Several years ago I came across this 1873 engraving of a Chinese spinner.
(My apologies for the moiréeffect from the low-quality scan. If you click for big, it's clearer.)
My reaction to the construction of the wheel was amused disbelief--who could possibly believe in a wheel that worked like that? Please. The artist had clearly misinterpreted what s/he had seen.
Nevertheless, the engraving is fascinating for its depiction of everyday life in rural China of another time. It looks like a loom behind the spinning wheel. There's a household shrine on the wall behind the well-bundled-up kids, one of whom is plunked in a basket. The dog, I think, is getting scarce before it gets plunked in a basket, too.
A couple of years later I came across this photo, and I believed.
There are some unique and fascinating aspects of this wheel that are unlike anything I have seen in any other spinning wheels.
(click for bigger)
The drive wheel is not unlike what we see on charkha-type spinning wheels from across Asia.
But the spinning head is arranged above the drive wheel, much like a castle wheel, rather than off to the side which is the case with every other spindle wheel I have seen.
And take a look at those spindles. In the engraving there are three separate spindles, all driven by the one drive band, and in the photo there are two. (I wish I could get a better look at the mechanism behind the spindle mounting--it looks like it might be some kind of acceleration device.) And look the size of the spindles. They seem to be a foot long or more--far longer than anything we see on other spindle wheels. Both spinners appear to be spinning cotton punis, drafting on all spindles simultaneously.
But the most amazing part of this wheel is the means of moving the drive wheel. The spinner has her feet on a double curved beam that looks like it acts as a reciprocatingcrankshaft. As the spinner's feet move alternately up and down, the crankshaft turns the drive wheel. We are more familiar with cranks with right-angles in the shaft, such as the crank that the footman of your spinning wheel attaches to, which is an extension of the wheel axle, or such as the bicycle pedal crankshaft.
I have seen spinning wheels with cranks connected to the axle, whether moved by hand or by treadle connected by a footman. And I have seen wheels and charkhas that are moved by hand, either directly by a hand on the spokes or by way of a knob on one of the spokes or on the disk of the drive wheel. This appears to be a combination of the two.
The shaft connects not to the axle of the wheel but to one of the spokes of the wheel near, but not at, the axle. So can it, in fact, be a crankshaft? Perhaps not. I also note that the beam also is part lever, with the pivot point between the spinner's feet. Perhaps it's more lever than crankshaft, with one end of the lever moving in a circle with the drive shaft?
If there are any mechanical engineers out there who have a better take on this, I'd sure like to hear from you. Or has anyone ever seen one of these in person? Does anyone have any better images? Please let me know.
I have receive a number of thoughtful and helpful comments, both here and privately.
As I finished the original entry, I was feeling quite unsure about my analysis of the mechanics of the "treadle". Thus my plea for assistance.
Commenter Janel offered up a very clear explanation of how it must work:
Very interesting wheel. I would guess based on the u-shape of the pivot
support and the location of the attachment to the wheel spoke plus the
fact that the wheel is situated perpendicular to the spinner instead of
in front of the spinner, that the large "treadle" is really acting more
like an oar and that the spinner uses both feet to "row" the wheel
around by rotating the "treadle".
A couple of people asked about drafting and winding on from that position. My best guess was that the spinner would do a lot of swooping up over her head with her left arm. Uh, no. Not quite.
In both pictures I see a stick in the spinner's right hand. At the end of the draw, you use the stick as an arm extension to whip the yarns off the spindle tips and divert them to a 90-degree angle to wind on. The left hand doesn't have to move at all. The stick in the right hand grabs the yarn and does it for you.
After winding on, when you remove the stick, the yarn spirals to the tip by itself, and you are spinning off the point again.
Me, I didn't even see the stick.
Barbara and I collaborated to produce this graphic depicting the process:
Pretty cool, huh? I love what the community of fiber people can accomplish.
With thanks to Beadlizard for being smarter than I am, I give you an amazing explanation of this image from my friend Alfred the ultra-knowledgable wonder weaver and worker of magic with silk.
"My guess, based on the fact that she is wearing a furisode (kimono with long, flirtatiously flappy sleeves) means she's unmarried; the fur collar piece extravaganza is still worn by unmarried-but- eminently-marriageable young ladies at New Years (they use white fur nowadays though), for shrine visits, and photography sessions. The fact that she's knitting not only means that she's industrious and therefore marriageable, but also frightfully up-to-date, since knitting in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) was All the Rage as with many things western. I am pretty sure that knitting made its initial appearance in Japan with the arrival of the first Europeans in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, but as far as I know it didn't 'stick' until the Meiji period.
Based on what I know about the period and the sartorial landscape of the time (there was a lot of change during that period, clothingwise), I would guess that your Marriageable One gussied herself up and posed for the shutter-click sometime between 1890 and 1900.
Also, she doesn't shave her eyebrows and has a simple pompadour (rather than one of the several de rigueur traditional hairdos) which means that she's slightly westernized. Her face is powdered chalk white, another sign of wealth and class. Merchant class, as they were not allowed to embroider their kimono (sumptuary law), but inventive people with money to spare can always find a way around sartorial edicts, so enter Yuzen-zome*, a dyeing technique, which later became exalted and refined, and today is considered rather more elegant than the embroidery and brocading it was originally meant to imitate. She would be anywhere from 16-20 in this photograph, which almost certainly was used by marriage brokers to show to potential suitors.
*Yûzen-zome could be described as a masterful technique which utilizes both stenciled paste-resist and the technique of painting dyes directly onto mordanted fabric. It developed in response to the sartorial edicts of the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan from 1600 until 1868. The merchant class, who by then were the cash-richest people in the country at the time, had been 'aping their betters' in mode of dress, wearing fabrics rich with gold, embroidery, and brocading. There were forbidden colors, as well. The pissed-off shogun issued the sartorial edicts beginning (I think I got this date right) in the second quarter of the eighteenth century after a period of fairly wild abandon during which the merchants had become wealthy enough to become the arbiters of mode. Brocades were now forbidden to anyone but the kuge, or noble families; embroidery was forbidden to anyone below the rank of samurai, which included farmers and merchants, respectively. The merchants, of course, obeyed, to the letter of the law. But they were still the richest people in town, with taste, and they turned the tables on the sartorial edicts by holding fast to their position as society's fashionistas by investing buckets of money in labor-intensive craft techniques.
Yûzen-zome was developed by some genius in the Yûzen family. Can't embroider vines with Convolvulus blossoms on your fabulous new kimono? The craftspeople would stencil-resist a vine, which would then appear after the piece was dyed and washed, as negative space. This in turn would be painted carefully and laboriously outlined in crisp black hair-thin lines painted along the edges, and then a wide palette of hues would be 'embroidered' as in-fill within those lines, by painting dyes onto discrete areas of that fabric. The results were breathtaking and became All The Rage, leaving the heavily-embroidered upper classes left looking like gaudy fashion has-beens."