Historians have not been able to pinpoint the who, when and where, so…once upon a time, sometime between 500 and 1,000 A. D., somewhere in China, Persia or India, a creative individual turned a spindle on its side, added a pulley and connected it to a drive wheel and…the spinning wheel was born. Simply stated, the spinning wheel is a tool designed to twist fiber into thread.
All spinning wheels are based on a pulley system and contain almost identical parts, can be vertical or horizontal in alignment, powered by either the foot or hand. The wheel and pulley spinning system reached Europe sometime during the 12th Century. At the beginning of the 16th Century, a bobbin/flyer mechanism was added which made spinning continuous and faster. During the 17th century, to enable the spinner to work while sitting, a foot-pedal or treadle was added to lower wheels. Colonists brought spinning wheels, including the “great,” “walking” or “wool” wheel, when they came to America.
A - Wheel I - Treadle connection B - Drive Band J - Treadle bar C - Flyer assembly K - Table D - Maiden L - Distaff E - Bearings F - Tension Screw G - Treadle H - Footman
The Museum is fortunate to have five completely different spinning wheels in our collection. Four variations of the great wheel and one flax wheel. Most wheels can spin wool or cotton, but flax requires a double-drive wheel with a distaff (holds the unspun fibers to keep them untangled) and a foot/breaking system.
The elegant “Sherman” Wheel (pictured to the right) was acquired by Miss Anna Ward Craun, as a child, for ten-cents (of her own money) from the George Frederick Sherman estate sale in the early 1900’s. Anna later married Welford Ashton Sherman, Sr., thus bringing this heirloom back into the family, still treasured in beautiful condition.
Our most recent acquisition was this smaller wheel from the estate of Patricia Hurst, through her grandson, Norman R. Hurst. (pictured to the left) The holes in the three legs and the peg on the braking system indicate that at some point there was a treadle system, which means this was a flax wheel during its lifetime. The wheel had originally belonged to her grandmother, Bertha Lawson and was passed then to Daisy Lawson Zelder Johnson, then to Patricia.
Transforming the hair-like flax plant fibers into linen was a laborious and complex process. It was much easier to process sheep’s wool into yarn so flax spinning was not common in Colonial America and usually produced in small quantities for domestic use. Just prior to the American Revolution, patriotic women would gather for spinning bees to produce “homespun” for clothing during the boycotts of English goods.