Fleur is an extraordinary Quebec wheel.  She is a formidable presence—large and golden, with eye-catching curves. 

She looks little used, with no wear marks and smooth hooks,

and is probably the best spinner in all of my flock of wheels.  Her treadle is her most unusual feature.  It is metal, with whimsical cut outs that include a flower, star, and “EL. St. Frs.” 

A sister wheel, owned by Linda Martin, was featured in Issue #89 of The Spinning Wheel Sleuth newsletter (July 2015).  The article was written by Martin and Caroline Foty, describing Martin’s wheel and Foty’s research into the wheel maker. 

Working from the letters on the treadle—in effect a maker’s mark—Foty concluded that the wheel likely was made by Elie Laporte from St. Francois-du-Lac, Yamaska, Quebec. 

Laporte’s village, St. Francois-du-Lac, is located on the St. Francois river, near where it meets Lac St. Pierre, a wide portion of the St. Lawrence River.  It was founded as French Jesuit mission for the purpose of converting the local Abenaki and other First Nations people to Catholicism. According to Foty’s research, Elie Laporte had native ancestry through his great grandmother. 

During the colonial period in New England, St. Francis, as it was known there, was feared as a launching point for raids against colonial settlements and the place to which captives from those raids were brought to be adopted or ransomed.  In 1759, during the French and Indian War, Roger’s Rangers attacked St. Francis, killing most of the inhabitants and burning it to the ground.  It was eventually rebuilt and resettled. 

Elie Laporte was born there in 1845, to a carpenter (menuisier) and wheel maker father, Pierre, and mother, Angele Gill (whose great-grandparents were from Massachusetts). 

Elie had three daughters, one of whom, Hermelina, migrated to Lowell, likely to work in the mills, and married there.  Laporte died in 1919. 

Laporte’s wheels have a different look than other Quebec wheels of the era, with a thick, low slung table, and distinctive maidens.

Interestingly, a wheel maker a generation earlier, Jean Baptiste Houle (1828-1884), from a neighboring town in Yamaska, made wheels with a similar profile, table and maidens.  Houle marked his wheels with “JBH” on the end of the table. 

Whether there was any working relationship between the two men is unknown at this point, but, at the very least, it seems likely that Houle’s wheels had some influence on Laporte’s style.  If so, Laporte kicked things up a notch creating truly exquisite machines, with a personal touch of whimsy. 

I became interested Laporte’s wheels because of their similarity to a group of very large Quebec wheels, affectionately referred to as Madame Maximes or Big Berthas (the subject of the next post).  So, when a Laporte wheel came up for sale in Virginia on Facebook, I was over the moon. 

The seller and a wonderful wheel railroad volunteer met at Red Stone Glen in Pennsylvania and the wheel headed north to Maine.  My first reaction when I picked it up was that it was huge, with a 34 inch diameter drive wheel, and 28 ½ inch long table. She makes the very large wheel in my last post, Zotique, seem almost petite, with a 30 inch diameter wheel and 23 inch long table, and dwarfs Patience, the Shaker wheel below.

Fleur’s wood is very blonde, with some interesting reddish grain along the mother-of-all. 

She lights up a room.

For all the careful workmanship on this wheel, there is evidence of practicality, as with so many Quebec wheels. The lumber used for the table has a rough edge, just stripped of bark and smoothed a little.

Many of the nails holding the spokes are loose and some of the spokes have been moved.

The turnings are very distinctive, with fat feet,

and unusual maidens. 

The non-spinner side leg on mine does not match the others, probably a replacement that was whittled down to fit into the table.

The tilt tension system has a simple flat metal bar attached—at an angle—to the table

with two bolts underneath

and adjusted with nuts at the end of the mother-of-all. 

The orifice is smooth.

Each upright has a secondary support and the axle sits in deep cuts in the uprights. 

The drive wheel rim is narrow

and the rim joins have a jigsaw puzzle look. 

The spokes are lovely,

joining the hub like upside-down blossoms. 

The rounded treadle support bar extends quite far past the legs,

with a metal sheath underneath, perhaps (as Martin suggested in her article) to protect the wood from a metal footman.

It is the treadle, though, in the end, that makes me want so badly to know more about Elie Laporte. 


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

Foty, Caroline and Martin, Linda, “Finding Elie Laporte,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #89 (July 2015).


This wheel is a lovely marriage (perhaps polygamous) of wheel parts—also known as a Frankenwheel.  I prefer to think of it as a mélange or medley wheel, a hodgepodge of parts by different makers working together in harmony. 

By the time they get to us, many Quebec wheels have replacement flyers or drive wheels. Even when parts were from different makers, there seems to be a happy interchangeability. Zotique is an interesting mix, with some unusual features.  A Quebec wheel, with a drive wheel diameter of about 30 inches and a tilt tension system, it falls within the definition of a Canadian Production Wheel (CPW). 

As with the wheel in the previous post, Zinnia Rue, the body of this wheel was almost certainly made by a Vezina.  While Zinnia Rue likely was made by Ferdinand Vezina, this wheel appears to have been made by Ferdinand’s son, Antoine Emile, or Ferdinand’s younger half-brother, Charles. 

Both Antoine Emile and Charles made wheels with distinctive double metal-slat treadles and a tension system cradling the MOA in a block of wood held in place with an iron U-bolt.   

Chuck mark at one end of the MOA
The metal U holding the MOA is tightened with nuts underneath the table

While I cannot be sure which Vezina made this wheel, I am inclined to think it is Antoine Emile for two reasons.  First, he apparently marked his wheels with a paper label on the table, whereas Charles marked his with a stencil.  I cannot find any trace of a stenciled mark on this wheel, but there are marks on the table that look as if a paper label, or remnants of a label, were scraped off at some point. 

In addition, Antoine Emile’s wheels often had metal flyer bearings—he apparently was inclined to experiment.  While this wheel does not have metal flyer bearings, it has something even more unusual—wooden bearings. 

I have only heard of these on a handful of wheels, so they likely were experiments.

The bearings are screwed into the maidens. 

The rear bearing has a hole in the top and there has been some speculation that it may have been designed for oiling the bearing. 

On this wheel, however, the hole does not go through to the opening for the flyer shaft, so, unless it is really gunked up, that theory is out the window. 

The wheel has only one secondary upright support, on the non-spinner side.  The table is slightly tapered and has a hole going all the way through. 

These holes are found on some Quebec wheels, but most do not have them.  The obvious use for the hole would be for mounting a distaff or a water dish for spinning flax.  Although flax was grown and spun in Quebec, it was not widespread, especially by the time that this wheel was manufactured in the early 1900s (Antoine Emile patented this wheel style in 1899).  In fact, these wheels were designed and singularly suited for spinning wool, fine and fast–not flax.  Moreover, I am not aware of any photographs showing flax spinning or distaffs on a tilt tension Quebec wheel.  So, the hole remains a bit puzzling.    

At some point, the original flyer was lost and replaced with this mustard-yellow painted flyer, which likely came from an Ouellet or Paradis wheel. 

It has a smooth bell-shaped orifice and has spun many miles. 

There is a deep groove where the thread ran from the orifice to the hooks and a series of grooves on the edge of the flyer arms. 

While grooves running from the orifice are common and easily explained, many Quebec flyers do not have grooves on the arm. 

You see them a lot on New England and Nova Scotia wheels, but less often on Quebec wheels.  The origin of these grooves is a source of debate.  The two most prevalent theories are that they are the result of cross-lacing or winding off.  In cross-lacing, yarn is passed from hooks on one side of the flyer to the other, which helps control the speed of the uptake, allows for more uniformity of finely spun yarn, and—with linen—helps to even out the ridges that are formed on the bobbin as the thread piles up at the point of each hook. 

An example of cross-lacing on another wheel

I am no expert on cross-lacing—I do not use it at all.  And I do not know how common it was for Quebec production spinners.  But on almost all of my flyers with arm grooves, the grooves seem to be on the wrong edge to have been made by cross-lacing, as I understand it.  If I have this wrong, I hope someone will correct me.

With cross-lacing, the thread makes contact with the outside edge of the arm, not the inside.

On the other hand, the grooves are on the edge that would have been impacted by winding off.  Most antique wheels did not have multiple bobbins and thread was wound off onto a reel when the bobbin was full.  In winding off, many spinners ran the thread around the tension screw handle on the way to the reel.  With most wheels, an arm comes to rest against the thread as it heads to the tension screw.

The thread usually rubs against the inside of the flyer arm at a pretty good rate of speed, moving along the length of the bobbin as it winds off.

I suspect this is what caused the grooves, but without more evidence, it is just speculation. 

In this close up, you can see the thread running through the groove.

Still, it is interesting that when Quebec wheels evolved to tilt tension, the tension knobs remained, perhaps not only as a handle for carrying, but as a tool for winding off.  I have several Nova Scotia wheels where heavy flyer arm grooves are matched by heavy grooves in the tension knob.  This wheel does not have grooves on the tension knob, but I would love to see if there are grooves in the tension knob on this flyer’s original wheel. 

This wheel’s graceful, outsized drive wheel also is a bit of a mystery. 

In general on Quebec wheels, spokes are a defining feature for different makers.  But this wheel’s relatively plain spokes do not seem to be associated with any particular maker. 

The edges are angled at the rim to fit against a ridge and are nailed on the other side.

They are not very common, but turn up here and there on various makers’ wheels, sometimes with an unusually large number of spokes–16 or 18 compared with the more typical 12 or 14.  This one has 18 spokes—quite beautiful and rarely seen.  

The axle crank is “S” shaped, which is less common than “C” shaped cranks, and often associated with Laurence wheels.  

I have wondered if these drive wheels might have been manufactured by Laurence (or someone else) to be available as replacements.  The simple spokes would not clash with different maker’s wheel styles and having 16 or 18 spokes and an S crank might have been seen as a lovely upgrade feature. 

But, that is purely speculation.  Oddly enough, both of my Vezina wheels have this style spoke (but with different crank styles), and the drive wheels appear to match the rest of the wheel’s wood and finish, so perhaps they were occasionally offered by the Vezinas.  

As with many mélange/Franken wheels, this one is a wonderful spinner. 

I enjoy this style of metal treadle—it has some give to it, making it very responsive and easy on the foot. 

The wheel is beat up, with some chips,

especially along the drive wheel rim. 

But, with its size, 18 spokes, wooden flyer bearings, and yellow flyer, it stands out as a unique and striking survivor. 

January 25, 2021 update: In pondering whether this style drive wheel may have been sold as a replacement wheel, I found this advertisement for spinning wheels sold by Dupuis Freres, a major Montreal department store that sold wheels as late as 1948 (mostly made by Borduas). The advertisement offers drive wheels only, or “Roue seule,” so this establishes that replacement wheels were sold as separate items.

For much more information on Antoine Emile and Charles Vezina see Caroline Foty’s book and photo supplement:

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

Zinnia Rue

All of the wheels I have documented so far have been from New England—specifically Connecticut and Maine.  But many of my favorite wheels are Canadian.  I have wheels from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.  They differ hugely in style, but every single one is a splendid spinner. 

Probably the most widely known Canadian wheels are from Quebec and now commonly referred to as “Canadian Production Wheels” or CPWs.  Caroline Foty, in her book about these wheels, “Fabricant de Rouets,” defines them as double-drive saxony-style wheels with very large drive wheels measuring 27-30 inches in diameter, and having a tension mechanism (usually with metal components), which tilts or slides along the table rather than the more typical wooden screw tension system. 

The general time of manufacture was 1875-1935, a period of innovation in wheel design in an attempt to make home spinning more productive and efficient.  And CPWs were productive–wonderfully suited to spinning wool fast and fine.  But the wheels that fall within the CPW definition are not the only Quebec wheels designed for fast production.   Many of the wooden screw tension wheels are extremely fast spinners–some have drive wheel diameters larger than any CPWs, and others have two drive wheels for accelerated speed.  So, another way to more precisely categorize Quebec wheels, is: screw-tension, tilt-tension, slide-tension, accelerated, and flat-rim (which sometimes have screw tension and sometimes scotch tension). 

Zinnia Rue is a Quebec slide-tension wheel.  Her drive wheel is smaller than most CPWs, at just 26 inches. 

She appears to have been made by Ferdinand Napoleon Vezina (1841-1898) of Vercheres, Quebec, who likely developed this tension system.   Faint remnants of his “F.N. Vezina Vercheres” stamp on the wheel’s table can just barely be discerned.   

Trust me, you can make out bits of the mark.

Ferdinand was part of a family of wheel makers, carpenters, and inventors, including his uncle Joseph, brothers Pierre and Charles, nephew Polycarpe, and son Antoine Emile.  Their last name was variously spelled Vezina, Visina, and Vesina  (see Fabricants de Rouet, pp. 96-110, for extensive information on the Vezina family).

This beautiful wheel was part of Joan Cummer’s collection.  It is wheel No. 87 on page 190 of her book, and in its description, she notes that it is slightly smaller than the usual “Great Canadian” wheels—her term for CPWs.  Cummer purchased the wheel from an Antrim, New Hampshire antique dealer and later donated it, along with the rest of her collection to the American Textile History Museum. 

It was put up for auction after the museum closed, when I purchased it and brought it home.  There were two Cummer Quebec wheels up for auction that night and I was intending to bid on the other one.  But when my foot met the treadle on this one, to see if the wheel turned true, I was immediately drawn to it.  It is funny how some wheels don’t speak to me at all and others suck me right in.  This wheel is a wonderful spinner and I am hoping to pass her on to a friend who has been looking for a CPW and will give her a good home. 

She has the common fleur-de-lis style metal treadle and a leather footman

with old greenish (copper?) rivets,

which perhaps was part of a harness originally. 

The footman is attached to a to a loop in a wire twisted around the treadle bar. 

The front axle bearing has the color and texture of lead,

but the back one is more yellowish. 

The flyer was broken and glued and repaired (I since added some metal plates, as back up to the glue) but the arms, interestingly, do not have any wear lines on them and the hooks are in great shape. 

The orifice does, however, show wear with some deep grooves where the yarn emerges. 

The orifice is bell-shaped and fluted, something seen on many Canadian wheels. 

There has been debate about the fluting, with some people arguing that it is a result of wear.  On my wheels, the bell shape and fluting go together and appear to be a deliberate manufacturing feature.  Wear, as with the deep groove in this wheel’s orifice, looks different to my eyes. 

This indentation in the orifice is where the yarn runs coming out to the arms. It appears to be from constant wear.

The treadle bars also show lots of wear, indicating that the user probably used both feet to treadle. 

There is an added wooden piece on the treadle bar. 

I’m not sure if it was intended to elevate the foot or if it had some other purpose. 

While the slider and tilt tension wheels did away with the need for wooden tension screws, they retained a sort of residual non-functioning screw that serves as a handle to pick up and carry the wheel.

I love the slider tension on this wheel—just loosen the wing nut and the MOA can be moved in very small increments. 

The slider has two parts—one part, bolted to the table, has runner on each end to contain the second part which is bolted to the mother-of-all.  

The slider aligns with the spinner side of the wedge-shaped table. 

I am a little surprised that this tension style it did not become more popular.  Francois Bordua, the creative Quebec wheel maker whose wheels sometimes sported Christmas tree and eagle treadles, also used a slider tension (marked with his initials) on some of his wheels, but slider tensions do not show up very often.

The maidens have a typical Vezina look. 

The leather flyer bearings appear to be quite old, perhaps original,

and there is an odd thin nail sticking out of the MOA. 

Its purpose is a puzzlement.  There also is a nail—what looks like 2 nails, actually, one quite old—in the bottom of the non-spinner side leg, presumably to keep the wheel from sliding across the floor. 

The wheel underside has some rough spots. 

There is one upright support on the non-spinner side of the wheel.

The drive wheel is a bit of a puzzle.  Most Vezina wheels have spokes with two or three beads and the earlier ones are even more ornate.  

These simple spokes show up occasionally on Quebec wheels of several different makers, but are fairly unusual. 

Oddly, both of my Vezina wheels have this spoke style.  The drive wheel rim also is not typical of Vezina wheels, which tend to have a simple three mound “quilted” rim.  This one is more interesting.  

While drive wheels and other parts were often mixed and matched as needed, this particular drive wheel is not associated with any particular maker, as far as I know.  The drive wheel is multi-colored, with most of the wood being dark, but some being light. The rest of the wheel also has different shades of wood. And the drive wheel look as if it belongs. 

So, I am inclined to think it is original, but it is hard to say.  Original or not, it carries a mark of the maker, whoever he may be.  There is a saw mark on the rim where it looks as if a cut was started at the wrong angle but then used with mistake intact. 

Another feature of this wheel is the wood itself.  

Quebec production wheels were turned out at a great rate with a good price. 

Beauty in wood was not a prime consideration.  Yet, this wheel’s wood is worth a slow look and appreciation.

For more information on Canadian wheels see:

Burnham, Harold B. and Dorothy K., ‘Keep Me Warm One Night’ Early Handweaving in eastern Canada, Univ. of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo, 1972.

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

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

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

A Ripple and Breaks

Flax is amazing.  It has been used by humans for fiber for about 30,000 years. 

From a children’s textbook, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures), by Johann Amos Cornelius (1592-1670), 1705 edition at Huntington Library, Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Fiber flax today, Linum usitatissimum, is a slender plant, often three feet or more in height, topped with a blue flower that bobs and sways in the wind. 

Its stem contains long fibrous strands that, when separated from the woody parts, can be twisted or spun into strong, long-lasting linen thread.  But getting from plant to linen is a laborious, exhausting process, made somewhat easier by tools developed over centuries.  Fortunately, in New England, where I live, many of these tools can still be found in barns, antique stores, and at auctions. 

Many European settlers in New England came from flax growing regions and brought with them the skills and knowledge for flax production. New England’s climate was well-suited for growing flax and during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was widely grown and processed by households for bedding, clothing, ropes, string, and sails. 

It must have been a beautiful sight to see acres on acres of flax in bloom.  But the work involved for a family to process enough for its own use is almost unimaginable to me.  After processing my own flax for several years, I will never look at linen in the same way again.  I am in awe of the fabric and the people who produced it, one backbreaking season after another. 

I became intrigued with the thought of growing and processing my own flax after seeing a demonstration at Maine’s Common Ground Fair the year we moved here.  Soon after, I read A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book based on the diary of a Maine woman, Martha Ballard.  I found a complete copy of Ballard’s diary online and searched for all references to flax growing and processing to get a better idea of how it fit in to the rhythm of her year.  http://dohistory.org/diary/1785/01/17850101_txt.html.  When I planted my flax seeds the next year, I followed Martha’s schedule. 

Soon after germination

Flax is easy to grow in Maine and has thrived in my garden.  I plant it in May and harvest it 90-100 days later, when the plant has turned a golden-yellow on the bottom third.  The flowers only last a day and then rapidly turn into roundish seed pods, which change color from green to gold as they mature. 

Flax also is valuable crop for seeds and seed oil, but seed flax is a different variety than fiber flax and does not grow as long and tall.  Fiber flax is harvested by pulling it up, roots and all (the roots are small).  It then is bundled and dried, usually by setting the bundles into shocks or by hanging them. 

After it has dried, the seeds are removed—a process called rippling.  This can be done by laying the flax down and crushing the seeds with a wooden mallet or flail or by using a rippling comb, also called a ripple. 

Of all the flax processing tools, ripples are the hardest to find in New England.  It was not until this summer that I found one, and I had already rippled the year’s flax. 

So, I don’t have a photo of it in use.  Instead, I took some stray flax plants that grew from seeds dropped in the garden while harvesting and used them in the photo to give an idea how it works.  The ripple has metal teeth, nicely spaced to whomp off the seeds while allowing for a nice smooth motion pulling the plants through. 

Two prongs at the bottom can be secured between or in boards and allow the ripple to be easily carried for use in different places. 

There are initials “CW” in a corner on mine and some decorative lines and balls.  I can’t wait to put it to use next year. 

Rippling is just the start of processing.  The next stage, retting, is a tricky one. Retting dissolves the pectins connecting the fiber bundles in the stem, allowing the fibers to be separated from the woody inner core and outer skin. It is essentially a bacterial rotting process, but must be handled carefully so that it doesn’t progress too far and break down the fiber itself.  Traditionally, two types of retting were used—water retting and dew retting.  I also use a third, less common method—snow retting.  In water retting, the flax is submerged and weighted down. 

It is the fastest, and smelliest, retting method, usually taking about 5 days for me in summer heat.  For dew retting, the flax is laid on the grass and turned regularly.  I usually dew ret in September and it can take anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, depending on the weather. 

For the last two years, I have retted some of my flax on snow, laying it down when there is sufficient snow cover to keep it from touching the ground then leaving it there until snow melt—2 to 3 months. 

Every type of retting produces a different color fiber—almost white for tub-retted, gray for dew-retted, and golden for snow-retted.

Retted and ready for breaking. From front to back: snow-retted, dew-retted, water-retted.

It is tricky to time the retting just right, but every year I get better at it.  Once the flax is retted and dried again, it is ready for breaking–the process that removes the fibrous strands from the wood core and epidermis.  The woody bits that break off are called boon or shive. 

Mallets can be used for breaking but hinged wooden flax breaks (or brakes) are much more efficient. 

They have a blade or blades on the upper arm that descend into grooves in the lower part, smashing the flax between them. 

Most breaks are on legs, but some were designed to be used on a table.  This break has three blades on top and four on the bottom.  I bought it from a friend in Maine and another Maine friend has one that is almost identical. 

Interestingly, there is one just like them from Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia, pictured in a book about early handweaving in eastern Canada, Keep Me Warm One Night (p. 28, photograph 6). 

I have also seen a photo of one in Kentucky and some similar ones in Switzerland. 

It is a good solid break, the crossbars on the legs make it easy to pick up and move around. 

My second break appears to be much newer. 

In fact, I suspect it may have been made in the 1960s or 70s.  I bought it at an auction for $10. 

The auctioneer had no idea what it was and called it a “farm implement of some sort, maybe it could be used to make pasta, ha, ha.” 

It has two blades on the top and three on the bottom. 

It is simple, sturdy and works well. 

Each break has its own feel and way of working—both good, but different. 

I also bought this beauty at an auction. 

It had belonged to couple living on Rings Island near Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Unlike most breaks, it is dated and initialed and has a seat.  I have seen a few breaks with these seats and would love to know more about them.  Breaking is rough and repetitive—hard on the back, the hands, the wrists, and the legs.  It must have eased the burden to be able to sit on the bench.  I like to think of it as an old woman’s break.  Sadly, it is riddled with woodworm tunnels, so I only use it occasionally.

Finally, here is a little toy break. 

I would love to know how old it is and for whom it was made.

After breaking, flax still needs to be scutched and hackled before it can be spun.  Scutching knives and hackles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and I will do later posts on them.  In the meantime, there are wonderful books on flax for anyone interested.  I only skimmed the surface here.

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.


These unusual wheels occasionally show up for sale and most people seeing one for the first time think it is a hilarious Frankenwheel—an assortment of wheel and reel parts cobbled together by someone who has no idea what they are doing. 

In fact, it is a cleverly designed wheel and reel combination patented in 1871 by George Hathorn of Bangor, Maine.  It can be used as a spindle wheel, a reel, to wind bobbins (or quills) and to ply, by rearranging the parts in different configurations.  Hathorn was born In Lincoln, Maine in 1842, and married Phebe Nute in 1870, a year before patenting this wheel. 

His marriage is important to the wheel because John Henry Nute, who appears to be his wife’s brother, had patented a similar wheel in Nova Scotia in 1870, a year before Hathorn’s patent. Whether the two men shared their ideas or one lifted the invention from the other, we don’t know.  But the competing patents must have made for some interesting family dynamics. 

Both men’s wheels were designed to be clamped to a table top or bench when in use—making them relatively portable and easy to store.  Nute’s wheels, commonly referred to as “hurdy” wheels, had distinctive drive wheels, painted red with black half circles. 

In his patent application, Hathorn notes that the purpose of his invention is the “production of a simple, cheap, and easily operated hand spinner,” in which the spinner can face the wheel while spinning and move the drive wheel “with but little motion of the shoulder.”  (Better views of Hathorn’s patent documents are here: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/99/2b/62/eb9628797193c8/US121517.pdf). Great wheels, of course require constant shoulder movement, so this must have been considered easier on a hard-working body. 

Hathorn produced his wheels in Bangor, Maine area for several years and appears to then have moved on to other types of manufacturing.  He died 1909. 

Hathorn’s wheel has a triangular base with a series of holes that allow for different set ups.  My wheel came with a homemade stand attached through a hole in the middle of the base.

The drive band passes over two pulleys and the spindle whorl. 

Both of the pulleys on mine were damaged over time. 

One was repaired, and the other needs to be.  Unfortunately, one side of the damaged pulley is so degraded that the drive band falls off and I haven’t been able to spin very much on this wheel.  It’s on the list of repairs for this winter.

Many patents were lost in patent office fires, so we are fortunate to be able to see Hathorn’s. 

As the patent drawings show, it was designed to have a spindle head with a removable guidewire (part I) used for reeling off the spindle onto the reel.   My wheel came with a cobbled-together spindle head that I replaced with a working one. 

Spindle head that came with my wheel

The short height of the one I’m using contributes to the band falling off the upper pulley, but it should work once the pulley is repaired. 

If not, I’ll use a taller spindle head. 

The reel has dowels along its upright and two on the bottom. 

When used as a reel, the bottom ones fit neatly in holes on the base. 

Each reel arm has a series of holes for different skein sizes,

and one has a metal spring holder to guide the thread (part a in figure 5 of the patent drawings). 

The patent does not show the reel counter, but they seem to be on most of Hathorn’s manufactured wheels. 

When the reel is turned clockwise, the screw moves along the rotating cog,

which has a partial spiral that increases in elevation and then abruptly drops.

A spring wire moves over the elevating spiral and then falls off the cliff with a thwack, acting as a counter for rotations of the wheel.

When using the reel for winding bobbins or quills, it is turned to be laid flat on the base, again inserting dowels into holes.  On mine, however, one of the dowels is too tight a fit to get into the hole—but I’m not likely to use this as a bobbin winder, so probably will leave it as is. 

The reel is designed to fold up, which Hathorn points out “is of great convenience in packing for transportion.” 

For plying, Hathorn shows in Fig. 7 how the drive band can be crossed, which will cause the spindle to reverse direction.  The spindle post can be moved to different holes for plying and to change tension. 

I am looking forward to repairing this wheel and putting it through its paces. 

The spoke with the handle is much thicker than the others.

My references for the history of Hathorn’s and Nute’s wheels, and the relationship between the two are below. They are the result of wonderful research and provide much more information than I included here.

Bachellor, Sue and Feldman-Wood, Florence, “The Hathorn-Newt Connection,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #43 (October 2004).

Feldman-Wood, Florence, “George Hathorn and His Patent,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #43 (January 2004).

Lonergan, Donna, “John Henry Nute’s Handspinner,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #43 (January 2004).

Probst, Dean, “Restoring a Hathorn Spinning Wheel,” The Spinning Wheel Sleuth #43 (January 2004).


Pennington, David A. and Michael B. Taylor. Spinning Wheels and Accessories. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004, pp. 110-13.


Phoebe is my gateway wheel.  She is not the first wheel I brought back to spinning life.  That was Katherine the Witch, the family antique that I somehow managed to get spinning when I was a teenager.  It is Phoebe, though, that led to my retirement addiction to antique wheels.  Although I prefer to think of it as a love affair. 

When we retired, I had not done any spinning in decades and had no intention of taking it up again.  Until, one afternoon, I spotted Phoebe in an antique store in Union, Maine.  According to the store owner, she had belonged to an elderly woman in the neighboring town of Appleton.  The wheel had all her necessary working parts but had obviously been stored in a barn or attic for many years. 

This is after clean-up.

She was grime-black and bespeckled with bird or bat poop.  I did not buy her, or even seriously consider buying her.  We were house hunting–nearing the end of our year of travel–and had no place to put her.  Over the next weeks, though, I could not get her off my mind.  The poor filthy thing was crying out for a rescue.   

So, I returned to the store and the owner agreed to store her for me until we had a house.   Little did I know that she would open an entirely new world to me—a happy obsession progressing from flax wheels and tools to great wheels and tape looms, bringing an added advantage of wonderful friendships with like-minded antique wheel addicts. 

As soon as we settled into our house, I brought Phoebe home and cleaned her up.  No easy task.  But, under all the crap, she was a beautiful little thing. 

She does not have a maker’s mark but appears to be typically New England.  Her maidens and the upright support suggest a Connecticut influence, while the simple spokes have a Maine Shaker look to them. 

She is made with a variety of woods. 

Some parts appear to be cherry, with a red glow, while the table and treadle support are a coarser grained oak or chestnut, perhaps. 

The table has gouges in the middle, which, as mentioned in an earlier post, are speculated to be from a knife (or fork) used to guide or separate the drive band at the cross, perhaps for plying. 

There are scratch marks at various places. 

It is hard to tell whether they were deliberate or not. 

Two legs are quite red and appear to be made of cherry, while this one is light, perhaps maple or apple wood.

The treadle appears to be a replacement and the distaff supports are missing, although a partial bird-cage distaff was propped in the support hole.  

There are crossed scribe marks under the table for positioning the legs,

similar to those on other northern New England wheels, and an interesting three-dash chuck mark. 

Phoebe provided a good education in getting a wheel up and running again. 

Many of her joints were very loosey-goosey, so I learned to shim the mother-of-all (clarinet reeds make great shims) and wrap joints with linen yarn. 

Her whorl was stuck and the flyer hooks—those that were not missing—were severely rusted.  At that time, I used WD-40 to loosen the whorl and fine sandpaper on the hooks.  I now use a rubber strap wrench for stuck whorls and abrasive cord for rusty hooks. 

What an amazing feeling it was to get her spinning again.  I was hooked. 

Her bobbin is a little short, giving her a low chatter, unless I wrap a little wool around the mandrel.  And, interestingly, the wear marks on her orifice and flyer arms indicate that the spinner brought the thread around from the underside of the orifice hole.  It still amazes me to see wear marks from thread–likely linen–on metal parts.

I always like to follow the thread marks on a flyer, to try to interpret how previous spinners worked with the wheel. Was the orifice threaded this way to slow down the uptake, to change the amount of twist, or to accommodate flax vs. wool? Even though it is not that long ago, we are ridiculously ignorant about spinning methods in the 18th and 19th centuries.  At least these old wheels can give us some clues, if we can understand how to read them.

Two Reels

Reels, like wheels, come in a wonderful variety of styles, often reflecting a region and a time.  Within each style, makers used their own ingenuity and personal touches, often to increase ease of use and efficiency.

No matter the style, the function is the same–to take yarn off of a spinning wheel’s spindle or bobbin to create a skein.  The skein can then be washed or dyed in preparation for weaving or knitting. 

One of the simplest reels is a niddy-noddy.  It is relatively easy to make and is portable and easy to store.  On the down side, it is not particularly fast or efficient and there is no mechanism for counting the rotations of yarn as it is reeled. 

Simple niddy-noddies are easy to find and inexpensive in Maine.  Decorated ones, however, tend to go for high prices.  I was at an auction where a chip-carved niddy-noddy—nice, but nothing awesome—went for $450, while the Shaker wheels at the auction went for less than $50.  Ouch. 

I only have one niddy-noddy and it is the first reel that I bought.  I found it at Elmer’s, a local junk barn, one of four hanging from an overhead beam.  I liked the way it felt in my hand and its simple, swooping lines. 

The length of yarn for one full turn is 72 inches—or two yards.  Its handle, worn to a glass-smooth feel, has a slight curve to the side, which I assume was an intentional design to make for an easier rocking motion when reeling on and easier removal of the skein. 

The next reel I bought (Lucy) came from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM).  I spotted her at one of the auctions of ATHM items and, although I had no intention of buying a reel, was attracted to her small size and simplicity. 

I was the only bidder, brought her home, and she has been my go-to reel ever since. 

One of the nice features of this reel is that the box top opens, making it easy to paraffin the threads for smoother rotation and to troubleshoot any problems with the gear mechanism. 

Another nice feature is the little handle for turning the arms.  It rotates around a center piece, allowing a constant grip as the reel is turned, making for faster reeling. 

The clicker is a long wooden piece that gives a nice thwacking sound when it hits a small metal barb on the gear. 

Five of the six arms have lips on the end-pieces to keep the yarn in place,

with the sixth being smooth for easy removal of the skein. 

In A Book of Spinning Wheels, Joan Cummer refers to the oddball smooth end-piece as “the stranger.”  Cummer, p. 302.  

In addition to the clicker, Lucy has a simple clock mechanism on the side.  Originally the reel may have had a paper label under the arm for rotation count. 

There is a somewhat similar reel in the Mount Lebanon Shaker museum collection, with the same simple clock arm and a paper label.  https://www.shakermuseum.us/object/?id=5542&limit=24&offset=24&sort=name_ref&tags=weaving  

As with my niddy-noddy, the length of yarn for one rotation on this reel is 72 inches, or two yards, and the clock clicks at 40 rotations, making an 80 yard skein. 

Joan Cummer indicates that the distance between clicks is 85 yards on most American reels, which gives an 80 yard skein after washing and shrinkage.  Id.  I am not sure if my reels are outliers or if I am measuring improperly. 

This reel is a typical style found in New England.  I do not know where she is from originally.   An almost identical reel came up for auction in Maine a few years ago and was said to be Shaker made.  

It is probable that the maker also made spinning wheels because the legs, cross bar, and table appear to have come from wheel stock—and do have a Shaker look to them. 

But, who knows? 

In any case, she is beautifully made and her clicker and clock still work perfectly.  And she brought along a piece of what looks like handwoven linen tucked in to tighten a cross piece.

For more information on reels:

Baines, Patricia.  Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977, pp. 302-327. 

Cummer, Joan. A Book of Spinning Wheels, Portsmouth, NH: Peter J. Randall, 1993.

Experience (Prance)

Most wheel makers remain a mystery.  Even when they mark their wheels, leaving names or initials, it can be difficult to determine who they were or to find any details about their lives.

That is not the case with Marlboro (or Marlborough) Packard.  He marked his wheels and lived in a town–Union, Maine–with an unusually well-documented history, allowing us to get a small glimpse into his life.  

Marlboro was born in 1763 in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  According to DAR records, he served as a private in the Massachusetts militia during the Revolutionary War.  At some point after that, he moved to Maine, joining his uncles, Micah and Benjamin, who had been there as early as the 1770s. 

His uncle, Benjamin, in fact, has a role in Union’s early history.  Initially called Stirlingtown, Union was born in controversy.  A group of Scottish men first claimed possession but, soon after, a Massachusetts man, Dr. John Taylor, bought the land, despite the previous claims.   After some dispute, Taylor prevailed, and in 1775, Marlboro’s uncle, Benjamin, worked with Taylor’s indentured servants to clear the land and cut lumber for Taylor.  History of Union, Maine, pp. 27-39.

That year, Benjamin Packard built the first permanent house, a log cabin, in what would become Union.  The next spring, in 1776, the Robbins family moved into the cabin and their story was the basis for the novel “Come Spring.”  The foundation of the house built by Benjamin is still intact near the shore of Union’s Seven Tree Pond.

It’s unclear whether Marlboro came to Maine right after serving in the militia, but the 1790 census shows that, by then, he had joined his uncles, living in Cushing on the coast. That same year, he married Mary Ann “Nancy” Blackington.  They had seven children, all of whom lived to adulthood–no small feat in those days.  According to his children’s birth records, Marlboro appears to have been living in Union in the early 1790s, then moved to nearby Warren and Thomaston, and eventually returned to Union by 1803. 

He lived the rest of his life in Union, on a farm on Clarry Hill, at times serving the town in positions such as selectman. He died in 1846, days shy of his 83rd birthday. Marlboro’s descendants still live in and around Union.  His oldest son, Nathan, named his first son (born in 1828) “Marlboro.”  This namesake grandson became a well-known master shipbuilder in Searsport, Maine, clearly inheriting his grandfather’s design and woodworking skills.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlboro_Packard.

As noted in the previous post about Marlboro’s flax wheels, “Clarry,” his wheels are well-designed and attractive. And, as with his flax wheels, Marlboro’s great wheels are immediately recognizable as his. 

He used a double-nut tensioning system–a somewhat unusual design found primarily in wheels from New England and New York.  The wheels are sturdy, with some lovely turnings and scribe marks, and his signature “MS” stamps. 

The hub is particularly nice, with brass bearings in both ends. 

The axle has square base, holding the wheel away from the upright, and nuts to tighten down each end. 

My wheel originally came with a Miner’s head, but I replaced it with an old bat head, new spindle, and new cornhusk spindle bearings. 

As with his flax wheels, Marlboro’s great wheels show no influence from the Shakers.  For example, the top of the spindle support is hefty–flat, wide, and collar-less–in contrast with Shaker wheels, which generally have slender, curving uprights with a collar.  

Interestingly, a few wheels have turned up that look almost identical to Packard’s, but with the initials “MS.”  It is not known whether MS may have worked with Marlboro, copied him (or the other way around), or whether the similarity is coincidental. 

Thanks to some friends who spotted her, I found my great wheel in the front window of an antique store in Liberty, Maine, two towns away from Union, where it had been sitting for a long time. 

According to the store owner, it had belonged to a Liberty woman, Ida Quigg McLain, who lived in a old square farmhouse with a huge central chimney. 

Whether that chimney is responsible, I’ll never know, but the spinner side of the wheel is badly blackened and charred,

likely from being too close to an open fire or hot stove. 

The charring doesn’t affect the wheel’s spinning, though.  She spins beautifully and I love that she’s a local girl—made from trees one ridge over from where I now live, by a man with one of my all-time favorite names—Marlboro Packard.

For more on Marlboro Packard and the history of Union, see the previous post “Clarry,” and these books:

Sibley, John Langdon, History of Union, Maine, originally published in 1851, reprinted by New England History Press, Somersworth, N.H, 1987.

Williams, Ben Ames, Come Spring, Houghton, Mifflin Co., Boston, 1940.

Update December 2020: Last month I picked up a Packard great wheel in Nobleboro, a nearby town, for my friend, Susanne. The seller had found the wheel at the Waldoboro dump. Its drive wheel did not appear to be original, but the rest of the wheel was lovely and had some interesting differences with my wheel. My wheel is on the left in the photo below.

Susanne’s wheel had a slightly daintier feel than mine. The tension screw supports were smaller overall and fit up snugly against the table–in contrast to mine and another wheel of Susanne’s, which have a significant gap between the supports and the table.

Susanne’s on the left, mine on the right.

In addition, the ball at the top of the wheel post is flatter on Susanne’s than on mine.

The legs are much the same.

Intriguingly, Susanne’s wheel had a “VII” inscribed on the table, the front tension screw support and the wheel post–something I have not seen on other Packard wheels.

It is hard to say whether the numbers were for disassembling the wheel for transport, used because apprentices or others were helping with assembly, or for some other reason.

The VII is very faint in the photo–easier to see in person.

It would be interesting to know whether Marlboro Packard changed his wheels slightly over the decades of production or whether he changed things up from wheel to wheel. It was a treat to be able to compare these wheels side by side.


Marlboro Packard, born in Massachusetts in 1763 into a family of carpenters, moved north to Union, Maine where he produced attractive, well-engineered spinning wheels, found throughout the midcoast to this day. 

Marlboro, also spelled “Marlborough,” was “a natural mathematician. He excelled in the solution of mathematical problems and in the use of mechanical tools. He could make anything from a boot-jack to a wagon wheel, from a window to a spinning wheel and in construction of the latter, he was a past master. All spinning wheels in the locality having the letters ‘MP’ carved on the end of the body are the work of Mr. Packard.” Soldiers and Sailors of Lower St. Georges Maine, p. 51. 

Marlboro was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in the same part of town (now Brockton) as the wheel-making Thompson family (see previous posts “Polly and a Skarne” and “Mag Reiver and a Finger”). 

Multiple generations of Thompsons (also spelled “Thomson”) were well-known wheel-makers in Bridgewater. 

While the Packards were carpenters, I couldn’t find evidence that they made wheels while in Bridgewater or that they worked with the Thompsons. 

But it does appear that the two families were related.  Marlboro’s aunt, Joanna Packard (his father Nathan’s sister), had a daughter, Jennett Allen, who married wheel-maker John Thompson.  John and Jennett were wheel-maker Hannibal Thomson’s parents. 

That makes Marlboro and Hannibal first cousins once-removed. 

Both Marlboro and Hannibal ended up in Maine making spinning wheels, but they are a generation apart and their wheels reflect that. 

Marlboro’s wheels were similar to those made by the earlier Thomson generations, based on a traditional Scottish-style wheel, while Hannibal’s wheels show the strong influence of the Maine Shakers on wheel styles in the early and mid 1800s. 

Marlboro’s father, Nathan, died in 1772, when Marlboro was only nine years old.  It’s unclear when Marlboro came to Maine, but his uncles Micah and Benjamin apparently moved to Cushing on the midcoast in the 1760s. 

They worked as carpenters and appear to have done well.  I couldn’t determine how long Marlboro stayed on in Bridgewater or whether he learned wheel-making skills there before coming to Maine. 

But eventually, Marlboro joined his uncles and by 1795 must have been well established in his trade, because the Maine Historical Society has copies of payment invoices to Marlboro for turning work, including banisters, for Montpelier, the mansion being built in Cushing by Henry Knox, George Washington’s former Secretary of War.  

In the 1790s or early 1800s Marlboro moved to Union, about 15 miles inland up the St. George River from the coast, and settled on Clarry Hill, the top of which is now blueberry barrens with a magnificent view. 

The Packard farmhouse still stands and Marlboro’s wheels appear with regularity in antique stores and barn sales throughout the area. 

In the Maine State Museum, one of Marlboro’s wheels serves as the example of a typical Maine flax wheel. 

Marlboro’s flax wheels are easily recognizable. 

Aside from his doubled initial stamps on the table end, the turnings are somewhat unusual in their generous proportions.  There is nothing skinny or delicate about these wheels, they are plump and ripe-looking. 

My wheel has a replacement treadle. 

Marlboro’s treadles have a distinct notch such as this one found by a friend in Searsport.  Here is her wheel and the treadle.

On my Packard wheel, the back side of the drive wheel has black marks, which look somewhat like burn marks, but in odd patterns.   

It also has gouge marks on the table, which remain something of a mystery.

They are usually attributed to the practice of sticking knives (or forks) in the table to separate or guide the double drive band, perhaps when plying.

My wheel has a quirk shared with another of my Maine wheels, in that if the whorl is tightened fully, it tends to pinch the bobbin so that it doesn’t turn freely, so I need to back it off slightly.  Once that is done, she spins fast and sweet. 

I was delighted to be contacted this week by a woman seeking information about her beautiful Packard wheel bought in New York state. It is complete with a full distaff and in amazing condition. It is satisfying to see that Marlboro’s wheels have been cherished and maintained so that they can continue to spin for us two hundred years later.

The wonderful quote on Marlboro is from:

Miller, Frank Burton, Soldiers & Sailors of the Plantation of Lower St. Georges Maine, Who Served in the War for American Independence, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999.

Update December 2020:

I recently ran across this old photograph for sale in eBay. According to the seller, it was taken in 1914 and is from a photo album belonging to the Fountain and Sproul family from Round Pond and Sproul Hill in Bristol, Maine. The back of the photo identifies the woman knitting as Margy Johnson. What caught my eye was the swift behind Margy Johnson and, of course, the spinning wheel, which is a Marlboro Packard wheel. Bristol is about thirty miles from Union, where the wheel was made. It is hard to tell from the photo whether the wheel was still in use. The treadle appears quite worn, the footman is attached and there appears to be a drive band. It felt like I met an old friend when I recognized this wheel.


When I first saw this, I suspected it was fiber related, but had absolutely no idea what it was. It turns out this odd looking, hamster-playground-contraption is a wonderfully versatile fiber tool. 

It goes by multiple names, including squirrel cage swift, drum swift, barrel swift, and wool rice.   

I was puzzled by the squirrel cage name, thinking that surely our busy 18th and 19th century forebears did not have the time or inclination for caging squirrels.  But a quick internet search proved me wrong.  Apparently, squirrels of all kinds—gray, red, and flying—were popular household pets as early as the 1700s and as late as the Victorian period. 

Some were actually leashed, while others were housed in cages complete with exercise wheels about the size of the wheels on this swift.  I love how researching antique textile tools can bring to life other details of their time, like a penchant for pet squirrels.

Swifts are designed to hold a skein of yarn and to turn, allowing the yarn to be easily wound off into a ball or onto a spool or bobbin for knitting or weaving. 

A reel or winder would have been used before the swift, to unwind the yarn from a spinning wheel and make the skein.  Like most swifts, squirrel cage swifts can be adjusted so that different sized skeins will fit. 

On mine, both cages are moveable and held in place with friction wedges on the opposite sides of the cages. 

Unfortunately, if the wedges aren’t positioned just right, the top cage has a tendency to go crashing down at the slightest bump.  It is quite heavy and, aside from concern that the swift will be damaged, I was afraid that it might land on a finger or two, crushing them into so many pieces.   

I finally learned to insert clarinet reeds as wedges underneath, which works well to keep the cages in place.

Most squirrel cage swifts have barrels big enough to fit two skeins side-by-side.  That makes them ideal for plying, which is how I most often use mine.  I also use it to smooth my handspun linen, running it from the swift to a reel through wet fingers or a bar of soap.   

They also work wonderfully as yarn blockers.  Wet skeins can be stretched to a desired tension and then periodically rotated to efficiently dry the skein by moving the wettest area at the bottom up to the top. 

My swift, Beatrix, appeared outside of our local antique store one day, an oddity to draw in the curious.  According to the store owner, it had belonged to an old woman, two towns over, who had been a weaver. 

Her loom had been sold to someone on the coast, but he picked up this swift and a reel. I was smitten the deep groves on every cross bar of the cages. 

Imagine all the skeins that ran over those bars.  There were some bits of linen thread tied at the edges of two bars, so I like to imagine that it saw its share of locally grown linen in its day. 

But, really, I don’t anything about when it was made or by whom. 

It’s very sturdy, with substantial weight and short legs, so won’t tip, no matter how it is used. 

Some parts are beautifully turned, some hand carved. 

The holes in the supports under the cages are seen in other reels and swifts, and there are various theories about their purpose, but I’m not sure that anyone really knows why they are there. 

These holes do not show any yarn wear marks, but they must be there for a reason.  Any and all theories are welcome. 

I have never seen another swift quite like this one.  In fact, I have never have seen two squirrel cage swifts that were the same. 

But there are a wide array of styles, so they must have been popular in their time. 

Perhaps not many survived because they didn’t have the decorative appeal that allowed so many of our antique wheels to escape the burn pile. 

January 2021 update: Thanks to the knowledgeable and generous woman known as whiteoakgrandma on Ravelry, the mystery of the holes in the arm supports has been solved. They are for dowels to keep the skeins separated and from slipping off (or piling up on) the ends of the cages while plying. Whiteoakgrandma learned this when she was growing up from the elders in her community in West Virginia. It works brilliantly!