The Spinning Wheel

The earliest evidence for spinning wheels begins in the Thirteenth Century. We see early wheels in Baghdad in a drawing dated to 1237, China around 1270 and Europe around 1280. You can imagine how the trade routes carried this technology based on those dates. 

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

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

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

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


The earliest recorded wheel is of the Charkha variety. This is also sometimes called a floor spindle. The fiber is held in one hand and the wheel is turned with the other. The spinner must stop to wind lengths of the resulting yarn onto the spindle as they work. This type of wheel was perfect for short staple fibers, especially cotton, and was portable as well. Even Mahatma Ghandi spun on one and actually revived the method during his time. 

Compact, briefcase sized Charkha.

Compact, briefcase sized Charkha.

Ghandi spinning on his Charkha. Photo wikimedia commons.

Ghandi spinning on his Charkha. Photo wikimedia commons.

Around the same time as the emergence of the charkha we begin to see the Great Wheel, or Walking Wheel, where, like the charkha, the fiber was held in the left hand and the wheel was slowly rotated with the right hand. The fiber had to be held at a specific angle to the spindle in order to produce the right amount of twist. This type of wheel made very fluffy, long drawn yarns. These were not very good yarns for weaving as they weren't strong and smooth enough for the weft. This wheel was good for short staple wool and cotton that needed a long draw. These wheels are very large, often over 5 feet high.

Old woman walking wheel.jpg

A citizen of Brunswick is credited with adding a treadle to the wheel in 1533. This allowed the spinner to use their foot to manipulate the spinning of the wheel and allowed both hands to draw the fiber. This flexibility lead to different draw methods as well as different qualities in the yarns produced. 

Irish spinning wheel - around 1900  Library of Congress  collection

Irish spinning wheel - around 1900
Library of Congress collection

The Saxon or Saxony wheel was introduced in Europe in the 16th century and incorporated a bobbin on which the spun yarn was woven. Bobbins actually first appear in the notes of Leonardo da Vinci in 1490 and then gained widespread favor and use in the early 1500s. Fly wheels seem to have appeared first in Germany around 1475 and seem to have been used in flax processing. 


As time went on, the demand for spun yarns and woven fabrics was dramatically increasing and it took three spinners to keep up with one weaver. Thus, in 1764, James Hargreaves invented an improved spinning jenny which was the first hand propelled multiple spinning machine that improved on the previous wheels. 

Woman using the spinning jenny in a factory.

Woman using the spinning jenny in a factory.

As the Industrial Revolution exploded, the technology of the Spinning Jenny expanded as well and larger and larger machines were used to spin greater amounts of fiber at a faster pace. Spinning on a spindle or a wheel became something that was no longer necessary for survival in most of Europe and America. 

It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that these "craft" or "cottage" industries became interesting again. As movements such as homesteading, back to the land and survival prepping grew, people wanted to learn how to spin, weave and knit again.  And as we know, it's a huge industry again. 

So what do we do with all this thread and yarn? Firstly, we wove it. We'll learn about that in the next lesson.