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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain