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Another Fair Isle Milestone

Milestone events seem to happen frequently on our little island. Births, weddings, National Trust celebrations, ‘special’ birthdays, awards and new qualifications for folk take place, sometimes in very quick succession! However, on Thursday 15th November 2007, a bit of unusual and unique history was made. The 100th spinning wheel made by Stewart Thomson of Shirva was pronounced complete and ready to be collected by its proud and appreciative owner. For anyone to make 100 handcrafted unique wheels, from scratch, would be an incredible achievement, but when you consider that Stewart only started making wheels in his late fifties, the achievement is nothing short of astounding!

Stewart has an impressive list of previous milestones, including:
Born in Unst in 1924, in the heart of Shetland’s fine hand spinning and lace knitting industry.
Came to stay in Fair Isle in 1942 where he met and then married Annie Wilson, the renowned Fair Isle hand knitter, in 1944.
Was awarded the BEM by the Queen in 1984
The George Waterston Memorial Trophy in 1987 .
‘Slightly retired’ from ‘other employment’ in1997
Has 3 children (who live on Fair Isle), 8 grand children, and 17 great grandchildren.
And a Diamond wedding in 2004 (to mention only a few!)

But back to the Wheel 100!

The design is from the traditional Shetland spinney with unique modifications made to improve function and durability. Each part of every wheel has been hand-made from the raw materials including the intricate metal pieces fashioned out of recycled mild steel. The wood is usually reclaimed and sometimes has a special history of its own!

This wheel is made from aged spalted sycamore which arrived on Fair Isle about seven years ago from England in a consignment of fine wood for fiddle-making.
The screw thread in the tensioner is made of beech and the flyer is of walnut. The hooks on the flyer are made of steel hawser wire. The result is a work of art in itself, but with functionality and durability seldom seen in working machines today.

I put in my ‘order’ in for this particular wheel 10 years ago when Stewart was working on number 61 for Auntie Anne (well known to Fair Isle folk!). Over the years I have had the pleasure of seeing a lot of the wheels Stewart has made and many others he has repaired, often wishing wistfully that it was time for my wheel. In ‘consolation’ I did keep building up a collection of other wheels of various ages from various places, and quite often had to ask Stewart to give some of them a bit of TLC to coax them back into working order. Some of wheels acquired special names through their character or association like ‘Blodwen’a large upright, who came from Wales. ‘The Lady Haddington’, an ornate 250yr old flax wheel from East Lothian. ‘Wheel 100’ might be an official title but her name is ‘Annie’!

‘Annie’ is more than a show piece. She has a lot of work ahead of her. Producing, demonstrating, teaching, travelling and providing a quintessential textile experience for the many hand-spinning enthusiasts who visit her home environment! (You can understand the choice of name, yes?) Some of the previous numbers have been sent to stay in the farthest corners of the world, but when ‘Annie’ becomes an ‘old lady’ she will reside on Fair Isle for others to appreciate.

Kathy. 



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