Earlier this year, while faffing about on eBay looking at Ashford Travellers, I came across a listing for an Ashford Table Top charkha wheel.
It was in pretty sad shape, and missing most of its parts.
I was quite interested, as I'm keen on cotton spinning, and have a table top charkha handmade by a craftsman in France - but I never knew Ashford made one.
Back in the 1990s, I used to help out sometimes at Stony Mountain Fibres in Charlottesville, Virginia, owned by the late Barbara Gentry.
(NB: The illustration above is from a Spin Off magazine from 2009; the shop is now closed).
She taught me to spin and weave, and sometimes I'd go with her and the family to Maryland Sheep and Wool and other fibre shows. Barbara sold Ashfords, and I spent a lot of time exploring the various vendor booths at these shows, but never saw anything like this -- I'd've been all over it.
I won the wheel off the eBay auction for £30, and poked around the internet to see if anyone else had listed one or worked with one. The best I could come up with was a person who has a video in which she's spinning on a later model of the charka, and a blog from a spinner in Arizona who weighted down her charka with seashells to keep it from slipping whilst spinning on a hardwood floor.
Ashford's own pages include past models of wheels and their instructions/parts lists. Between 1998 and 2002, they had two models of table top charkas, one with a short bed and single drive wheel, and one with a slightly longer bed and an accelerated wheel. I found one seller who advertised in Spin-off in the early 2000s who was carrying the wheel for about $395, but the advertised photo is pretty small.
None of these wheels looked like the one I'd bought, which has the long bed, but a completely different design on the flywheel.
I wrote to Ashford, New Zealand, where I had a kind response from Ashford Reception, and Kate, who sent me a photocopy of my wheel's assembly instructions. I'm still in search of more info -- Kate tells me this wheel was manufactured between 1988 and 1996. I foresee an afternoon going through my back issues of Spin-Off to see if it were advertised or mentioned in their New Products pages.
Mine in the meanwhile arrived in a woeful state -- the seller packaged it well, and sent it quickly, but the wheel had obviously been kept in storage for a long time. It was filthy and smelled strongly of garages/old motor oil. It was missing its spindle support block and spindle assembly.
I disassembled the whole thing so that I could give it a proper clean and remove all of the old grease and stains off the wood.
Next was a polish with British Museum wax to bring out the grain and put a protective, clean wax shine on the wood.
A lot of parts were missing, but fortunately everything for the flywheel assembly was there.
A big help with working out what needed to be replaced and how everything fitted together was discovering a complete later-model Ashford charkha at the Handweaver's Studio in London. They very kindly allowed me to climb a ladder to reach it (it's a display piece), measure, and take photos, not once but on a second visit, too.
First thing sourced was the upright -- I bought a huge box of scrap hardwood off an eBay seller which was aimed at the whittling/crafter/dollhouse market. The best piece of wood to match the wheel itself needed to be cut down to size, sanded and polished.
Some time was spent sourcing a spindle; Ashford makes spindle converter kits for their treadle wheels, but this assembly is too big for the charkha. The original plan was to ask a blacksmith at my local Weaving and Spinning guild to make a bespoke one.
In the meantime, the test spindle was an old knitting needle -- definitely not the final spindle, as the knitting needle was too long and slightly bent -- but it was useful to see how the silicon bushings, set into the wooden upright, and small pulley (20mm in diameter) would all fit together.
I ended up using a spare spindle from M. Rodier, a French craftsman who makes spinning wheels and other spinning and weaving-related materials. You can look him up on Etsy.
This spindle turned out to be an excellent fit; the knitting needle was replace with this new spindle, which is fairly light-weight but robust.
So that I can make nice, fat cops, I've added a heavy paper disk that fits flush against the pulley -- with the pulley's diameter at only 20mm, the spindle would fill up very quickly. The current disk has been cut from a heavy-stock birthday card; I am thinking about making a studier one out of a leather disk.
Currently, the wheel is awaiting to be fitted with its silicon drive band. The metal pulley needs the friction to work: at the moment, I have a cotton string drive band that, on its own, will not work. The cotton twine just slips on the pulley; for grip, I've wrapped a postman's elastic band around the pulley. It's not the classiest look, but it works.
Another modification will be a second hold in the bed with a threaded grip for a screw: later Ashfords had this second hole so that you could turn the spindle assemble 90 degrees, with the spindle flush against the flywheel, and then screw the locking bold into the bed to hold it in place. It's very much a needed design when you live in a house with three cats.
To keep the wheel from slipping on the floor or a table, I've got a section of rubber grip-mat for it to sit on. For belts and braces, I also have a table clamp from Ashford, just in case.
The wheel is most comfortably used when it's on the floor and I'm sat next to it, or, if I'm sat in a chair, it's on a table a bit lower than my arm when bent at the elbow. Right at regular height it's actually a bit uncomfortable, and I can't get a full long-draw's length on it.
It spins very well, nice purring sound as the spindle whirls around. A fast spinner, excellent for cotton and other short-stapled fibres such as angora, camel down, and qiviut.
Chonky cop of cotton removed from the spindle earlier.
Currently, I've got a tawny angora on the spindle.
Did you have a wheel like this? Tell me about it; I'd be happy to see photos of the wheel or any markering materials associated with it.