Spinning on a great wheel

I have a new video for you today: Spinning on a great wheel. The video was shot at the manor hall at Vallby outdoor museum in Västerås, Sweden in the end of July. My friend Cecilia and I had the loveliest time with the wheel at the 18th century manor hall. We got so wrapped up in spinning and video angles that we totally forgot to take photos. All the photos from the shooting in this blog post are saved frames from the video.

I have been longing to even touch a great wheel for a long time. Due to the size of the great wheels there aren’t many left in Sweden. Luckily, there is one at Vallby outdoor museum not so far from my home in Stockholm.

I made this video in two versions. The first one is in spoken English. It has closed captions in English and Swedish.

The second version is in spoken Swedish, also with closed captions in English and Swedish. I usually don’t make multiple versions or multiple captions, but I made the spoken Swedish version as a thank you to the museum for letting us work and play in their manor hall.

Getting access

My friend Cecilia volunteers as a reenactor at Vallby outdoor museum from time to time. Through this cooperation she has connections with the curators at the museum. She also knows the buildings and the artifacts in the museum collections. During her work at the museum she had seen and admired the beautiful great wheel in the manor hall.

A reenactor at Vallby outdoor museum.
Cecilia volunteers as a reenactor at Vallby outdoor museum from time to time. Photo published with permission from the photographer, Åsa Lindberg at Bellman & Jag AB

Cecilia asked the curators if we could come to the museum and spin on the great wheel and make a video. Since she is used to dressing in period costume when she volunteers she also asked if we could borrow costumes for the event. They agreed and we were over the moon!

The manor hall

The manor hall at Vallby outdoor museum was finished in 1807 in the copper works in Hallstahammar. It was donated to the museum and moved there in 1928.

A red wooden manor hall.
The manor hall at Vallby outdoor museum, built in 1702 at Hallstahammar copper works and moved to the museum in 1928. The red pigment in the paint comes from copper.

There are lots of exciting rooms and chambers in the manor hall. The great wheel is in the dining room, from which you get sneak peaks of the surrounding rooms in the video. We shot the carding scene in the entrance hall.

The building is obviously old and a challenge to protect from wind and weather. To keep the moist out of the house there is a dehumidifier that is turned on automatically. You can hear the dehumidifier as a buzzing sound in the video.

Period costume

We spent a day at the museum in the end of July. Before we went to the manor hall we picked out the costumes in the costume store and transformed into 18th century sisters (Cecilia and I are actually second cousins). In the video we are wearing a simple chemise and on top of that a skirt and a bodice. An apron of course, a neckerchief and the humiliating cap. And, oh, I made sure we got ourselves secret pockets underneath the skirts too. You can’t have too many pockets! The clothes would have been worn by both ladies and maids at the manor hall.

Two women dressed in period clothing from the 18th century. They are sitting on a couch with a basket between them.
Cecilia and I are wearing period clothing from the 18th century, from the same time as the manor hall. Look at me all decadent with my tousled neckerchief!

Shooting

Being in such a beautiful setting made the experience even more special than it already was. The broad floor tiles, the magnificent tapestries and the air of the rooms was mesmerizing. And, of course the costumes added an extra dimension.

The great wheel was standing in a corner in the dining room of the manor hall, which was the perfect spot – the positioning in the natural light from several windows was just perfect. I had brought minimal equipment on the train, just my phone camera and two tripods.

Usually there are lots of visitors at the museum. The entrance is free and visitors can visit all the buildings. During the pandemic there have been restrictions – visitors are allowed to walk around outdoors but not in the buildings. This meant that Cecilia and I had the manor hall to ourselves and could concentrate on spinning and shooting the video. A few visitors peeked through the windows when they saw what they thought was staff in the building and some knocked on the door, but we kept on working.

Wool prep

Spinning on a great wheel requires high quality fiber preparation. Since the spinning is done with one hand there is no room for fixing bumps or thin parts. The fiber needs to be very evenly carded to keep a steady rhythm in the spinning.

For this shoot we used the undercoat from the Klövsjö sheep Frida. You can see her outercoat as the green stripes in the Frida Chanel bag. When I separated the undercoat from the outercoat I was left with a fluff of teased undercoat that I carded at home. We also carded more during the shoot. It was a lovely wool to work with all the way through.

The Klövsjö sheep Frida provided her undercoat fibers for our spinning on the great wheel. The basket is a traditional saigkorg from Gotland – a basket made of hand carved juniper and pine to store carded wool in.

Great wheels

Great wheels were originally used to spin short fibers like cotton in India and China. This type of wheel was the first mechanized spinning tool after the hand spindle. It was probably invented as a faster way to spin. The great wheel is believed to have become common among peasants in northern Europe in the late 13th century. It was a popular tool in Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries for spinning cotton and wool.

Details of the great wheel. The circular wooden piece is the tension knob that we realized we needed to use more often.

Other names are muckle wheel, long wheel and walking wheel in English speaking countries. In Sweden the great wheel is called långrock (long wheel) but also fabriksrock (factory wheel), bomullsrock (cotton wheel) and dukrock (cloth wheel). A common use for the yarn spun on a great wheel was weft yarn for the textile manufacturers (vantmakerier) in Sweden. Cecilia has tried to find out more about the great wheel we used, but she has found none.

The great wheel was a lovely acquaintance. We had some problems with her, though. There seemed to be a part missing – some sort of disc to stop the spun wool from coming into the leather loop that holds the spindle. We tried different solutions to varying results.

We also experienced that the spindle started sliding after a while (you can see this in some parts of the video). After a while we realized that there was a simple solution to this problem – we just needed to adjust the tension of the drive band more often.

Spinning on a great wheel

To prepare for the very special moment with the great wheel I watched Norman Kennedy spin on a great wheel in the video Spin flax and cotton: Traditional techniques with Norman Kennedy from Long thread media. You can get a glimpse of his technique in this promo video. I actually walked the steps in my living room to practice while at the same time pretending I was turning the wheel, drafting the fiber and changing the angle of the yarn. It was actually quite fun!

There are lots of cooperating sequences to keep track of when spinning on a great wheel – fiber, steps, wheel and angles.

Spinning on a great wheel is the same principle as spinning on a supported spindle or a floor supported Navajo style spindle. You build up twist in the rolag, make the draft at a narrow angle from the tip of the spindle, add twist and change the angle to roll the yarn onto the spindle. To that comes the walking. Spinning on a great wheel requires a lot of focus.

Spinning by colour

I have played with colours to sort things out in a simple description of the not-so-simple step sequence, changing of angles and direction of the wheel.

  1. To start with a new rolag I place the end of the spun yarn on top of the rolag and let the twist catch the fiber when I start spinning.
  2. I hold the rolag with my left hand at a 45 degree angle from the direction of the spindle.
  3. I set the wheel in motion clockwise with my right hand.
  4. While I take three steps back to lengthen the yarn I allow more fiber into the twist.
  5. When there is enough twist in the yarn I turn the wheel counter-clockwise for a short section. At the same time I change the angle of the thread to a 90 degree angle from the direction of the spindle and walk one step to the right.
  6. I turn the wheel clockwise again, walk two steps forward and let the spun yarn roll onto the spindle. After that I change the angle of the yarn again and start over from 2 (or 1 if I am pout of fiber).
Spinning on a great wheel is a slow juggle with steps, angles, wheel and fiber supply.

Dancing the great wheel

Spinning on a great wheel is an experience. There is a flow and a rhythm that is truly fascinating. As a spinner I need to trust the wool to do its job. If I have carded the wool evenly and listen to the wool as I draft, a long draw of almost two meters is actually possible.

When I hold the rolag gently I will be able to feel how the twist enters the fibers and how the fibers join into the twist. There is a constant communication between the fiber and my hand: The fiber tells the hand

  • when the twist enters the fiber
  • how long the fibers are
  • how quickly the fibers catch each other
  • the amount of fiber that is fed to the twist
  • how thick the yarn is.

The hand listens carefully and adapts to the information. With the adaptation the fiber sends new information that my hand will interpret again. Through listening to the wool the hand learns what works and what doesn’t. And some things did work. I produced a lovely skein!

The result of the day at Vallby is this lovely skein of singles yarn. I think I will keep it this way and use it as weft, just as most great wheel spun yarn was back in the days.

After three hours with the great wheel Cecilia and I were blissfully happy, yet exhausted like wrung out rags. It’s a wonder I got home on the train.

Happy spinning!


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8 Replies to “Spinning on a great wheel”

  1. How fun for you! You would love spinning on the Great Wheel in Old Town here in San Diego, CA. Old Town is an old Mexican Ranch that became the City of San Diego. Your costume would be pioneer clothing set in the 1840’s. You look great in your costume by the way

  2. I love the look of the wheel with the double framework for the rim of the wheel. Most of the wheels I’ve seen/used in the US have the spindle at a much higher height. The wheel table slants up from the wheel to spindle end. Is it a national thing there that the wheel table is almost level and the spindle low? There is not as much of a ‘dance’ with a low bow to the spindle with great wheels in the US that I have seen.

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