Heirloom Spinning Wheels
My father told me that as a child he would sit by the fire watching his grandmother spin yarn in their farmhouse in upstate New York. A picture of the hearth with a spinning wheel beside it (on the right side, not the left) and a basket of wool carded into fluffy locks formed in my daydreams. The imagined silhouette of a woman spinning against the firelight burned itself into my memory.
For years, I hoped that wheel would surface as heirlooms were handed down. The small chair Dad sat in came to me, but no one living recalled seeing a spinning wheel. One hundred years after my great-grandmother’s birth a tiny snippet of her yarn was sent to me by a cousin from a small skein that survived. What a precious thread it is—still a crisp white, two-ply, spun evenly into fingerweight yarn with the perfect tension for knitting socks.
Last summer another connection to her surfaced in the form of old sheet music found among family papers. The words to this song are from the early 1900s and describe an industrial gentleman teaching female employees to spin.
With your thumb and your first finger
Draw a thread and twist it round!
While the foot the wheel turns lightly,
Let the hand the thread entwine
Gently guided, nimbly twisted
It becomes both strong and fine!
If you want your wages paid
You must earn them first, my maid.*
After much laughter and instruction, the women sing
‘Tis too charming, ‘tis too cunning!
What a pleasant work is spinning!
I like to think my great-grandmother cherished the times she spun yarn with her grandson looking on and would be pleased that her great-granddaughter continues the pleasant work of spinning in her stead.
Do you have a family history connected to handspinning? Oral stories are at risk of being lost unless you pass them on in your lifetime. I would love to share them in this column with our wider spinning community. Send a note to email@example.com and keep the connections intact.
*Words from the song “Spinning Wheel Quartette” by Frederich von Flotow, from Martha, Act II, No. 8, Oliver Ditson Company, Boston.