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