Monday, February 23, 2015
Spin, Spin, Spin
QUESTION: Several years ago, I purchased a small spinning wheel at a local antique show. The dealer said it had been made small for use by a child. While that seems like a good way to teach a little girl how to spin, I’ve never seen one so small. It stands less than two feet tall. Also the wheel doesn’t look like the usual kind and sits in a vertical position under the spinning mechanism. What can you tell me about my spinning wheel? Was it for a child’s use or maybe made as a sales sample?
ANSWER: Your spinning wheel was neither made for a child’s use or as a sales sample. It’s called a parlor spinning wheel and is one of four types of wheels made in the 18th and early 19th centuries for use by women in the home.
Spinning has been a vital part of everyday life all over the world for thousands of years. The Western spinning wheel has been around since about the 14th century, thus there are as many style of wheels as there are people who make them. But there are only two basic ways to spin, and all styles of wheels are variations on one of the two.
The first way to spin is called "quill" or"spindle" spinning. The mechanism is a simple system of pulleys attached to the wheel. The pulleys cause a long, sharp, metal spike, or "quill," to turn. Fibers are spun off the tip of the quill and then manually wound back onto it.
The second, more modern, way to spin is with a "spinning assembly" which consists of a "flyer" and "bobbin." The flyer is a U-shaped piece of wood with hooks running along both sides and a hole, called the orifice, at the bottom. The spinning assembly allows the spun fiber to wind onto the bobbin automatically.
There are four styles of spinning wheels. The first is the wood wheel, which has no treadle or foot pedal to turn the wheel. The user must work with it while standing, walking backward to twist the fibers and then forward again to wind the spun yarn onto the quill or spindle. For this reason, people call the wool wheel the walking wheel or the high wheel or great wheel because it stands 4 to 6 feet tall.
The second style of spinning wheel is the flax wheel, also called the Saxony wheel. This type is what most people think of when they picture a spinning wheel. It has a low slanted bench, a treadle to keep the wheel going, and a spinning`assembly. A Saxony wheel also has some sort of distaff to hold the flax while the user spins it. The distaff could be a straight stick in a hole at the front of the bench, or it could be on its own frame so, you can swing it to the side. Very often the distaff has been lost over time, and the only clue that there was a distaff at one time is a hole in the bench.
The third type of spinning wheel is the castle wheel, which has all the same components of the Saxony—a small wheel, treadle and spinning assembly—but instead of being mounted on a slanted bench, the wheel and assembly sit in a vertical frame. Technically, this type can only be a castle wheel if the spinning assembly is mounted below the wheel, but most people now call any upright or vertical frame style a castle wheel. True castle wheels are relatively rare.
The last type of spinning wheel is the parlor wheel, an upright or vertical version of the Saxony. Though it may look like a castle wheel, only two vertical upright posts support the wheel instead of a rectangular frame. These wheels are also the smallest.
Besides the story that these dainty wheels were originally made for use by children, some antique dealers spin a yarn which says that immigrants brought this type over to America with them because they could only bring small items on the ships. And while both of these explanations for the parlor wheel's size seem plausible, neither is true.
The parlor wheel’s small size appealed to the Eastern and Central Europeans. There have been wheels dated well before immigration began which were just as compact as those made during and after the rush to America.
Truly antique versions of the parlor spinning wheel sell for nearly $500. But there are a lot of reproductions out there, and it’s often difficult to distinguish the authentic from the reproduction.