Discover the History of the Spinning Wheel – and learn how to use it.
The amazing history of the spinning wheel!
First, there was the spindle
Before there was the spinning wheel, there was the spindle. People would spin by hand using a spindle. Later the spindle was mounted horizontally and rotated mechanically with a hand-driven wheel. The spinning wheel came to existence!
Then came the Great Wheel
When the wheel first started to get used, the fibre was held at a slight angle in order to produce the necessary twist. The use of this first type of wheel was not widespread during the early years.
The construction of the Great Wheel made the spinning wheel very good at creating long drawn soft fluffy wools, but it was still challenging to create the smooth yarns needed to create warp for weaving.
New technological improvements enabled the spinning wheels to spin a variety of threads at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Hand Spindle
For thousands of years, mankind has been spinning fibers into threads to produce fabrics. Up until the Middle Ages, hand spindles in different variations were mainly used in Europe to produce yarn from vegetable or animal fibers.
The oldest finds of spindles date back to the Neolithic Age. At first, a simple spinning stick was probably used. But since ancient times, spindles with whorls have also been known.
Hand spindles can be seen a little later on Egyptian wall paintings, Greek vases and clay vessels. The first written references are found in Roman writers Columella, Vitruvius and Cato.1
India and the first Charkhas
In India, charkhas were already used in the 9th century as a further development of the hand spindle. In Europe, the first hand-operated spindle wheels only appeared in the 13th century.
With the Charkhas, the spindle is mounted horizontally and connected to a drive wheel via a belt. This drive wheel is turned with one hand while the other hand pulls out the fibers. To wind up the finished spun yarn – the spinning process no longer had to be interrupted as with the manual hand spindle.
Charkha - How cotton is converted to thread
Invention of the Spinning Wheel
The spinning wheel has a long and exciting history. Used to spin thread or yarn from fibres, the spinning wheel has an interesting story to tell. It is a significant contributor to the industrial revolution as it was the predecessor for all sort of modern equipment used today in the textile industry.
Invented in the Islamic world in the 11th century it is depicted in illustrations in Baghdad dating as far back as 1237. This invention reached China around 1090 and then a bit later Europe and India.
In the 13th century, the use of the spinning wheel in Central Europe became widespread. However, historical evidence in legal texts proves that the use of the spinning wheel was prohibited for some guilds, such as cloth-making. The exact reason for the restriction is debatable. Historians assume that the bans were issued to protect the high quality of wool yarn twisted with the hand spindle. The use of the spindle spinning wheel remained prohibited for some guilds in various regions even well into the 16th century.2
The first pictorial evidence of the hand-operated spinning wheel dates back to 1480, but the ingenious inventor of this new functionality of the spinning wheel is unfortunately unknown.
The Spinning Wheel in History and Fairy Tales
The second oldest picture of a manual spinning wheel was found in manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci the greatest engineer of the 15th century. We see a spinning mechanism with a longitudinally movable spinning wing, but we don’t know whether this invention was produced in large numbers anywhere. 3
A pedal for the foot drive was only introduced from the middle of the 17th century. A painting from 1659 shows the first time a foot-operated spinning wheel, in which a footboard is connected to the drive wheel by a rod. Possibly a turner came up with the idea of transferring the principle of his foot-driven lathe to the spinning wheel.
These manually operated spinning wheels also served as models for the first mechanical spinning machines of the 18th century, which were operated by water power. Even after the introduction of industrial spinning machines, the hand-operated spinning wheel continued to be used domestically and was part of the bride’s dowry until the 19th century. 4
Even today, manually operated spinning wheels are still being built and technically developed by numerous handicraft enterprises. Mostly for the needs of people who have a great enthusiasm for this fascinating hobby.
Fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty incorporated the spinning wheel in the imagery and myths of our culture.
„Spinning Jenny“ - The Beginning of Industrialisation
In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the “Spinning Jenny,” which now automated spinning. At first glance, it resembles a spinning wheel with up to 100 spindles. But unlike the spinning wheel, the Spinning Jenny worked according the same principle as the manual drop spindle. It was vertically aligned, and one one side it presented a row of spindles, whereas at the opposite side it had a row of vertical pins.
With its high increase in productivity compared to the spinning wheel, the Spinning Jenny is considered a milestone in the industrial revolution and technology history. In 1769 the “Waterframe” by Richard Arkwright followed, which was the first to be used industrially on a larger scale and was water-powered.5
Despite industrialization, the spinning wheel was not obsolete. Spinning wheels continued to buzz in households, especially in rural areas and supplied the home weavers with yarns made of flax and hemp to produce fabrics.
Even today, the spinning wheel is still very popular, and spinning yarns is being rediscovered as a hobby by many enthusiasts.
How does a spinning wheel work?
First, you need to remember that to make yarn; you need to add a twist to the fibers. The twist is the characteristic that makes the strands strong.
Take your seat at the spinning wheel and start with your leader yarn on the bobbin. You need to guide the leader thread through the flyer hooks and then through the orifice hole of your wheel.
Now that you have the fibers ready to spin, it is time to press your foot to pedal the treadle. The treadle will move up and down, moving the footman up and down as well. A drive band rotates the spindle and the drive wheel. The movement will cause the wheel to turn and the drive band connected around the drive wheel will cause the flyer to turn.
The flyer has a row of hooks on one or both sides of the U-shaped arms to guide the yarn onto the bobbin evenly. As the flyer turns, twist builds upon the leader yarn, and this twist moves down to the fibres that you spin.
With the twist created, you now have your yarn, which is pulled in through the orifice hole and flyer hooks to twist around the bobbin. In case the yarn is pulled through too quickly, you will need to adjust your tension through your drive band or your brake band depending on which wheel you are using.
The longer the yarn is held before letting it wind onto the bobbin, the more twist it will receive.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help at the beginning. You can send me a message and ask questions, or perhaps join a local club of enthusiasts and ask for some guidance.
I’m sure people will be happy to help you. It can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning but don’t despair. Once you get the hang of it is really fulfilling.
How to Use a Spinning Wheel
Well, now that you know how a spinning wheel works, it isn’t difficult to use it. When you start, remember the basic rule: it is all about twisting the fibres so that the woollen yarn at the end is really strong and durable. Wool fibres will naturally link together with spinning thanks to the tension which develops when you twist them.
Your spinning wheel will make the process and lot faster and a lot more enjoyable. The rhythm of the wheel can feel relaxing and reassuring and can help you connect with our ancestors and the rich history of creating fabrics for clothing.
As I mentioned before if you are new to this, don’t hesitate to ask for help. People who share the same passion are very helpful, and they will be excited to help. You can always send me a message to connect and discuss the process. Don’t hesitate to ask any specific questions.
- John Munro: Wool and Wool Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c. 800–1500. Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation. (= Department of Economics and Institute for Policy Analysis, University of Toronto. Working Paper. No. munro-00-05, ; PDF; 1,4 MB). University of Toronto, Toronto 2000.
- F.M. Feldhaus (2004). "Ancient History of the Spinning wheel". Heidelberg, Germany
- Spinning wheel, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Spinning_wheel&oldid=932762981 (last visited Jan. 4, 2020).