Rossiter Spinning & Weaving

Handcrafted spinning wheels by Julian Rossiter
Weaving by Elizabeth Rossiter

Norwegian wheel

On Julian's return from a holiday in Canada in 1972, armed with a Le Clerc spinning wheel as a guide, he discovered some plans for this Norwegian spinning wheel in the British magazine "Practical Woodworking". He decided to tackle this rather daunting task for his first project. These wheels are characterised by having a large wheel and horizontal table, plus a smaller table above the main one, supporting the spinning mechanism. This brings the flyer to a comfortable working height. Horizontal stays between this small table and the wheel supports is another distinguishing feature. Jules used a South African hardwood called kiaat for this project as he was unable to obtain birch, which was often used in their construction in Norway. Although he followed the plans faithfully the wheel was slightly unstable as the legs were not splayed sufficiently and he suspected that the author of the article wasn't a spinner. The wheel presented some problems. Despite this it spun well and is a handsome wheel. The success of this project set Julian searching for more plans and information on spinning - he was hooked!

Dutch flax wheel

Julian's second wheel was a copy of a Dutch flax wheel belonging to a friend, Gonda, who inherited it from her mother in Holland. He used Outeniqua yellowwood and because it has been oiled regularly it is now a rich, dark brown. The wheel is 345 mm in diameter.

Making this wheel presented no particular problem except for the wooden thread required for the tensioning device. It was difficult getting the necessary tapping box and die in South Africa which had to be ordered from the UK. Even in England they were difficult to come by. There is a special skill required in making these tools and the artisans who used to produce them had all retired. However, with the resurgence of “country crafts” there was a need for these tools and Marples, the well known Sheffield toolmakers, called some of the workers out of retirement to make them.

An interesting feature of this wheel is its double flyer. The idea behind this was to increase the spinner’s output and enable her to earn more money. This was of course before the Industrial Revolution. It required output from six spinners to keep one weaver occupied. Things did not pan out as envisaged, as it was difficult for the spinner to manipulate two threads simultaneously. It ended up by having two spinners at the same wheel hence the popular name the Gossip Wheel. The treadle with its leather hinge is typical of Dutch wheels. In the photograph the tall distaff for holding flax is not visible.

Saxony wheel

This represents what most people consider a spinning wheel should look like. It has many names but the most common is the Saxony wheel. It has a heavy rimmed wheel of 450 mm in diameter and a slightly sloping table. The wheel and the spinning mechanism are on roughly the same level making it a typical “horizontal” spinning wheel, as opposed to the Dutch flax wheel where the flyers are above the wheel making it a “vertical” wheel.

Credit for the invention of the modern flyer spinning wheel goes to a woodcarver named Johann Jürgen in the year 1530. He lived in Saxony hence the name most commonly applied to this design of spinning wheel. All modern spinning wheels, be they horizontal, vertical or those that fit into neither category have one thing in common; the flyer or spinning mechanism is similar and works on the same principle as Jürgens’ wheel designed four and a half centuries ago! A feature of this wheel is the “birdcage” distaff used to dress flax prior to spinning.

Shetland wheel

The next wheel Julian made was a design from Shetland. He chose to use cherry wood, which is excellent to work with as it turns well and accepts a smooth finish. The diameter of the wheel was 435mm. This is a vertical spinning wheel which takes up little space in the small Crofters cottages on these islands. The design is very austere with minimal decorative turning, all very sturdy and functional, befitting the Scottish character. The table is in two to allow the wheel to be lowered between the two halves and thus bring the flyer to a comfortable working height. Plans for this wheel can be obtained from David Bryant - plan sheet #150. When he bought the original spinning wheel the owner told him that it was from the Hebrides, but recent research has shown that it is actually from Shetland and he has had to retitle accordingly. For more information check out David Bryant’s web site: David has a database with many different wheels.

Irish flax wheel

Jules has been most fortunate in that people in possession of interesting wheels have been willing to lend them to him for reproduction purposes. This dainty and attractive wheel is a copy of one kindly lent by a friend, Brenda. It was made of yellowwood and has a metal flyer (as opposed to the more usual wooden one) with narrow slits (about 1.5 mm) for the yarn. This together with the water pot indicates that it is a flax wheel, as flax spinning requires constantly moist fingers. Because the wheel is small (350 mm in diameter) and light it lacks momentum. To overcome this a lead strip has been inserted in the groove of the wheel. This is Karen, a friend, spinning linen on Julian's kiaat wheel in the Cotswolds. Karen, a keen potter as well as a spinner and weaver, published a very interesting book on vegetable dyeing in South Africa. Bianca wasn't going to miss out on the fun!


This spinning wheel, although it is of Irish origin, shows many features of Dutch wheel which is not surprising since it was introduced into Ireland in the 1650’s. At that time Holland had an advanced textile industry. Irish wheels were influenced to a lesser degree, by French Huguenot refugees who arrived around 1685. They helped develop the spinning of linen in Ireland.

In addition to the original spinning wheel in yellowwood Jules made three others; one beech and two more out of kiaat. The beech one was given to his sister in Perth, Western Australia. One of the kiaat wheels was given to a German friend Gunther, who made him a beautiful eight-day pendulum clock.

The other kiaat wheel was a present to his daughter Jean who at that time was living in Lasborough, a Cotswold village near Bristol in England. She entered it in the annual “Woodworker” show in Bristol in which it gained a Silver Medal in the wood turning section. Jules was delighted!


Boudoir spinning wheel

Jules made this wheel from the frontispiece of Eileen Chadwick’s excellent book “The craft of hand spinning”. The original wheel is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His is made from Pau Marfim, perhaps better known as South American yellowwood, although it is not related in any way. It is often used together with blackwood for contrast, especially in modern Cape traditional style furniture. This wheel has a floor frame on four short legs. On the frame are four spindly legs topped by a little platform with a gallery round it with a drawer below. The wheel is small (285mm in diameter) and therefore not very functional. To give it momentum a lead strip is added to the groove. To quote from Eileen Chadwick’s book; “this is an early example of an elegant boudoir flax wheel with a pearshaped cage distaff”.

In the second half of the 18th Century when it was no longer necessary to spin for a living it became fashionable for ladies of means to embroider and spin for pleasure. In fact it became a status symbol to be “good at the wheel”. The maid arranged the flax on the distaff which was held in place with a ribbon, called dressing the distaff. The colour of the ribbon denoted whether the spinner was married or not. Green denoted a a married woman and red or white unmarried. Such wheels were ideal for the ladies and became known as drawing room or boudoir spinning wheels. It is an attractive delicate looking wheel with a great deal of turning.

Julian's wife Elizabeth sent a photograph of his Boudoir wheel to Eileen Chadwick who wrote back in June 1988. Julian was delighted with her response as he has really enjoyed Eileen's book and still spends many hours pouring over it.

Turkish spinning wheel

This is a reproduction of an old Turkish wheel; the original belonged to a friend and was brought to Julian in bits and pieces. He cleaned it and fixed the parts before reassembling it. It looked wonderful. He was not sure of the varieties of wood used in the original, except for those parts in a light coloured wood which looked like boxwood, a wood often used for the handles of high quality tools in Europe. This was not available so he compromised by using beech for the lighter coloured wood and imboya for the dark wood. It has many interesting features. It is low and therefore the spinner either squatted or kneeled to operate it by means of a hand forged handle. The two driving wheels (260 and 240mm in diameter) are so arranged as to accelerate the rate of rotation of the flyer. These wheels are of solid construction and have a decorative feature of the captive ring on the tensioning screw to adjust the tension of the larger wheel. The painted bell-shaped distaff appeared garish to Jules, but he reproduced it as faithfully as he could and was relieved when on a visit to Turkey he saw just such a spinning wheel with its painted distaff in the window of an antique dealer.

Great wheel

In the evolution of the spinning wheel this one predated those based on Jürgens’ invention of the flyer mechanism by many centuries. It is an example of a spindle wheel which is thought to have originated in China or India in about the 5th Century AD and spread through Europe to reach Britain in the 14th Century. This wheel is 1,020 mm in diameter. Julian made it from kiaat, a rather brittle wood that he found impossible to bend to the required shape without splitting. The simple solution would have been to steam the wood, but he did not have the facilities for dealing with a piece over three metres long so he solved the problem by immersing the rim in his swimming pool for six weeks. On removing it from the pool it was soft and supple and quite easy to shape over a prepared template. He left it clamped to the template till it had dried thoroughly.

A feature of this spinning wheel is its accelerating pulley enabling the spindle to rotate at a very much faster rate than similar wheels with only a direct drive to the spindle. The tension device consists of a revolving barrel, supporting the spinning mechanism at its upper end, and placed between the two maidens. A wooden nut tightens down on the outside of the maidens to hold the barrel and the spinning mechanism at the correct tension. This type of spindle wheel continued to be used in the remoter parts of Britain such as Wales and the highlands of Scotland as well as in the Unites States until about the middle of the 19th Century.

He was flattered when one of South Africa’s foremost spinners and weavers asked him to make her a Great Wheel. He again used kiaat but this time he decided to steam the rim, because the previous one, which had spent six weeks in his pool, emerged somewhat bleached by chlorine. He made an inverted funnel to fit over a large saucepan. On this he soldered a long galvanised iron drainpipe. The rim was a loose fit inside the pipe. It took about an hour before the wood was supple enough to bend over the prepared template. As the wheel was intended for spinning, not decoration, he decided to add a few modern refinements. He added, rather incongruously, a small ball race (used in bicycles) to the driving wheel in an inconspicuous position. This enabled the spindle and its accelerating pulley to rotate with the minimum of friction. He used nylon as bearings but placed them so that they could not be seen. The design was obtained from visiting a museum at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds in England. No plans were used. It was on the tip of this type of spindle that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger and not on a flyer spinning wheel, which has no sharp parts.

Charka spinning wheel

Historians agree that the spindle wheel originated in India and China round about 500 AD. It was developed for the spinning of silk where it was more effcient than the hand held spindle. Documentary evidence from this early period is sparse which can be partly be ascribed to the secrecy that surrounded the silk industry. Early spindle wheels from India and China are similar. The design of these wheels has changed little over the centuries and similar wheels are still being used in various parts of the East.

The modern version of the Charka wheel in India was inspired by Gandhi. In about 1925 he returned to his native India after being expelled from South Africa. (He actually stayed in hiding for a time in a cottage in Johannesburg which subsequently belonged to Julian's mother-in-law). Gandhi was appalled by the abject poverty of the masses and looked about for means to improve their lot. He decided on the spinning of cotton and designed a wheel that was easily portable, using the same principle as the ancient Charka wheel, but quite unlike it in design. When closed it forms a box 400 mm long, 220 mm wide and 105 mm deep. It has a convenient handle and is light to transport. The box opens along a hinge into double its length to reveal two driving wheels in the lid and a small fold-away metal spindle in the base. Because the spindle rotates at high speed it is most suitable for its original purpose - spinning cotton. There is quite an art to getting it to spin properly but once the knack has been developed it apparently becomes easy. 

Balloon spinning wheel

This wheel, also called a Dutch horizontal wheel, is made out of cedar wood with a wheel diameter of 470 mm. It has characteristic ball or balloon turning with a thick heavy rim and decorative half spokes. There is a swivel lid in the centre of the gently sloping table covering a small recess, too small to hold a bobbin but perhaps it was used for storing a threading hook or ribbon for tying flax to the distaff. It can be seen in Johannesburg. Contact Julian at

Miniature wheel

Jules made this wheel out of wild olive wood and, because it seldom comes in sizes big enough for a full-sized spinning wheel, decided to make it in the ratio of one to two-and-a-half. He managed this as the plans were in inches but he made it in centimetres.

Wild olive is an extremely hard, heavy and close grained wood. Because of these features it turns beautifully. It was also possible to use coarse metric taps and dies for threading the tensioner. The threads even on this tiny version, are perfect. Tambotie is the only other wood that is comparable. In spite of its size (the wheel is 155 mm in diameter) it spins with no difficulty.

Dordogne spinning wheel

Photo from left: Norwegian, Irish flax and orange Dordogne wheel. Jules used plans (from an article by David Bryant in Practical Woodworking, April 1995) to make a couple of these attractive wheels. David describes this as a “delicate French wheel, which originates from Bergerac in the Dordogne. … though whether it originated from somewhere else in France before that is open to conjecture. It is of typical French style having slender proportions.” “France is particularly noted for producing small delicate wheels with a distinctive graceful appearance. These had a characteristic triangular base, and incorporated light slender spindles of simple style.” “The supporting framework consists of a crescent-shaped platform mounted on four vertical spindles, fitting onto a triangular form base standing on three small pad feet. The wheel is of segmented pattern with eight spokes and a relatively narrow rim section.” For more information see this excellent article and David Bryant’s detailed plans.

For a change Jules decided to finish his Jacaranda wood Dordogne wheel with a coloured stain and wrote to his daughter on the subject in November 1997; “I have a reply from Woodoc to my query – they used their No. 35 on the piece of Jacaranda I sent them. How do you like it?” It was orange in colour and Jean wasn’t too convinced! He went on to say, “It seems pretty good to me”. When Richard, Julian's son, heard that he was looking for an orange stain he was horrified and facetiously suggested he add polka dots to it! However, Jules went ahead and it looks great. One unstained beech wheel is in Cape Town and the orange one minus polka dots is in Alberta Canada.

Norwegian rosewood wheel

Jules made this handsome wheel out of Rhodesian (or is it Zimbabwean?) Rosewood which he was lucky enough to obtain from somebody who had brought a load with him from the then Rhodesia. It turned out to be a lovely, heavy, even grained wood, dark red in colour. It is handsome and sturdy and the finish again consisted of many coats of Woodoc 10 painted on with a small brush, with the excess wiped off using a soft cloth. The design of this wheel can be found in David Bryant’s book entitled “Wheels and Looms” published by Batsford, a most valuable source of information.

The table is horizontal with rather short legs to accommodate such a large wheel (610 mm in diameter). To enable the flyer mechanism to be at a comfortable working height it is raised above the main table and mounted on an auxiliary platform on pillars. A unique feature of this spinning wheel is the unusual device used in tracking the driving wheel to line up with the pulleys of the flyer and bobbin. It consists of two horizontal stays between the auxiliary platform and each wheel support. These stays are threaded on entering the wheel supports. Rotation of these stays alters the wheel tracking so as to align with the pulleys of the spinning mechanism. This handsome wheel is now in Alberta, Canada.

Photos from the top: The wheel; flyer mechanism; wheel hub; tensioning mechanism.

Swedish wheel

Although this is a typical Saxony wheel the plan was sent to Jules from Norway by a London University friend of his wife’s who lived in Oslo. The instructions were naturally in Norwegian and it is remarkable how similar many words are to Afrikaans. In fact Lalage, on a visit to South Africa some years ago, had no difficulty understanding road signs and notices in Afrikaans. Jules made the wheel out of Outeniqua yellowwood; the table is horizontal (or nearly so) and the wheel large (620 mm). The rim of the wheel is dainty, as a wheel of this diameter does not need to be heavy to have sufficient momentum. It was a favourite with my wife and she uses it to spin wool yarn for her wall hangings.

Unfinished tamboti wheel

Many great composers and artists had unfinished works. Michelangelo has his unfinished sculptures and Jules has his Tambotie wheel. This rich dark wood is a favourite of his but Tambotie is toxic and is nicknamed the “Poison Tree”. Even the smoke from fires made with logs of Tamboti is evidently poisonous. Because it is so hard the high speed drill causes the wood to burn creating toxic smoke which gave Jules an allergic reaction. Try as he might he couldn’t finish it. He enlisted his son-in-law's help and advised him as he steadily progressed, keeping well clear of the workshop and the fumes. Dave wore a gas mask and didn’t develop any allergic reaction. So far he has made the maidens, mother-of-all and wheel supports. Still to do are the spindle, bobbin and foot pedal. Jules had already completed the wheel and made the table and legs. It did progress for a while and is now in Alberta Canada - still looking like the picture! Spinning wheels are very hard to make and it is almost impossible to take on somebody else's project! The family likes it like this. It's home is now in Canmore, Alberta.

Shaker chair wheel








This is a fairly recently made wheel. Plans come from one of Julian's magazines. Shakers were well known for the chairs they produced so it is not a surprise that they produced a very functional spinning wheel using a similar chair framework. This wheel can be seen in Johannesburg. An Internet search on Chair Wheels brings up other similar designs.