Chatting with Johnny Shiels: Master of Spin

We had the pleasure of speaking with Johnny Shiels, a third generation spinning wheel maker, who builds spinning wheels at the top of Ireland on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal. We hear about his life-long dedication to this wonderful craft and get an insight into the making of a spinning wheel.

How long have you been making spinning wheels?

My grandfather and my father made them so I grew up making them really. I learned how to do wood turning when I was 10 or 11 and then used that learning to help making the wheels.

Do you remember the first spinning wheel you made?

I had been away in Australia for a number of years in the early 90s but when I returned in 1997/1998 I finally completed my own spinning wheel. This is after years of being an apprentice to my father. It’s interesting, my dad’s spinning wheels were always stained very dark whereas I prefer the light, linseed oil based wheels.

What woods do you use to make the spinning wheels?

You can use almost any wood. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of wood involved; no particularly big pieces. The longest piece in any spinning wheel is around 600mm. We tend to get off-cuts from a local joinery here and recycle those to make the wheels. We could use mahogany, ask, oak and pine. I like ask myself as it has a nice white grain, and I’m making a cherry wheel at the moment.

Is there a particular wood that’s better suited to spinning wheels?

Not really, although mahogany is very popular – it’s got that nice, dark red colour and it ages well. People tend to request specific woods themselves so we source the woods they want; more often than not it’s mahogany.

What’s the trickiest part of making a spinning wheel?

It’s definitely what’s called the ‘mother of all’. This section sits at the back of the wheel and it’s where all the spinning takes place. The mother of all contains the flyer, the bobbin and the whorl. That’s where all the skill is when making a wheel; it’s very fiddly. You’ll often find with second-hand wheels that part tends to be missing. It’s extremely delicate and can be broken easily.

What’s your favourite part of the process?

I’d have to say it’s making the wheel itself. It’s the iconic piece of any spinning wheel. It’s made from several straight planks that have been squared up and glued together. Then it’s cut into a circular shape, and from there you need to carefully separate the rim from the centre part. This is turned by hand using a very gentle cut. And then the wheel just kind of emerges from the wood.

How many spinning wheels do you own?

I have two spinning wheels myself – one mahogany and one pine. My father made a spinning wheel for everyone in the family, including my children.

Do you enjoy spinning yourself?

Yes, I do. The funny thing with spinning is I find I’m doing it without even realising it. It’s like muscle memory, my hands just do it. My father never spun at all, it’s that different generation I’d say, but I enjoy it, it’s relaxing and a pleasure to teach. People can pick it up so quickly.

Do you do any other fibre craft – knitting, crochet, weaving?

I do a bit of weaving alright. There was always weaving in the house when I was growing up. I use a table loom, which is hand operated. And that’s something I teach at schools through the Heritage in Schools initiative. It’s a great programme that encourages people like myself to go into schools and to teach them traditional crafts. I do two days with them: one day is spinning, so we do everything from assembling the wheel to spinning on it, and the other day then is weaving, using their wool to create a wall hanging or something similar.

You’re working on a collaborative weaving project at the moment – can you tell us about it?

I have a long scarf that has 100 colours, woven by a hundred weavers from local schools. Everyone does a line or two, which is nice and it gives people a chance to be part of something.

Johnny Shiels will be demonstrating spinning at the upcoming Woollinn yarn festival in May 2018. Pop by to chat to Johnny and even have a go at spinning on one of his famous Donegal wheels.

Photos of Johnny copyright of Albina McLaughin.