Mrs. Cowan’s Spinning Wheel is Lost to the Ages, But Fortunately Dorothy Kirk’s Wheels are Here
Last month, the Collections and Heritage Interpretation department at Grey Roots assisted the Ontario Handspinner Seminar committee, which held some of their 50thAnniversary events at the Grey Roots site, on June 7, 2014. The event honoured the memory of one of the OHS founders, Mrs. Dorothy W. Kirk of Owen Sound, who was an avid collector of international and Canadian spinning wheels. “The Dorothy and Harry Kirk Collection of Spinning Wheels and Related Equipment”, which joined the County of Grey-Owen Sound Museum in 1998, is now a part of the Grey Roots collection. We are very grateful that Mrs. Kirk and her husband Harry J. Kirk went to so much loving effort to preserve examples of spinning wheels, wool winders, niddy-noddies and swifts. The Seminar attendees really appreciated seeing Mrs. Kirk’s wheels.
In so many families, my own included, the once-busy and prevalent family spinning wheel ended up relegated to the attic or barn, and eventually disappeared over the years. There is a photograph at the Grey County Archives that shows one of my ancestors, Mrs. Mary Cowan, sitting outdoors, working at her spinning wheel. “Granny Cowan” was Scottish-born, nee Mary McLean, and was raised on the Isle of Mull. She married John Cowan of Oban. They emigrated to Canada in 1853, with a six-week voyage across the Atlantic. They lived for a while in Caledonia, and then settled in Grey County in the Dornoch area of Bentinck Township (they were residents there in the 1871 census). John Cowan was a weaver by trade, and they eventually had fifteen children, so Mrs. Cowan had to accomplish the spinning and dyeing of a lot of woolen yarn for her household. She likely would have put her nine daughters to the tasks of carding, reeling or spinning as well when each was old enough to help out. For a while, the family lived at Manitowaning, on Manitoulin Island. Later on, the Cowans moved back to Grey County, and resided in Owen Sound, on the east hill area. A history-minded artist / teacher, Miss Kate Andrew (b. 1872-d.1971), nostalgically kept the 1890s(?) photograph of Mrs. Cowan, who was a neighbour and friend of her mother, Mrs. Sarah Andrew. Kate Andrew herself was interested in handicrafts, and likely could sense that the skills of the 19th century spinners were disappearing from the scene. She might also have liked the First Nations-made ash splint storage basket seen in the image, that Granny Cowan used to hold her carded wool in. Kate Andrew also was interested in an early museum project in Owen Sound, and helped save other local items as well. The photographer of the image, unfortunately, was not recorded on the mount. It is also unknown what happened to Granny Cowan’s spinning equipment, or her lovely splint basket, but Grey Roots has examples of some 19th-century saddle-style spinning wheels, as well as some splint baskets, so whenever I see them, I am glad that some examples were saved, and that Dorothy Kirk had the foresight to protect some other amazing spinning wheels as well, to help encourage the remembrance of hand spinning traditions, and to inspire present-day spinners.
1963.005.013 Photograph of Mrs. John Cowan (nee Mary McLean, b. 1842-d. 1921) at Owen Sound, Ontario
Dorothy Kirk in 1998 (the spinning wheels shown are now at Grey Roots)