James Shiels - The Last Master Wheelwright in Ireland

Jimmy Shiels Master WheelwrightMeghan Nuttall Sayers, author and tapestry weaver, recounts a visit to Donegal and the Shiels family. Although Meghan hails from Washington State, she is intimately associated with Taipeis Gael of Donegal and has written a title celebrating this association called "Tapestry Weavers in Rural Ireland". Judging by the remarks that follow, the locality definitely had a lasting impact, as did James Shiels, Johnny's father, "the last master spinning wheelwright in Ireland".....

James Shiels' house stands a stone's throw from St. Patrick's Cross in the town of Carandonagh, Donegal on the Inishowen Peninsula. I journeyed there, like one of the three pilgrims chiseled into the base of this seventh-century sculpture, to pay homage to St. Patrick and to visit the last, master spinning wheelwright in Ireland.

The blue front door of Mr. Shiels' house lay open to Bridge Street in a welcome gesture to anyone who might happen upon it. From the street, sunlight streamed inside and down the front hall to the threshold of his workshop which was framed with rain slickers and knee-high Wellingtons. The room overflowed with wood chippings and spinning wheel parts: turned legs, clusters of flyers which hung from the ceiling like skeins of wool, bobbins in various stages of completion, iron rods, bits of leather, and foot treadles. A few antique wheels fixed to the wall collected dust- vestiges of wheels made before James's time, by his father or his uncles.

I was tickled to meet Mr. Shiels. About a year passed since I had asked him to build me a spinning wheel of the sort my ancestors used in Donegal. Our agreement of sale was a mutual leap of faith that was sealed like a handshake with two letters which crossed the Atlantic many months before. James Shiels has no phone, no fax, and no pressing need for either. In person and on paper, he evokes a sense of stillness and satisfaction with his niche in life. By hand he wrote,

".....I will have a spinning wheel made for you - but let me know about a week in advance so as I'll be at home. Mostly am but that could be the time I'm away."

Once in Ireland, I had set out for the Inishowen Peninsula from Fanad Head where my grandmother lived. I carried an overnight bag just in case I would need to wait a day or two in Carandonagh to connect with Mr. Shiels. Luckily, as he's "mostly home," I found him there with three spinning wheels waiting for me to try. He had hammered, whittled and turned two wheels of teak and one of mahogany that I could touch and admire with my hands and feet.

I sat down to treadle the teak wheel first. This smooth-finished wheel pumped solidly underfoot giving it a heavy, functional feel unlike the more lightweight, contemporary wheel I use at home. I tried to spin some of the merino/silk fleece I keep with me in a travel-sized wool bag. This wool felt too delicate and slippery for "the swallow" as James says, or the draw, on the wheel. So James carded a handful of Suffolk-crossbreed fleece for me to spin. It was a medium weight wool which glided from hand to bobbin with a bit of a pull and tug.

" Perhaps the nature of this wheel is for tough fibers," James explained, "This wheel, which is actually called the Dutch Wheel, was originally a flax wheel which came to Ireland from Holland in the 18th century. Sometime after that it was modified for wool."

James greased the movable parts of the mahogany wheel with Vaseline, his standard oiling remedy. Then he took the bobbin to a circular blade to widen its groove a sliver. With the fine-tuned bobbin, I gave this richly-grained wheel a try. It treadled more easily than the teak wheel and it swallowed the wool from my hands effortlessly. Within minutes I fell in love with this wheel. I spent the better part of the next hour spinning and chatting with James.

" I learned to make wheels from my father. He used a treadle-powered lathe which my brother and I pumped while he worked."

His father's spinning wheels "sold like mad" during World War II because store bought yarn was difficult to find. "We used to salvage timber from the beaches, particularly on Lough Foyle from boats that had been torpedoed."

In those days spinning studios in Donegal had up to forty-five wheels going at once. More than a century before, the introduction of this wheel in the eighteenth century into Donegal homes changed the social pattern of the country side, according to David Shaw-Smith in Ireland's Traditional Crafts;

" It was light in weight, easily transported and it became customary for the young women of a parish to gather in a different house each night for communal spinning... called the 'factory.'"

After the World War II, James said, "You couldn't give a spinning wheel away." A retired weaver and peer of Mr. Shiels', Jimmy Carr, from Gleann Cholm Cille, later explained to me above the fiddle-tunes in a local pub;

" Homespun started back up in 1940. It came back at that time, yeah. The fabric and cloth was very scarce. When the war was over the homespun kind of died out here, you see. People left for Scotland, England, America, all over. No help in the houses to do the homespun."

In the 60's James Shiels and his son, Charles, started making the wheels again. James took them to museums and heritage centers. He began to receive inquiries from people who had seen his wheels and wanted them for furniture. So James designed several wheels with lamps attached to the distaff - a staff attached to the spinning wheel on which unspun wool is loosely fastened.

" Why not add book holders like recipe stands so people could read while they spin?" I asked. "Or make them with drink holders like the kind installed in cars."

" With long straws," James added with a subtle sense of humor which became more apparent when he talked about an Irish television production that featured himself, his apprentice son, Charles, and his wife Kathleen.

" This documentary, 'Hands,' by David Shaw-Smith, featured traditional Irish craftsmen. A cameraman spent several weeks with us filming Charles and me in the woodshop and Kathleen spinning." James slipped the documentary into the VCR in his living room while Mrs. Shiels prepared tea and cookies.

" He made me carry that piece of wood into my shop several times before I got it right" James grinned. I read in his smile a man who enjoyed the filming process and shared the cameraman's passion for perfection in his art.

" See there," Kathleen said, "those are my feet treadling!" She laughed. "You know, he spent five or six hours filming me spinning for my two minute debut."

" I looked better then, didn't I?" James reflected as he looked at the image of himself on the screen. Now in his sixties, I assured him he looks even more distinguished.

While the documentary filled the living room with images of wheels, turned legs, flyers, wood chippings, bobbins and bits of leather, I asked James and Kathleen for spinning songs and folklore they could remember from their youth. Kathleen recalled that, "In the olden days, a girl who tied a red ribbon around her flax meant she was looking for a partner." Her story gives life to an anecdote of David Shaw-Smith's,

" When the work {spinning} was finished the girls were usually joined by the young men of the parish, and the night ended with a dance. As the saying goes, 'Many's the match was made at the factory.'"

James Shiels did not let on that his reputation extends across the county and beyond. Only after meeting other spinners and weavers in Ireland did this become clear to me;

" How is Jimmy?" people would say. "I must visit him myself."

James poured me a third cup of tea. I settled into my chair, honored to be there, thrilled to have come all this way for a wheel.

" At one time I used to make miniature wheels and be on the road selling them," he said. "But not anymore. People come to me now."

Later, James carried my spinning wheel down Bridge Street to where I had parked my car - a stone's throw from St. Patrick's Cross. As we tucked the wheel into the back seat, I felt a twinge of sadness. My pilgrimage was over. I was sorry to say good-bye. Rambling back to Fanad on the by-way across the high boglands of Inishowen, I found comfort knowing that with each treadle and every turn of this spinning wheel, a sense of stillness will wrap around me.