Stitching, Sleuthing, and the Cuckolds

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It is sunny now, but much of January was cold, cloudy, and icy.

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Not inviting for outside activities.  But there were wild turkey tracks,

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brilliant skies,

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windy blue water breaking up the ice,

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bluebirds in the apple trees,

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bluebirds checking out the swallow boxes,

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and I was happily engrossed in sewing baby quilts for my niece’s twins.  Transforming fabrics I love into fox and hedgehog faces.

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Those faces greeted me every morning for weeks and I admit that I felt a pang when I wrapped up the quilts for their new home.

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I finished the quilts just in time for my niece’s baby shower in Connecticut. There were several quilters at the shower (including my niece) and I know the quilts will be well-used and well-loved.   Twins.  My best friends when I was young were twins.  How sweet to welcome twins into the family.

After handing off my quilty creatures, I stayed overnight with my brother and sister-in-law and came home with a new treasure–another antique spinning wheel. This wheel is personal. It has been in my mother’s Connecticut family for generations.

IMG_1131.jpgWhen I was growing up, the wheel stood at the corner of the living room, a decorative antique curiosity. It was a petite, pretty wheel, with black striping and a whorl of flax. When I was 16 or 17, I became interested in spinning and weaving. The wheel must have been in decent shape then because I set it up with a drive band and learned to spin on it. Soon after, I left home, went off to college, and then Alaska. The wheel stayed behind. I continued to spin with a drop spindle, but that also was left behind on one of our cross country moves.

I went decades without spinning. So, it seemed serendipitous that after retirement and our move to Maine, we spotted a neglected old wheel in our town’s only antique store. Cleaning that grime-encrusted wheel to bring out her lovely, glowing wood was rewarding on its own. But to get her sweetly spinning again was a real thrill.

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The Maine wheel has similar, but simpler, lines than the Connecticut wheel.

There is something about these old wheels that captivates me. I am not the slightest bit “spiritual,” whatever that means, having apparently received the skeptic gene instead. Yet, in the tactile, soothing, rhythmic occupation of spinning, it almost seems as if the wheel has a personality, infused from the generations of people–probably women–who touched and worked it before me.

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And, in fact, the wheel’s quirks and feel today may be a result of the way those women spun.

To me, spinning is a lovely, soothing occupation. I imagine women, maybe old, with weakening eyesight and muscles, gently working the wheel, grateful to sit with the musical whir and clutter-tap sound of a task so familiar as to be second nature. But who knows. Maybe the spinners, old or young, were gritting their teeth in frustration as they had to sit inside, housebound on a glorious day with hours of tedious, endless, mindless spinning. Whatever they felt, I will never know. All the spinners are long dead, but the wheel remains.  And the imprint of their feet.

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My brother and his wife have taken good care of the old family wheel. I had been thinking of getting it spinning again. I took a look at it while I was staying overnight with them in Connecticut. A flyer arm had broken off, one of the leather maiden bearings was missing, but it seemed to otherwise be in good shape.

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So, we decided to get it fixed and spinning again. I wrapped the wheel for a trip to Maine. It is probably the first time the wheel has left Connecticut in 200 years.

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Once I got home, I decided to see what I could find out about the wheel’s maker, “J Platt,” whose name is prominent on the front side. What followed was two days totally immersed in internet research up and down various family trees–my own and those of Connecticut spinning wheel makers.

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I immediately found a Pennsylvania woman with an antique spinning wheel blog, who several years ago had restored a J. Platt wheel almost identical to mine. She had tentatively concluded that the wheel was made by a Josiah Platt, who married Sarah Sanford in 1758. Sarah’s brother Samuel made spinning wheels.

My sleuthing–I became obsessed for days–turned up another possibility. There are a few well-documented Connecticut spinning wheel makers in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Samuel Sanford, John Sturdevant, Solomon Plant, and Silas Barnum, for example. I looked at examples of their wheels and found that the lettering and placement of Silas Barnum’s name on the wheel was almost identical to J. Platt’s. Interesting. Silas Barnum’s mother was a Sturdevant and his sister married wheel-maker John Sturdevant, so there was a family wheel-making connection. And Silas’s wife, was–BINGO–a Platt. Martha Platt, with a brother named James Platt, who was born in 1775, just a year after Silas, and living in the same town. So, my bet is on James.

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Cleaned and beeswaxed.

I discovered that antique wheel obsession is not an uncommon malady. There is a Spinning Wheel Sleuth newsletter, a similar group on Facebook, and various other on-line resources. I have also been trying to find out more about my Maine wheel. It has simpler lines than the Connecticut wheel, a result of Shaker influence. But I don’t think it is a Shaker wheel. The research continues …

Yesterday we carefully wrapped the Connecticut wheel again. I unwound the wool from the bobbin. I had spun that wool “in the grease,” meaning that the fleece had not been washed, over forty years ago. It was pretty stiff and crusty now–more like a dense twine than yarn. I removed the distaff with its flax, which is brittle and musty-smelling, likely a hundred years or so old.

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We loaded up the wheel and Capp and drove to Wiscasset to drop the wheel off with Mudd Sharrigan for repairs. Mudd is a master and I feel fortunate to have him nearby.

Since we were in Wiscasset, we decided to explore the Boothbay Region and to check out a supposedly dog-friendly beach. The beach was a disappointment–short, narrow, and right on the road.

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Capp was entranced with the smells.

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Lots of stinky stuff.

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He started to venture into the water, and then danced back.

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The water was frigid, so we we didn’t encourage him. Plenty of time for swimming come spring.

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Boothbay Harbor is charming. Really charming. And it has the feel of money. Some Mainers refer to the “Volvo line,” a north/south demarcation below which the Volvo/BMW/Mercedes/Audi-driving tourist and second-home people from lower New England states tend to cluster. The area below the line just feels different. More money on display, more high-end shops and restaurants, more people who exude entitlement, and more impatient horn-honking drivers. Boothbay is right about on the line. Midcoast, where we live, remains above the line. Just barely.

From Boothbay Harbor, we drove to Southport Island and Cape Newhagen. Off the Cape, with its tricky waters, lies the Cuckolds Light. Such a name. The light sits on the Cuckolds, two small rocky outcrops in a string of reefs and shoals.

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The name supposedly comes from a point of land on the Thames River granted by King John to the cuckolded husband of one of his lovers. Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised, with the Maine dry humor, if there wasn’t more to the name than a longing for the Thames River.

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Name aside, Cuckolds Light is notable for the rockiness of its underpinnings. Nothing there but the light and the rock. It must have been a limiting world for the lightkeeper and his family. The light was decommissioned as a working lighthouse in the 1970s. Now it is the Inn at Cuckold’s Light, a place of “pampered luxury,” which is available for about $1500 a night. I guess that puts the Boothbay area firmly below the Volvo line.

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35 thoughts on “Stitching, Sleuthing, and the Cuckolds

  1. There are so many interesting points in this post Brenda. Everything about those spinning wheels is very intriguing. I have similar thoughts about a very old industrial Singer machine of mine, imagining women stooped over it labouring away, wondering was the machine working them or did they work the machine.

    The photos of the Maine shoreline always warm my heart and I can’t get enough of them really so thanks for sharing. And those quilts, just spectacular! What a generous and thoughtful gift, real keepsakes they are.

    • Thanks Melissa. I am absolutely fascinated by antique wheels now. It’s a good thing that we don’t have more room, or I suspect I would be a wheel hoarder. I can see how your industrial Singer would make you wonder about the women who used it. I still look at the big old textile mills in New England and imagine all the farm women who came to work in them, and all the miserable hours that they spent inside.

  2. Your quilts are so beautiful! What wonderful gifts for the new twins. Your family spinning wheel has found the perfect home with you. Glad you were able to find out a little more about it. And I enjoyed the pictures from your trip to Boothbay Harbor. Capp is still growing!

    • Thank you Beth. I had so much fun making the quilts that I’m now making pillows with the hedgehog faces. I cannot wait to see how the Connecticut wheel spins and I’m going to try to find out more about both wheels.
      Capp weighs almost 60 lbs now and still has gangly adolescent legs. We suspect that he won’t be as large as his 90 lb father, but we’ll see.

  3. Oh, those quilts! The spinning wheels are such a treasure, and the Maine coast is beautiful any time of year. Interesting comments about money and entitlement. In central Maine, we mostly escape that sort of thing. (Although there are, of course, wealthy households tucked here and there.) Finally, I really identified with the skeptic side of yourself. Even though I love fantasy—hence Maya—I’m a skeptic, too.

    • I had so much fun making the quilts, Laurie. I find the Volvo line concept pretty funny, but I have to say, when I venture down to Portland and the the wealthier coastal areas, I cannot wait to get home!
      I suspect that most skeptics also have vivid imaginations and curiosity (question everything!), so it’s not surprising that you love fantasy.

  4. So many wonderful things in this post, I barely know where to start – those quilts are masterpieces and your niece’s twins are extremely fortunate; spinning wheels, something I know next to nothing about but am intrigued by; a man named Mudd; the ‘Volvo line’ (we have a Volvo, uh oh); Capp encountering the sea; and a reference to the Thames (Cuckold’s Point is a sharp bend in the river near Rotherhithe). I do love reading your blog. Sam x

    • Ha. Any serious quilter would have raised eyebrows at all the mistakes in those quilts. But I figured that the babies wouldn’t care. As for Mudd, he is almost 90, makes spectacular rigging knives and works on spinning wheels because his wife, Esther, is a spinner.
      Hmmm. A Volvo? Wise choice, lovely cars!
      Many of our New England place names come from Britain, but somehow I’m not convinced that a pair of rocky offshore shoals reminded anyone of a bend in the Thames. That’s the story, though. I suspect there was a local cuckold involved.

  5. I love your quilts, especially those hedgehog faces. It sounds like we have had more sunshine in my part of Maine than in yours, but I could definitely do without the ice. On the other hand, we had enough snow from that first big storm that I still have welcome snow cover throughout the garden, even after a whole month of “January thaw.”

    • Thanks Jean. I liked those little hedgehogs so much that I also made them into pillows for us and for a granddaughter. I suspect you are getting more sun, since we often see the edge of the cloud front south of us. We have had a decent number of sunny days, but too many gray ones for my taste. We still have a little snow cover in shady areas, but most of my gardens are bare.

  6. So interesting! Good sleuthing. I’m impressed you learned to spin. Do you weave as well, or knit? Your quilts are darling, what a labor of love. I’m sure your niece was touched by your gift. I absolutely adore the hedgehog one!

    • Thanks Eliza. I learned to spin and weave from books when I was in high school. I had one friend who also wove, but, other than that, I didn’t know anyone who was spinning or weaving. So, with no groups or internet, I didn’t have any choice but to figure it out myself. Fortunately, I’m stubborn. I have an old loom–which I’ve had since the 70s–that needs some work. I hope to get it going by next winter.

  7. The faces on the quilts are so endearing. Those babies will be happy to know those quilts as they grow. And your spinning wheel! I love that it’s so much easier to find things out now and that you can find these communities of people with the same passions. As for Central Maine, I’ve been up around Boothbay, once or twice in a cabin with a stove that had this thingy to strike a spark to light it and which smelled of mouse, and another time in the Spruce Point Inn (other end of the spectrum), from which I kayaked and ventured out to the Maine Coastal gardens, a fabulous place. I recall sitting at a stoplight in Boothbay a truly inordinate time consulting a map with my niece, with someone waiting patiently behind me. No honking. I need to come back!

    • The internet can be a wonderful thing! I had no idea that there were all kinds of antique spinning wheel enthusiasts (and they are an enthusiastic bunch) out there. Now that I’ve been through the first batch of research on the wheels, I likely will dig a little deeper with these groups. It’s great fun.
      Boothbay is an interesting area. The Coastal gardens are amazing. I can’t wait to visit them again this spring. But Boothbay is experiencing growing pains (even with the Botanical Gardens). Paul Coulombe (a “multimillionaire”) has plans to transform the area into a very upscale tourist destination (I believe he owns the Cuckolds lighthouse now)–and there has been some local pushback.
      As for your honking comment, I had to laugh. If you hear any honking here, it is almost certainly someone with out-of-state plates.

  8. Such a lot of good stuff in this post! Your quilts are delightful–so full of personality! And I am so interested in your spinning wheels–I live near the town of Plattsburgh, NY, founded by men named Platt–I wonder if there’s a connection. I spend a good deal of my time weaving and quilting thinking about the women who came before me, too . . .

    • Thank you Kerry. I did a little research and it looks like Plattsburgh’s founder, Zephaniah Platt and my J. Platts likely are distantly related. They all seem to be descended from Richard Platt, who sailed from Ware, England to become one of the earlier settlers of Milford, Connecticut in 1638.
      I can see from your latest post that you think about those earlier women. It is impossible not to, don’t you think? So much “scope for imagination.”

  9. Capp certainly has a great life! Good to see how he’s growing, I’m sure he’ll be swimming before you can blink.
    Your quilts are just charming, especially the hedgehog one, I would have struggled to part with them too.
    I did enjoy reading about your family spinning wheel, how fascinating, such history! I’m quite sure energy is absorbed by ancient objects, they always have that feel about them.
    How cute your bluebirds are!xxx

    • Oh, our Capp has it pretty sweet. He has done some swimming already, but our local lakes are iced over now. I suspect he would have gone in the ocean if we had thrown something for him to fetch. Zoe loved the cold water and would swim in anything. But, since Capp hasn’t done much swimming, we thought he might like a more gradual introduction to the cold water. Plus, if he had any problems, I didn’t want to have to go in and get him!
      We don’t have your robins, but our bluebirds may make up for it. It has been lovely to have a flock of them around this winter.

  10. What a wonderful family heirloom, and even more wonderful that you are putting it to use for its original purpose. My father-in-law took up weaving in his last years, he found it very relaxing.

    • Now I have to get my loom going or start knitting again to use up what I’ve been spinning. Weaving is very relaxing (once you get the warp set up), but, for me, spinning is even more soothing and stress-reducing. It is very meditative. Perhaps we’d all be better off if there was a spinning wheel in every house. TIME had an interesting piece about about photographer Bourke-White and Gandhi’s spinning wheel: http://time.com/3639043/gandhi-and-his-spinning-wheel-the-story-behind-an-iconic-photo/. I love this quote from the piece: “Spinning is raised to the heights almost of a religion with Gandhi and his followers. The spinning wheel is sort of an Ikon to them. Spinning is a cure all, and is spoken of in terms of the highest poetry.”

  11. My grandparents had a spinning wheel like that in their living room when I was growing up. Unfortunately my grandma was moved out of there when I was overseas and I have no idea what happened to most of the stuff, the wheel included, but through your post I can see it again, all shined with more nostalgia than beeswax. 😉

    And when I finally make it to Maine, I’ll have to see if I can notice the Volvo Line on my own…

    • Too bad you lost track of your grandparents’ wheel. Maybe someone, somewhere is thrilled to have it. When you finally make it to Maine, we would love to give you a tour–above and below the Volvo Line.

  12. A wonderful post Brenda from the images from your garden to the wonderful story of the spinning wheels to the visit to the beach! I’m so glad that you have been reunited with the family spinning wheel and especially as it was the one where you first learnt to spin. It is fantastic to still have it in the family! Your quilts were so lovely too! Sarah x

    • Thank you Sarah. I would love to know how the wheel came to our family, and which of my ancestors used it. I have several old quilts, a sampler, an embroidered picture (of an old English cottage and garden), a cat portrait, and a donkey portrait (!)–all made by women generations back in the family. I can only imagine them and their lives and thoughts. I do know, however, that they were a creative bunch.

  13. Fascinating – I know nothing of spinning, or sewing, but admire the work and loved the history of your spinning wheel. I guess you could get the wood dated by an expert. And, having checked, I have learned there is a Cuckold Point on the River Thames, near Rotherhithe – well I never! 🙂

    • I probably could get the wood dated, but it’s more fun to try to ferret out clues through internet research! There is something very satisfying about bringing these beautiful old wheels back to life.

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