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Period Spinning Wheels

If you are like me, the little bit that you know about spinning wheels is a bunch of Renaissance wives tales, such as; Spinning wheels are very ancient–Spinning wheels are neccesary to spin yarn–The modern spinning wheel was invented in the Rennaisance–Stuff like that. Well, none of it is true. It is simply more bad press about the middle ages, from those living in the Rennaisance.

Patricia Baines book, Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, put me straight about the history of spinning wheels. She goes back to primary sources, and includes photos of these drawings and paintings. Her book is far and away the best source for research on this topic, available at my local University Library; as well as being a comprehensive "how to" guide.

Baines states that "the oldest representation of a spinning wheel yet known from any culture is a painting attributed to Chien Hsüan datable to about 1270" (45). This illustration is Chinese, and unarguably the spinning wheel was known in the east before it was introduced in the west. So, although the spinning wheel may predate this picture, it probably does not have a history into antiquity.

A spinning tool that does date back into antiquity, is a drop spindle. The spinner twirls the spindle and spins the wool into yarn, until the spindle reaches the ground, then she must pick it up and wind the spun thread onto the spindle and twirl it again. This method creates yarn that is of the same quality as that spun on a wheel. The drop spindle is inexpensive, easy to make, and easy to transport. Its major disadvantage is that the yarn must be able to bear the weight of the spindle; thus, many fibers like cotton cannot be spun effectively from a drop spindle.

One step up from the drop spindle, is a spindle wheel, called, in Ireland, a long wheel or big wheel. In Scotland it's called a muckle wheel. In England it is called a great wheel, wool wheel, or walking wheel (59, 60).

The Spindle Wheel, most commonly called a great wheel in our time period, is a wheel mounted on a bench. A driving cord is passed around the rim of a wheel and a much smaller whorl. The whorl has a spindle attatched to it, and it is this point that the spinner uses to spin from. The whorl is attatched to an upright board with two pieces of braided straw. The straw braids act as bearings for the turning whorl, and can be tightened to keep tension on the driving cord.

Spinning on the great wheel is done by turning the wheel with one hand and drawing the wool away from the spindle with the other hand. In most pictures, the women are turning the wheel with their right hand and spinning with their left; although there are a few examples of right handed spinning.

When the thread is pulled out as far as the spinner can reach, the wheel must be stopped, reversed, and the newly spun yarn wound onto the spindle. So the motion is; turn the wheel and spin for a few seconds, stop and wind the yarn, then resume turning the wheel and spinning for another few seconds.

A variation on this, is to walk away from the wheel for as long as it continues vigorously spinning, then wind the yarn onto the spindle as you walk back towards the wheel. Either way, the spinner is obliged to stop and wind the yarn, just as if she were using the much more primitive drop spindle.

The advantages to the great wheel are that you can spin any kind of thread with the same wheel. There is no limit to how large or small in diameter the thread can be. It is also simple to construct, and the bearings (plaited straw) are inexpensive to replace. The disadvantages are that the wheel needs to be very large, since the larger the wheel, the greater the number of twists that are put into the yarn, per wheel rotation. It is not that much faster than spinning from a drop spindle, but the winding process is quicker and less strenuous.

For the SCA enthusiast, the great wheel offers authenticity, since it was in use all during the middle ages. One of the earliest records "mentioning spinning on the wheel in Europe is from Apeyer, not far south of Frankfurt and on the route from Venice, and this forbade wheel-spun yarn being used for warp....The need for such a regulation surely indicates that spinning on the wheel was an established method by that time (1298)... (53)

"The first known pictorial records of spinning wheels in Europe appear early in the fourteenth century in an illuminated manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX." The work was written in Italy, but was illustrated in England.

A second manuscript with an illustration of a spindle wheel is the Psalter commissioned by Luttrell of Irnham in Lincolnshire, written and illustrated in East Anglia between 1335 and 1340. Both of these illustrations are in Patricia Baines book.

Amazingly enough the great wheel was still "considered an essential piece of household equipment as late as the 1880s," in the British Isles. (59) Perhaps this is due to its simplicity, and low cost. Whatever the reason, there was a more efficient spinning wheel available to the medieval woman.

An improvement on the great wheel, is the flyer spinning wheel. It is still a wheel mounted to a bench with a drive cord powering a whorl. But now a complicated bobbin is added. The wheel powers both the spindle and the bobbin. The spinner spins thread continuously, and as she spins, the yarn is automatically wound around the bobbin, which is spinning at a slower rate than the spindle.

All modern spinning wheels have a flyer mechanism on them. However, the flyer is a medieval invention. "The earliest record of a flyer wheel is a picture which appears in the Waldburg family's Mittelalterliches Hausbuch c. 1475-80, from Schloss Wolgegg near Lake Constance in the southern part of Germany. (85) An engraving of a woman spinning by Lucas van Leyden dated 1513 also shows a flyer attatched to a spinning wheel (87). The earliest mention of a flyer wheel in England is in 1557.(90) Once again, there is no way to tell, how long before these sources the first flyer was invented.

The advantage of the flyer is quickly seen. The spinner does not have to stop spinning and wind the yarn up. The spinning and winding are done simultaneously. Thus a spinner can almost double her output. The disadvantages are also readily apparent. The spindle and bobbin have to be timed just right, since they revolve at different rates of speed. They are not easy to make, and they must have tension controls. Also the thread must pass through a hole in the flyer. This hole size limits what size yarn you can spin on a given flyer spinning wheel.

So if the wheel and the flyer are both medieval inventions, what is not medieval about a modern spinning wheel? —the treadle mechanism. Most modern wheels are not turned with the hand, but rather are powered by a foot treadle. "For the introduction of the treadle there still seems to be no deffinite evidence prior to the the seventeenth century, from which period several pictures show spinners using two hands when working at their spinning wheels; even though the treadle itslf is not always visible, its prescence can be assumed." (92)

The treadle is not a complicated device, and indeed it is likely that treadles were used on other devices in the middle ages. My guess is that medieval spinners grew up spinning one handed, and never saw a need to add a treadle to their wheels.

So the spinning wheels that we often see at tourneys, are not "period." But then, they are a great deal more "period" than many gentlefolk think. The only serious anachronism is the foot treadle. And I have yet to see a modern wheel for sale that did not have a foot treadle.

So if you are thinking about dabbling in spinning and want something inexpensive and portable and plan to only spin wool, buy a drop spindle. You can always get a wheel later.

If you, or someone who loves you, has a lathe and some woodworking ability, then consider building a great wheel. The price will be cheaper than buying a wheel, and you will have an authentic medieval wheel. Just make sure you have room in your house and in your vehicle, for a piece of equipment that is going to be quite large.

If you, or someone who loves you, is a master woodworker, then you might get plans for a flyer spinning wheel. Most plans include a treadle, but if you want to make it truly period, then you can leave that off. Big warning here, the bobbin and the spindle have to turn at proportionatly different speeds. You need a pattern for this one.

If you want to do serious amounts of spinning, are okay with a little Anachronism in your Society, and you don't want to become a carpenter, then find the money and buy a brand new modern wheel. (Ashford wheels are very common and can sometimes be bought on ebay or at garage sales.

We have quite a number of spinners in the kingdom. I hope this article has given some of them enough information to consider moving on to wheels. Nothing is more period for a female than cloth production. And it looks soooo gooood next to the list field.


Work Cited

Baines, Patricia. Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning. Robin and Russ Handweavers, (1976).



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