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"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Great Wheel By Pegg Thomas

Restored Great Wheel
The first spinning wheel I ever spun on was a Great Wheel. That was back in 1978 when I was still in high school. I've never forgotten the experience of working on a living legend of history. Also known as a Wool Wheel or a Walking Wheel, it's an amazingly simple machine used to create thread or yarn. 

For years I have scouted around eBay and Craigslist, quietly drooling into my lap, knowing I'd never be able to justify the $300 - $800 to purchase one of these beautiful, functional pieces. Until last month. I saw a photo on Craigslist of a Great Wheel that looked - frankly - too good to be true. Priced at only $85, and located in the same town as Michelle, friend of mine, it was worth a phone call. 

I spoke to an elderly couple who said a friend had put the ad on Craigslist for them and that they didn't have a way to text me any photographs. Hearing this, I was pretty sure the photo in the ad was not the actual wheel for sale. But I called Michelle and she happily agreed to go look at the wheel, take photos with her phone, and text them to me. I called the couple back and told them I'd be purchasing this sight unseen, and asked what the lowest price they'd be willing to take was. I was shocked - and thrilled! - when they said $50. Michelle arranged to meet with them in a couple of days.

I waited on pins and needles.
The Great Wheel as first assembled.

My phone beeped and the photo confirmed my suspicion. The wheel was not the same as the one in the ad. I asked Michelle to see if the wheel turned freely, if the base felt solid, and to take a photo of the spindle. It wasn't assembled correctly, but I could see that all the parts were there.

Michelle bought the wheel and took it home. Then I had to wait a week to make the trip across the state to pick it up. It was like Christmas Eve that whole week. While I'd seen the photos, that can only tell so much about an antique. I still didn't know exactly what I'd bought or if I'd be able to restore it to working condition.

We arrived to pick up the wheel and my heart bobbled for a moment when I saw the gray/brown condition of the wood. But all the pieces were there. Michelle had disassembled it to transport it, since it wouldn't fit into a vehicle otherwise. We put the wheel and the bench in the back of our truck, and the spindle assembly in the back seat. It was an agonizingly long 5 1/2 hour drive home before I could put it all together.

Put it together I did, before falling into bed and dreaming of how to restore this beauty to some semblance of his former glory. I'd spent a great deal of time the past week researching Great Wheels. I knew by the lack of lacquer or shellac, it had most likely been made pre-1850. I sure didn't want to mess this up.

The next morning I cleaned it and applied a beeswax product to the wood. It soaked up more than half of a 16-ounce bottle of the wax. But with each brush of the cloth, a stunningly beautiful wood was exposed. With a few gentle and careful taps of a hammer, I was able to reset the nail heads that had worked up along the face of the wheel. I was thrilled. Even if it never spun, it was gorgeous to look at.
The spindle with a white paper quill attached,
black llama fibers spun into yarn.

The following day amid a flurry of errands I had to run, I stopped into a local craft store and bought a strip of leather to make the bearings the spindle would turn on. They had exactly what I needed. But I had to run more errands, meet with a neighbor, and then a repairman before I could put the final piece of the wheel together. Once the spindle was attached, I made a drive belt out of a piece of thick cotton string, waxed it, and held my breath. 

It took a little tweaking to get the wheel aligned with the spindle and to get the tensions set correctly, but within minutes ... I was spinning! Excited? Yeah, you bet. And thrilled to have salvaged this old wheel for many more years to come.


PeggThomas.com
Debut story releasing in The Pony Express Romance Collection (April 2017) available now for pre-order from Barbour Publishing.






9 comments:

  1. Hooray for your excellent find! You did a wonderful job with the restoration too. I used one of these wheels in fifth grade as part of a bi-centennial celebration. We did everything but shear the sheep. One of my classmates mother took the yarn we made and knitted a hat for our balding teacher.

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  2. Great article.
    Congratulations on your Great Wheel!
    We had two great wheels but I traded one for new period clothing garments for my wife (we reenact), so now we're down to one.
    Can you tell me when Great Wheels went out of favor? I was told they were pretty much dinosaurs by 1840.
    Thanks.

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    1. I believe they were made through the Civil War, but I couldn't tell you how popular they were all that time.

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  3. Congratulations on your wheel! I have always wanted to spin yarn on a spinning wheel.
    Blessings, Tina

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  4. Wow! I have spun yarn on a drop spindle - I think that's what it's called - but never on a spinning wheel. What an incredible experience to find, restore and be able to use this Great Wheel.

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    1. It's been an amazing experience for sure.

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