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The Manx Spinning Wheel

by Bernadette Weyde

The spinning wheel was indispensable to the people of its day; just as the cart was to the field, so was the wheel to the house. The spinning wheel that passed most of its working life in the kitchen, has come to rest in the parlour, and great-grandmother’s spinning wheel, well dusted and polished, is regarded as ‘a bit of an antique’.

For hundreds of years spinning must have been a major pre-occupation of the woman of the Island, and have held a central place in their lives, just as the wheels occupied the centre of their kitchen floor. ‘The old people’, it is said, ‘could spin like the hummers’.

It was such an important task and its completion a matter of such urgency, that the fairies came in to help and the spinning wheels ‘would be going all night’. Whether supernatural help was forthcoming, or whether the request in the song, ‘Dy chooilley vanglane er y villey snieu er-my-skyn’ (Every branch on the tree spin above me) was ever heeded, we do not know.

Certainly there was work to be done for the rolls of wool which had been carded from the fleeces of the summer sheering had to be spun into yarn to knit into stockings, and for the weaver to make into cloth for suits and coats. The finest white wool was spun into thread for blankets, made in two pieces on the narrow hand looms and sewn together: flax was spun for bed linen and to make the blue and white checked material which curtained the windows and hung round the ‘chiollagh’ of many a farmhouse and cottage. The most hard-wearing stuff of all was woven of a mixture of wool and flax, dyed red and blue, and used for making men’s shirts.

Though both spinning and weaving must once have given considerable employment to the joiners who were also wood turners, it is not possible to say whether spinning wheel makers were at any time numerous. The Callisters of Willow Grove farm, Jurby and West Craig, Andreas, are a family who have been wood turners and makers of spinning wheels for four generations. It is not on record from whom Thomas Callister, the first known maker, learned the craft, and so it is possible that the family may have had an even earlier association with the work.

Mr JC Callister and his sister, Mrs Keig, living at the Lhen Bridge in Andreas, say that their great-grandfather, Thomas Callister, returned to take up the craft after being seized by the press gang in 1787, and spending some years in the Navy during the Napoleonic wars. He had his workshop ‘on the west side of the back door of Willow Grove’ but his son, John Callister, built the house and workshop at the Lhen Bridge where the family now live. It was to this workshop that the people of the North came with orders for new wheels and to have their old ones mended. They often came on foot, and Mr Callister and his sister remember how one day two women came walking from Ballavarran in Jurby ‘one of them with the wheel on her shoulder’.

Their father always went himself to select the wood he needed for his work. He went to the Curragh to cut the black sally (sallow), a tree with a fine-grained wood which was the best for making spools for the spinning wheels. It was the wood used for sickle and chisel handles and, ‘it would work up as smooth as velvet, and never splinter or catch the thread’. He made the rest of the wheel of ash, and sometimes had a long search to find wood that was to his liking, long in the grain and free from knots. He turned on the treadle lathe, and carved out with small gouges and fine paring chisels the legs of the wheel and the pillars that supported it, and the spokes and pulley wheels. Every maker had his own patterns and though the patterns that the Callisters used are lost or destroyed, a wheel made by them is always recognisable as each one was carved and ornamented in the same style.

The rim of a spinning wheel is made of four sections, which are fastened together with wooden dowels. These rim pieces were worked on the face-plate of the lathe, held firmly in position by small clamps while they were worked with the chisel. The spokes were the most difficult parts to do as there were fourteen or sixteen of them, and all had to be made alike. Repairs were often done while the customer waited, for their father could cut out a pair of flyers with the band saw and turn and finish them in half an hour. He frequently made new flyers or a new spoke for a wheel, and his charge for some such small repair was two pence or threepence. For the last wheel which he sold, he received 18 shillings, his usual price.

The Callisters have in their possession the last wheel he made, carved almost entirely out of bog oak from the Curragh. It took him thirty years to collect enough wood to make it and as each piece became sufficiently well-seasoned to use, another part was added to the wheel, and it was completed in 1890. In addition to spinning wheels he made wooden basins and shuttles of trammon (elder) for the weavers.

(source: article by I M Killip, Journal of the Manx Museum Vol. VI, 1960-61, No.77; photograph is courtesy of Manx National Heritage at the imuseum and the article relating to it states:

This spinning wheel was originally used at Ballacollister, in the parish of Lonan. It is a treadle operated, bobbin-flyer spinning wheel, of a conventional pattern. It is made predominantly in ash, with oak or chestnut and birch as minor secondary woods. The surface has residues of blue paint. A diamond shaped hole is cut into the surface of the table, probably to hold water to dampen the flax. The wheel is largely intact, except that the distaff and distaff holder are missing and one leg has been replaced. The ability to spin wool into yarn was once considered an essential skill for any country woman; indeed it was an important consideration when choosing a marriage partner! In Viking times, womenfolk were sometimes buried with spinning paraphernalia.

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