Turning 100

The creation of Stewart’s spinning wheels is an incredibly involved process, with each of its many p


The stamp on the wood identifies the maker, and in the centre of the stamp is printed its number: 100. Stewart Thomson turns the spinning wheel carefully with his hands, explaining what each part does, and how it is made. This particular one, beautifully constructed from spotted sycamore, is the hundredth that he has built.

Around the room are six or seven other wheels, made from sycamore, beech, walnut, and one from Columbian pine. "Any sort of semi-hardwood is fine," says Stewart. "Those two there are made out of an old shop window frame. And the Columbian Pine came from the building of Burkl" (a house on the isle). "We don’t throw away anything here," he laughs.

Each wheel is marked and individually numbered. The oldest – number one – sits in the corner. It was built about 1968 from a piece of mahogany Stewart found on the shore. "I used to make them out of driftwood" he explains, "but there’s not so much of that going now."

Originally from Unst, Stewart married Annie, a Fair Islander, and they have lived together on the isle for many years. Their two sons and daughter still stay here, while their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are spread from Fair Isle to Shetland and beyond. One grandson now makes a living building fiddles; another makes guitars in Glasgow. Stewart’s eldest son builds straw-backed chairs. The skills have clearly passed down through the generations.

The creation of Stewart’s spinning wheels is an incredibly involved process, with each of its many parts individually constructed from wood, metal or leather. “Everything is homemade,” Stewart says, and points at the free-iron, the wheel’s axle, which is formed of two distinct sections: “You wouldn’t believe they started off as one big, rusty bolt.”

This use of solely hand-crafted parts means that each wheel is unique, and very time-consuming. In total, Stewart will spend about 200 hours on every one, and the amazing attention to detail is part of what makes the wheels so beautiful. But despite their visual appeal, these are very much working models. “I don’t make them for ornaments” he emphasises. “If folk want them for ornaments I won’t do it. The work I put into them is to make them spin properly.”

Stewart himself is always the first to test his own wheels, bringing them in from his workshop to the house, where he ensures that every part is working smoothly and correctly. He finds spinning relaxing, and obviously enjoys experimenting with new and unusual materials. Around the room are some of the stranger things that he has tried, including silk, muskox and alpaca, as well blue-faced Leicester, Norwegian blue and Navajo sheep. There are even ultra-soft fibres taken from bamboo cane.

But of all the materials that he has spun, Stewart still prefers natural Fair Isle wool. It is strong and soft, in an incredible variety of colours. “No two fleeces are the same” he says.

As he demonstrates the wheel, it looks so natural and easy. The wool twists and turns constantly as his foot presses down on the pedal. The tufts and lumps between his fingers disappear, and the wool is transformed. I resist the temptation to try for myself, fearing that some of the wheel’s magic will be lost in my clumsy, ignorant hands.

Wheel number 100 was made for one of our neighbours: a keen spinner. Others have been ordered by people from all over the world. As we sit down to look over the half dozen that are currently in his room, Stewart claims that now this one is complete, he is taking a break. He will perhaps make one or two more, but perhaps not.

A few moments later, however, and this uncertainty seems to be gone. “I love making them,” he tells me, the wool held between his fingers. “And I wish it was warmer weather so I could get down to the workshop again. I just hate sitting around doing nothing.”

Photos by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.