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.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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