Anne Field

Writer, photographer, lover of art supplies

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My Mother's Spinning Wheel

I don’t know why my mother wanted a spinning wheel. She knit only a little and mostly with synthetic yarn. Wool irritated her skin, especially in winter when the air was bone dry, so spinning wool was never the plan, but I remember her saying many times how much she wanted a spinning wheel. One Christmas in the mid-1960s, my father gave her a Canadian Production Wheel, a type of spinning wheel that was commonly used in Quebec at that time, especially along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River where we lived. Quebec in the ‘60s was still a place of women in long homespun skirts, fishermen with big nets mended by hand and dried in the sun, and hunters and trappers who lived deep in the woods. It was not a modern place. The town we lived in was a fishing village that suddenly boomed when American men like my father moved in to open the iron ore mines. Spinning wheels weren’t used to decorate the living room, they were used to make necessary things.

My mother loved pretty things and I don’t remember how she felt about the spinning wheel she finally got for the living room. It’s a sturdy piece, with an efficient and graceful symmetry, but it’s decidedly utilitarian. I know she thought it valuable, one of her prized possessions, and I was pleased that she eventually gave it to me, and not one of my sisters, but I never thought to ask her if its lack of fanciness disappointed her. I always suspected it was not the romantic antique she was hoping for, but she never said so, and I never asked.

The wheel is heavy, its deep caramel wood flecked with black scars, its stone-smooth metal pieces firmly attached. It’s at least 60 years old, maybe closer to 80, but the wood hasn’t dried, cracked or warped. I don’t know how this can be. I never saw my mother oil it or treat it with anything, and I certainly haven’t in all the time I’ve had it. The wheel is still perfectly round, cradled in its fork and secured by a big wooden pin, one of my favorite parts. The spindle is broken, and the long metal arm that attaches the wheel to the treadle is crooked and bent. Even so, the wheel spins and whirs smoothly and makes a cool breeze. When we were kids we had to ask permission to press the treadle and make the wheel spin.

On the base of the wheel, stenciled in red, is the shorthand of its origins: jardins, St. André, Kam, 170. It was made by the Desjardins family on St. André street in Kamouraska, Quebec, wheel #170. That is all I know. I wish I had thought to ask my mother more about the wheel when she was alive, but I didn’t. I didn’t know I would have so many questions for her, about the spinning wheel and about lots of other things.

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