Farm story 12: Sleeping Beauty

Spinning wheel, mid 1800's

I cannot imagine how life would have been for me if I’d been born on Tjörn at a time when the worth of a woman was judged according to the neatness of her sewing or the lightness of her pastry. I’d have been a dreadful disappointment. It was no different for the boys. Whether you were a bright lad or a dunce, if you were born on a farm and didn’t go to sea, your horizons were limited to the fields around you. Right up to the first decades of the 1900’s it didn’t really matter if you were clever at school – it was generally accepted that book learning led nowhere. Physical strength and skill on the other hand were greatly respected and it can’t have been easy for any man born into a farming environment who was unlucky enough to be born, “with a thumb in the middle of his hand.” This wasn’t an actual deformity, but a Swedish expression used to describe someone with a different kind of affliction – someone who just wasn’t handy.

Who knows what all the poor but clever girls and boys on Tjörn would have achieved with the right sort of education, but for centuries they directed their energy into farming and domestic duties. There was little choice in the matter, for until the Second World War, on Tjörn and elsewhere in Sweden, occupations were determined largely by social class and gender (and while their influence has diminished, they’re still important). The tools were gender-specific too – hammers and spades for boys for example, and crochet hooks and baking tins for girls. But in the second half of the nineteenth century new, advanced tools and machines were emerging which helped both men and women in their traditional tasks, and to my delight I found one of them many years ago, on the concrete floor of the cow byre.

I can’t remember what I was looking for that day, but in my search I’d moved an old mat covering what I assumed was yet another discarded piece of furniture. But what was revealed wasn’t a table or wooden settle – but a spinning wheel. I remember feeling as if I’d walked into a fairy tale. My childhood had been spent in a suburban 1950’s bungalow in Newcastle, reading fairy stories like Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin, featuring spells, evil witches and beautiful princesses, and somehow I’d assumed that spinning wheels, like them, were a delightful fantasy. But here was one standing in front of me.

It was so dusty you could see it hadn’t been used for many years and a score of tiny holes indicated woodworm, but despite that I could see that it was painted a pretty shade of blue - which was my second surprise. From what I could remember, the pictures of spinning wheels I’d pored over as a child showed them all to be a boring brown, and that splash of colour transformed it from being merely an efficient tool into a decorative item too. If objects can have a presence this one did. I felt that the old fairy tale had been re-written, and it was the wheel that was the sleeping princess waiting for a magic touch to wake her. When I brushed the wheel with my fingertips it revolved smoothly and with a breathy hum, and the other parts started to move in response. Strangely, the sound was not new to me although I’d never heard it before. It's no coincidence that the Swedish word for “to purr” and “to spin” are the same, att spinna, for this same sound has been heard in domestic settings in different parts of the world for thousands of years. Perhaps memories of spinning wheels and contented pets are embedded deep in our memories, like the sound of a crackling fire or a crying child.

The wheel is quite a large object and surprisingly heavy. Its main feature, the wheel itself, is over 60 cms in diameter and has a depression in the outer surface to accommodate the thread or yarn which it produces. From the top of the wheel to the floor is over 100 cms. The wheel hub is connected to two supports, looking like substantial chair legs, which are fixed to a sloping wooden platform, like the seat of a little oblong stool with three legs. When I look at it now, at its current home in the basement of the farmhouse, I count eleven spokes radiating out from the wheel hub. They are thin, almost spindly, 18 cm long, and very finely turned, like miniature table legs. The wheel doesn’t look as robust as the sturdy modern versions I’ve seen online, but the outer wooden wheel is joined to an inner one by twenty-two dainty wooden pegs a couple of centimetres long, also prettily turned. This had the advantage of strengthening the wheel but also making it more delicate-looking than most single-wheel models.

So how did the spinning wheel work? Short films showed me how the the user’s foot operated the treadle, which moved the vertical arm connected to the wheel hub, which then turned the wheel. As the wheel revolved, the spinner used both her hands to manage her raw material, feeding it in long strands from the distaff onto the wheel. The resulting thread or yarn wound itself round a long thin spindle. (It’s one of these that the Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on). The linen thread or woollen yarn could then be wound round wooden spools. I found some of these spools a few years ago in a cupboard upstairs and have them in my flat in Gothenburg. Having accepted the fact that the chances of my learning to spin were on a par with the Swedish army re-colonizing Saint-Barthélemy, I currently use them to wind my Christmas tree lights around, and very well they work too.

The blue paint on the wheel provides evidence of the long hours the owner spent at it. The three legs which support the whole structure are dirty, but underneath the muck the colour is still vibrant. However, on the treadle which turns the wheel there is no paint left, nor on the horizontal supports on which the spinner would have rested her feet. It’s not just that the paint is scuffed– it has disappeared completely and the surface is smooth and worn. As I learned more about spinning in general and the blue spinning wheel in particular, I discovered that the same apparatus, with a few adjustments, could be used to spin both flax and wool and also that quite a few components were missing from the apparatus in the barn. Guiltily I remembered an act of unwitting vandalism, when I’d added a bag full of wooden odds and ends to the pile I’d taken to the tip a few years before, a pile that probably included the distaff and spindle.

I joined a Facebook group (Spinnare) in the hope of learning more about the spinning wheel and was thrilled to receive some photos of identical copies. One correspondent identified hers as a type typical of Tjörn and her own wheel had the year 1877 painted carefully on the side, while another member said that hers was a couple of decades older. Mine would probably have been made around the same time – the mid to late nineteenth century. Another correspondent told me that the spinning wheels were made in Kode, a small community on the mainland a few kilometres to the south of Tjörn. It turns out that spinning wheels, like cars, came in different models and this one was called a Solbergarock , or the Solberga spinning wheel, after the country parish where it was manufactured. She even wrote that after a century or so in a barn it would take a minimal amount of work to get one of these old machines working again – as long as you had all the parts. (It was just as we that she couldn’t see my red face.)

The decades towards the end of the 1800’s were the right time for ambitious young craftsmen to test their creative powers, for from the 1850’s small lathes and other woodworking tools were being developed and manufactured in Jönsereds fabriker , a large factory near Gothenburg. This company was founded by an enterprising Scot by the name of Gibson, and in 1862 it won top prize for its woodworking tools and machines in the Great Exhibition in London. What a thrill it must have been for the people who bought these revolutionary tools, enabling craftsmen to make precision objects much more quickly than they had before – like the delicate wooden spokes for spinning wheels.

I found out comparatively recently, while investigating the original ownership of the bride chest in the house, that the spinning wheel had been left to Olle’s paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Pettersdotter, by her aunt. Elisabeth was born in 1846, married Olle’s grandfather Olof in 1867 and died at Mölnebo in 1909. Kärret was a good place to grow flax for linen, and in the first years of her marriage she might have spun flax from their own fields, Olle mentioned once that long ago they’d grown flax on the farm but it had taken too much time and energy to give a good return, so they’d given up. Producing linen thread from flax is certainly a long and complicated process involving growing, harvesting and drying the stuff, then rippling, retting, scutching, hackling and finally spinning it. These exotic terms describe the tedious process by which the fibres of the flax plant are transformed into linen thread, which is then woven into cloth. The Swedish words for the processes are very similar - repning, rötning, skäktning, häckling, and spinning , making you realise that relations between Scandinavia and the British Isles in the years of the Norsemen were not exclusively hostile – nor exclusively masculine. Certainly in the Shetlands, DNA shows that after the Vikings had subdued the local population, the Scandinavians who settled there included many women. Perhaps they took their spinning and linen-making skills abroad with them - and the words to describe them.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

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