13 November, 2010

Antique Squirrel Cage Swift on Exhibit

Far away, off the beaten path past twisty mountain passes, in McDowell, Virginia, out in Highland county where the maple sap runs and the sheep population is supposed to be the highest in the state, there is a little country historical museum and in it is an old squirrel cage swift.

A squirrel cage swift, also called a rice, holds a skein of yarn while you pull from one end and wrap the yarn into a ball.  It is supposed to work better than the umbrella type, but the size, fixed (non-collapsable) shape, and cost is probably why you don't see them much.  It looks like two hamster cages set a yard apart on one upright pole.

The size of the swift in the museum is huge.  The skein spool parts are each almost as big as a bread box.  I didn't measure the swift so I can't be sure, but taking for scale David Bryant's measured drawings of a rice in Wheels and Looms: Making Equipment for Spinning and Weaving which gives the spokes of the spools as a mere 6 inches long, I would say the antique swift I saw was close to twice the size.  The height of the vertical piece was about as tall as me.

Back then, whenever back then was, the usefulness of the swift must have outweighed space considerations.

While the swift is constructed mostly of cut lumber and dowels, the base of the swift is made of little splayed feet under a large rough-hewn hunk of wood that retains some of the natural log shape.  I'm sure its mass lends a lot of stability.  Old great wheels have the same sort of construction in the base and legs, only the dimensions are necessarily longer and trimmer.

The grain of wood in the dowels reminds me of broom handles made at old-time festivals with vintage automatic machines.

The swift might be homemade.  It is on loan to the museum from a local family.  This is why I am not posting photos, because it is from a private collection.

The swift has lost the original peg used to adjust the height of the top spool to accommodate different sized skeins.  In the peg's place is a quill spindle that has lost its great wheel.  I think this is a great glimpse into what fiber tools people used to have around.

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