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Spinning wheel

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Spinning wheel

Irish spinning wheel - around 1900
Library of Congress collection

A spinning wheel is a device for spinning thread or yarn from natural or synthetic fibres. Spinning wheels appeared in Asia, probably in the 11th century, and very gradually replaced hand spinning with spindle and distaff. Spinning machinery, such as the spinning jenny and spinning frame, displaced the spinning wheel during the Industrial Revolution.


  • History 1
  • Types 2
    • Charkha 2.1
    • Great wheel 2.2
    • Treadle wheel 2.3
      • Double drive 2.3.1
      • Single drive 2.3.2
      • Castle style 2.3.3
      • Electric spinning wheel 2.3.4
  • Importance 3
  • Culture 4
    • Literature and folk tales 4.1
    • Music 4.2
      • Classical and symphonic 4.2.1
      • Folk and ballad 4.2.2
      • Opera 4.2.3
      • Art 4.2.4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7


Detail of The Spinning Wheel, by Chinese artist Wang Juzheng, Northern Song Dynasty (960–1279)[1]

The earliest clear illustrations of the spinning wheel come from Baghdad (drawn in 1234),[2] China (c. 1270) and Europe (c. 1280), and there is evidence that spinning wheels had already come into use in both China and the Islamic world during the eleventh century.[3] According to Irfan Habib, the spinning wheel was introduced into India from Iran in the thirteenth century.[3] In France the spindle and distaff were not displaced until the mid 18th century.[4]

Scene from Al-Maqamat, painted by al-Wasiti 1237

According to high level equilibrium trap theory to explain why there was no indigenous industrial revolution in China despite its high levels of wealth and scientific knowledge.

The spinning wheel replaced the earlier method of hand spinning with a spindle. The first stage in mechanizing the process was mounting the spindle horizontally so it could be rotated by a cord encircling a large, hand-driven wheel. The great wheel is an example of this type, where the fibre is held in the left hand and the wheel slowly turned with the right. Holding the fibre at a slight angle to the spindle produced the necessary twist.[5] The spun yarn was then wound onto the spindle by moving it so as to form a right angle with the spindle. This type of wheel, while known in Europe by the 14th century, was not in general use until later. The construction of the Great Wheel made it very good at creating long drawn soft fuzzy wools, but very difficult to create the strong smooth yarns needed to create warp for weaving.[6] Spinning wheels ultimately did not develop the capability to spin a variety of yarns until the beginning of the 19th century and the mechanization of spinning.

Woman spinning with a wheel, from the Elizabethan era, early 17th century

In general, the spinning technology was known for a long time before being adopted by the majority of people, thus making it hard to fix dates of the improvements. In 1533, a citizen of Brunswick is said to have added a treadle, by which the spinner could rotate her spindle with one foot and have both hands free to spin. Leonardo da Vinci drew a picture of the flyer, which twists the yarn before winding it onto the spindle. During the 16th century a treadle wheel with flyer was in common use, and gained such names as the Saxony wheel and the flax wheel. It sped up production, as one needn't stop spinning to wind up the yarn.

On the eve of the Industrial revolution it took at least five spinners to supply one weaver. Lewis Paul and John Wyatt first worked on the problem in 1738, patenting the Roller Spinning machine and the flyer-and-bobbin system, for drawing wool to a more even thickness. Using two sets of rollers that travelled at different speeds, yarn could be twisted and spun quickly and efficiently. However, they did not have much financial success. In 1771, Richard Arkwright used waterwheels to power looms for the production of cotton cloth, his invention becoming known as the water frame.

More modern spinning machines use a mechanical means to rotate the spindle, as well as an automatic method to draw out fibres, and devices to work many spindles together at speeds previously unattainable.[7] Newer technologies that offer even faster yarn production include friction spinning, an open-end system, and air jets.[8]


A depiction of spinning by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, 1644-1648

Numerous types of spinning wheels exist, including the great wheel also known as walking wheel or wool wheel for rapid long draw spinning of woolen-spun yarns; the flax wheel, which is a double-drive wheel used with a distaff for spinning linen; saxony and upright wheels, all-purpose treadle driven wheels used to spin both woolen and worsted-spun yarns; and the charkha, native to Asia. Until the acceptance of rotor spinning wheel, all yarns were produced by aligning fibres through drawing techniques and then twisting the fiber together. With rotor spinning, the fibers in the roving are separated, thus open end, and then wrapped and twisted as the yarn is drawn out of the rotor cup.


Mohandas Gandhi spinning yarn on a charkha.
A lady yarning in a Charkha in MG Road Boulevard, Bangalore

The tabletop or floor charkha is one of the oldest known forms of the spinning wheel. The charkha works similarly to the great wheel, with a drive wheel being turned by hand, while the yarn is spun off the tip of the spindle. The floor charkha and the great wheel closely resemble each other. With both, the spinning must stop in order to wind the yarn onto the spindle.

The word charkha which has links with Persian چرخ: charKh, wheel, is related to the word "circle" (rather like "church" is to "kirk"). The charkha was both a tool and a symbol of the Indian independence movement. The charkha, a small, portable, hand-cranked wheel, is ideal for spinning cotton and other fine, short-staple fibres, though it can be used to spin other fibers as well. The size varies, from that of a hardbound novel to the size of a briefcase, to a floor charkha. Mahatma Gandhi brought the charkha into wider use with his teachings. He hoped the charkha would assist the people of India achieve self-sufficiency and independence, and therefore used the charkha as a symbol of the Indian independence movement and included it on earlier versions of the Flag of India.

Modified and portable compact Charkha

Great wheel

The great wheel was one of the earlier types of spinning wheel. The fiber is held in the left hand and the wheel slowly turned with the right. This wheel is thus good for using the long-draw spinning technique, which requires only one active hand most of the time, thus freeing a hand to turn the wheel. The great wheel is usually used to spin short-staple fibers (this includes both cotton and wool), and can only be used with fibre preparations that are suited to long-draw spinning.

Spinning wool on a great wheel at a demonstration in the Conner Prairie living history museum loom house

The great wheel is usually over 5 feet (1.5 m) in height. The large drive wheel turns the much smaller spindle assembly, with the spindle revolving many times for each turn of the drive wheel. The yarn is spun at an angle off the tip of the spindle, and is then stored on the spindle. To begin spinning on a great wheel, first a leader (a length of waste yarn) is tied onto the base of the spindle and spiraled up to the tip. Then the spinner overlaps a handful of fiber with the leader, holding both gently together with the left hand, and begins to slowly turn the drive wheel clockwise with the right hand, while simultaneously walking backward and drawing the fibre in the left hand away from the spindle at an angle. The left hand must control the tension on the wool to produce an even result. Once a sufficient amount of yarn has been made, the spinner turns the wheel backward a short distance to unwind the spiral on the spindle, then turns it clockwise again, and winds the newly made yarn onto the spindle, finishing the wind-on by spiralling back out to the tip again to make another draw.

Treadle wheel

This type of wheel is powered by the spinner's foot rather than their hand or a motor. The spinner sits and pumps a foot treadle that turns the drive wheel via a crankshaft and a connecting rod. This leaves both hands free for drafting the fibres, which is necessary in the short draw spinning technique, which is often used on this type of wheel. The old-fashioned pointed distaff spindle is not a common feature of the treadle wheel. Instead, most modern wheels employ a flyer-and-bobbin system which twists the yarn and winds it onto a spool simultaneously. These wheels can be single- or double-treadle; which is a matter of preference and does not affect the operation of the wheel.

Double drive

A double drive wheel
A single-drive wheel with the drive band around flyer and brake on the bobbin

The double drive wheel is named after its drive band, which goes around the spinning wheel twice. The drive band turns the flyer, which is the horse-shoe shaped piece of wood surrounding the bobbin, as well as the bobbin. Due to a difference in the size of the whorls (the round pieces or pulleys around which the drive band runs) the bobbin whorl, which has a smaller radius than the flyer whorl, turns slightly faster. Thus both the flyer and bobbin rotate to twist the yarn, and the difference in speed continually winds the yarn onto the bobbin. Generally the speed difference or "ratio" is adjusted by the size of the whorls and the tension of the drive band.

The drive band on the double drive wheel is generally made from a non-stretch yarn or twine; candlewick is also used.

Single drive

A single drive wheel has one drive band, that goes around the flywheel and the bobbin or the flyer. Most of the drive bands for single drive wheels are made from synthetic cord, which is elastic and does not slip easily on the wheel.

While the spinner is making new yarn, the bobbin and the flyer turn in unison, but when the spinner wants to wind the yarn onto the bobbin, the bobbin or the flyer slows down and thus the yarn winds on. The one part slows down because of the brake band, which loops over that element. The tighter the brake band is, the more pull on the yarn, because the more friction the bobbin has to overcome to turn in sync with the flyer.

Castle style

When the spindle and flyer are located above the wheel, rather than off to one side, the wheel is said to be a castle wheel. This type of wheel is often more compact, thus easier to store. Some castle wheels are even made to fold up small enough that they fit in carry-on luggage at the airport.

Electric spinning wheel

Electric spinning wheels or e-spinners are powered by an electric motor rather than via a treadle. Some require mains power while others may be powered by a low-voltage source, such as a rechargeable battery. Most e-spinners are small and portable.

One of the attractions of an e-spinner is that it is not necessary to coordinate treadling with handling the fiber (drafting), so it is generally easier to learn to spin on an e-spinner than a traditional treadle-style spinning wheel. E-spinners are also suitable for spinners who have trouble treadling for various reasons.

E-spinners represent an evolution of the tools used in the craft of handspinning, similar to what has occurred in sewing, quilting, woodworking, and other crafts.


The spinning wheel increased the productivity of thread making by a factor of greater than 10. Medieval historian Lynn White credited the spinning wheel with increasing the supply of rags, which led to cheap paper, which was a factor in the development of printing.[9]


The ubiquity of the spinning wheel has led to its inclusion in the art, literature and other expressions of numerous cultures around the world.

Literature and folk tales

St. Elisabeth of Hungary spinning for the poor, a depiction of the castle style spinning wheel in art. Note also the distaff used to hold the fiber.

The Golden Spinning Wheel (Zlatý kolovrat)[10][11] is a Czech poem by Karel Jaromír Erben that was included in his classic collection of folk ballads, Kytice.

Rumpelstiltskin, one of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, revolves around a woman who is imprisoned under threat of execution unless she can spin straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskin helps her with this task, ultimately at the cost of her first-born child; however, she makes a new bargain with him and is able to keep her child after successfully guessing his name.

Another classic folk tale that incorporates spinning wheels is Charles Perrault's The Sleeping Beauty, in which the main character pricks her hand on the spindle of a spinning wheel and goes into a deep sleep following a fairy's curse. Numerous variations of the tale exist (the Brothers Grimm had one in their collection entitled Little Briar Rose), and in only some of them is the spindle actually attached to/associated with a spinning wheel.

Perhaps surprisingly, a traditional spindle does not have a sharp end that could prick a person's finger. Despite this, the narrative idea persists that Sleeping Beauty or Briar Rose or Dornrosen pricks her finger on the spindle -- a device which she has never seen before, as they have been banned from the kingdom in a forlorn attempt to prevent the curse of the wicked godmother-fairy.

Walt Disney included the wheel in their animated film version of Perrault's tale, whereas only a spindle is used in Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty. Spinning wheels are also integral to the plot or characterization in the Scottish folk tale Habitrot[12] and the German tales The Three Spinners.[13] and The Twelve Huntsmen[14]

Louisa May Alcott, most famous as the author of Little Women, wrote a collection of short stories called Spinning-Wheel Stories,[15] which were not about spinning wheels but instead meant to be read while engaging in the rather tedious act of using a spinning wheel.


Classical and symphonic

In 1814, Franz Schubert composed "Gretchen am Spinnrade", a lied for piano and voice based on a poem from Goethe's Faust. the piano part depicts Gretchen's restlessness as she spins on a spinning wheel while waiting by a window for her love to return.[16]

Antonín Dvořák composed The Golden Spinning Wheel, a symphonic poem based on the folk ballad from Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben.

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote Le Rouet d'Omphale (Omphale's Spinning Wheel), symphonic poem in A major, Op. 31, a musical treatment of the classical story of Omphale and Heracles.[17]

Folk and ballad

The Spinning Wheel is also the title/subject of a classic Irish folk song by John Francis Waller.[18][19]

A traditional Irish folk song, Túirne Mháire, is generally sung in praise of the spinning wheel, but was regarded by Mrs Costelloe, who collected it,[20] as "much corrupted", and may have had a darker narrative. It is widely taught in junior schools in Ireland.[21]

"Sun Charkhe Di Mithi Mithi Kook" is a Sufi song in the Punjabi language inspired by the traditional Spinning wheel.


Spinning wheels also feature prominently in the Wagner opera The Flying Dutchman; the second act begins with local girls sitting at their wheels and singing about the act of spinning.


Spinning wheels may be found as motifs in art around the world, ranging from their status as domestic/utilitarian items to their more symbolic role (such as in India, where they may have political implications).

See also


  1. ^ Deng, Yingke and Pingxing Wang. (2005). Ancient Chinese Inventions. 五洲传播出版社. ISBN 7-5085-0837-8. Page 48.
  2. ^ Image of a spinning wheel in: Al-Hariri, Al-Maqamat (les Séances). Painted by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, Baghdad, 1237 See: Spinning, History & Gallery [1] (retrieved March 4, 2013)
  3. ^ a b Pacey, Arnold (1991) [1990]. Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History (First MIT Press paperback edition ed.). Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. 
  4. ^ Landes, David. S. (1969).  
  5. ^ Spinning wheel. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 7, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  6. ^ All Things Medieval by Ruth A Johnson
  7. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition article on spinning.
  8. ^ Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production By C. Wayne Smith, Joe Tom Cothren. Page viii. Published 1999. John Wiley and Sons. Technology & Industrial Arts. 864 pages. ISBN 0-471-18045-9
  9. ^ Marchetti, Cesare (1978). "A Postmortem Technology Assessment of the Spinning Wheel: The Last 1000 Years, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 13; pp. 91-93". 
  10. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  11. ^ Kytice z pověstí národních/Zlatý kolovrat (Czech)
  12. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  13. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  14. ^ "". 2006-10-15. Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  15. ^ "". 2001-03-10. Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  16. ^ "Gretchen am Spinnrade ("Meine Ruh'..."), song for voice & piano, D. 118 (Op. 2) – Franz Schubert".  
  17. ^ Reel, James. "Le Rouet d'Omphale, symphonic poem in A major, Op. 31 – Camille Saint-Saëns".  
  18. ^ "". 2011-04-04. Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  19. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  20. ^ Eibhlin Bean Mhic Choisdealbha, Amhráin Mhuighe Seóla: Traditional Folksongs from Galway and Mayo (Dublin, 1923), 83
  21. ^ "Joe". Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh. 2010–2011. Retrieved 2014-08-23. 

External links

  • Demonstration of spinning wheel (Video)
  • Demonstration of spinning wheel (video)
  • Free detailed plan for making wooden spinning wheel
  • Info on hand spinning wheels
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