of our vintage cassein, plastic or bone imperial sized needles

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.


Fabulous Hats!


york rowing
York City Rowing Club?  1920s?



Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the  pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing around the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years…


Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog), Jerome K. Jerome, 1889.


I found this photo along with some others that were definitely from York, at a car boot sale.

Fabulous hats, either knitted and felted or woven. Also ‘sporting’ jumpers, V, polo and crew necked.  The jumpers look to be cream, natural colour wool – and are more likely to be machine-knitted although it’s possible one or two were hand-knitted.  The hats look to be different colours; some with darker brims than their main bodies.  Although the gent front left’s hat is all one colour.

The men’s collars make me think we are looking somewhere between 1910 – early 1920s. It’s clearly a studio photo.  I can’t be sure whether they were the rowing club, or participants in a special event on the river.  But anyway – some documentation of early 20thC sporting clothing that would otherwise have been lost to us forever.

Oceans of Needlework

There is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you – pleasant woods, winding white paths, green lawns and blue sunshiny sky – and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse cubs never grew. .. I said in my last letter that Mrs Sidgwick did not know me. I now begin to find she does not intend to know me, that she cares nothing in the world about me except to contrive how the greatest quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make, and above all, dolls to dress. I do not think she likes me at all.


[Charlotte Bronte, letter to Emily Jane Bronte, June 8th, 1839].



Piecework, July/August 2017

Just published, in ‘Piecework’, July/August, 2017 – I have a piece about Charlotte Bronte and – possibly –  her ‘dolls to dress’.

Print Edition:

Digital Edition:



In 1839, Charlotte Bronte was 23 and embarking on life as a governess. She took a temporary job with the Sidgwicks of Stone Gappe Hall, in Lothersdale. Mr Sidgwick was a mill owner in Skipton.  Her time at Stone Gappe was miserable.

Some time ago, a dolls’ house from Stone Gappe was acquired at auction by Temple Newsam House, in Leeds.  The house itself is an eighteenth century ‘Baby House’ (essentially a sort of cupboard-as-dolls’-house).  I haven’t permission to put up an image of the house or dolls, so you will need to check it out in ‘Piecework’.  We took photos for our own reference, which we can’t publish, but I will use these as the basis for working out an 1830s’ dolls’ dress pattern for anyone interested, like those possibly made by poor Charlotte.

We went to Temple Newsam to look at the Baby House and dolls, with the help of one of their lovely curators. I hoped to use all my clothing historian fu, to try and figure out whether one or both of the dolls, may have been contemporaneous with 1839, so possibly, have been one of Charlotte’s loathed ‘dolls to dress’.  Looking at the fashions worn by the dolls – I came to an interesting conclusion.

The two dolls themselves are handmade, but have some features in common with European – particularly the wooden Grodnertal – dolls of that era. If you search online for ‘wooden tuck comb dolls’ or ‘Grodnertal dolls’, you will get some idea of how dolls of the 1830s looked. The dolls’ clothes were made from cotton and linen prints, and wool fabric – their facial features embroidered in Berlin wool. They seem to have human hair – not uncommon for 19thC home-made dolls. One doll appears to be a cruder approximation of the other, and the style of their clothing is rather fanciful. Rather than entire gowns, both dolls wore a skirt and corset-like tops.

Tiny Hitty Doll, carved by Wanda Harrigan, https://www.facebook.com/WildhareStudioCreations/

The dolls piece was my own little tribute to my dear friend, Caro, who died nearly two years ago.  I inherited a few of Caro’s Hitty dolls, and have fond memories of an evening spent learning all about them, from her. Caro had a love of carved wooden dolls of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as you can see from her Pinterest board.

I missed her riding shot-gun on this one – she would have loved behind the scenes at Temple Newsam, and getting to hold the 19thC dolls in her hand.  She would have been far more knowledgeable about the Baby House itself, than I ever could be – and would have loved the little kitchen with all its miniature eighteenth and nineteenth century accoutrements. Then we’d have gone to the cafe and she’d have driven me mad by being her inimitable self; chatting to all and sundry. She had a marvellous way with curators. And would keep them deep in mesmerising chat so I could concentrate with documenting whatever it was I was there to document, without having the distraction of having to be make smalltalk, myself. (Useful as time can be limited when you are in somewhere, documenting an item, and those dealing with you have other places to be and other things to do).

There is always an absence beside me now, when I research.   But this is one I’d never have done without her influence.

I will put up a pattern for an 1830s’ doll’s dress, just as soon as I can make one.  I was hoping to accompany the publication with a pattern here, but have been ill since April so nothing got done.  Starting to be on the mend (thanks NHS!) so will be back with an 1830s’ style dress for a 6″ doll very soon.


‘Mavis’ is a wartime name… right? Image CREDIT: ‘The Knitter’

I must have been busy going back and forth with my time machine as also out last week – a piece in ‘The Knitter’ about the Land Girls of WW2, and also a pattern for a Land Girl jumper. It’s quite a leap from 1839 to 1939, but somehow I made it.  If you’d like to read more about the life of Land Army or Timber Corps women – or make a 1940s’ style jumper handy for a spot of gardening – check out The Knitter, Issue 112.




The Bewitched Spinning Wheel

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


Proof that sometimes, carrying a bit of ballast is a Good Thing. And also a timely reminder to oil and maintain your spinning wheel!

From ‘The London Evening Post’, February 24th – 27th, 1759, comes this cautionary tale:

We hear from Wingrove, near Aylesbury, in Bucks., that a few days ago, one Susanna Hannokes, an elderly Woman of that Place, was accused by a Neighbour with being a Witch, for that she had Bewitched her Spinning-Wheel, so that she could not make it go round; and offer’d to make and Oath of it, before a Magistrate, on which the Husband of the poor Woman, in order to justify his Wife, insisted upon her being tried on the Church-Bible, and that the Accuser should be present: Accordingly, she was conducted by her Husband, attended by a great Concourse of People, who flocked to see the Ceremony, to the Parish Church, where she was stripp’d of all her Cloaths to her Shift and Under-Coat, and weighed against the Bible; when, to the no-small Mortification of her Accuser, she out-weighed it, and was honourably Acquitted of the Charge. It is Observable that not eight years Since, one Ruth Osborn and her Husband, were by the too-credulous People of that Neighbourhood, duck’d in a Pond on a like Supposition, and used so ill, that the poor Woman was at last drown’d…


Spinning wheels in storage at the Bankfield Museum, Halifax. Photo Credit: Caro Heyworth.


Rise Up… And Knit

Our Suffragette era Singer 66K sewing machine.

Knitting and sewing have  always been feminist acts.  Sometimes, it has been about activism as well.

As a sort of historian, I’ve written on the blog, and will continue to write, about nineteenth century women who used crafts to escape the ‘cage’ of domesticity.

It always fascinated me that needle arts were seen, culturally as the apogee of ‘femininity’ and yet were cleverly subverted by women and used to escape that  same cage.  I also write about and research women (and men) who used needlecrafts to express themselves, especially in that most hostile nineteenth century environment – the asylum. Even against all odds, people have used this ‘permitted’ form of expression, to revolutionise or provide commentary upon,  their world.

Clothing has also been used, historically, to express revolution. The colour of resistance has varied down the years.  From sea-green, to white, to pink. And many other colours too.  In the English Civil War, the Levellers often wore a sea-green ribbon on their arms, to identify themselves. In the eighteenth century, educated women signalled their intellectualism by wearing blue stockings. (There were male bluestockings as well).

Suffragettes were identified with the colour white. White was chosen because it traditionally symbolised purity and ‘being good’ but also, women were refuting the suggestion that because they wanted equality, they were somehow ‘frumpy’. At the height of the suffragette movement, drapers’ shops were castigated for having white fabric in their window displays as a show of solidarity to their customers and they became identified with the movement. This suggests the link between crafts and activism is no new thing.  Want to rebel? Make it yourself!

Earlier nineteenth century American activist Sojourner Truth often chose to be photographed with her knitting.  As a slave, she had knitted and spun tirelessly. In later life, free, she often taught knitting in order to empower former slaves with self sufficiency.  She controlled her public image by choosing to wear elegant, well made clothing as well as holding her knitting in photos, to convey her respectability and middle class values. In the same way the later Suffragettes chose to turn up to marches and public events wearing white to exploit its beauty and perceived femininity.

Pink pussyhats may be the new blue stockings. You’d have to have been under a stone not to notice the Pussyhat Project, recently.   On one level, a sea of folk wearing pink hats has a dramatic, vivid impact.  But appropriating a colour for a cause also implies solidarity and shared values.  In a world where political correctness has been challenged, and for some it now seems ‘safe’ again to objectify women; where climate change is being denied, and nationalism and racism have reared their ugly heads,   crafters have found a new way to express resistance.

© Donna Druchunas

Well-known designer Donna Druchunas has produced a free Ravelry download, ‘Knitting As A Political Act” and recently brought out a second collection, “What’s New, Pussyhat?”

Donna writes:

I’m also working on a Catwalk Pussyhat ebook .. [See below] with 4 Missoni-inspired pussyhats and a bunch of my ink and watercolor sketches of people wearing pussyhats. 😀 It won’t be free but it’s an adjunct to the Knitting as a Political Act ebook. I’m done with the pussyhats for now and will be starting up a spring project where I am making little snowflakes, flowers, and hearts to hang up on bulletin boards around town attached to little posters with science facts, climate change facts, and notes about diversity and immigration.

Characterising  women-the-Establishment-finds-threatening as “ugly”seems to come with the territory.  In a week where objectifying successful women’s legs rather than their policies hit the headlines, I’d suggest the ‘ugliness’ lies elsewhere.  I won’t link to the Daily Mail’s repellent ‘Legs It’ piece, because I’m not giving them even a single piece of traffic, if I can help it. But it seems to me little has changed in the past hundred years.  And it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such monumental levels of sexist crassness.  Yet clothing, and the things we make with our hands, are not always superficial, and have a power in themselves.  And that some clothing is handmade, in itself makes a statement.

In a way, making things with your own hands is the ultimate uprising as we take our own fate literally in our hands and say to governments: “This is unacceptable”. In a world where it is easy to feel powerless, unrepresented and voiceless, a world made by others – making something yourself, to express your feelings is a taking back of power.


See Also…

Knitting As A Political Act, Donna Druchunas  (free download).

What’s New, Pussyhat?   (Ravelry download, $4.99 or for free if you make a donation to Planned Parenthood and use the COUPON CODE Feminist when you check out).

6 Reasons Why Trump’s Team Might Think Pussyhats Are Imported, Abby Franquemont

Pussyhat Goes On Display At the V & A


With many thanks to Donna Druchunas.