How I Restored an Antique Spinning Wheel: Part 1
Updated: Aug 21
Spinning your own yarn is a pipe dream that I think many knitters and crocheters have at some point. At least, it's certainly one that I've had for quite a while. In the past, I've held off learning how to spin with a variety of reasons - it's too expensive to get started, I don't have the time, I have too many other projects, etc. But here's the thing: there is always a reason not to do something. I've decided it's time.
A few weeks ago, a close friend taught me the bare bones basics on a drop spindle. I struggled a bit with the drop spindle and also acknowledged my own incredible desire to own a spinning wheel, particularly a pretty one with lots of turned pieces that looks like it could come out of a fairy tale. I also know that the wheel can produce more fibers more quickly in the hands of a practiced spinner. So, naturally, I went hunting on the internet.
If you've never looked into purchasing a spinning wheel, they typically range anywhere from $400 - $1000 for a new one and most functional antiques, even those needing minor repairs, are often $300 or more. The price varies somewhat with type of wheel and construction (e.g. hand crafted is much higher cost than factory made), but those are the ballpark figures. For reference, a drop spindle runs about $20 or fewer.
Clearly, this was going to be a challenge. Lucky for me, I found a listing on Facebook marketplace for a little antique store that had recently opened about 30 minutes North of home: $170. Score!
I rushed up the shop as soon as I had a free afternoon and she was still there, beautiful and labeled "Sleeping Beauty Spinning Wheel." This gave me a little chuckle as I'd spent the last 48 hours doing little besides researching types of spinning wheels and how to recognize a working wheel. The type of wheel shown in Sleeping Beauty is a Saxony wheel (the same type I purchased). The spindle is a generic name for the shaft which holds the bobbin, flyer, and whorl. The wheel shown in the movie is a modern spinning wheel, not a quill wheel (which does have a pointed spindle). The thing I find funny is that he part Aurora actually pricks her finger on is a distaff - the upright bit that holds the bunch of fiber - not the spindle. I'm confident in saying it's a distaff because you can actually see the (presumably) flax fibers hanging out on it. It makes sense it would be pointed, but it's still funny and now I (and you, dear reader) will never watch that scene the same way again.
Tangent aside, she was now mine!
Getting to Know my Wheel
Before we dive into the early stages of restoration, let's take a closer look at my new best friend:
One piece not shown is the metal wheel crank on the back of the wheel. You will see it in the photos below as a metal, curved piece that sticks out from one side of the wheel.
From these diagrams (mostly the second one, taken prior to the clean up), you can see a few important highlights for restoration:
The footman is missing - at some point, this piece broke and was replaced with a metal hanger. It did its job (turning the crank to spin the wheel when you push down on the treadle), but made a horrible sound.
The maiden bearings are leather - actually, one is leather with a tin can backing and a wooden shim - not great.
A few hooks are missing
The drive band needs to be replaced as it's very worn
Some pieces are chipped here and there, but still functional
Only one bobbin remains with the wheel - this is a problem as at least 3 are needed to make a 2-ply yarn easily.
General wear and tear shows the wheel's age - many cracks in the wood, some mystery holes where missing (non-essential) pieces would have been mounted to the bench. My current thinking is there was, at one point, a mounted distaff (much like that on Sleeping Beauty's wheel).
These are all things that need to be addressed before the wheel can be used to spin yarn once again. Side note: see the notches on the flyer arms? Those indicate that yarn has been spun on the wheel before, wearing the notches into the wood.
The Clean Up
Out of the gate, she was in pretty decent shape. Some minor repairs are needed, but first comes a good clean. Step 1 is disassembly.
It's significantly easier to clean the parts individually, but disassembly also offers the opportunity to become more familiar with the wheel.
Importantly, if you are restoring your own wheel, remember to take A LOT of pictures before taking anything apart!
Tip: To remove the spindle from the flyer, I pulled off the small metal ring keeping the flyer together and then put a screwdriver through the orifice to provide leverage to get the flyer all the way off.
After she was in pieces on a plastic-lined canvas drop cloth, I set about cleaning. Note that for all of the cleanings, I used rags made of cotton scrap fabric. Whatever you use, be sure your rags won't leave any lint behind.
Round 1 was simply water and a good once over. Then, I added some Murphy's Oil Soap to my water so it was very diluted and gave all the pieces a second time over with the same set of rags. This round eliminated the dust and dirt from the wood pieces.
Round 2 was a closeup with pieces that were....let's say grimy. For this round, I used very fine sand paper, steel wool, and water. Pro tip: use gloves for this. Few parts needed a good scrub: the metal parts of the flyer, the wheel crank, and the flyer shaft AKA the spindle. The wheel did as well, as someone had spilled a few drops of paint on it at some point.
Tip for this step: a tiny straw brush worked wonders to get into the very small spaces like the orifice.
Interestingly, the whorl actually took the most amount of scrubbing. When I picked up the whorl originally, it was black. I thought it might be a metal replacement piece, but it was far too light. After about an hour of scrubbing and two buckets of water, enough dirt came off to show the wood underneath! I recognize this may depreciate the antique value a little bit, but it cried out for a good clean and I wasn't about to leave it black when it deserved to be oak.
Finally, round 3: polishing. I used Howard Feed'N'Wax on all of the wooden pieces. Twice. After wiping off the excess, having left it to dry overnight, I used the last of my cloths to polish the pieces to a shine before reassembling the wheel using the photos I took earlier.
Ta-Da! She's bright, clean, and beautiful!
Once all the pieces were clean, waxed, and polished, I put her back together. The reference photos I took at the beginning were very important here, especially for the legs. One of things I really like about this wheel is that there are very few nails - in fact, the only visible nails in the whole piece are in the maiden bearings and the diagonal wheel arm supports.
I also believe there are screws holding the spokes of the wheel and nails or similar holding the wheel pieces together. Otherwise, everything is held together by friction.
This makes the wheel easy to take apart and reassemble, a crucial step for proper cleaning.
At this point, I used a piece of cotton cord to improvise a footman and another for a drive band and she's fully functional! Love and some new pieces are still needed, but she's in a state to spin again and I'm in a state to learn something new.
The Road To Come
She still needs some love. My plans for part 2 (some already completed - I will include details on how I did it):
Replace the cotton cord currently standing in for the footman with a proper wooden one
Replace the drive band (done - will include steps)
Replace the missing hooks on the flyer (done - will include steps)
Replace the leather maiden bearings with new (done - will include steps)
Find a wood turner to make additional bobbins
Oil all parts that move - this is on-going and needs to be done every time I sit down at the wheel
I'm very excited to begin this new hobby adventure - until next time, friends!