Spinning in the Valley

Jun 22nd, 2018 | By | Category: Connecting With

The purchase of a partial great wheel at an auction and the discovery the maker’s stencil, started Gordon Moat of Chesterville on a quest to learn all he could about the history of spinning wheels.

Mary Cook talked to Moat about how his interest in the common spinning wheel came about and where his research has led him.

Y@H: When did you first become interested in the spinning wheel?

GM: From early childhood I was interested in earlier times from finding indigenous artifacts in the Saskatchewan fields near my home. At University of Saskatchewan I studied archaeology and geology. By the early 1980s, I was working at a desk with computers in Ottawa all day and began to miss my earlier hands-on interests. In the early 1990s I acquired a historic loom for weaving cloth from a neighbour a half mile from where I live. There was a partial spinning wheel of the great or walking type with it. I joined the Ottawa Weaving and Spinning Guild to learn about weaving. A more complete great wheel came up at an auction three miles from my home the next summer. My bidding was successful and now I had both the tool to make yarn and the tool to weave it into cloth. Soon learning to spin took precedence – one winter I stored the great wheel in a less used corner of the kitchen of our old farm house so I could spin more regularly.

Y@H: Why did you decide to delve into its history?

GM: Almost two decades passed with occasional public demonstrations of spinning and wool carding with fellow guild members. In 2011, I purchased another partial great wheel at an auction near Pierce’s Corners, southwest of Ottawa. While loading it into my vehicle I noticed a painted stencil which read “H. Row, Maker, Kemptville.” I took this discovery as an open invitation to learn more about the wheel and its maker.

Y@H: Tell me about the local connection that piqued your interest?

GM: It had been made in Kemptville.  Our guild library had a book on spinning wheels in the Canadian National Museum (now Museum of Canadian History) and one appeared identical to mine except the author listed the mark as M. Row. She had learned his name was Michael Horton Row from an 1868 patent for a spinning wheel.  I joined the North Grenville Historical Society whose members showed me a reprint of Kemptville Past and Present which included a business directory from 1866 listing Horton Row as a wheelwright on Rideau Street. The Society had a complete great spinning wheel from a local donor in the same style with the same stencil as mine. A visit to the Museum of Canadian History to examine their wheel proved that the mark was indeed H. Row as opposed to M. Row.

Further research in the 1851 Canadian census showed widowed Sophia Row (nee Clothier) living on Rideau Street with sons Clothier, Horton, Reuben and George. Both Lyman Clothier Row and Michael Horton Row were known in Kemptville by their second names. Perhaps this eased the confusion with their grandfathers, who had the same first names. Lyman Clothier was the maternal grandfather and Michael Row was the paternal grandfather of the boys. Another widow Catherine Magee and her daughter Eliza shared the same house.

By the 1861 census only Horton Row is listed in the Kemptville area, and he is married to Eliza and they have a daughter Catherine; grandmother Magee also resides with them.

Y@H: Are you interested in all types of spinning wheels?

GM: Yes, I like to see the range of variation found in spinning wheels but my keenest interest is in the spindle types, especially great wheels and patented wheels.

Y@H: How far afield have you gone in your search?

GM: Physically I have travelled to western Quebec, eastern and southern Ontario, and Vermont. On the internet I have seen photos of Row-made wheels as far away as London, Ontario, Savannah, Georgia and Red Deer, Alberta. My search for information has used census records in Canada and the US, old directories, patent documents, genealogical records, early tools for making threads in wood. I have riven (split) ash logs to make blanks I could turn on a wood lathe to make legs to repair Row spinning wheels.

Y@H: Can you take us through the development of the spinning wheel … how it evolved or how it improved from the very first model?

GM: The first yarn was spun by twisting fibres by hand. The drop spindle, or vertical stick with a weighted whorl at its base, followed. The L’Anse aux Meadows site was identified as a Viking encampment in part through the discovery of a spindle whorl. The drop spindle was twirled by hand to provide the twist that forms yarn. By mounting a spindle horizontally and using a belt from a drive wheel the process was sped up considerably. This gave the great or walking wheel I take an interest in where the twist enters the yarn from the turning spindle driven via a belt to a hand-turned drive wheel. Another type finds a seated spinner using his or her foot on a treadle to operate the drive wheel. This type usually has a u-shaped flyer spinning to provide the twist and the yarn winds onto a bobbin as it forms.

Y@H: How do spinning wheels differ?

GM: Spinning wheels can differ in the functional types described in the previous answer, as well as in individual attributes or construction details chosen by their makers. Drive wheel diameters can range from a few inches in Indian charkas, as used by Gandhi, to four or more feet on the typical great wheel. Legs and spokes are often turned on wood lathes giving the turners the opportunity to use beads (bumps), coves
(valleys) and scored/incised lines encircling the leg or spoke as decorative touches. Edges of the bases may be plain or scalloped. The drive belts used to turn spindles or flyers need a finely tuned tension to work well. Often wooden screws are used to adjust this tension. Custom made screw boxes and taps were the historic equivalent of our modern tap and die threading tools. Hence the threads of a tension screw from one wheel rarely will fit the receiving nut of another wheel as their thread counts per inch vary.

Y@H: Can we assume you have collected many since your interest began … how many have you now?

GM: Yes, I have over the years been custodian for many of these historic artifacts. Presently, I would have a half dozen or so that could be spun on and parts of others that need repairs and/or TLC. I have also assisted many on their journey to new homes, in an effort to preserve them. It is gratifying to redirect them to owners who will use them and share knowledge of spinning or to enable an educational institution like a museum to tell a more detailed story about a Row wheel.

Y@H: Are there organizations for those who have an interest in spinning wheels?

GM: In Ontario there is a provincial group known as Ontario Handweavers and Spinners (OHS) which publishes a quarterly magazine and has local chapters or guilds of fibre enthusiasts. They also host conferences with presentations on spinning and weaving as well as vendor fairs where spinners happily add to their yarn stashes. The Ottawa Valley Weaves and Spinners guild serves our area with monthly meetings, public demonstrations and an annual Exhibition and Sale at the Glebe Community Centre in early November.

I subscribe to a quarterly US publication called The Spinning Wheel Sleuth for spinning wheel enthusiasts and historians. More details on my discoveries and research on the local eastern Ontario spinning history have been published in several articles there. I also speak on the subject to groups like historical societies, service clubs, spinning guilds and the OHS seminars. On Labour Day weekend I will be spinning at the South Stormont Fair in Newington dressed in 1860s shirt and trousers.

Y@H: Other than at museums, and places like Upper Canada Village, are there still people who use spinning wheels like the ones of yesteryear?

GM: Most definitely, there are guilds with spinning members all across Canada and around the world not just here in Ontario. There is an Internet site called Ravelry (www.ravelry.com) started for knitters and crocheters but with a very wide range of groups for fibre-related activities including spinning. I frequent the spindle wheels group in much the same way you or your friends might use Facebook. It is not uncommon for any of these spinners to have and use multiple spinning wheels. The vast majority would have functioning wheels as opposed to decorative wheels … in the last century the Roxton furniture company made purely decorative spinning wheels.

Y@H: Is there a certain spinning wheel out there you would like to own? Or is your collection complete?

GM: Other than finding another example of Row’s patented wheel I don’t have a wish list. I do know one local gentleman with a connection to a North Gower maker of the Victoria patented wheel looking for one of those pendulum spinning wheels. Since wheels were made by individual craftsmen for the  pre-1900 era, the variety is infinite. Some days I dream of the lathe and tools used by Horton. We know from the long-form census in 1871 that the motive power for his spinning wheel business was one horse, likely to power his lathe. But to find a craftsman’s tools some 150 years later is unlikely.

Y@H: Have you mastered the running of the spinning wheel, and do you ever just operate one for the sheer joy of putting it to work?

GM: I am competent at great wheel spinning and stretch to use the patented spindle wheels. I enjoy doing demos at local fairs and events, especially using hands-on instruction for the passersby. My goal is to give them the thrill of feeling the wool twist into yarn as the individual fibres leave their hand. Unfortunately I do not practice enough at home to make beautiful yarn. Travelling to demos is time away from family; wheels are broken down for transport and reassembled at the event meaning time must be taken at the beginning of each setup to tune the wheel like a musical instrument. Alignment of drive wheel and spindle assembly is critical to avoid belts flying off and many adjustments are required to find the sweet spots for tension of belts.

Y@H: What are your favourite discoveries along the research trail?

GM: Horton Row applied for a spinning wheel patent on March 18, 1868. It was granted on March 23, 1868 and the Letters Patent document was signed by a Scotsman named John A. Macdonald. He used a Letters Patent form from 20 years previous, stroking out the references to Upper Canada and replacing them with Dominion of Canada. Yes, this was our first green Prime Minister (use up the old forms before you print new). By the way, in 1868, March 21 and 22 were Saturday and Sunday respectively so it took only four working days to get a patent.

In 1871, Horton made 250 spinning wheels in six months. He sold them for $2.50 per wheel, paid an employee $180 wages, and spent $20 for 20 ash logs (raw materials). Like many today he also farmed to support his family.

My search for Row descendants died an early death so I focused more on the wheels. Then, a year ago, one of my network contacts in North Dakota received a serendipitous enquiry via her newspaper from Ronald Row in Arizona. She immediately put me in touch with Ronald and we compared notes. He is Horton’s great grandson. He knew nothing about the Ontario spinning connection but he did share notes from his father.

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