Spinning Wheel Differences

March 4, 2008

While the goal of the Colonial spinner was to expedite the making of yarn so that it could be woven, knit or made into lace, todays’ spinner uses a spinning wheel mostly for relaxation and to express the creative urge that often manifests with a fiber addiction.

Even still we enjoy a variety of wheels to choose from, each with some feature that makes it attractive to a particular spinner. 

Or, if you are like me, you have many wheels in use all at the same time, a luxury I doubt our Early American sisters enjoyed!

Among the many differences in antique spinning wheels are such things as:

  • tensioning devices
  • bobbins
  • flyers
  • drive bands
  • size of the drive wheel
  • # of treadles
  • position of flyer above or below the drive wheel
  • solid drive wheels vs. drive wheels with spokes
  • wheels with distaffs
  • wheels with more than one bobbin and flyer
  • wheels with elaborate turnings
  • plain wheels
  • more than one drive wheel
  • style 

Among all of these features, some were designs for making the wheel more efficient and  some were decorative.

It was common for men to experiment with spinning wheel design and occassionally create a dud. Once in a while we come across one today and thankfully there aren’t too many of them.

Some spinning wheels were patented. 

In the case of Amos Minor only the accelerated head was patented. It proved so popular that there are many “knock  offs” seen today. So, if you see an “accelerated head”  on a spinning wheel, don’t jump to the conclusion that it is a “Minors’  Head” because it may be any one of several others made around the same time.

If you follow the link below, it will take you to Google Images which will display a good variety of wheels just to get an idea of what the world of antique spinning wheels holds.

Among them is a “Patented Wheel” also known as a “Pendulum Wheel“, a modern “Babe” wheel, several Saxonies from different areas and showing regional characteristics. Take time to look at each, they really are quite different.


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For Comparisons Sake – Early American Spinning Wheels

March 1, 2008

Today is a kind  of rest  day for me but here are some links to wheels of different kinds that will give an idea as to how many types and differences there are.

I have put in my comments as to what seems to be the problems either with the wheel  or the seller not being familiar with the topic.

 These are all on eBay.


Link to ebay

Great Wheel missing parts/mixed matched parts: Not  easy to replace, and  costly when you do.




Great Wheel missing spindle post and spindle assembly. Basically a useless whee for spinning.



Nice wheel, telltale  tensioner  – missing spindle assembly – tensioner style gives clues to origin (state)



Parlor wheel declared to be a “travelors wheel’ –



an upright wheel looking as  if the  base  isn’t  original



Spinning  wheel  parts  – good look at Mother of All(s) etc.



Not an old wheel but brand new. Pay attention & make sure you know what your’e buying.



Refers  to “shuttle” having been repaired? No shuttles on spinning wheels or used with them.



Stamped wheel missing bobbin and flyer- can be replaced but must be custom made $$$$$ Too difficult

to replace from another wheel.




These are print postcard images from The Library of Congress. I find them very interesting and informative. Check out the other objects in the photograph for clues to age and  locale.

You can  also look under ‘spinning wheels in art” and you will find paintings with various spinning wheels in them too. Have fun! Test Your Sluething Skills – look for incongruities.





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More on Looms

February 28, 2008

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Weavers' Friend - My barn frame loomwarp beam and rear postsBarn frame looms are interesting beasts, huge in comparison to the modern version of today.

This rendering of  an old loom gives a good representation of the basics. While none of the looms I’ve met look like this because they are more detailed in their construction, you can see the frame that I refer to.

An  interesting feature on this loom is the floor rails that give a base – most looms don’t have this addition. In fact, they rest on the legs of each post with side rails never really touching the ground. I believe this floor rail adds stability to an unusually long loom – one with a longer than 5ft. footprint. It might also keep the loom from “walking” which is typical when the weaver beats the cloth with any force.


Termed ” Barn frame” for their style of construction, I’ve seen a few that would have been better referred to as “railroad tie”.

Early American looms, like spinning wheels, are wooden machines designed to create a “web” of cloth according to different patterns.

Simple floor looms have either two or four harnesses or shafts – these hold the twine “heddles” ( hundreds of them, hand tied to have an “eye” in their center, very much like the “eye” of a sewing needle). Each “heddle” holds one thread ( usually ). The more harnesses or shafts, the more complex the patterns can be.

The loom starts out with a basic frame much like a four poster bed ( if you leave out the  mattress and springs). This frame has a “footprint” an imaginary box  where each leg stood and left it’s print. Measuring the  distance from the front feet to the back usually gives about a 5 ft.  foot print, often square.

Of course there are variations on this, with some looms being smaller and some wider, but in the North East where I’ve seen most of my looms, by far the most easy to find are the “four poster” looms with 5 ft. footprint.

If you are fortunate enough to find an old loom, you will likely discover the frame-which consists of  four upright posts, the breast beam, warp beam and any side supports.  Anything else included is considered “gravy”. It’s not often one finds an old loom complete with all it’s parts, and we can imagine why. After 200 years of being dismantled and moved from place to place, stored with other dismantled pieces and forgotten about it’s easy to see how parts could be forgotten, overlooked or confused with another item.

Museums often have intact and complete looms though not always original, some pieces would have been replicated and replaced.

This should be obvious to the visitor as the replacement pieces are to be unfinished and easily distinquished from the original. This policy preserves the authenticity of the original unrestored portions of the loom.

 Most looms are about six feet tall on average. Many have built- in benches for the weaver.

Some are made from tree roots ( albeit giant tree roots ) while others are clearly hewn from several trees; mixing wood types is quite common.

Warp beams are interesting as well, many showing the rings of the tree they once were, with little if any change from tree to warp beam except removal of the outer bark.

The cloth beam is narrower in diameter, with a “ratchet and pawl” for tensioning as the woven cloth is wound on.

The harnesses or shafts are suspended from a roller bar usually wound with cord and pulleys to allow for the treadles to raise and lower them smoothly.

The beater is usually heavy and frequently carved with a curve to fit the weavers hand and facilitate beating the cloth.

While the original looms had “cane” reeds made from cane found in ponds, today even in museums and historic houses you will occassionally find brand new stainless steel reeds in the beater. While historically inaccurate, it renders the loom useable until a cane reed can be found.

There is a brake system for the warp beam. On the weavers’ right hand side a rope was threaded from front to back which attached to a bar that fell between pegs on the warp beam, effectively impeding it’s continued revolutions and permitting re-tensioning of the fabric after advancing the warp.

In these  elements all looms are similar though the individual element itself can vary widely.

Warp beams can be thick or thin, solid or hollow.

Beaters are always hung from the top, but may or may not be curved, heavy, thick, thin, with or without a “shuttle race”.

Harnesses can have continuous  knitted heddles or  individually tied heddles.

There may be two treadles, four treadles and rarely six.

There may be “lamms” which distributed the weight between harnesses and treadles to be more even.  In which case the “tie-up” from treadle to harness is NOT a direct tie-up, but tied to the lamms THEN the harnesses.

The warp beam might be high, low or adjustable to several different heights.

The beater may hang from a “cantilever” loom rather than a four poster.

There may be supplemental warp beams frequently seen on looms used for linen weaving.

And finally, the style of the loom can vary. Four posters can be beautiful if made by woodworkers who bead the wood and pay attention to detail, or they can be rather homely and crude if made by a son for his mother with no particular affinity for woodworking.

German looms are usually extraordinarily heavy and dark with artistic carvings and even the date carved in sometimes.

Swedish and Finnish style looms are frequently known for the rear support beams being one huge piece of carved wood from a tree root – very distinctive!

However they were built, I doubt the builder or the weaver ever imagined that someone  like  me would fall in love with the same tool used to supply household linens, some 200 years after the loom ceased to be needed.

What a testiment to simple skills and tools.



Rear View of a typical four-poster with warped beam


Cantilever loom with overslung beater *note: pulleys on ropes suspended from roller-these hold the harnesses*


The last four photos on this page are excellent shots of barn frame looms -the Antique Handloom shows the built – in bench, harnesses, heddles and warp beam including brake.

Michelle shows the side supports ( arched) and the four support posts as well as a good shot of the beater

Lynette gives a good shot of the breast beam and harnesses ,

 Norm Kennedy shows a good shot of the cloth beam, harnesses and pulleys.

If you check out the Equipment for Sale page, you’ll find a cantilever loom with a freestanding bench – the interesting feature  here is that  the treadles are attached to the BENCH! not the loom as is so  often the case. I have a loom very much like this and it took me awhile to discover the treadles didn’t attach to the loom, but the ancient bench. Up till that time I didn’t know such an adaptation occured.

Spinning Wheel Types

February 27, 2008

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Spinning Wheel Slueth Spinning Wheels come in a variety of types and there are good reasons for that.

Remember that they are nothing but wooden machines designed to make the work of twisting fiber into stronger thread, easier.

Early on we had spindles, until some bright  person realized that by turning the spindle on it’s side and attaching it to a wheel via a drive band, the revolutions of the spindle were increased significantly, and the process of creating thread/yarn was made faster.

Spinning Wheel Slueth shows a spindle assembly at the bottom of their ” Current Issue” page. Scroll all the way down and you will see an assembly complete with “accelerated” head.


This first wheel is what we know today as a Great Wheel. It predated the smaller treadle wheel by alot, and was the only way to make yarn for a looooong time.

Obviously the large drive wheel was designed to increase the spindle revolutitons as much as possible.

While the Great Wheel was an improvement over the drop spindle, it required some skill, technique and finesse to use well. The operator of the wheel stood alongside the drive wheel facing the spindle. With her right hand, she spun the Great Wheel from it’s hub ( not a spoke, however tempting that is )which began the spinning of the spindle. As the fiber twisted, the spinner walked backwards and a bit sidewards drafting her fiber out as she backed away. This gave a long filament which was long enough eventually to cause the spinner to loose contact with the drive wheel  – even if she used a small stick (wheel finger is the technical term) to reach it after she lost her reach.

At this point, the spinner reversed the turn of the Great Wheel causing the now twisted yarn to be wound onto the spindle as she again advanced and moved closer to the wheel simultaneously, returning to start position.

For a someone not familiar with a Great Wheel it can be frustrating to get the hang of a one-handed draw which is why many people don’t even bother. Not alot of folks use Great Wheels but prefer the easier and less space consuming treadle wheels.

Back in the day when Great Wheels were the only game in town, women “walked” the equivalent of miles during spinning sessionns. I’ve heard all kinds of numbers quoted, none of which I believe to be accurate so I’ll just say miles – that’s impressive enough.

While the process of spinning with a Great Wheel is slower than a treadle wheel to be sure, I don’t think it’s all that slow. If it were we’d never have made any textiles at all. Further, imagine how slow a drop spindle is! And people managed to make cloth out of yarn spun on those! So I suspect that women spinning on Great Wheels were fast about it. They employed skill and industriousness to the task because they didn’t have the luxury of relaxed, meditative spinning. They were providing much needed fiber for weaving and many persons were dependant on that cloth.

Here is a video :


but there are several flaws in her technique.

First she is using the spoke to turn the wheel…..bad bad bad.

The HUB is for turning the wheel, though admitedly they don’t always fit your hand comfortably.

Also, in reality she would be cranking that drive wheel with a good deal of speed to spin as much and as fast as she can. Many modern day spinners don’t get that speed was a factor on either a great wheel or treadle wheel. Today it’s all about relaxing.

Heres’ a second video:


I have issue with this one because her technique is to move straight backwards as oppossed to backwards and sidewards away from the drive wheel. For the most part though she does a smooth job as did the first spinner. I’m just sorry that historically correct technique is lost.

In the upper left hand corner of video #2 you can see the wheel hub which is where the spinners hand should be to turn the wheel. She too uses the spoke to rotate the drive wheel. That’s how spokes get broken!

Great Wheels are great to have and use. Due to size I believe they suffer from being unpopular and due to having to learn a new way to spin, the Great Wheels are overlooked, neglected and frequently missing working parts when you are fortunate enough to find one at all.

They range in price from reasonable to being outrageously overepriced and have no real monetary value unless they are popular collectors rare-to-find signed wheels with known provenance.

Feel free to ask questions.


Barn Frame Looms in Early America

February 26, 2008


This is my first barn frame loom.  When I brought  it home it was missing a number of important pieces that I eventually replaced in order to be able to use it. This particular loom can be viewed both front and back @


My first barn frame loomRestored Barn Frame LoomWhile spinning wheels were used to turn hand processed fiber into yarn, barn frame looms were used to weave the yarn into textiles.

My  interest and experience lies in the equipment used by housewives as they turned the raw materials readily available to them into cloth.  Some cloth was plain and strictly utilitarian, other cloth was beautiful and added to the decor of the home. All cloth  was woven on the rather large and  heavy  looms.

Known as barn frame looms, the looms were constructed with the same mortise and tennon joinery used for barns. There were no  nails or screws in that time, and though wooden pegs were sometimes  used to add strength to a join, many looms were simply secured with wedges in the spaces were the mortise and tennon came together. This had the effect of tightening up the fit and when done  properly removed any tendancy for the loom to shift or wobble as the weaver used  the beater to fashion the cloth.

While spinning wheels were often built by woodworkers and sold to the  public, looms were made on demand and were one-of-a- kind. Often a husband, father, brother or uncle would take on the building of a loom, following a design seen in the “old” country. Many looms we see today from the 18th & 19th centuries bear distinct features of a particular nationality that make them recognizeable as such.Immigrants from Germany, Holland, Ireland and Scotland built looms here in their new home, that resembled those once used by their grandmothers in the old country.

I often am frustrated by people who have some knowledge of American history  and feel compelled to argue with  me regarding the time that spinning and weaving ceased to be done in the home here in America.

The truth is, that cloth could be imported from many exotic places for those who could afford to buy it. This was true but for the time of the Revolution, when we could not obtain imported goods due to our war with England. Once the  Revolution was over, trade with other countries once again opened up, and goods became available for those who could afford to buy them.

That said, there were circumstances where hand spinning of fiber and handweaving of homespun continued unabated welll into the present day albeit for different reasons.

Barn frame looms were used by many people, both professional and home weavers, to produce many types of cloth including linen( made from flax) , wool ( fleece from sheep ) and cotton ( grown in the South ).

When a loom was to be used mainly for linen, it was built differently than those that were to be multipurpose looms.

Linen looms were often smaller than other looms, though not always. They required a great deal of tension on the warp, so were fitted with an extra beam that would allow for higher tensioning of the warp.

If the threads to be woven were of a fine weight and thickness, the loom often had a cloth beam that was not solid, but allowed for the passage of the cloth through the center ( as opposed to around the breast beam ) . This made it possible for the weaver to avoid rubbing against the fragile cloth as it was being woven, avoiding undue wear.

This feature was unnecessary with wool which was much sturdier, so many looms had solid breast beams and rubbing against the cloth as woven had little effect.

America and the Spinning Wheel – The First Hundred Years

February 21, 2008

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Antique spinning wheels come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, designs and capabilities. My knowledge revolves around American made wheels though I have knowledge of Canadian, German, Dutch, Ukranian etc.

I love the American wheels, because of their connection to our countries unique infancy and the time they represent.

By the time settlers arrived in the New World from England, cloth was being manufactured in mills. Both spinning and weaving was done there, though traditional spinning wheels and looms were used.

When the first settlers arrived here, our relationship with the mother country was of course intact and England expected the settlers to harvest and export the abudant raw materials the new land had to offer.

She also expected to export finished goods to the settlers who had no enterprise established to supply their needs nor the time to devote to producing much needed material goods.

For the first 30 years or so I’m told, we didn’t even have enough of a domestic sheep population to supply the demand for wool, let alone the ability to process it. The first settlers spent their life energy building homes, growing food, and performing the work necessary to establish towns and harvest the raw material to be exported.

It’s even been said that England refused to let anyone travel to the New World who had working knowledge of  weaving and spinning technology of the day, for fear they would set themselves up in business and refuse to buy from her or export the much desired materials.

Initially, anyone in this fledgling country who found the time to spin and weave their own cloth was penalized – it was a forbidden act!

 Fast forward to our revolution, our becoming independant and severing ties with England, and you will see that it was essential to produce ALL of our necessary products. Importing was impossible, even with other countries due to the alliances  formed between England and France, Germany, Spain, etc. No one allied with England wanted to risk angering her by exporting to us.

Independant spirits that we are, we set about to supply our own demand and we did. Where once it was an illegal act to spin and weave for your family and neighbors, in the 18th century it was rewarded with a stipend, and each household was under edict to produce a minimum amount of yarn and cloth per year.

What a difference a revolution makes!


Antique Spinning Wheels and Looms

February 13, 2008

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Suffolk County LoomWelcome to my blog!

This is where I will share my passion for the spinning and weaving tools  of yore!

My first encounter with an antique spinning wheel occured when I was just 17 years old.

Having married a police officer who was acting as a live-in caretaker for a historic house, I was often inspired to wander the rooms  after the public had gone home. It was always a wonder to me, the marvelous and ingenious things  people had made from their own two hands, basic knowledge, and the right tools.

The particular house we watched over had a small apartment attached, which was our living quarters and offered me an open invitation to pass over the shared threshold into a world of wonderful items, many of which were completely unfamiliar to me, a 20th century woman.

Of course, the spinning wheel was recognizable, and I was captivated by it, though at the time, I mistakenly thought that the knowledge of how to use one had died with the  Colonials.

It took my twenty years, to discover that spinning was alive and well……in my own town!

A local lady offered to get me started spinning and weaving and I’ve  been hooked ever since.

My passion for the spinning wheels and weaving looms drives me, and I’ve spent alot of time, learning and researching both.

My favorite place to be is the museums, particularly if they have a number of interesting wheels/looms. There, I can see more examples of pieces than I ever would come by on my own, and I get to see them up close!

It is my hope to share information, and expand the data base of old wheels and looms, keeping  the  information alive for future generations.

Kathryn McMahon


18th & 19th Century Spinning Wheels & Looms