A frequent supporting cast-member in fairy tales, most memorably Rumplestiltskin and Sleeping Beauty. Shape of the most enduring metaphor for fate. Raison d'etre of the spinster.

The spinning wheel also possesses its own internal poetry in the guise of the names of its various parts: there are maidens, a footman, the Mother-of-All, Bobbin and Lazy Kate, and of course - Niddy Noddy. But the story of the spinning wheel begins in prehistory...

A very brief history of spinning

Prehistoric spinning was done on the body: fibers were bundled loosely, twisted in the hand, and rubbed lightly on the thigh until they twisted into a tight cord. This cord was then wound onto a stick, which in turn was rubbed against the leg to further compress and lengthen the fibers. This stick evolved into the drop spindle. The drop spindle was notched to hold the evolving thread steady, and a weight (called a whorl, and made of clay, wood, or rock) was attached to the bottom. The fibers attached to one end were caused to spin by the action of the stick and whorl, to tighten and compress them into a workable thread.

Much later, the spindle was affixed to a wheel by various mechanisms to keep the spindle spinning. The larger the wheel, the faster the spindle turned. The foot pedal (called a treadle was added even later. The treadle allowed the spinster to sit instead of walking the wheel to wind the spun fiber onto the spindle. With a treadle on the wheel one could also keep the wheel going while keeping the hands free to smoothly guide and coax the fiber into smooth thread.

James Burke's long view on the spinning wheel

The 12th century saw the invention of a loom with foot pedals which enabled weavers to create cloth more quickly and inexpensively. Conventional weavers opposed the new loom, which they recognized as a threat to their labor market. The subsequent invention of the spinning wheel, which made thread faster than before, led to skyrocketing in the production of cloth. The speed of production led to increased popularity of linen. Sheep farmers rioted because the cloth that was being made was not wool.

The linen cloth wore out quickly, but was so cheap that people simply threw it away as casually as we do paper towels. Piles of discarded linen were used to make rag paper, in turn causing the price of paper to drop precipitously. More riots ensued, again by the sheep farmers, because linen paper supplanted sheepskin parchment. Increased availability of paper led to increased demand for scribes, especially in the wake of the radical population reduction during the Black Death. Scribes went on strike for higher wages, driving up costs. In 1450, Johann Gutenberg eliminated the debate by creating the printing press, which the Church fought because it would encourage free thinking.

Then the Church began printing indulgences (pardons of temporal punishment of one"s sins), for which they charged exorbitant prices. A certain German cleric objected strenuously to this consumerist approach to salvation and nailed an editorial to a door, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Brief description of parts found on a traditional spinning wheel

  • Fly Wheel: rotation (via treadling, walking, etc.) causes the other various parts to operate.
  • Drive Band: cord that goes around the fly wheel and the flyer whorl.
  • Flyer: U-shaped piece of wood with hooks on one or both side. These hooks are used to guide the yarn evenly onto the bobbin. The flyer is rotated by the drive band, twisting the fiber as it wends over the hooks.
  • Flyer Whorl: Pulley which causes the flyer to spin, powered by the drive band.
  • Maidens: Two posts that hold the flyer and the bobbin.
  • Mother-Of-All: The bar that mounts the maidens, flyer, bobbin, and tension knob.
  • Tension Knob: Adjusts the drive band by lowering or raising the mother-of-all.
  • Bobbin: Rotates on the spindle along with the flyer and stores the yarn.
  • Treadle: Foot pedal that operates the wheel.
  • Footman: The bar the connects the treadle to the fly wheel and causes it to turn.
  • Lazy Kate: A holder for multiple bobbins which enables spun yarn to be plied.
  • Niddy Noddy: A device for skeining yarn by tipping a shaft with attached yarn from side to side.

Charka spinning wheel

The Charka wheel was developed in India by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920, so the people of India could spin their own cotton thread and yarn in large quantities. This mass production was central to making the Indian people less dependent upon England for cotton, and Ghandi believed that spinning also gave peace of mind. He encouraged people to sit down and spin when they had a free moment (ideally, in front of the English, as an act of satyagraha) - and did so himself. Margaret Bourke-White took a famous picture of Ghandi at his spinning wheel.

Spinning Jenny: the spinning wheel's daughter

In 1764, a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a hand-powered multiple spinning machine that was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel. Jenny was the name of Hargreaves' wife. In 1768 a group of spinners broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his spinning jenny machines, fearing that the machines would take work away from them.

Progress, as always, was not so easily set aside.

In the 21st century, spinning wheels (and the jenny) have obviously been supplanted by automated machinery, at least for the most part. However, spinning wheels are still widely available and favored by textile artists and creative anachronists.


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