Sunday, March 6, 2011

Salish Style Indian Head Spinner

[Photo: Annie's spinner from the 70's
from when she lived on a farm in the
Cowichan Valley]
I recently dug out an old spinning wheel? head? I had stored in the laundry room and am going to oil it, replace the scotch tension brake and recondition the belt on my Singer treadle, the engine for this wheel? head?  I bought it in the late 70's early 80's. At the time I lived in a 600 sq ft house with only two power outlets which explains why I had a Singer treadle machine and a need for small items. The Indian Head spinner could be easily put away when not in use and the sewing machine could be lifted out of the treadle case and the Indian Head spinner would fit in its place.
This spinning wheel has a variety of names: Indian Head Spinner, Country Spinner, Salish Spinner, and Cowichan Spinner. They were popular with the Vancouver Island Coast Salish spinners especially in the 60's and 70's, and were instrumental for spinning the yarn for Cowichan Sweaters.  
[Photo: My spinner attached to the
Singer treadle.  The Singer has been taken
off and can be seen on the floor]
Some consisted of just the 'head' like mine (on the right) which mounted onto a Singer treadle sewing machine. Others were permanently mounted onto the Singer or Singer-like treadle, others were crafted as one unit (like Annie's on the left) and in the 70's Ashford took this one step further and started producing the Ashford Country Spinner as did Clemes and Clemes.
This is not a machine for spinning fine yarns. Forget the Scottish ring shawl yarns- those shawls that are spun so fine they can be slipped through a wedding ring. This is for thick yarns. Not necessarily dense but bulky. Everything is oversized: the bobbin, the hooks and even the orifice. This makes it perfect for spinning art yarns, thick yarns, rug yarns and for plying. It's currently having a revitalization as modern spinners are looking for exactly this type of wheel to add 'things' to the yarn. Crazy weird 'things' like miniature skull heads, beads, buttons, feathers, eye balls, etc.
Traditionally, fibre was pre-drafted into a rough roving, or, in more modern times, roving was bought. But in either case you pre-drafted a pile in preparation for the spinning.
These spinners are fast. They whip the fibre onto the bobbin. There is a Scottish tension but be prepared to have the yarn drawn in quickly. I heard a story of a Coast Salish woman who was producing yarn very, very quickly, so quickly dust and bits of farmland were causing a cloud of dirt, dust and debris around the spinner and she had to wear a mask to avoid the cloud and flying bits.

Since this is such a polpular post, I have edited to add some resources.
Here are a couple of books you might be interested in: 
Working with Wool, a Coast Salish Legacy . Although it looks at the history of the Cowichan Sweaters, it covers the history of the wool too.
And for children,Yetsa's Sweater a child learn's how a Cowichan Sweater is made.


  1. Hi there!
    Most interested in your posts about Salish textiles as I'm researching the history of what is marketed by Ashford as a 'Country Spinner'. I'm writing for a UK knitting magazine, trying to encourage their readers towards spinning too, and it's been difficult to find pictures or history on these types of wheel pre-Ashford! Was Annie's made by a B C local, like some of those mentioned on other forums? Would be lovely to make the link back to First Nations peoples making these wheels if I could. Any help would be acknowledged and very much appreciated, as would permission to use either of the photos on your blog post above in the magazine. Would be great to show there was a pre-Ashford history and give First Nations people their due credit. I bought a 'Country Spinner' a couple of years back and started a small-scale art yarns business this summer. My pre-exhibition blog is still up at or you can find me on Ravelry as CamiKnitter, or e-mail camilla (dot) hair (at) ntlworld (dot) com. Thanks tremendously!

    1. Note there are two eras of Coast Salish tribal people working with fibre:
      - Making blankets using hair from dogs they bred for that, abandoned when superior sheep’s wool became available and Hudson’s Bay blankets became available. (Supplemented with some plant material, perhaps for colour variety but shorter life.)
      - People in the Cowichan Valley making sweaters from sheep’s wool, mostly using a volume spinning service or trading wool for yarn, but now buying yarn from WalMart (more economical and in a variety of colours).

      For you to research is when the “driven bobbin” (aka “Indian Head”) spinner was invented, I’d guess in the early days of using sheep wool for sweaters. Someone named Pat Boutinwald was an expert on them, search for “As the Wheel Turns”. Tribal people did invent, trade with other tribes even far away, and copy – contrary to notions of people who think they were fully closed societies. The heyday of Cowichan sweater production was long after the first English immigrants arrived.

      “Carding” the wool to straighten it is another laborious task, one Cowichan lady got an old industrial machine from Great Britain to do it in volume. Hand paddles and small machines can be purchased purchased – those are covered with small hooks.

      Keith Sketchley

  2. I could find the best sewing machine options at - they create competition among the banks instantaneously

  3. Hello, If you know of anyone selling a Salish Spinner or Indian Head Spinner, please let me know at

    1. Hello, please visit

  4. Avi, I just saw an Indian Head spinning wheel listed on Seattle craigslist (Snohomish Co.) for $250, mounted on a Singer treadle base. I came across this blog in a google search, trying to learn more about Indian Head spinners.

  5. Hi I've bought a treadle sewing machine but can't find any plans to convert it to a spinning wheel. I've seen one that I've replied to but they haven't got back to me! Any help would be great! My treadle is lonely without the spinning wheel attached

  6. Isn't it two things:
    - a large driven-bobbin spinner, perhaps like but with bearing supports and a plate at bottom to clamp/bolt to SM table top
    - treadle SM with belt moved from SM to bobbin, may first require removal of a small guard on the SM pulley to get belt off (Singer 115 from 1917 seems to require that)

    Belt length may have to be adjusted, may have leads, I understand the belt is often made by joining two ends with metal clips. And you may have to rejuvenate or replace the belt.

    - Keith Sketchley

    Some details will vary with the make and model of SM and cabinet.

    May require removal of the SM, first may require

  7. I've got too Ashford Indians. One seems to have been doctored to go slower than the other. Would appreciate and books on the spinning techniques