1. Who invented the spinning wheel? Where and when?
No individual invented the spinning wheel. It evolved over a long period of time. Since ancient times spinning has been done on a spindle, which is basically a stick with a stone or weight attached. Sometime between 500 and 1,000 A. D., somewhere in China or India (the scholars are not sure) someone turned a spindle on its side and shaped the weight or whorl into a pulley, which was connected to a drive wheel by a cord.
This wheel-driven spindle is the simplest form of spinning wheel and all wheel structures are based on this basic pulley system.
These wheels reached Europe about the 12th century. Pictures from 14th-century England show a spinning wheel raised up on a table.
A bobbin/flyer mechanism, which made spinning continuous and therefore faster, appeared at the beginning of the 16th century.
Sometime in the 17th century a foot-pedal or treadle was added to some ‘low’ wheels so the spinner could work sitting down.
Colonists brought the design of a large spindle wheel to North America when they came from Europe. The great wheel is sometimes called a walking wheel or a wool wheel.
They also brought the many different types of bobbin/flyer, treadle wheels. These are often called flax wheels.
Every culture developed some kind of spinning wheel because everyone needed yarn to weave into cloth in the days before factory-spun yarn and mill-woven fabric. The variety of spinning wheels is enormous. Even today, spinning-wheel makers are trying to build better spinning wheels for the many hobby handspinners all over the world.
2. What are the basic structures of spinning wheels?
Let’s discuss spinning wheels in terms of physical properties that we see by looking at them.
What does a spinning wheel do? It is a large tool or a small simple machine designed to twist fiber into thread. If you look at the basic mechanics of wheels, they are all based on pulleys. This leads to two major categories:
1) Where is the spindle mechanism, which twists the fibers, in relationship to the drive wheel? That gives us the subcategories of horizontal or vertical wheels depending on the alignment.
2) What is the source of energy turning the drive wheel? It is either the hand or the feet.
Under horizontal wheels we can further subdivide by whether it has a spindle or a bobbin/flyer. Horizontal spindle wheels, both large and small, are hand-turned, with a few rare exceptions.
Bobbin/flyer wheels are foot-powered, i.e., a rod [footman] connects the foot pedal [treadle] to the drive-wheel axle. Again there are a few rare exceptions. Another subdivision is whether these components are attached to a table or a frame.
Vertical wheels all have bobbin/flyer units, and they are foot-powered, i.e., they have treadles. In some cases the bobbin/flyer unit is above the drive wheel, and in some cases it is below. They also can be further subdivided depending on whether these components are attached to a table or a frame.
Sometimes components will be doubled, and we find spinning wheels with double treadles, double bobbin/flyers, or double wheels.
Alignment of spindle or bobbin/flyer unit to drive wheel
Types of spindle heads
Horizontal bobbin and flyer wheels with treadles
Vertical bobbin and flyer wheels with treadles
Double component wheels
3. Where can I find plans to build a spinning wheel?
David Bryant of Knutsford, Cheshire, England, is the author of Wheels and Looms, Making Equipment for Spinning and Weaving. Although his book is now out of print, he offers plans for twelve different types of wheels on his website.
If you are interested in wood working tools, especially old ones, check out the web site of the Early American Industries Association.
4. Where can I learn about different types of looms?
Janet Meany’s library of loom manuals for many late 19th– and 20th-century looms is now at the Textile Center. Look under Library or Janet Meany Collection.
David Bryant also has plans for looms (see Question 3 above).