Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. XI, no. 1, March 1958
by Laurence A. Johnson
"Niddy-Noddy, Niddy-Noddy, two heads and one body" sang the proprietress of the antique shop in New England many years ago. I was pointing at a little gadget hanging on the wall. "What is it", she asked? That's what I was still wondering. I shook my head. She smiled and said: "A hand reel". Then, returning to the old time riddle, she remarked: "some others say that it is a Niddy-Noddy".
As I continued to look blank, she went on to tell me that in our colonial days this little device was used not only as a means of winding yarn but also to measure the yarn at the same time. She had read that the English would not allow the Niddy-Noddy to be made for sale in the colonies and that a family brought over one with them from Ireland.
Since her price on the niddy-noddy seemed to be within reason, I said; "I'll buy it if you will show me how to use it".
She picked up a ball of twine and tied one end of it to the end of one of the heads or cross pieces. Then holding the reel in her left hand by grasping the center post or shank, she began to wind the twine on the niddy-noddy. Around and around the reel she wound with her right hand touching in order, the four ends of the two cross sticks on the reel. Her left hand darted in and out, back and forth, up and down, in perfect rhythm with the winding motion of her right arm and hand. As the two heads of the reel moved about with this unusual wobbling motion it was easy to see why this little cross-reel was nicknamed "Niddy-Noddy".
The reel's simple construction can be seen in the two shown in Fig. 1 from the author's collection.
Although the hand cross-reel was widely used in the colonies and many no doubt were made here, a little research shows that it was not an American invention. Two years ago I noted one in the background of a painting entitled "The Spinner" which was hanging in the Ryks Museum, Amsterdam, Holland. This beautiful work, figure 2, was by Nicholas Maes ( 1634-99) whose favorite subjects were women spinning, reading the Bible, or preparing a meal. Figure 3 shows the hand cross-reel in a painting by Luis de Menendes, ( 1716-60). Two years ago this painting was hanging in the Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Figure 3. Editor's note: This image is identified on the Prado Museum site as: The Spinners, or the Fable of Arachne, by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
A hand cross-reel was in a display of spinning devices as the Munich Museum at the time of my visit two years ago. There was no one at the museum at the time who could give me any information on this reel. A reply to a letter last year gives the following: (a translation from the German):
"Many thanks for your inquiry of September 7, which we are pleased to answer as follows; the windlass in the section displaying textiles techniques has a circumference of approx. 1 meter. In the 18th century, to which time this windlass dates back, this would have been equivalent to 2 (two) ells. Of course in that time the size of the ell varied according to the regions in which they were used. Likewise the turns are different which make up a skein. We are unaware of any special treatise about this subject, butwe do know a publication about the windlass, copy of which you could probably obtain from the 'GESELLSCHAFT FUER CHEMISCHE INDUSTRIE' (Society for the Chemical Industries) in Basel, Switzerland. The name is: The Wind lass (Der Hapsel), Ciba-Rundschau Jg. 6 19.J.+ H. 6+, (year 6, 194+, #H. 64).
"Hoping to have been of service to you, we remain, Yours very truly DEUTSCH MUSEUM"
While visiting some of the museums in England last year, I found two of the little devices. One in the Carlisle Museum, the other in the marvelous York Museum. In both cases they were called wool-winders. The one at Carlisle measured two meters in circumference, the same as one of mine, the one at York two yards, the same as my second "niddy-noddy."
In the York Museum the wool yarn was wound lengthwise to the center-post. The assistant keeper wished to see how I would wind it, and when I had finished he put it back in the case that way.
While in Ireland last year I visited the museums at Limerick, Cork, and Dublin. In spite of the lady in the antique shop saying that probably one niddy-noddy came from Ireland, the officials of the three above mentioned museums said that they had never seen one, nor had they ever heard of one being found in Ireland.
Upon my return home last fall I wrote Professor E. Estyn Evans of the geography department of Queens University, Belfast, Ireland. His two fine books, Irish Heritage and Irish Folkways are not unknown to some members of E.A.I.A., because in them he explains in detail many of the early tools and hand-crafts of Ireland. His answer in part:
" ... Your reference to the hand-reel interests me and I confess I have never seen one in Ireland. The clockreel seems to have been universal. But I imagine it is not earlier than the eighteenth century and is unlikely to have driven the hand-reel out everywhere ... I am sending you the Belfast Museum pamphlet on spinning wheels etc .... of which they have a collection. Mr. Thompson, the author, is with me as I write. He does not know of the niddy-noddy but will keep his eyes open. The only one in his collection is from Germany (Figure 4).
"The word niddy-noddy is interesting. The term noddy was applied to the low-back disc-wheel Irish cart ... "
Last year I also visited the Science Museum in London. Here I met Mr. Keyton, the gentleman in charge of textiles. Although he was not too familiar with the use of the hand-reel in England, he had seen references in their library to its use on the Continent. He accompanied me to the Science Museum Library, which we reached by walking two city blocks around their building. The entrance to the library inside the building had been bombed out during the war.
A plate of the hand cross-reel was found in Diderot's Dictionnaire des Sciences published in Paris 1767. (See Figure 5.) Note that the center post is extended below the bottom cross piece, thus making a handle. A description of the device is given in 18th century French.
A literal translation states that the reel is a serving device to put the thread in a skein and that the cross sticks must be one quarter of an ell apart. (Once around the circumference, one ell).
Mr. Keyton then showed me a series of publications called Ciba Review. These are published by the chemical firm of Ciba Review Ltd., Basie Switzerland. (This is the same reference suggested by the Deutsch Museum.)
The following is from pages 21, 30, 31 of the August I 9+7 issue of Ciba Review: "The reel, a simple instrument for winding yarns and strings off and on, has changed its form in the course of centuries; what has remained the same is its purpose and its universal use. Whereas the hand spindle and the spinning wheel have almost completely disappeared from European countries, the reel is still extensively used in the home, in home industries, in workshops, and in mills."
See Figures 6 and 7 from Ciba Review showing Italian women of today using the hand-reel.
The article continues:
"Astonishing few reels or representations of such have come down to us from prehistoric times. Schliemann who discovered tens of thousands of spindle whorls at Troy speaks of 'a stick eleven inches long, round which a great quantity of coal-black, seemingly charred woolen yarn is wound lengthwise'. He calls it a distaff. Distaff, spindle, and reel are frequently mistaken one for the other. The distaff is a stick, often slit open and broadened, for fastening the unspun bunch of fibres. It is fixed one way or another. The reel on the contrary is mobile, and must be so in order to allow the drawing off of the yarn. Why should the yarn have been wound round a distaff? The object found at Troy is undoubtedly a stick reel.
"The primitive and simple form of the reel, with short cross pegs at each end, is still widely used today .. in Italy the stick has a length up to two yards. In the Ukraine, where it is forked at one end, it measures one and a half yards. In the Historical Museum at Berne there is a stick reel dating from the Swiss lacustrine civilization. made out of a thigh bone with a sawn slit." (lacustrine, pertaining to ancient lake dwellers.)
"The reason why there exist no pictures of reels in antiquity, although numerous illustrations of the spinning and weaving processes are known, may lie in the widespread use at the time of clews, which can take the place to a certain extent. The clew has the advantage over the stick reel of being easily unwound. On the other hand the winding up a clew is a somewhat lengthy process. A stick serves the purpose much better." (clew is a ball of thread or yarn.)
Figure 8 pictures a cartoon from page 2133 of the above mentioned issue of Ciba Review. It is entitled "The Spinning Sow". The caption continues "The piglet at the bottom on the left is holding in its right foot a cross reel without handle, while, the other two pigs twist the spindle." (Nuremberg woodcut. About 1490. From a manuscript of the National Library (Nationalbibliotbek), Vienna.)
Figure 9 is an illustration of prehistoric spinning, weaving and reeling. This is taken from top of page 2133 of the above mentioned issue of Ciba Review. The caption under the picture reads:
"Illustration of prehistoric spinning, weaving, and reeling. In the centre, child with a reel facing woman at the loom. (Reproduction from an urn of the Hallstatt tumuli at Sopron (Hungary), After M. Hoernes.)
Figure 10 is from the authors collection. This small niddy-noddy measures nine inches from the ends of one cross stick to the other. One circumference is one yard.
Figure 11 is a Niddy-Noddy at Colonial Williamsburg and is 7 inches long and 3-1/4 inches wide.
The Ciba Review traces the use of the cross stick hand-reel back to a prehistoric illustration on an urn, and to the lake dwellers.
Returning to the present time, I heard a delightful story about these little cross hand-reels. It was told by one of the ladies at the demonstration of weaving and spinning at the June 1954 Early American Industries Association meeting at Plimouth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
"In the early days of the country, a woman in Boston was fined and imprisoned for cutting off the shank of her niddy-noddy one inch. Thus each of her windings was lessened by four times the shortened distances from the end of each cross stick to the other."
Proper Bostonians may desire further research.