Adventures of a spinning wheel collector in Germany.
By Sharon Hudgins • Photographs Courtesy Sharon Hudgins
I never intended to become a collector of spinning wheels. Only after I’d purchased my sixth wheel—and my father commented, “That’s quite a collection!”—did I realize that I had indeed gone beyond the normal boundaries of spinning wheel acquisition. Many of those spinning wheels came from flea markets (Flohmärkte) in Germany, especially the big Dachauerstrasse Flohmarkt in Munich in the 1980s and early ‘90s, held every weekend with 1,000 vendors and 40,000 visitors, especially on days when the weather was nice. And as the number of spinning wheels in my Munich apartment continued to grow, I concluded that spinning wheels are like potato chips: You can’t stop after eating only one. Today my collection numbers nineteen (many of them antiques), and, as with potato chips, I still have a craving for more.
For thousands of years people have spun yarn from the fibers of plants and animals. Originally the process was done entirely by hand, often with a simple drop spindle, a wooden rod or stick with a weight on one end, which used gravity to power the twisting of the fibers into a single strand of yarn as the spindle twirled toward the ground. By the early Middle Ages, hand-rotated spinning wheels had been developed in India and China. The kind of device we know today, with the wheel powered by the spinner’s foot on a treadle, was probably invented in the Saxony region of Germany around the 1530s. Depending on where the rotating wheel is placed in relation to the spindle rod (which actually spins the fiber), spinning wheels are divided into two main categories: Saxony-type (horizontal) and castle-type (vertical).