No artifact of the past symbolizes antiques like the spinning wheel. Once found in virtually every household, these textile tools of the past are now difficult, but not impossible to find. If a spinning wheel is what you desire, rest assured that one is out there waiting for you – just be prepared to search a little before finding the wheel of your dreams.
Spinning wheels have been around since at least the early Middle Ages. Most of the examples of today date from the late 18th to the late 19th century. There are two main types of wheels. The larger example is known as the great wheel, walking wheel, or wool wheel. It was so named from its size, the fact that one walks back and forth while spinning, and the raw material used to make yarn (although cotton is also spun on the wool wheel). Most of these spinning wheels are a good five feet in height.
In the late 15th century the flax wheel was introduced. This spinning wheel had an improved spinning mechanism that allowed flax to be spun, as well as wool and cotton. These spinning wheels are usually from one and a half to three feet high.
Choosing a spinning wheel can be a difficult task. There are hundreds of variations on size, style, and form. Many spinning wheels were made by hand and are quite unique. Over the years I’ve owned some three dozen and no two are alike. If space is limited a flax wheel might be the better choice. A flax wheel will easily fit into any corner and some are quite small. If space isn’t a problem then the wool wheel may be the answer. These large, beautiful wheels add a nostalgic touch to any home. I suggest both – one can’t have too many spinning wheels!
Many collectors don’t know how to recognize a complete spinning wheel. The most often missing part on a wool wheel is the spindle, or needle. Without this part the wheel cannot be used to spin wool. When purchasing a wool wheel make sure this all important part is present. If it is missing, subtract $50-$100 from the value. Also make sure that the wheel itself is not warped. Carry along a string to test a potential purchase for warping.
Two pieces are often missing from the flax wheel. The first is the distaff that was once used to hold flax for spinning. This piece is so often missing that a flax wheel with a distaff is the exception and not the rule. In fact, in more than 30 years of collecting spinning wheels I have found only one example that still retained its distaff. If the distaff is present, add $100-$200 to the value of the wheel. The second often missing piece is the bobbin-and-flyer. This is the spinning mechanism of the flax wheel. The bobbin is exactly what it sounds like – a holder for the finished yarn. The flyer is a U-shaped wooden piece that “flies” around the bobbin, spinning and winding the flax into thread. See the illustrations of this column to get a good look at the bobbin and flyer. If this piece is missing, subtract $100 from the value of the wheel.
Spinning wheels are not cheap antiques, but neither are they overly expensive. In fact, prices have gone down on spinning wheels in recent years. A complete example of either type is valued at about $250-$350. Exceptional or rare examples will, of course, cost more. Patience will reward the wise collector with a really good buy. In recent months I have purchased the following: At an auction I picked up a wool wheel (with a new replacement needle) for only $70. At a small local flea market I picked up a diminutive flax wheel for a mere $80. It’s a bit rickety, but is complete. As you can clearly see, there are some good buys out there.
Keep in mind that finding such good buys requires a lot of looking and waiting. The two spinning mentioned wheels were the only good buys that I have been able to discover in the last year.
Where are the best places to find spinning wheels? I have found most of those I have owned in antique shops. This is where one is most likely to find a good price on a spinning wheel. Auctions are another good source. The prices at auction can be even better than in a shop, but spinning wheels are more difficult to locate at auction. Flea markets and antique shows are another good source, nearly on a par with antique shops. Yard and garage sales can just about be written off as sources for spinning wheels, although I have located a couple at such sales over the years, and at good prices. A wanted ad in the local paper, or regional antique paper, is another route for those looking for spinning wheels. Believe it or not, I’ve even purchased spinning wheels on eBay. While wool wheels are too large to ship, flax wheels can be sent across country by U.P.S. Shipping and insurance will add to the cost, but don’t hesitate to check out eBay when looking for a flax wheel.
Spinning wheels are not as much in demand as they were a few years ago, but they are still beloved antiques. If someday you decide to part with your wheel, rest assured that there will be someone out there willing to buy it. Some collectors, like me, have such a love for spinning wheels that they buy and sell them as a hobby. I can’t possibly find a place for all the good buys I run across, so I sell them at flea markets. I’ve had as many as six spinning wheels in stock at once. Some of us just can’t stop buying.
Whether you are in search of just one spinning wheel, or are looking to start a collection, you will find spinning wheels a link to the past that is hard to resist. I can spot a flax or wool wheel half a mile away at a flea market or antique show. My heart races when I spot one at an auction. I enjoy nothing more than taking home a newly acquired wheel, cleaning it up, and putting it on display. I think of all those who used the wheel in the past and how many long hours they spent spinning wool, cotton, or flax into yarn and thread.
A spinning wheel can bring the past to life in a way few other antiques can. On a recently purchase flax wheel I noted an old repair. The pedal had been so worn from long use that another section of wood had to be nailed over it to keep it from wearing through. The repaired piece was in its turn worn down by countless hours of spinning flax. Such touches of the past stand as testimony to a world that once was. Find your own spinning wheel, and you’ll have your own piece of the past.
A Pictorial Guide To American Spinning Wheels by D. Pennington and M. Taylor. This guide was published more than 30 years ago, but is still an excellent guide to spinning wheels. It contains a great deal of useful information and lots of photos. It can be found used on Amazon.com.
More antiques and collectibles feature articles by Mark A. Roeder: