Walter Ashford began his woodworking career in the 1930s, a young man with an entrepreneurial flair making his way in the Depression. At first he sold his stools and other household items door to door but soon, in association with the New Zealand Home Journal (a widely read monthly magazine) he was selling kitsets by mail order. The first of the advertisements (a teawagon and radio trolley) appeared in October 1936. The "Homecraft" range soon included many other items of furniture and toys. An article from "Canterbury Today", reprinted in Ashford's magazine "The Wheel" 10, 1997-8, reports that with the outbreak of World War Two, the Home Journal urged him to develop a spinning wheel so that women could make yarn to knit warm socks etc for soldiers. Thus was launched the original series of Ashford wheels.
According to the Ashford website, Walter designed his first spinning wheel in 1938. However, it does not appear in the advertisements till February 1942, when a double drive wheel like the one at left is announced, with a two page spread and the headline "Meets a National Need; 'The Homecraft' Spinning Wheel complete ready to assemble for 58/-". Some of these very first Ashfords have a wooden orifice, evidence of resourcefulness at a time when metal must have been in short supply.
This design seems only to have been produced for a couple of months: in April 1942 the headline is "Announcing an improved Spindle and Flyer for the "Homecraft" Spinning Wheel." The design is now of the "Picardy" style, with the whorl between the maidens and the flyer and bobbin on an extension of the spindle in front of the front maiden. There is a corkscrew instead of an orifice, as in John Moore's wheels which were being made at this time. However, Moore's are double drive wheels whereas this has scotch tension, a more usual system on Picardy wheels.
By now, the advertisement proclaims, more than 150 "Homecraft" wheels had been sold.
But further change was on the way. The forerunner of the now well-known "Ashford flyer" is announced in January of the following year. The flyer and bobbin once again revolve between leather bearings, but the whorl is now shown as part of the flyer, at the end nearest the spinner. Richard Ashford credits his grandfather Dudley Ashford with having a hand in this invention (in The World of Coloured Sheep p.201) and it has certainly stood the test of time.
The sketches above (from the advertisements in the New Zealand Home Journal) illustrate the evolution of the first Ashford wheels, though the name "Ashford" does not appear.
However, one of the earliest, double-drive wheels has been seen with an Ashford Handicraft label (left) so the fledgling company was using its own name on some of its wheels from their beginning.
By at least 1943 "The Ashford Spinning Wheel" was also being advertised in the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture (right). It is interesting that this advertisement shows a higher price (63/-) than those in the NZ Home Journal, but it includes 4 bobbins whereas the Home Journal price covers only one and extras had to be ordered for 2/6d each.
The July 1942 NZ Home Journal advertisement points out "No coupons for home spinning... Don't allow yourselves to be depressed by the number of coupons required for the purchase of wool..." This was a time of shortages and strict rationing. In June 1943 the opening line is "If you are not one of the 1500 owners of a "Homecraft" spinning wheel..." and the 1943 NZ Journal of Agriculture advertisement claims that over 3000 were in use. Clearly these wheels played their part in the war effort.
After the war ended in 1945, enthusiasm for spinning waned: no longer was it a patriotic duty to knit for the troops. Richard Ashford writes that his father was left with "a storeroom of wheels which had to be discounted at the end of the War." The kitset business seems to have been still going strong but spinning wheels feature less and less in the advertisements and appear for the last time in May 1948. Presumably the storeroom was now cleared and Walter Ashford had no interest in making any more.
In 1965, with a revival of interest in cottage crafts and natural materials, he was persuaded to return to making spinning wheels. He did the thing properly, improving design and production methods, and soon had an efficient factory in Ashburton. The now ubiquitous Traditional is a direct descendant of those 1940s wheels, though it has undergone changes over the years since, which are detailed on the Ashford website.
The first Traveller appeared in 1977, and was in due course followed by the Scholar (now superseded by the Kiwi) and the other Ashfords we are familiar with today, including the Elizabeth. Ashford also made some Peacocks under licence for Eric Simon and a few Rappard wheels after John Rappard retired. But it is with their own designs that they have become probably the best-known maker of spinning wheels in the world today.
The current models can be seen on the Ashford website.
I am grateful to Elizabeth Ashford for help with this page, and for the photograph of Walter Ashford; also to the Alexander Turnbull Library where issues of the New Zealand Home Journal can be seen on microfilm.