Fibre Crafts ZA                                                                                                            December 2010
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Ninety and his wheels still spinning
By Jean Wildman
What started as a simple
“Please could you make me a wheel Jules?”
 turned into a fascination with everything to do with spinning.
  Norwegian Wheel - Julians first spinning wheel
Until a couple of hundred years ago in Europe and around the world, spinning was a necessity for most women. In South Africa in the 1960’s spinning wheels were unobtainable and plans difficult to come by or incomplete and sometimes obviously wrong.
In 1972 Julian Rossiter, a retired doctor living in Johannesburg, on a visit to Canada which had a long tradition of spinning and weaving, contacted Le Clerc in Montreal. They were well-known makers of looms and weaving equipment. Despite the difficulty of conversing in French he persuaded them to speak English and ordered one of their wheels which eventually reached South Africa happily balanced on his lap. As spinning wheels go it was not very handsome but at least it was functional and gave him a good idea of the mechanism.
This was the start of a lifelong fascination with all aspects of spinning. In fact as his confidence grew he was able to see a picture or photograph and make a fully functioning replica from that, often without any description.
This was the case with his Boudoir wheel that was pictured as the frontispiece in Eileen Chadwick’s book “The craft of hand spinning”. When he wrote to her and sent a photograph she was most impressed.

 The Boudoir Spinning wheel 
He would find an example in a museum and replicate it  
     as he did with the Great Wheel which he discovered tucked away
                                      in a museum at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds.

The Great Wheel 

His Turkish wheel with unusual painted bell-shaped distaff was hardly recognizable as a spinning wheel when it arrived. The distaff appeared garish to him but on a visit to Turkey he was relieved to find a similar style wheel being use

The Turkish Wheel

Often people would bring him a box of dusty pieces, some broken or missing, which he would restore and the owner would be happy.

If Julian did use plans he found that the best ones were those produced by David Bryant who lives in the UK. Scores of references to him can be found on the Internet and he has published numerous books and plans in woodworking magazines.

Many people from overseas worked in Secunda near Evander where Jules lived with his wife Elizabeth. She was instrumental in forming the local weavers’ group and gave lessons. Her pupils often brought him spinning wheels that needed fixing. They were delighted to get their wheels working again and willing for him to make a copy.

 The Irish Flax Wheel
A friend lent him a dainty, attractive flax wheel which he copied using kiaat. It was of Irish origin but showed many Dutch features. He entered it in the English Woodworker Magazine Show in Bristol in 1985 and was awarded Silver Medal in the turning category. As he worked in isolation in South Africa it was a great joy to discover he could hold his own when competing against distinguished British craftsmen.

Animal skins were the oldest textiles but once humans settled, thousands of years ago, the simple spindle evolved. This consisted of a stick, or spindle, for winding twisted wool onto and a whorl near the base to add weight and provide balance. Spinning fibres and winding on the thread take place alternately making the process slow. Many different types and sizes of spindles are found. For a workshop at the Johannesburg Weaver’s Guild Jules made Russian and Japanese drop spindles. The drop spindle, which can range from a few inches to a few feet in the Navaho’s case, is still widely used and a skillful spinner can produce beautiful yarns.The development of the spinning wheel probably took place in Asia. This took the form of changing the spindle from an upright position to horizontal, with the addition of a wheel and belt to drive the spindle.
A good example of this is the Charka wheel that is used in India. Gandhi himself used this type of wheel to promote the idea of self-sufficiency in Indian cloth making, and from this the spinning wheel became a symbol of Indian freedom. This wheel is housed in a small box with a convenient handle and is light to transport.




Charka Wheel
Because the spindle rotates at a high speed it is most suitable for spinning cotton which has a short fibre. As the correct metal screws and other pieces were impossible to find he made them himself using a metal lathe. He had trouble locating suitable pieces of brass and mild steel so a visit to a local scrap yard was required. This wheel is quite difficult to master but becomes easier with practice. Another wheel he copied required ivory bobbles, nearly impossible to obtain so he is still looking for a substitute to turn.

At the other end of the size scale and much later, after the Charka wheel reached Europe, the Walking, or Great Wheel became popular. This worked on the same direct drive principle as the Charka wheel but was much bigger. The spindle was also horizontal. In fact this was famously depicted in the story of Sleeping Beauty.

Many of these had a four foot diameter wheel which was gently turned by the spinner while she paced back and forth covering long distances each day. Spinning and winding the yarn on took place alternately so again it was a slow process. Julian made a couple of these wheels out of kiaat incorporating the innovation by Amos Miner who in the early eighteen hundreds added a second small disc with another drive band. This drive, or accelerating head, increased the speed at which the spindle turned and was a great improvement allowing the spinner to produce greater quantities of yarn. Kiaat proved difficult to bend so Jules solved the problem by immersing the wood for the wheel rim in his swimming pool for six weeks. On removal it was soft and supple and easy to shape over a prepared template. However this had the effect of bleaching the wood somewhat, so for the second one he steamed the wood, and besides it was much quicker. Not too many examples are in existence so these two are treasured. One belongs to a weaver in Pretoria and the other was a present to his granddaughter in Canada.

As time went on the slowness of spinning was a real stumbling block to production. Leonardo da Vinci made complicated drawings on how to solve this problem for spinning silk but his invention was probably overlooked. Later in the 16th century when weaving cloth was in full swing in Europe they designed a bobbin and flyer mechanism with differential speeds of rotation which imparted the twist to the yarn whilst drawing it on to the bobbin at the same time. Wheels became smaller which allowed the spinner to sit comfortably and treadle to her heart’s content while producing greater quantities, although it still took about six spinners to spin sufficient yarn for one weaver. To this day wheels use this same mechanism. Many people get hooked on producing their very own thread straight from a soft woolly sheep, Angora goats, lamas, rabbits or other interesting sources such as cotton and flax. Spinning can be very satisfying and creative.

Julian has produced numerous examples of spinning wheels including various upright and horizontal versions. To name but a few they include an elegant “Rhodesian teak” Norwegian wheel (plans by David Bryant), flax wheels, a fascinating Turkish wheel, Saxony, Dordogne, Balloon and Boudoir wheels plus a copy of an antique bobbin winder, beaters for the Weavers’ Guild, sample looms, carpet and bead looms. He made an interesting Shaker chair wheel and a few attractive hardwood three legged spinster chairs.

Another masterpiece is his clock made entirely from wood. He uses exotic African hardwood for his wheels, although he had to abandon a Tamboti one midstream as the poisonous aromas given off during turning made him ill.
Wooden clock

The actual wheels for each design were often constructed using different methods but in the end they were all true and turned smoothly. Each one is a work of art. His five great grandchildren cannot resist giving them a spin when passing by!
To see his collection check out: