Inside The Wool Spinning Mistress’s Closet

…each Girl has the following articles given to her:

A Pair of Scissors          A Huswife

A Thimble                       A Work Box

A Knitting Sheath            A Work Bag

A Pincushion                   A Comb and Case

At Easter she is allowed to have her Scissors ground; a Pincushion and String, Huswif mended, Her Thimble changed… a new Comb if necessary; a knitting sheath…. Whatever she uses more than these, must be bought  out of her own money….

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General.

by Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard

3 Shillings


Today I thought we’d take a look inside the eighteenth century Spinning School Mistress’s closet and, whilst we’re at it, nose through the charity school girls’ possessions.

Most girls came to York’s charity schools, penniless and literally in rags so the above list of items given to the girls would represent an investment. Finally, to own something all your own!

Some girls on admission, were barely clothed at all: if they hadn’t made their own clothes in school,  the children would have been “…sent in such a state as would render their very superintendence…nearly impracticable…” [p. 9]

When the school started it was more a night school. Founder Catharine Cappe wrote: “…Our first thought, was to have them taught to read, knit and sew on an evening after they had finished their work at the Manufactory…”

Once a formal school was established, a School for Spinning Worsted which opened in late 1782,  the girls had a uniform but had to leave it at school during the weekends, returning to put it on before going to church of a Sunday. It wasn’t long before the school was a boarding school, obviating the need to leave school clothes behind at weekends.

The Knitting school catered for the youngest children – knitting was seen as less skilled than worsted spinning. A seven year old was thought perfectly capable of knitting a stocking without a pattern; shaping the leg, turning the heel, etc.

At Catharine Cappe’s York Knitting & Spinning School, and later York’s Grey Coat School;  girls rotated every six weeks through different tasks; learning skills that would make them employable as servants, or maybe make them ‘diligent’ wives.

Children were expected to work at everything, in rotation – “wool-spinners, line-spinners, sewers, knitters and house Girls…”[p.32]

Line spinners = spinning flax. House girls = learning to cook and clean. Two girls would be permanently on duty sewing and repairing the charity school clothes.  The girls who carded and spun the waste wool for the school’s own use, also had the job of “twisting” (plying) the line (flax yarn). It seems plying was seen as a separate thing to spinning and might not necessarily be done at the same time or by the same person who spun the singles.

The idea was to make the girls employable, without being apprenticed as there had been some notorious cases of ex charity-children being abused when left in the homes of their masters/mistresses and apprenticed to trades.

York’s Grey Coat school ,which employed Catharine to overhaul its curriculum after the success of her own Knitting and Spinning School, took in “firstly, orphans, then if places remained, children of parents ‘in distress’, to save them from the parish Poor House “..or the houses of indigent Relatives”.  Some of the girls in the original school on  St Andrewgate, York, were rescued from a local hemp factory, because Catharine felt the adult employees were a bad influence. Other children were street kids, or had inattentive parents who let them go feral during the day. Some were, as Cappe put it, “miserable girls upon the town” (ie: child prostitutes),  Cappe characterised the children’s parents as frequently “dissolute” and “depraved”.

Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.
Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.

The Spinning & Knitting School grew to accommodate 30 girls. A girl might gain admission on being able to prove she could knit a stocking in a week.  Spinning also had to pick up some pace, as the girls were supplying an un-named ‘Manufacturer’ with their yarn, presumably to be woven into cloth.

By the 1780s, spinning was already largely mechanised in manufactories, but hand-spinners still contributed to the yarn required by a voracious industry. The Spinning School was giving the girls a skill that would soon be defunct, in the UK at least. If the hanks were the standard 560 yards, this was 2240 yds, per day, per child. To put that in perspective, it is marginally more yardage than some of the faster spinners in a competition like Spinzilla.  And they were spinning worsted, which is considerably slower than wool spun long draw. This fearsome pace had to be kept up for 6 weeks at a time. Girls could keep a quarter of the money their spinning earned. :

“…As soon as the children can spin four hanks of wool per day, they are decently clothed, and moreover…  they receive one fourth of their earnings in money…”  [p. 8]

The children made all the clothes needed for the school itself from “waste wool” left over from processing wool they sold to a manufacturer. The school was self sufficient, for clothing and only had to buy in stays, shoes and straw hats.

In 1785, Catharine reformed York’s main charity school for girls, the Grey Coat school. She appointed two Assistant teachers – one in the Wool Spinning room and the other to teach sewing, knitting and line-spinning. In April 1785,  the spinning mistress Mrs Lazenby, became “deranged” and her husband, the School’s Master, put her in a lunatic asylum. We only have to hope it was the Retreat, not York’s notoriously awful County asylum.

Catharine herself became Superintendent of Spinning at Grey Coats (alongside running her own school):

She had “…To superintend the wool-spinning; to see that it reaches the proper counts; that every pound is marked with the girl’s name who spun it; that it is reeled right; that the Mistress keeps her spinning closet in order, and spinning book with accuracy, to correspond with the manufacturer; keep all the accounts; receive the money earned by spinning;.. and to see every pound of yarn weighed before it is returned to the manufacturer…”

She wrote a footnote on this page, giving us a fascinating peep into the contents of the Spinning Mistress’s Closet:

“The Wool Spinning Mistress has a  Closet divided like the Clothes Closet and Reward Box, with the name of each girl upon the partition appropriated for the reception of her particular hanks, as soon as they are spun; the names being changed every six weeks when the new arrangements take place. This closet the Mistress examines every night, and she enters in a book what every Girl has spun in the course of the day. This book is shewn at the end of the week to the Lady who pays the rewards; and each Girl is separately commended or reproved, and her respective task raised or lowered accordingly as the circumstances  may require. A book is likewise kept by the assistant Mistress, with the particulars of the stockings knit, and line spun, in the course of the week. The same method is followed in the Spinning School.” [33]

The girls also had a Master to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic. No doubt a literate and numerate girl had more employment prospects: she’d be able to keep track of household accounts, etc. This literacy and numeracy was, in itself, a valuable gift as a quick survey of 18thC marriage records often shows that many working class women, if not most, could not sign their own name. The charity schools gave this level of ‘pragmatic’ formal education, on top of useful manual skills like knitting, spinning and sewing.

What happened to the Grey Coat girls? We find out in a footnote from p.41 of “Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendlly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee”, 1805:

The number of Girls, who have left the grey Coat School since it was new regulated in 1787, are 114. Of these, 23 are married; 47 are in service; 43 are dead; 2 are Mantua-makers; 1 is now assistant Mistress in the School; 7 are at home with their friends; 2 are at home in a bad state of health; 5 have turned out profligate; and 14, having left York, the Ladies lost sight of them…

Mantua-makers were dress-makers. The charity school must have given these two girls enough sewing skills for them to find employment, without any formal apprenticeship, on leaving.

Thanks to those blog readers/followers who came up and said lovely things about the blog at our Living History day at Armley Mills, on Saturday! Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Spinning Mistress’s closet.

A Yorkshire knitting stick. Credit: Belinda May. York Castle Museum.

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General, Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard, 1800

Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee, Catharine Cappe, York, pub. Blanchard, 1805.


How To Be A Luddite – Leeds Wool Week

ohkdboxGot a parcel, this morning. Getting parcels is always brilliant, but this was a particularly brilliant parcel.  Some print copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

These will be distributed around the shops of museums in the North of England who helped us during our period of research. I will put up details soon.

On October 4th, I will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds for the launch of Leeds Wool Week, being a Luddite (in costume) and will do workshops on great wheel spinning and ‘Knitting the Old Days Way’. (Details to be posted, soon!) Would love you to come along and learn about spinning and knitting the old Dales way.  Will have a few copies for sale with us on the day, so if you want to buy one – ask a Luddite!


If you are in the US, or  – wherever you are – it’s an e-version of the book you’re after, check this out:


From the Armley Mills Wool Week Ravelry page:


Join us on Saturday the 4th of October 2014 to help launch Wool Week here in Leeds. Armley Mills Wool Festival is going to be a really exciting combination of shopping and a celebration of our woolly heritage, with workshops, demonstrations of now rare skills and machinery, talks from well known knitwear designers and performances of rare knitting music from WWI and WWII. Held within a historic woollen mill which now houses an amazing collection based upon Leeds’ industrial heritage. This event is going to be very special. The festival is open from 11am to 5pm, normal museum admission price applies, some sessions may be charged separately. More details to follow soon……

Armley Mills Industrial Museum
Canal Road
LS12 2QF
Museum Website


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving, 1812

Beyond the Spin Count

Lion statue, Lion Buildings, Huddersfield. Image © Copyright David Ward  Wiki Commons

Huddersfield, yesterday. And having an hour to kill, I found the Local History section of the Library.  I didn’t have time to look for my Huddersfield ancestors, wool weavers and dyers the Smiths, Dawsons and Listers ~ but did find this info I wanted to share, in a fascinating book, ‘The Water-Spinners’, by Chris Aspin, (Helmshire Local History Society, 2003).

The book discusses the textile industry’s widespread adoption of Arkwright’s Water Frame, and why and how it overtook the older invention, Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny.

Chris Aspin starts off by  discussing some of the reasons handspun was superseded by millspun yarn and the eventual pre-eminence of Arkwright’s Water Frame over older technologies like spinning wheels and the Jenny. The Jenny had come about partly as a response to clothiers needed more yarn than handspinners could provide. But it had its limitations. Handspinners had yet more…

“As well as reaching the manufacturer in irregular sizes, home-spun yarn… was the subject of complaint for many years…” He says. He goes on to quote the historian of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, who was discussing the poor quality of homespun flax, said that manufacturers understood handspun’s faults only “too well” – and to their cost. Common faults included:

‘…Slack twine, ill thum’d and spun dry, hard twine, thumb knots, different colours in the same hank, slip ekes [slubby lengths?], coarse pieces, roaney or having the show of straw adhering, spun beyond the grist and hairy, check spales, [badly prepared flax] lumpy, low-spun [not enough twist], etc… ‘ These faults the directors attribute in a great measure to carelessness and inattention, as well as ignorance of the art of spinning. ‘Many,’ they say, ‘where yarn is spun, do not even know how to make a “weaver’s knot”…’

We all know about handspinners spinning “too thick”. But what about those who spin “too thin”? Ie: Spinning “beyond the (Bradford) Count” ~ which is apparently, something some contemporary spinners feel they should aim for.  Yet it is a pointless exercise. Anyone who is routinely spinning beyond Count would, in any case, be spinning cheese-wire and failing to understand how to harness the characteristics of a given wool.

For one thing, Bradford Counts were intended for measuring the grist (thickness) of worsted, not woollen yarn – yet spinning so fine the spinner goes beyond Count is something mentioned in the context of woollen spinning, as well as worsted. For another – the Counts were only a guideline, and deliberately spinning below them was, to our ancestors, the hallmark of a poor spinner. As Mabel Ross remarks in her ‘Encyclopedia of Handspinning’, the Counts were rarely spun to, in industry. They were a broad indication of the fineness of the wool’s staple, and as such, a hint how fine to spin the wool. Ignoring the Count by going beyond it,  is a failure to understand the nature of your raw material.

But there was another reason cited, for poor spinning. And although the source here is discussing Midlands manufacturers, it would be equally true for our West Riding wool spinners, bearing in mind that spinning was, most definitely, fitted in around agricultural labour and household chores.

William Gardiner, the Leicester hosier, gave another reason for irregular [handspun] yarn. ‘As an old manufacturer, I may mention that for the first month after harvest, the work was always worse done than at any other time, owing to the hardening of hands in the harvest work…

West Riding clothiers had to wait on handspinners less in the winter months, when they had more time to spin, according to various sources.(See booklist here).

My final bit of rapid reading gave me this fascinating insight, also from William Gardiner:

In the year 1780, I assisted in knocking to pieces for firewood Hargreaves’ spinning jennies… in consequence of their being superseded by Arkwright’s invention…


A 1775 Water Frame, now at Manchester Museum of Science & Technology. Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Chris55

Arkwright’s Water Frame spun a superior yarn to the Jenny – finally a machine was able to spin a yarn that could compete with a Great Wheel spun wool warp although, as we have seen, it took another thirty years or so to thoroughly oust the Great Wheel from farms and cottages.

  Arkwright’s Water Frame was pre-eminent by the 1780s and manufacturers could begin to rely on wool spun more consistently than by the handspinner or the jenny. And one thing they wanted to eliminate was… wool spun “beyond Count”.

Will be back in Huddersfield next month and this time for a day in the Archives.



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

Woman At Spinning Wheel, The source of this file is 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….


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:

Also, check out The Guild of Longdraw Spinners.

An elegant great wheel. By Jacob.jose (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (, 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

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday, I was watching the incomparable Abby Franquemont’s  video download, ‘Respect The Spindle’.

I’ve had the book since the week (hour?) it came out but finally got round to getting the video recently, as despite my thirty odd years’ worth of spinning, knew I’d learn something new from it. And I did.

At one point, Abby was talking about the way spinners wind cops.  (Shorter OED defines ‘cop’ as: “..The conical ball of thread wound upon a spindle or tube in a spinning machine. 1795.)”  The final shape of your cop affects how well centred your spindle is, and how it spins. Abby made the point that although we spend a lot of time thinking about the whorls on spindles we want to buy or make, we forget that the overwhelming influence on the way the spindle eventually spins, is how you formed the cop. Good point and something I know I have tended to overlook. I decided to take a look at spinners of the past and see how they formed their cops.

Learning to spin in the 1980s, I used to think of a ‘cop’ as having a conical form, with the weight of yarn at the base. A by-product of learning to spin from British and American books, most of them written in the 1970s, was that you spindle spun on a low-whorl spindle. This lent itself more to forming a conical cop.  These days, I tend to form a cop that is fatter in the middle – like this medieval monkey’s.  Incidentally, whorls may sometimes – but not always – have been removable. Monkey here has a full cop, but no visible whorl.  These days I maybe favour this shape cop but then, I tend to spindle spin on a high-whorl. This seems to balance the spindle more effectively. Insert science stuff here.

Here’s another medieval spinner who may or may not have detached the whorl. Truth is, the physics doesn’t interest me, madly. I was that kid sat in the back during Physics, Chemistry or Maths; looking out of the window – mildly amused if a science teacher’s demo of an experiment went wrong, but that was the only flicker of interest I ever had for it. I have about as much knowledge of that as this medieval nun.  So leaving the physics aside,  and sticking with the history… I love it that spindle makers have come over all sciency of recent years. But am happy to remain incurious about the laws of…  whatever it is that makes things move. I know a good spindle when I use one.

Check out the distaffs, by the way. The conical ones, bound with lots of ribbon tend to be flax which was, of course, spun worsted from a distaff. The ones that are convex in the centre and tapered top and bottom, needing less ties, tend to be wool.  These images come from different European countries but the conventions of spinning seem to be remarkably uniform.

Now this lady has a low whorl, but still builds the cop in the same way as the other two; not conical, and convex with all the weight of the yarn towards the middle. She appears to be spinning flax and there is no difference in the shape of the cop, whether it is flax or wool.

There are a surprising number of medieval images of women using their distaff as a weapon. I suppose it was the most obvious thing to hand. In images,it often seems the case that the spindle remained attached to or dangling from the distaff, when not in use.

The distaff was, of course, also the universal symbol of femininity; hence the saying “the distaff side” (ie: female) of a family.  For other living historians/re-enactors here, it is worth us noticing that the spindle is never (to my knowledge?) portrayed on its own, but always seems to have been attached to a distaff. Medieval wheel spinners are sometimes portrayed with a male or female sitting nearby, carding wool for them. But spindles always seem to be associated with a distaff; freestanding or tucked under the arm.

Medieval women also seem to have spun in that odd five minutes between other tasks. Most famously, the woman on the Luttrel Psalter, 1325-35, who is feeding a chicken of epic proportions, in a brief pause from spinning her wool. The style of drawing is, by its very nature, cartoon-ish, so it is hard to be sure but her spindle looks to be low-whorl, or maybe even the whorl is centrally placed, like some contemporary spindles.  And again, the cop is bulbous.

Like many of the other medieval spindles, it is quite loaded with yarn and yet the whorl is still attached. This tells us it is unwise to opine whether medieval spindles had removable whorls or not. It appears – some did and some didn’t.

Sometimes, artists are notoriously inaccurate at portraying crafts and activities they haven’t personally experienced and don’t really understand. But hand-spinning was such a universal, daily, never-ending task for medieval women of all classes, we can assume every single monk who ever illuminated a manuscript, probably saw spinning going on, at some if not all points in their lives. It would be like drawing someone doing the washing-up.

Finally, one of my favourites, is the image from the marginalia of the Rutland Psalter, of a woman spinning on the ducking stool. It’s a small ‘joke’ at the bottom of a manuscript page.  Well, spindlers like to get a bit of height as it saves winding on so soon. Makes perfect sense. Also, in keeping with the medieval ethic of spin in every spare moment!

What is really interesting about this is she is clearly using a top whorl spindle. With a hook! Received wisdom tells us medieval English people only used low whorl, but there are images – not just this one – of top whorl. And, of course, the Vikings were known to have used top whorl (not all of whom left Northern England in 1066, or else I wouldn’t speak a dialect littered with Norse words!) So it could be that in some areas, medieval Englishwomen did indeed spin top whorl.

To sum up: the medieval spindlers’ cops seem to have been bulbous, not conical.  Some spindles may have had removable whorls; others not. Some English spindles appear to have been top-whorl although received wisdom has it they were always low-whorl. Maybe this is the viking influence. A heavily loaded spindle might still have had a whorl. All spindles depicted seem to be attached to a distaff. In England, this was often portable as women did other jobs whilst they spun – although the European nun had a static distaff on a carved stand, which maybe reflected the sedentary nature of her life. Winding on a cop in a conical shape may be more usual once the spindle was turned horizontal, and driven by a wheel, and so when spinning was revived as a craft in the 20thC, spindling pioneers tended to assume a conical cop whereas now we are returning to the better balanced, bulbous shape, to wind yarn on.

I am slowly building my Pinterest board, ‘Hand-Spinning Throughout History’. More images can be seen there.


Monkey spinning.the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library.

Nun: from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r

Low whorl woman: Add. 42130 f.60, c.1325-1335 British Library

Chicken woman: Luttrell Psalter

Ducking stool woman: Rutland Psalter

Timbertops Lonsdale Spinning Wheel

1978 Timbertops Lonsdale

This past few days I’ve been playing with my “new” spinning wheel; a Timbertops Lonsdale in oak, bought from a fellow Raveller at the weekend. Timbertops are renowed as the Rolls Royces of spinning wheels. That is so true.  They are now made by Woodland Turnery in Wales, who have just gone into production with this model.  Woodland Turnery will be at Wonderwool Wales, this weekend for anyone who wants to see the current wheels.  My Lonsdale is an original, and the 518th wheel made by Leicestershire Timbertops (year and the number of that wheel are stamped somewhere on the underside).  If you buy or have an old TT, you can find Joan from Woodland Turnery on the Ravelry Timbertops group, and log your wheel’s number with her. 1970s’ wheels like mine are still around!

I’m no stranger to a good Timbertops – in fact this is the third I have owned. When I first saw the little ad for TT wheels in the late 1980s, I wondered how good they might be, as I’d only heard of Ashfords, Haldanes, Wee Peggys and the like, upto that point. The wheels were made by James and Anne Williamson in Thurmaston, Leicestershire. My husband had grown up in the same village, and remembered when Timbertops had just made tables. So I wasn’t sure what the wheels might be like.  Then I saw the brochure (I may have accidentally sent off for it, in the post….)  And the wheel I fell in love with was the little upright, the Lonsdale.

I learned to spin in 1983, on a Haldane Orkney upright and accidentally, like many people learning from books in the 70s and 80s, learned to spin left-handed (left hand at back, holding fibre). So I could only spin on uprights, or, theoretically, Great Wheels. At the time, Great Wheels weren’t that marvellous thing, An Object Of Desire. I liked and kept my Haldane, and was perfectly happy with it.

Somehow, over the next decade, a Great Wheel did become An Object Of Desire – for living history events and also maybe after I saw that  Great Wheel issue of ‘Spin-Off’.   Back issues of the mag are available on CD or download, but I am not sure if that Great Wheel themed issue is yet up there…  Let me know if you remember the issue number/year!

Mr Williamson custom built me a wheel. He had reasonable waiting lists – just a few months – (I recall he was a little sceptical about wheel makers who have waiting lists years long, which was interesting!) and in the time it took him to build the wheel, I saved for it. Later, the Williamsons brought out the two accelerated (two drive wheel) wheels, The Beaver and the Chair wheel. (These pics are from the Woodland Turnery site, so may be their wheels, not the originals. But they look the same – although the original TTs tended to come in either oak or yew; I think Woodland use woods fairly local to their workshop so have a variety of woods available).

I had a Chair wheel, in 1998, also custom built for me. And that became all the wheel I needed.  By that point, I had sold the Haldane and acquired a Jensen Tina when I lived briefly in the US – and the Jensen was a wonderful wheel, but… the day I got the chair wheel, I rarely bothered with it again.  So I later gave that to a friend, who I’d just taught to spin on the Great Wheel.

Between them, the Chair wheel and the Great Wheel did all I wanted.  I bought the Chair wheel with two flyers (have since heard some were supplied with only one – but mine came with a large and a small flyer and 4 whorl sizes).  At last – a wheel that was impossible to outgrow!

Anyone can spin anything they want, from the get-go, on a Timbertops – and never outpace it, even after decades of spinning experience. No need to add Heath Robinson  style contraptions to it, or gadgets and gizmos – it will spin for you, whatever you want to do just how it was, the day you bought it. Any wheel that can’t do whatever you intend to do on it the day you buy it, is probably not fit for purpose. I share Norman Kennedy’s scepticism re. obsessing over ratios – a decent wheel will do what you need it to do; the only limitation being your own skill.  Because I have a small (and crowded) house, I knew I needed wheels that looked good, and that I could live with – forever. Timbertops fulfilled all my criteria.

Later on, I needed a less sophisticated looking Great Wheel, that would do for Living History events from 15thC onwards, so got a fantastic Great Wheel from Jack Greene the Alchemyst and sometime wheelmaker – and reluctantly sold my Timbertops GW last year, as I didn’t have space for two and the Jack Greene wheel is simply more versatile for Living History purposes.

Despite “on paper” being satisfied with the flyer wheel I had… I still had a hankering for that Lonsdale. Which got worse after I gave away the Jensen, so no longer had an upright.  This year, I fettled up the Chair wheel and realising how fast it is, knew I could finally justify buying an upright as I want to teach spinning – finally!  I’m a qualified and experienced teacher/worshop leader after all, so why not put that to good use? But I needed a ‘slower’ wheel for teaching. Putting an absolute beginner on a Chair wheel is a bit like asking a learner driver to take charge of a Lamborghini for their first lesson…

Lonsdale first spinning (2)
Bottom bobbin; silk caps. Top: merino

So when I got the chance to buy a Lonsdale from a fellow Raveller, I leaped at it.  They are not, strictly speaking, a classical “upright” with a centrally placed flyer – suitable for both left and right handed spinners –  as the flyer assembly is not central, but can be to the left or right. Mr Williamson was one of the first wheel builders in the UK offering wheels with right hand side flyers. Old treadle wheels always have the flyer on the left.  Luckily, this one had the flyer on the right – although I think you can change it, yourself. Not sure. I get backache if I spin with the flyer to the left, for any period of time. Which makes anything other than an upright or right-hand side flyer wheel, a waste of time, for me.

Left-handed spinning has served me well, though as it turns out all Great Wheels are only configured for it, so the left-handed spinner has a decided advantage when learning to use a spindle wheel.

The Lonsdale has lived with us a few days now and already, I’ve spun some random samples of silk caps, a leftover sample of merino and two large bobbins of Wensleydale, spun worsted and plied for stockings for Living History. I have barely left the wheel alone, even though it still has a couple of problemettes to address. I sat down at it “for an hour” the day before yesterday. Six hours later….

The wheel still needs a bit of fettling – once or twice, the metal rod inside the treadle bar has slid out. A wonky leg got fixed on the first day. And a bit of a clunk was solved, too. Nothing madly out of alignment, just a few bits dried out and worked loose, I think. I will take it to Woodland Turnery’s wheel surgery at Woolfest, in June. Just to get its MOT.

Apparently, the wheel was only bought by the previous owner last year but she never got on with it – largely because she has other wheels, including two stunning larger Timbertops – and this one, hailing from the 1970s – was in need of a bit of TLC to get it running smoothly again – and believe me, a smoothly running TT spins like  a hot knife through butter – nothing else like it.

Sometimes, you don’t get on with a wheel that someone else would absolutely love and I think this was the case. She said if it had been her only wheel, she’d have sorted out it’s little problems – for example, finding the tension adjustment a bit fiddly. Oddly, I don’t! There are just lots of indefinable little things that can make a wheel a bad fit for one person; and like coming home, to another.  The lovely Raveller bought it from eBay – from the original owner, who bought it in the late 70s, for his daughter. The whole family had a TT and it looks like this particular daughter maybe didn’t gel with it, either. It looks like it had hardly been spun on – I suspect he had it in the attic for most of those thirty years. The bearings slightly mottled looking. Now they are lathered in gun oil and will work fine.

I have spun on double treadle wheels since 1994 – first the Jensen, then the Chair wheel so I did think I was taking a punt on returning to single treadle. With DT, you’re forced to sit face-on and I don’t mind that but… to my surprise I have enjoyed the single treadle – especially when plying as you can sit in an easy chair, and have the wheel at an angle!

I am finally forcing myself to stop spinning on her today, after plying the Wensleydale – just long enough to strip her down and rebuild her, as the original owner seems to have put paper under the post supporting the mother-of-all.  I think things will be better aligned if I just pull the wheel off the bearings and remove all the removable parts; reverse the 1970s’ owners MacGyvering.  The fellow Raveller had done some work on it already, leaving me with not too much to do.  Have waxed it several times now, as some of its extremities felt a bit dried out – nothing irreversible. The wood grain is beautiful and it has quite a patina, being thirty-five years old, although my younger wheel is fumed oak, I think, and darker, as you can see from the pic below.

Wensleydale. 1998 flyer on left; 1978 flyer on right

I have had my Chair wheel for fifteen years and never got round to naming him, but this wheel is called Betty after my two great x 3 grandmas, one from Halifax, one from Huddersfield – Betty Lister (nee Crabtree), born 1793, and  Betty Smith (nee Dawson), born 1804 – both women married clothiers and were the daughters of clothiers. As my wheel came from Huddersfield in the West Riding, I thought it deserved a West Riding name!

The great thing about getting another TT wheel is that the flyers, although made twenty years apart, are interchangeable. That’s the 1978 flyer, bobbin and whorl on the right. See how Mr Williamson changed over from a mere six cup-hooks, to some nine brass hooks (without the shoulder, to catch the yarn – not that it does!)  The lovely Raveller gave me some spare replacement brass hooks kindly supplied by Joan at Woodland Turnery – but I may stick with the clunky retro hooks, for now!

So I now have a whole new  flyer, two new ratio whorls and three bobbins to switch between wheels.

And the good news is, I’m hoping to offer spinning tuition/work-shops in the very near future, with Betty, at a couple of great venues here in North Yorkshire. If you’re interested in learning to spin, or learning intermediate/more advanced techniques, either in a workshop or individual tuiton –  you can email me, for further info.