Anatomy of a Spinning Wheel

First, I must apologize for my absence but a pinched nerve in my right arm prevented me from typing, working on the computer, or doing just about anything. It is on the mend, however, so I take up where I left off …

Judging by the number of hits my article on pricing an antique spinning wheel has gotten, there are a number of people out there looking to buy or sell an antique wheel. I’ve received a number of comments from readers asking for visuals. In this first of a series of articles outlining the various parts of a spinning wheel, we will first look at the overall wheel.


This is the photograph of a little American-made Saxony wheel in my collection. She is one of the few complete wheels I’ve found, having even the 3 distaff sections and an unbroken “bird cage.”

The bird cage distaff was used to hold flax for spinning into linen thread. Cage styles vary; some wheels hold instead a tow fork. While the presence or absence of the disfaff does not affect the spinability of a wheel, it is nice to find one with a complete distaff. They do make spinning flax easier!

The distaff fits into a hole at the end of the bench or table. Nearby is the mother-of-all. The mother of all is mounted on a piece that inserts into the bench and is held in place by a long wooden screw. This screw is necessary for a working wheel, as this is how the wheel is tensioned. The screw should turn freely, although some are pegged into place. DO NOT force a tension screw with its retaining peg in place as this could split the screw. Tensioning screws are not easy to replicate and are costly replacements.

The mother-of-all holds two uprights, or maidens. The maidens in turn each have a leather bearing that supports the ends of the flyer. The orifice end of the flyer faces the spinner and should not be rusted or have sharp edges. The flyer holds the bobbin and the whorl on its shaft. As noted in my earlier article, a missing flyer can be a huge deal breaker. This is the business end of the wheel, where you spin your fiber. A replacement flyer will cost upwards of $200. A broken or damaged flyer can be equally costly to replace. If you are pricing a wheel and it is missing its flyer, be fair. A spinning wheel without its flyer is a car without a transmission. You are going no where in a hurry.

At the other end of the  bench are two uprights which hold the drive wheel. The wheel should have all its spokes and its axle and axle crank should be in place. The axle should be firm and not moving in the wheel hub. The footman connects the axle crank to the treadle and can be wood, metal, or string. It is not a fatal flaw to be missing a footman; these can easily be replicated.

Legs should be firmly in place and not drop out when the wheel is moved, although sometimes they need a shim of glove leather to keep them snug. The treadle should stay in place between the front legs.

This is the basic anatomy of a spinning wheel. In another post, I will look at each section individually.

UP NEXT: The Flyer, Bobbin, and Whorl.

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