Craftsmanship and Beauty
Spinning wheels are mainly made from wood with some metal and leather parts. Making a spinning wheel involved woodturning on a lathe, woodcarving, and blacksmithing.
Spinning wheels were typically made by men and used by women. The makers were careful to account for the needs of women as craftspeople, and it was not unusual for a man to make a spinning wheel for the woman he loved. In some places, a young woman brought a spinning wheel with her from her father’s house when she married. Because of these associations with love and family, spinning wheels had to be beautiful as well as useful.
Spinning wheels were made both at home for the family and in small workshops to sell as part of the local cottage industry. Even in the 1940s, when spinning had declined as a craft, people often knew a local vokimeister, or spinning wheel master, who could repair old spinning wheels and sometimes make new ones.
Estonia has extensive forests of pine, spruce, birch, and alder, and fine woodworking skills were widespread in the rural population before the introduction of mass-produced items in the middle to late 20th century. Even a complicated item like a spinning wheel was a reasonable project for many home woodworkers, and timber was readily available. Spinning wheels were usually made from birch, although some used alder for the wheel rim. Because there are many parts that must fit together precisely and resist warping over time, spinning wheel makers were careful when selecting wool and dried it for three years before using it.
Woodturning was used to create elegant curves on the legs, spokes, and other similarly shaped parts. Because of this, the most important tool for making spinning wheels was the lathe, which allowed the maker to turn a piece of wood rapidly while making cuts with sharp tools to shape it. Each long narrow piece was made this way. The hardest piece to turn was the assembled drive wheel when finishing the wheel rim and groove. Makers often powered the lathe with a foot treadle, but spinning wheel workshops often had a small, roof-mounted windmill for the purpose.
Many Estonian spinning wheels have beautiful handcarved details. Although woodcarving was sometimes used to create surface decorations, it was usually used to shape the table or treadle. Spinning wheels made in Tudulinna municipality and on Hiiumaa Island often feature a violin-shaped table that reduces the weight of the spinning wheel for carrying and makes it look graceful and light.
Surface decorations are uncommon in Estonian spinning wheels. Most rely on the beauty of the birch wood, which often has complex patterns in the grain and a rich tone as it ages. However, there are some exceptions in the collections of the Estonian National Museum, such as a spinning wheel collected in Tallinn with elaborate woodburning ornamentation.
Rein Rikken — The last Estonian spinning wheel maker?
In 1990, the Estonian television show Töötuba featured Rein Rikken, a spinning wheel maker based in Aegviidu. Rikken was the last active spinning wheel maker in Estonia who is documented in the archives, although it is possible that others worked later and were simply not documented as well. In the episode, he shows how he manufactures and assembles a spinning wheel in his workshop.
Practical design and innovation
One of the most remarkable features of Estonian spinning wheels is their range of technical innovation. They sometimes have oil ports and creative mechanisms for holding the flyer in place and releasing it for maintenance. These mechanisms are often precisely machined and elegantly designed.
Estonian spinning wheels tend to be durable and easy to use. The medium-sized wheel resists warping, and they are good for spinning a wide variety of fibers and yarns. They are easy to maintain, and the construction of the treadle makes it simple to replace worn out hinges. This sensible design means that many of the old spinning wheels that can be found today are still functional or can become functional again with minimal effort. Restoring a 100-year-old Estonian spinning wheel may be as simple as oiling the moving parts, cleaning and oiling the wood surfaces, and adding a new drive band. Spinners in Estonia often use old wheels because they are easy to obtain and work well.