Olive Peck

This wheel—made more than two hundred years ago—is a testament to the superb skills of Connecticut wheel makers in the late 18th and early 19th century.  It was made by Silas Barnum (1775-1828), one of a group of wheel makers from southwest Connecticut, who are most well-known today for their double flyer wheels. 

From this group, the most well-known are Solomon Plant, the Sanfords, the Sturdevants, and Silas Barnum.  The earliest, born in the 1740s, included Solomon Plant and Samuel Sanford, two men who likely were making wheels before the Revolution.  A second generation, born in the 1760s and 70s, arose with John Sturdevant, Jr., Isaac Sanford (Samuel’s son), and Silas Barnum, who, in turn, were followed by another generation, born in the 1790’s, including Beardsley Sanford (Samuel’s great-nephew), Elias Bristol Sanford (Isaac’s son), Josiah Sanford (Samuel’s son by his second wife), and John Sanford Sturdevant (John Sturdevant Jr.’s son). 

J. Platt appears to have been part of this group, too, but, as far as I know, no one has determined just who he was.  These men, and a few others, made wheels of a distinctive style, recognizable immediately as having come from a particular time and place in our history.   

For more on these wheel makers, see the previous posts: “Mindful Pond” (Solomon Plant); “Louisa Lenore” (Sanfords); and “Katherine the Witch,” “Mercy,” and “Judith and Prudence” (J. Platt). 

To help keep these wheel makers sorted out, in a previous post about Silas Barnum, “Big Bear,” I included a timeline, map, and family history that helps to understand how these particular wheel makers were connected.  All of them were from families that settled on the Connecticut shore in the 17th century and gradually migrated inland. 

Their family names are found repeatedly, along with Platts, Pecks, Smiths, Beardsleys, and others, in the history of this area.  Silas’s mother was a Sturdevant, his older sister, Sarah, married wheel maker, John Sturdevant, Jr.  Their son (Silas’s nephew), John Sanford Sturdevant (likely named after his Sanford grandmother) was also a wheel maker.  Silas married Martha Platt, although whether she was related to wheelmaker J. Platt remains a mystery. 

While there is ample evidence of family relationships between Barnum and other Connecticut wheel makers, we know little about their working relationships.  Did Barnum work with his brother-in-law, Sturdevant, Platt, or any others?  How well did these men know each other?  Was their wheel making competitive or cooperative, or a likely mix of the two?  We just do not know. 

We know that Barnum, the Sanfords, the Sturdevants, and likely Platt, worked in neighboring towns and their wheels share some remarkable similarities, so there was cross-pollination, but it would be fascinating to know more about the interplay of design influences, creativity, innovation, and marketing. 

Platt in the front (with new treadle), Barnum in the back

For example, in trying to determine how J. Platt fit into this group, I was struck by the remarkable similarities between Platt and Barnum’s great wheels (see “Big Bear”), which seemed to indicate some relationship between the two men.  But, when I found Barnum’s flax wheel, I was surprised by how different it was to Platt’s in the details.  

Was the difference one reflecting the time they were made or just the personal style of the makers?  Barnum’s wheel is more finely and elaborately turned and has the small chip carvings dotted on decorative black bands so typical of these Connecticut wheels (but missing from Platt’s).

The spokes, also, are different.

Barnum’s spokes are more elaborate. He used the wonderfully-named “shotgun shell and olive” style, often found on Connecticut and Pennsylvania wheels of this era. 

Despite these differences, though, both wheels share the same overall look and excellent craftsmanship typical of this group of wheel makers.

Barnum’s fine work on this wheel is illustrated by the spokes. 

They rest up against the rim lip, with pegs cut perfectly flush with the drive rim. 

Who knew a spoke peg could be a thing of beauty?

Despite the wheel’s impressive age, not a spoke has a wiggle or gap, and the drive wheel is perfectly solid, straight and aligned.  The drive rim’s four parts have different patterns of shining ray flecks that glow in the sun. 

There are fine turnings on the maidens and distaff (the top part is missing). 

In contrast, the table is a bit more crude,

appearing to have been cut from an imperfect chunk of lumber, with one bottom edge at an angle and a concave area on the top.  

Perhaps Barnum chose it for the grain, which, as with the drive rim, has highly contrasting fleck.   

The table underside is smooth, without scribe marks. 

The wheel end legs stick up through the table. 

Each leg as a nail in the bottom, which is fairly unusual, in my experience. 

I often find one in the far-side leg, but seldom in all legs. 

The wheel shows considerable use,

but is in excellent working condition.

The treadle is almost worn through at the front

and right side edge and bar. 

The original flyer assembly is missing.  It came with a funky one that likely was made in the 1970s or so.  I replaced it with one that fits perfectly and has its own elegant style, well-suited to the wheel. 

The spinner-side maiden is pegged into the mother-of-all

but the far-side one only has small peg underneath,

which keeps it in the mother-of-all but allows it to turn for easy flyer removal of the flyer. 

The tension knob shows no signs of wear from being used for winding off. 

There is one unturned secondary upright support that runs to the table. 

This is a common feature seen on these Connecticut wheels.  There are chip carvings on both ends of the table

and deep double grooves down each side. 

It came with a rawhide footman attached to the treadle bar with a metal hook with a nut underneath. 

As I mentioned earlier, Barnum’s life spanned the period at the end of the first generation and beginning of the next generation of these Connecticut wheel makers. 

To some extent, this must have been a transition period.  His spokes and turnings are similar to Solomon Plant’s, but a little more refined. 

The olive and shotgun shell spoke was found on the early Sanford wheels and those of John Sturdevant Jr. and Solomon Plant.  But, the later Sanford wheels evolved to have simpler spokes and finials, which according to Pennington & Taylor’s book “Spinning Wheels and Accessories,” this evolution reflected the change in style to plainer turnings for furniture in the 1810s to 1830s (p. 81). 

 Barnum did, interestingly, venture into a style of double flyer wheel that the later generation of Sanfords embraced, with the wheel above the flyers rather than below.

Kelley’s wheel

In discussing this style wheel, Pennington & Taylor highlight one made by Elias Bristol (E.B.) Sanford, who was born 16 years after Barnum (p. 82-83).  E. B. Sanford apparently patented the wheel in 1816.  It had unusual metal flyers, but the tension system looks very similar to a wheel signed by Barnum, which was discovered languishing in a North Carolina junk shop by Kelley Dew a few years ago. 

Kelley generously shared photos of her wheel,

showing similarities to E.B. Sanford’s, even down to the unusual decorative black marks on the wheel post. 

There are differences in the wheels,

but enough similarities to indicate that one maker influenced the other. 

Elias Bristol would have been about twenty-five years old when his patent was granted, while Barnum would have been forty-one. 

Did the older Barnum first make his wheel and then Elias Bristol improved and patented it? 

Or did Barnum take from Elias Bristol’s design, possibly without the patented parts?  Who knows? 

The “N” on the stamp is worn down, possibly indicating this was a late wheel of Barnum’s

Fascinating to think about, though.    

The letters are crisp on Olive Peck’s Barnum stamp

I am still hoping to learn more about Silas Barnum. 

I knew that I had Barnums in my Connecticut family background and recently learned that my great, great, great, great grandmother, Hannah Barnum Baxter, was Silas Barnum’s older cousin. 

She married and moved to upstate New York before Silas was born, so likely never knew him.  But spinning on a wheel made by someone sharing a small part of my ancestry gives me a special thrill of connection.  

My great, great grandmother’s sampler. Silas Barnum was cousin to her grandmother, Hannah Barnum Baxter.

Thank you to Kelley Dew for allowing me to share her photographs of her stunning Barnum double flyer wheel.

For more information

Bacheller, Sue and Feldman-Wood, Florence, “S. Barnum and J. Sturdevant Double Flyer Wheels,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth, Issue #31, January 2001 (and “Update” Issue #32, April 2001).

Pennington, David A. and Michael B. Taylor. Spinning Wheels and Accessories. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004, pp. 81-83.   

Judith and Prudence

Despite a lot of research, I have not been able to identify the elusive J. Platt. 

It seems pretty certain that he was a Connecticut wheel maker working in the late 18th and early 19th century.  His wheels share characteristics with those made by a group of wheel makers in Fairfield and Litchfield counties, including the Sanfords, the Sturdevants, and Silas Barnum.  Those wheel makers, and various branches of Platts, were connected with a web of marriages through several generations.

Surely, J. Platt fits in with them somehow, but just how remains a mystery. For those interested in more details of my Platt research, I am including a reference below to my article in the Spinning Wheel Sleuth.  In short, there are several candidates, but each possibility lacks that final bit of evidence to put the hunt over the top from theory to probability.

Judith, Mercy, and Katherine the Witch

I have already written two posts in this blog about J. Platt wheels.  “Katherine the Witch,” my first wheel, continues to be my workhorse for flax spinning.  “Mercy,” a lovely great wheel, bears a striking resemblance to Silas Barnum’s work.  I never really expected to find any more Platt wheels, so was gobsmacked when a marked bobbin winder turned up in Maryland. 

Bobbin winders are rarely marked, so I could not believe my luck.  And, as it turns out, there was a lot of luck involved.  When I contacted the seller, he said that he would have to see if he still had it because he thought he had thrown it out.  My heart dropped.  Apparently, he cruises estate sales and auctions for things to resell on-line. 

He had been given two bobbin winders at an estate sale and, having no idea what they were, threw them into a storage unit.  When he needed more room, he decided to throw them out.  Fortunately, his wife convinced him to save the one with the name on it and to try to sell it.  I shudder to think how close this winder came to oblivion. 

Instead, it was rescued, named Judith, and joined my family of Platt wheels. Although it could be over two hundred years old, it now works regularly, doing what it was intended to do.

Bobbin winders, such as this one, were used by weavers to wind bobbins (or spools).  Once wound, the bobbins were mounted on a skarne (also called a spool rack or creel), which allowed for efficient warp winding, with multiple threads wound on the warping rods or mill at the same time.  This marvelous photo of a Quebec woman shows her bobbin winder being filled from a skein on a swift and the bobbins mounted on a skarne from which she draws eight warp threads at once to wind on to her huge warping mill. 

Unfortunately, when this photo was made into a postcard, it was inaccurately labeled “Habitant Carding Wool.”   

In contrast with the Quebec winder in the photo, J. Platt’s has a flat rim

and a box for the spindle. Box-style winders are often found in New England.  I was fascinated to see a similar winder on a 1792 Conder token from Norwich, England, a town famous for its handweavers who produced the beautiful silk and wool Norwich shawls. 

Platt’s bobbin winder could have been made around the same time.  

The box is convenient for holding empty (or full) bobbins. 

Some boxes have supports for the spindle ends, but many, like Platt’s, are just plain wood with gouges made for the spindle tips through use. 

This bobbin winder did not have a spindle when I got it, but I found one to fit. 

I have not used it yet for winding bobbins for weaving, but regularly use it to wind singles off my wheels onto extra bobbins for plying. 

These winders were also used to fill bobbins for weaving shuttles. Perhaps there were spindles of different diameters or lengths to accommodate the smaller bobbins used in shuttles, which might explain why there is a wide variety of depth and placement of holes in the box ends.  

The winder looks a lot like a miniature Platt great wheel, with similar turnings. 

Unlike Platt’s wheels, however, it has scalloped carvings on the table ends. 

The inside of the box and the table are covered with indentations, perhaps from tapping the spindle end to loosen the bobbin for removal. 

The axle is wooden, with a broken end when I got it. 

My husband made a beautiful repair. 

The inside of the hub is just smooth wood, with no sign of a metal or leather bearing. 

The legs have incised rings, rather than the dark burned-on rings of Platt’s flax wheel and winders. 

Winder leg
Reel legs

There is an interesting corner piece nailed in next to the box.  I do not know if there is a functional reason for it, but it looks nice.

While I had never expected to find a Platt bobbin winder, I had been keeping my eye out for a Platt reel.  When one appeared in Vermont, I jumped on it and, with the help of several people, got it to Maine. 

The reel, named Prudence, has six arms and a slanted table—an unusual feature found on some Connecticut reels.  (see Pennington & Taylor, p. 161, Fig 14-6).  I am not sure of the reason for the slant, perhaps for ease of storage or some particular positioning for winding off from a wheel.  It certainly makes for a very stable reel. 

The legs and winder arms have faint traces of dark rings and the legs are, in general, similar to those on Platt’s flax wheel. 

But neither the table nor the legs are the same sizes as those on the wheel. 

The top, which has a broken edge, is flat, without any knob for carrying. 

It holds a two-yard skein and the arms, like the top, are plain, without a handle for turning. 

A simple clock hand on one side of the gear box measures rotations. While the reel arms turn clockwise, the clock hand turns counter-clockwise.

The other side of the gear box is unadorned.

The gears run smoothly and the click mechanism still works beautifully, making its “thwack” every forty rotations. 

The wooden clicker being pulled by the metal pin on the gear before the click

After the click–the metal pin that triggers the click

The hub is pegged on the axle and nicely turned. 

The arm crosspieces have lips on the ends, except for one, “the stranger,” which has one smooth end to allow for removal of the skein.

After I got the wheel home and cleaned up, I sent photos of it to another Platt enthusiast, Cindy Lincoln, in Massachusetts. She has been restoring a Platt winder and used this one as a model.  In return, she sent me some photos from Ron Walter in Pennsylvania of a John Sturdevant reel in his collection. 

Ron Walter’s Sturdevant reel

The Platt and Sturdevant winders are remarkably similar, with the tilted bench, and lack of carrying knob and winding handle. It gives another possible clue into the identity of J. Platt.  I now will be digging deep into Platt and Sturdevant connections. 

Underside of the Platt reel

Although we still do not know J. Platt’s identity, as far as I know, he is the only Connecticut wheel maker from whom we have marked examples of all of the five major spinning tools. 

We know of several marked great wheels and reels, at least two marked single-flyer flax wheels, one marked double-flyer wheel, and my one bobbin winder.  Quite a legacy.  I am hoping one day to find a Platt double-flyer wheel for a Platt full house.

Thanks to Cindy Lincoln and Ron Walter for the Sturdevant reel photographs, to Tina M. for finding, picking up, and railroading the bobbin winder, to Jessie R. for finding and picking up the reel, to Nora R., Andrea M. and Amy T. for the reel railroad, and to Jan C. for the spindle. 

For more information see:

Page, Brenda, “The Search for J. Platt,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth, Issue #113, July 2021, pp. 1-6.

Pennington, David A. and Michael B. Taylor. Spinning Wheels and Accessories. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004, p, 161.   

Flax Hackles

Hackling is the final step in processing flax for spinning into linen. 

1673 Dutch Print of pigs processing flax to linen thread

Processing requires many steps. At about ninety days from planting, flax plants are pulled and dried.  The seeds are removed by rippling, the woody portions broken down through retting and crushed by breaking,

After breaking

and separated from the fiber by scutching (to learn much more about these processes, see the previous posts “A Ripple and Breaks” and “Scutching Knives”).  

After scutching

Finally, to further refine, soften, and clean the fiber, it is combed through hackles, also known as heckles, hatchels, and hetchels. 

This 1797 Conder token from Dundee Scotland shows “Flax Heckling,” noting the amount of flax and hemp (3,336? tons) imported in 1796

Hackling separates coarser, shorter fiber, called “tow,” from the longer line fibers, which are the most desirable for spinning.

Hackling also removes the small woody bits of boon or shive still clinging to the fiber, and splits ribbony pieces into finer filaments. 

Irish linen production–a hackling line

Hackles come in as great a variety as the people who made them. All sport sharp–often very sharp–tines. But tines are of different sizes, shapes, lengths, and densities. 

Ideally, several hackles are used, starting with large tines, spread far apart for the initial combing, and progressing to a medium density comb and then one with smaller, finer, more closely-spaced tines. 

William Hincks illustration of Irish linen industry, plate IV, 1783

But, it is possible to get good results with one medium hackle, which likely often was all that was available.

I am fortunate because hackles are very easy to find in Maine.  They turn up regularly at antique stores and barn sales.  I have been able to pass on many hackles to others interested in processing their own flax and still have every gradation available for processing my own. 

The three hackles above are a coarse grade and the ones I use for the first combing passes to remove the roughest tow and boon.  The largest has huge angled tines and a handle.

It would make a formidable weapon.

Most hackles in this country were designed to be secured to a table or plank for use.  But this one is unusual, being free-standing, which makes it easy to move around and to use while sitting.  This one is my favorite for the first comb.

Typically, nails for tines were heated and driven through green wood, which would secure them tightly after drying.  It’s always interesting to examine the backside of hackles. I know very little about nails, unfortunately, so am unable to translate nail types into any useful information about when or where specific hackles were made.

Some tines are square, others rounded. I have not been able to determine any real pattern for the difference. Hackles from New England seem to come in both varieties.

This lovely set of hackles is made of tiger maple,

is initialed,

and has a cover.

It is a coarse to medium size, with round tines.

This is a nice medium set, with a sheet of metal where the tines emerge, apparently used to help keep the wood from cracking.

On the underside is a faint incision of “Hackle 10.00,” indicating that “hackle” probably has been the term used in this area for some time. I found it at Maine antique mall and, when I went to check out, the man behind the counter asked if I had seen the other set with a cover. I hadn’t and what a treasure it turned out to be.

One side has the name “John Pain Darlington.”

On the other side, is the name “Thomas Paine Darlington.” Darlington is an old Maine name, but I have not yet pinned these two down. Given the “Thomas Paine,” I’m hoping this dates from the 1700s. (See Update below for more information.)

The back side is amazing. And when the cover was lifted, the longest, sharpest tines I have ever seen were revealed.

The cover inside is scarred from the tines, as are all the hackle covers that I have seen.

There was old flax on it when I bought it, complete with pieces of boon.

Most of the New England hackles I have seen have tines in a square or rectangular pattern. The one below one has a circle of tines, something more often seen in European and Scandinavian hackles.

It is on a thick plank of coarsely-grained wood, perhaps chestnut, with amazing scribe lines marking tine placement.

The blank holes probably were pre-drilled and then left empty, as shown by the darkened area on the underside, perhaps a result of heated nails.

The next two hackles are European, probably Scandinavian.

This style hackle was used while seated, held at an angle between the legs, anchored with a foot or board at the lower opening.

This style, with nails emerging through a separate wooden disc secured by a metal band, does not seem to hold the tines as securely as those where the nails are driven through the body of the hackle itself. As a result, the tines become skewed with use.

The tine disc is held to the body with nails bent over in the back.

This beauty is initialed and dated. I like to think that the decorative carved plants are flax.

I believe the next set of hackles is eastern European.

It is very long and narrow.

The raised area for the tine disc is hand carved.

Occasionally painted hackles turn up. These two came to me from Pennsylvania but I do not know if they were made there.

I have seen this particular paint design on several identical hackles for sale in Pennsylvania.

This one is dated 1899 and has the same tine design as the Scandinavian hackles.

It is in excellent condition.

It is decorated with little indentation carvings along with the painting.

There is penciled writing on the back that I cannot decipher.

I have three sets of fine hackles. They are much harder to find than the mediums.

This one has beautiful reddish wood for the cover.

It is dated 1767 on both sides and has decorative punchwork along the metal edges.

The wooden ends are covered with metal plates, giving a more durable and steady surface for securing the smaller hackle to a table.

The next set is quite small and fine, with the whole hackle body covered in metal. I have seen three sets like this one in New England, all identified as hackles.

They all had a number stamped in the end, likely a grade of tine size.

Recently, someone posted in a Facebook flax group an advertisement for modern wigmaking hackles. They looked a lot like this one. Diderot’s Encyclopedia of manufacturing in 18th century France, included this illustration of wigmaking tools. So perhaps these very small hackles were used for wigmaking rather than flax processing. Or maybe not.

A plate from Diderot’s Encyclopedie

The finer the hackle, the finer and cleaner the flax for spinning. This is the finest hackle I have ever seen.

It’s a gorgeous tool.

Research turned up H. Taylor & Sons in a 1901 Belfast/Ulster street directory. Henry Taylor manufactured hackles, gills and wood card clothing, leather belting, and pickers.

Extremely fine, closely set tines were bound in brass.

On the downside, hackles this fine remove a lot of perfectly usable line flax. On the upside, they produce a gorgeous product, without a hint of boon in sight.

After hackling, in some parts of the world, the final step is brushing. As far as I know, this was not a practice used in New England but a finishing touch given to fine flax in parts of Sweden, Finland, and Belgium.

Flax brushes were typically made of boar bristles, with a handle bound with linen thread, tar and resin.

Using it on nicely hackled flax is a bit like brushing a horse’s tail.

And results in a final product of fine, shiny line flax ready for spinning.

November 19, 2021 Update: In the middle of the night after posting this, I realized I had not recently read over the articles on hackles in The Spinning Wheel Sleuth. A bad oversight. This morning, I found a clue to the “Darlington” hackle in an article by Carlton Stickney, who has an absolutely amazing collection of hackles. One of the hackles featured in Carlton’s article was marked “Ridsdale Porter Darlington.” The lettering on the hackle side matches the lettering on my hackle marked with “John Pain Darlington” and “Thomas Pain(e) Darlington.” Carlton’s research found that Ridsdale and Porter were “forgers, makers and grinders of Heckle-pins in Darlington for several years.” (p. 9) Darlington is in Durham, England.

I immediately started researching John and Thomas Pain and found reference to “Catherine Pain” listed as a Hecklemaker in Durham, in the Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce & Manufacture (post 1791, pre 1800). In the Durham Probate Records (1776-1799), I found reference to both “Catherine Pain & Co.” and “John Pain” as hecklemakers in Darlington. I have not yet found the exact probate dates or a relationship between John and Catherine. Nor have I found a relationship between the Pains and Ridsdale or Porter. Because the printing of the word “Darlington” on the hackles looks so similar, however, it would seem there was some relationship there.

No wonder I could not find Thomas and John Darlington in my Maine research. I was barking up the wrong tree. I will continue the research and post updates.

See: Stickney, Carlton, “Flax Tools,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #96 (April 2017).

For more information on flax processing and hackles:

Henzie, Suzie, “Three Hackles,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #54, (October 2006).

Burnham, Harold B. and Dorothy K., ‘Keep me warm one night,’ Early handweaving in eastern Canada, Univ. of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo, 1972.

Dewilde, Bert, Flax in Flanders Throughout the Centuries, Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium, 1987.

Heinrich, Linda, Linen From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 1992.

Meek, Katie Reeder, Reflections From a Flaxen Past, Pennannular Press Int’l, Alpena, Mich., 2000.

Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, All Sorts of Good and Sufficient Cloth, Linen-Making in New England 1640-1860, Merrimack Valley Text. Mus., North Andover, Massachusetts, 1980.

Zinzendorf, Christian and Johannes, The Big Book of Flax, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2011.

For more information on flax brushes see Josefin Waltin’s blog “For the Love of Spinning.” https://waltin.se/josefinwaltinspinner/flax-brush/


Truus is a striking combination of form and function. 

The turnings on this Dutch wheel are almost mesmerizing, especially when light strikes them through a window.  Long and short rows of ridges at various angles, topped by four maiden spires—wheel sculpture. 

In a dim interior before electric lights, candle and fire light would have highlighted and accentuated the ridges, creating an intricate interplay of light, dark, and shadow.  Today, even in a room full of beautiful wheels, this one captures the light, becoming the center of attention. 

Not only a treat for the eyes, it is a little workhorse.  With two flyers, side by side, a spinner can spin flax at a much greater rate than with a single flyer (for more information on a double flyer wheel’s increased production, see the end of the earlier post “Louisa Lenore”). 

This wheel’s design is especially nice for two handed spinning because each flyer has a separate tension system, which allows the spinner to fine tune the tension of each flyer to closely synchronize their uptake rates. 

In comparison, the tensioning on Connecticut double flyer wheels seems crude, because each tension adjustment has some effect on both flyers, making it more difficult to find that sweet uptake spot, especially if one of the flyers is a replacement.  I have spun on several different styles of double flyer wheels and, to me, this one is by far the easiest to achieve consistent two-handed spinning.  It is a very sweet flax spinner.

Historically, Dutch wheels were made in a variety of styles, reflected in a richness of paintings.

Esaias Boursse–Interior With an Old Woman at Spinning Wheel
Maerten van Heemskerck–Portrait of a Woman at the Spinning Wheel

Most of the Dutch double-flyers, however, seem to look much like Truus, with small variations.  These postcards of double flyers are entitled “Geldersch Binnenhuisje.” 

Binnenhuisje is a home’s interior and, I believe, Geldersch refers to the Gelderland region, in the east central area of the Netherlands. 

This woman appears to have threads going to both flyers but only one flyer seems to have a drive band or any accumulation of thread. 

The wheel in the above postcard does not even have a footman, but it is a lovely and instructive prop. My favorite card, identifying a woman spinning flax on a wheel with a reel, is intriguing because the wheel appears to be almost identical to Truus, right down to the bobbin holders. 

The card reads, “Groete van de Veluwe,” meaning “Greetings from Veluwe”–a town in the Gelderland.  Perhaps these wheels were a regional Gelderland style.  And, possibly, many were made by the same maker.  Several identical, or nearly so, wheels have turned up in widely different locations around the world.   One wheel, featured in Issue #65 of the Spinning Wheel Sleuth, and looking just like Truus, was found in Australia.  According to the article, that wheel had “W&H” or “M&H” handwritten on the base of the upright forks.  (SWS #65, pp.9-10).  Interestingly, another sister wheel, bought in Gelderland, was posted on Ravelry about seven years ago, with an “HW” stamped on the end of the table. As far as I know, no one has identified “HW” or determined if he may have been a primary maker of these wheels.

Ginnie’s wheel

Several similar wheels have been found around the United States, but, as far as I know, no others have maker’s marks. 

Ginnie’s wheel

A few have some ornamentation, perhaps ceramic or porcelain, including the wheel above owned by Ginnie Schirmer in Kansas. Aside from the bits of ornament, her wheel looks just like Truus, although it has an axle pin, perhaps original.

Ginnie’s wheel

Truus’ axles came pinless.

True to her Dutch roots, Truus turned up for sale in Michigan, in an area heavy with Dutch immigrants.  A wonderful woman in Michigan (now a friend) kindly picked her up, fostered, and eventually railroaded her east. The wheel was in pretty good shape but had no distaff parts and both flyers were split down the middle at the orifice end.

I was thrilled, though, to have both flyers, damaged or not.  I sent her off to John Sturdevant at SpiritWood for repair and to have a distaff made.  When John started the flyer repair, he was surprised to discover, in a mandrel section that had been covered by the wooden flyer, the name “R. Picard” engraved the metal on both flyers. 

Try as I might, the only R. Picard I have been able to find is a Raphael Picard, who founded a watchmaking company in 1837 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.  It seems unlikely that he would have made spinning wheel mandrels for Dutch wheels.  But perhaps there is some family connection.   

While Picard’s engraving shows that both flyers likely are original, they are not identical.  One is slightly longer and has a nipple end on its whorl. 

Both whorls have a feature sometimes seen on Scandinavian wheels—a lipped recess on the flyer whorl in which the bobbin neatly nests. 

Ginnie’s wheel has the same nested bobbin

On both flyers, the wood is cut back from the mandrel on both sides near the orifice.

Another distinctive feature of these sister wheels is a curved treadle bar

and arrow-ended treadle. 

My wheel has wear showing that it was treadled with both feet, perhaps with wooden klompen as in this postcard. 

The ends of the treadle bars look handcarved,

as are the tension knob pegs,

which fit so perfectly in the holes that I’m still working on matching the pegs back to the correct holes. If they are lined up just right, they do not need to be hammered in.

Decorative touches are everywhere,

except for the drive wheel rim,

which has simple four-part construction.  

Ginnie’s wheel showing the collar extending past the table

The mother-of-all collar on the uphill side extends past the table

Truus’ collar overhang

and has a strong grain. 

Several areas have traces of red paint

and others are grease-encrusted. 

There were two metal upright rods for storing bobbins along the non-spinner side,

but one has broken off. 

Each flyer has its own drive band

and they seem to happily accommodate each other on the drive wheel without any fiddling on my part. 

The leather flyer bearings are three layers held together with metal rivets.

The distaff hole is between the two flyers. 

There is not much room for the lowest distaff piece.


In deciding on the distaff design, I worked with John.

I examined wheel photos and a friend kindly sent me photos and measurements from a wheel in Canada.  I am delighted with how it turned out. 

I understand why these wheels have ended up so far from where they were made.  They were a perfect combination of desirable features–lightweight, portable, and beautiful in form, while performing their function brilliantly as efficient and pleasurable spinners.  

Thank you to John, Rita, and Gordon for helping me to bring this wheel back to life and to Ginnie for sharing photos of her wheel.

For more information see:

Feldman-Wood, Florence, Two Double-Flyer Dutch Spinning Wheels, The Spinning Wheel Sleuth, Issue #65, July 2009.

SpiritWood’s link: https://www.spinningwheelrepairs.com/

Handsome Molly

I know little about the history of this stately wheel. A woman in southern Maine kindly gave it to me. She had bought it from a woman–not a spinner–who decided to sell it because it was taking up space on her porch. How and when this wheel made its way to New England likely will remain a mystery.

It almost certainly came from Ireland originally. It has the distinctive characteristics of an Irish wheel of this style–upright stance,

a drive wheel that sits close to the flyer but high off the table,

thick, solid legs,

and amazing reed turnings, row upon row of tiny ridges that look like perfect smocking.

Old postcards and photographs show a variety of similar wheels being used in Ireland.

Interestingly, in these photographs, most of the footmen are string or cord (usually with a leather piece attaching to the axle) rather than wood, a contrast with North American wheels.

When starting to research this wheel, I posted a photograph on Instagram. Fortunately, Johnny Shiels, a third-generation wheel maker in Donegal, saw the photo and thoughtfully reached out. He sent me a photo of a very similar antique wheel from Donegal. And, his IG account spinningwheels.ie revealed photos of other lovely old Donegal wheels that he has restored.

This style wheel, which we usually refer to as a “Saxony” in North America, is known in Ireland as a “Low Irish” or “Dutch wheel.” Actually, early Connecticut probate records from the 18th and early 19th century often referred to them as Dutch wheels, too. These wheels were introduced to Ireland from Holland by Thomas Wentworth, later the Earl of Stafford, in the 17th century to encourage linen production.

While originally intended for flax spinning, they later also would be used for spinning wool.

Ireland also had spindle-style great wheels, often called “long wheels” for wool spinning. The wheel style that we, in this country, most often associate with Irish flax spinning, however, is the upright “castle” wheel. I have been curious as to whether the different styles were regional.

Were castle wheels and Dutch wheels both used throughout Ireland, or were they exclusive to different areas? And, were the turnings on the Dutch wheels specific to certain towns or counties?

The only information I have found so far is in the booklet from the Ulster Museum, which indicates that castle wheels were principally found in Ulster, explaining that they were “confined in distribution to the northern counties. The design provides good rigidity which is essential to efficient spinning.” Id.

The same stability applies to Handsome Molly, but derives from sheer size and weight. It is a remarkably large wheel, with long legs of substantial girth, and a wide heavy table.

It measures 43 1/2 inches tall, with an orifice height of 29 1/2 inches. The table is an ample 7 1/4 inches wide and upright circumference is 8 1/4 inches.

For comparison, it is almost a full foot taller than a typical Connecticut flax wheel made by Silas Barnum.

The legs on the Barnum wheel look puny compared to Molly’s generous proportions.

There is something about the sheer mass of this wheel that does affect spinning–giving a certain lightness and ease. Pure pleasure. There are signs of use on the wheel, but it is difficult to tell how much.

There are grease marks around the axles and some signs of treadle wear.

There appear to be some wear marks, from winding off perhaps, on the tension knob. The groove over the fat part of the knob looks just like the puzzling groove on the wheel Adelaide’s knob in a previous post.

Both maidens are pegged through the mother-of-all and do not turn.

They are in good condition and look much like the maidens on Green Linnet, in a previous post.

The distaff is made from a tree branch, typically used for spinning tow.

The distaff cross-support threads into the upright.

That is a feature I have never seen before, but brilliant to keep the distaff full of flax from tipping over while spinning (which it can do–I speak from experience).

The cross support also has what appear to be wear marks from thread or yarn, again, perhaps from winding off.

There are secondary upright supports on both sides, extending to the table.

Decorative marks ring the uprights and legs, both burned and incised.

The wood grain is interesting, somewhat wide and coarse

–perhaps oak, ash or a mix?

I do not have the original flyer yet. It still exists, but has been stored away and the hunt is on to find it. I am hoping that it will give more clues as to whether this wheel was brought to this country for use or for decoration. It cannot have been easy or cheap to transport across the Atlantic. But, I totally understand why someone would go to the trouble, because it is a magnificent piece of machinery.

I am extremely grateful that this wheel is now taking up space in my home. And, it is not relegated to the porch, but in a place of honor, creating beautiful yarn.

October 2021 update: Joan Cummer had a somewhat similar wheel in her collection, Wheel No. 30. In describing the wheel, she notes: “This wheel was made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century in Ireland. The turnings are Sheraton period with extremely fine reed turnings on the distaff … This has been a well made and very heavy wheel.” Cummer, Joan Whittaker, A Book of Spinning Wheels, Peter E. Randall, Portsmouth, NH, 1994 (pp. 72-73).

For more information see:

Johnny Shiels Inishowen Spinning Wheels, website here.

Evans, Nancy Goyne, American Windsor Furniture, Hudson Hills Press, New York, NY, 1997 (p. 214).

Ulster Museum, Spinning Wheels (The John Horner Collection); Ulster Museum, Belfast, Ireland 1976.


If the wheel in the previous post, Green Linnet, is the oldest I have owned, this wheel, Hermione, is the smallest. 

It is hard to convey just how tiny this wheel is and photos cannot capture how little it weighs. 

Such small wheels are often advertised these days as children’s wheels, which generally is considered an inaccurate description, since apparently children rarely got wheels of their own but learned to spin on full-sized wheels. 

Nevertheless, we do know that there were great wheels scaled down in size for children, so it is entirely possible that some small flax wheels were made for children, also.   

I do not dispute that children’s wheels were a rarity. This wheel probably was intended for and used by adults. But, I like to think that it may have been used, at least at some point in its history, by a child.  Because, if ever a wheel would appeal to a child, this is it.   At less than 24 inches tall, under 5 pounds, and beautifully turned, it would have been a powerful lure for a child to learn to spin. 

And what a good teacher it would have been. The wheel is an excellent, responsive spinner.  Despite its almost toy-like quality, it has a full-sized flyer assembly and spins like a much larger wheel.

Even though the drive wheel is petite, it does not require frantic treadling for a smooth, even uptake, but has a nice, easy rhythm.  The orifice height is 21 ½ inches, only two inches lower than some of my other small flax wheels. 

Its main advantage for an adult user would have been portability and ease of storage.  Its slanted stance gives it a tiny footprint.  Combine that with its feather weight and it can easily travel anywhere and be tucked in a corner or lifted to the top of a wardrobe when not in use.

As with several of my wheels, this one was part of Joan Cummer’s collection, auctioned off after the American Textile History Museum closed.  It is Wheel #127 in Cummer’s “A Book of Spinning Wheels,” on pages 274-75

It is hard to pin down the origins of this wheel–in time or place.  According to Cummer, the wheel was thought to have originated in England or northern Europe in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

I would love to know how Cummer came to her conclusions. Tiny Saxony-style wheels are most often associated with Germany and eastern Europe and usually are not thought to be as old the eighteenth century. But this wheel does have a bit of a unique style. Based on the series of ball or bead turnings on the legs, Cummer may have compared this wheel to an English wheel made by Richard Arkwright, probably in the middle of the 18th century (for a photo of Arkwright’s wheel see Baines, Spinning Wheels, Spinners & Spinning, p. 124) to conclude that it could be an early English wheel. 

Nevertheless, the turnings are not really much help in accurate dating. Patricia Baines calls such turnings “knob turnery” and notes that it “could suggest the Cromwell period, nearly 100 years before” the estimated date of Arkwright’s wheel, while also noting that it is found on spinning wheels known to have been made in the nineteenth century. (Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, p. 123).

Nor do the turnings help much in determining place of origin. The legs’ series of knobs, balls, or beads (also referred to as “bubble” turnings by some) resemble those found on many Dutch and some German and Scandinavian wheels. Moreover, the drive wheel is scattered with decorations of a type found most commonly on small German and eastern European wheels. 

They are raised and appear to have been glued on, many resembling small tulips or crowns. 

Another interesting feature is the drive wheel construction. 

It is made from one piece of wood, with no joins, and the pegs for the spokes are driven directly, straight down, through the middle of the rim.  I don’t know whether this construction is indicative of a certain region.

But, we can tell that the wheel likely came from a flax-spinning region. As Cummer notes, there are two holes in the table–one for a distaff and the other for a water vessel for flax spinning.  

The wheel is versatile, however, with an orifice and bobbin large enough for spinning wool as well as flax. 

The table also has a small hole with a circular mark that likely had a decorative medallion at some point, another feature sometimes found on German wheels and other European wheels. 

Although its origins likely will never be pinned down, it is a delightful wheel and was easy to bring back to life. When I bought it, the footman was a broken thin leather strap that had been doubled up.  It was stiff, severely cracked with age, and falling apart, so I replaced it with new leather in the same design.  

The treadle has seen a lot of wear and one edge is partly broken off.  

I originally thought that the bobbin was a replacement because it comes well short of taking up its allotted space on the mandrel. 

But its wood appears to match that of the spindle whorl and the hub, all of which have eye-catching reddish grain rings.    

It is apparent that the wheel was well-used and valued for its sweet spinning because of the careful repairs. Screws have been added in strategic places

But the most interesting repairs are to the flyer assembly. 

The flyer hooks apparently are replacements, set into holes adjacent to the originals. 

And, at some point, the flyer was pretty well shattered,

with a break down the center and a broken arm. 

The breaks are neatly repaired with wire,

doubled through and tightly wrapped. 

The arm break also appears to have a small nail as back up. 

Years of usage grime have settled in around the wires, indicating the flyer repair is an old one. Such a thorough and effective repair speaks eloquently for someone’s desire to keep this wheel spinning. 

I hope that whoever it was would be satisfied and content to know that it is spinning still. 

For further reference see:

Baines, Patricia, Spinning Wheels, Spinners & Spinning, Anchor Press Ltd, London, 1977, pp. 123-25.

Cummer, Joan, A Book of Spinning Wheels, Peter E. Randall, Portsmouth, N.H. 1984, pp. 274-75.

Green Linnet

This is an old wheel.  It was part of Joan Cummer’s collection, auctioned off when Lowell’s American Textile History Museum closed.  I was the only person to bid on this wheel at the auction and bought it because Cummer believed it to be the oldest wheel in her collection. 

The underside of the table has a carved date in Roman Numerals of 1707, and the same date is faintly inscribed on the table’s side. 

The wheel is No. 29 in Cummer’s collection and, in her description, she did not question the date, noting that it was compatible with the wheel’s William and Mary turnings. 

According to Cummer, the wheel was believed to have been brought to New England from England. 

I do not know if the wheel is really that old or if it was from England—it has some Scandinavian-style features.

Unfortunately, we do not have many surviving wheels from the early 18th century for comparison and I have not been able to find any similar wheels in paintings. 

I like to think it is over three hundred years old. 

Knotted wood on the inside of one leg

But, even if not quite that old, it has been through a lot. 

As Cummer commented, there seems to be at least one layer of green paint that, while old, is not original. 

The wood that shines through is a beautifully grained reddish color. 

The two secondary upright supports rise from the legs and fall out at the slightest jiggle. One foot is completely broken out where the treadle bar rod was inserted. 

In the leg at the other end, the bar is supported by a metal tube inserted through the wood.

The wheel’s slanty stance is a result of the legs being inserted into angular cuts on the table’s downhill side. 

The circular tree rings are visible on the end of the table. 

The axle is held in place with a large screwed wooden pin,

although the back one is missing.  There are carvings on the table

and at both ends,

a distaff hole,

and multiple grooves down the sides. 

The treadle bars are thick and give plenty of support for two footed treadling. Yet, they are graceful, too. The treadle is now attached with large screws.

 The wheel rim is four parts with a thin shim piece in one join.

The elongated tops of the maidens are particularly lovely. 

The flyer assembly is in good shape

with three-layered leather flyer bearings held together with rivets. 

It appears that the green paint was slathered over everything at some point, including the flyer hooks and leather bearings.

It is an unusual, intriguing wheel and I am always on the lookout for others like it so that we might be able to better establish its age and origin. 

For further reference see:

Cummer, Joan, A Book of Spinning Wheels, Peter E. Randall, Portsmouth, N.H. 1984, pp. 70-71.

Angelina Baker

Early Quebec wheels probably had little resemblance to the large, metal-clad production wheels associated with Quebec today.  It is likely that many were flat rim wheels, which are still found in Quebec, Ontario, and New England.

The origin of these flat rim wheels is a bit of a mystery.  Some likely came from the Acadian settlements in Canada, but it is doubtful that they are all Acadian.  Many Quebec settlers came from the northwest of France, and, interestingly, these wheels resemble the flat rim wheels of Normandy.

Le Rouet, Gr. de Leleux
This image and the one above have one leg resting on a rock. Is there some reason for this (other than a fix for a damaged leg)? If any one knows, please leave a message at the end of this post.

Whatever their origin, Quebec flat-rim wheels are thought to date from the late 18th century into the early 19th century.  They come in various forms.  Some have treadles, some are hand-cranked. 

Tables may be flat or sloped, often with four legs, but sometimes three.  Their profile is distinctive—a long, wide, sturdy table, shortish legs, with an outsized drive wheel and flyer set-up. 

In fact, some wheels of this style are not flat-rimmed but have drive wheels like those on saxony-style wheels, looking almost apologetically out-of-place atop the squat wheel bodies. 

The flyers and tension systems on these wheels set them apart from other antique wheels. 

Most are not double drive, but have some form of “scotch” tension, with a single drive band for the whorl and a brake on the bobbin, usually adjusted with a small knob inserted in a hole in a bar over the flyer assembly.

 My wheel is unusual because, aside from the flyer assembly, it has no turned parts. 

Aside from the hub, nothing is round.

The spokes, legs, uprights, and upright supports are all straight-sided with chamfered edges. 

The spokes are particularly nice, six-sided and tapered. 

Old nail holes indicate that the rim was re-positioned at some point. 

The table is sturdy and flat. 

The lines of the wheel—all edges and tapers—are very beautiful and quite unique. 

The flyer is large, held in place with a small removable piece on one end. 

As with many of these flat-rim wheels, rather than having a removable whorl and fixed arms,

the whorl is fixed on the shaft, while the arms and bobbin can be removed. 

The shaft is a smooth cylinder with a single cut-out for the yarn to emerge onto the arms. 

This style orifice often is referred to as a whistle-cut or train-whistle because it looks like the half-circle cut out on steam engine whistles.

A single drive band rounds the whorl, while another band is attached to a nail on the end of the table, rounds the bobbin, with the other end held in place by a peg in the crossbar above the flyer. 

There are grooves at each end for the band to ride in. 

When the band is inserted in a hole through the peg, it can be tightened by turning the peg, which adjusts the amount of drag on the bobbin. 

Once the tension is adjusted to its sweet spot, my wheel spins beautifully, although the treadling takes a little more effort than with most wheels.  The treadle is supported only by the wooden back bar. 

And, in contrast with most treadled wheels, that back bar does not have metal rods on each end to serve as the turning pivots in the legs.  Instead, the wooden ends of the bar extend into the legs. 

The wood-on-wood action in treadling creates a little more resistance than I am used to, so I usually use two feet which works well with the sturdiness of this wheel.

These wheels look a lot like bobbin winders and many were converted to that use.  So, it is always a treat when one turns up with all its spinning parts. 

Especially when it bears the hand of an artist who was not willing to settle for utility alone, and, without a lathe, created something that pleases the eyes as well as the hands.

For more information on flat-rim wheels, see:

Burnham, Harold and Dorothy, Keep Me Warm One Night, Early Handweaving in Eastern Canada, University of Toronto Press, 1972, p. 34.

Buxton-Keenlyside, Judith, Selected Canadian Spinning Wheels in Perspective: An Analytical Approach, National Museum of Canada, Ottawa, 1990, pp. 206-09.

Cummer, Joan, A Book of Spinning Wheels, Peter E. Randall, Portsmouth, N.H. 1984, pp. 178-79.

Foty, Caroline, “Flat-Rim Spinning Wheels,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth, Issue #80 (April 2013).


Rosanna was a bonus wheel.  I did not want her.  I had more than enough large Quebec wheels.  I was interested, instead, in the great wheel stored alongside her in a shed.  Her owners desperately wanted to clear both out–along with a clock reel–and gave me such a discounted price that ended up taking all three. 

I thought I would just clean her up, get her spinning, and find her a new home.  I did not expect to become attached.  But she was one of those wheels that just clicked with me spinning-wise.  She is a powerhouse spinner that loves a fast long draw.  So, I kept her quite a bit longer than I expected, just for the great pleasure of spinning on her.

When I first brought her home, she did not look very promising.  She had clearly been in the shed for a long time and was dry, spidery, and dirty. I took off the worst of the deeply encrusted grime with turpentine and linseed oil, unstuck her whorl, oiled her up, and away she went. 

As an aside, everyone who rescues and rehabilitates old wheels should have a rubber strap wrench in their tool box. 

They are inexpensive and work miracles on stuck whorls.  Just put a knitting needle, skewer, or something similar through the orifice holes to hold onto (rather than the too-readily-breakable flyer arms),

fit the rubber strap around the whorl, and gently twist with the wrench.  

Almost all antique whorls are threaded opposite to what we are used to—so turning to the left generally tightens the whorl and turning to right loosens it.  The wrench gives great leverage and the rubber strap will not mark or scratch the whorl.  No muss, no fuss, no wait.

Being such a wonderful spinner—a true production wheel–it is not surprising that Rosanna shows signs of long use.  She was heavily greased around all of her moving parts—now well shrouded in black residue.  Her front upright was long ago shimmed with nail. 

Her rear upright appears to have been nailed to secure a crack. 

Her bobbin is slightly short, giving a bit of chatter.  The flyer assembly does not look as worn as I would expect, given the rest of the wheel, so probably is a replacement.

She is one of the few Quebec wheels that I own that fits in the definition of a CPW.  She has tilt-tension,

a classic fleur-de-lis metal treadle,

and a large 31-inch drive wheel. 

She has no discernible maker’s mark but has features of wheels made by the Laurence family (father Simeon and sons Louis and Clement) near St. Hyacinthe, Quebec.  Laurence wheels are characterized by their beautiful beveled and beaded edges,

“s” curve cranks,

secondary upright supports front and back,

pear-shaped feet,

and “flying saucer” maidens.  

Some wheels with these same features, however, have been found with a stamp by maker Michel Cadorette.  The Laurence and Cadorette families were intertwined with family and wheel-making ties.  So, as with so many wheels without a maker’s mark, we cannot know with certainty who made this one—likely a Laurence, but possibly Cadorette.  In any case, she is quite a presence.

After spinning on her all winter, I am finally ready to move her on.  She is going to a good home, where I hope she will give her new owner many more years of spinning pleasure.  Much better than all those years sitting idle in a shed.

For more information on Laurence and Cadorette wheels, see:

Foty, Caroline, Fabricants de Rouets— this book and a photo supplement are available for sale as a downloadable PDF by contacting “Fiddletwist” by message on Ravelry.

Scutching knives

It is not easy to turn flax into linen.  There are multiple steps, with marvelous names that evoke the Middle Ages—rippling, retting, breaking, scutching, and hackling. 

In a previous post, I wrote about the first steps for processing flax into linen. 

In short, after flax is grown and the seeds starting to mature, it is pulled and dried. 

At this point, the seeds usually are removed

—a process called rippling–and the stalks are retted, so that the fiber can be separated from the woody boon or shive—usually with a flax break.  For detailed explanations and photographs of these initial steps, see my previous post “A Ripple and Breaks.”

After breaking, the next step in most flax growing regions is the scutching process.  Scutching helps further remove the woody boon and shorter tow fibers, while softening and aligning the long fibers for the final step—hackling (or heckling or hatcheling). 

The breaks are on the left, scutching board in the middle, and hackles on the right

The term “scutching” derives from the Middle French word “escochier,” meaning to beat or strike.  Another term for the process, “swingling,” similarly came from the Middle Dutch term with the same meaning, “swinghel.” And that is how scutching works, by striking the flax fibers at an angle to scrape away the bits of boon still clinging to the flax fibers after breaking. 

The scutching board is not antique–it was made by my husband

The simplest method is to use a wooden scutching knife while holding a bundle of flax against an upright board.  As with most steps in flax processing, there are regional variations.  In Sweden, for example, other tools were also used to remove the boon, a draga (puller), which looks much like a flax break with metal edges and a stångklyfta (cleft bar), which looks like a long pole with alligator jaws, again with metal on the edges.  In some places, the scutching step is skipped altogether.

Swedish stångklyfta–this image is from the Skansen/DigitaltMuseum

But in most flax growing regions in the 18th and 19th centuries, some version of a scutching knife was used.  By the 19th century, scutching machines were developed.  These had multiple blades on a turning wheel, powered by foot or, later, water. 

Scutching machine at Landis Valley Farm Museum in Pennsylvania

Eventually scutching machines were mechanized and in Ireland, scutching mills were commonly used by the mid 19th century.  They were efficient and dangerous, with fast whirring blades always a threat to cut off fingers and hands, or even entangle long hair. 

Before mechanization, the biggest danger in scutching may have been over-imbibing at a community scutching bee, as depicted in this wonderful 1885 painting by Linton Park. 

Sober scutchers on the right, working diligently,

While those who have had a few drams are getting rowdy, brandishing their scutching knives as weapons.

As for scutching knives themselves, they ranged from extremely basic to elaborately decorated.  They come in various shapes and sizes and usually are not too heavy, so that they can be used for extended periods without putting too much stress on the wrist and arm.

In New England, it is hard to find scutching knives these days. 

A New England scutching knife–this one is actually too heavy for me to use

Probably because they were plain and utilitarian and would have been burned or thrown out once flax was no longer produced. 

This New England knife survived some dog chewing–the handle extends from the upper edge

Those that have survived in New England usually seem to have the handle on the upper part of the blade.  Those from Pennsylvania, on the other hand, more often have handles in the center of the blade. 

Pennsylvania knives at the Schwenkfelder Museum–the handles extend from the midpoint

Of course, scutching knives that were decorated were less likely to be thrown away and some truly beautiful ones have survived. 

These two initialed knives came from a Pennsylvania auction.

They carry the same initials.

Unfortunately, I do not know whether they were originally from Pennsylvania or Europe or Scandinavia.  Having a “D” as the last initial suggests Scandinavia for a “daughter” name, but the decorative compass stars are typical of Pennsylvania and Germany.

Another two that I bought as a pair are also a mystery.

Both have “D” as the last initial, so I am assuming they are Scandinavian, but, other than that, I have no evidence as to their origin.

They have lovely details. 

I use both of them regularly—they are light but work well and fit my hand as if they were made for it.

Comparison of heavy large New England knife on top and smaller, lighter (likely) Scandinavian knife on bottom

At the other end of the spectrum from the simple knives of New England are the elaborately painted ones from Scandinavia, especially Sweden. 

They were often bridal gifts,

usually from the husband-to-be, typically with initials and dates, and painted with flowers. 

But my favorite has no initials or dates.  It is much more personal than that.

It depicts a woman standing in front of a house with a birch tree at the edge of a lake, with amazing details such as the rocks and grasses at the lake edge.

She is exquisitely dressed in the traditional costume from Rättvik in the Dalarna region of Sweden. 

Painted on the handle is “Rik nog som nöjd är,” which roughly translates to “you are rich enough if you are content” (Swedish speakers, please correct me if I am wrong). I am in awe of this knife and the history it carries with it.


Burnham, Harold B. and Dorothy K., ‘Keep me warm one night,’ Early handweaving in eastern Canada, Univ. of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo, 1972.

Eliesh, Rhonda and Van Breems, Edie, Swedish Country Interiors, Gibb Smith, Layton, Utah, 2009 (p. 16).

Dewilde, Bert, Flax in Flanders Throughout the Centuries, Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium, 1987.

Heinrich, Linda, Linen From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 1992.

Meek, Katie Reeder, Reflections From a Flaxen Past, Pennannular Press Int’l, Alpena, Mich., 2000.

Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, All Sorts of Good and Sufficient Cloth, Linen-Making in New England 1640-1860, Merrimack Valley Text. Mus., North Andover, Massachusetts, 1980.

Zinzendorf, Christian and Johannes, The Big Book of Flax, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2011.

The blog “Josefin Waltin Spinner.”