Have you ever wondered why the spinning wheel is in the Heritage Room? What is its significance to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth?
The most logical explanation is that the pioneer sisters used the spinning wheel to process cotton, flax, or wool into yarn for the production of cloth to be used by the community or sold. After all, that’s what the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth did on the Kentucky frontier in the early 19th century.
However, that explanation does not fit the facts. We know that the great spinning wheel came from the family home of Mother Mary Peter Dwyer. Mother Mary Peter did not enter the community until 1871, thirteen years after the arrival of the pioneer sisters. There is no indication that the wheel was part of her dowry or a contribution to the material needs of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth when she joined the community.
Also, when the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth came to the Kansas Territory in 1858, they arrived amidst a wave of white settlers eager to purchase the supplies required to equip a homestead. Ships like the infamous Steamboat Arabia carried supplies up the Missouri River to stock general stores in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. Among the goods carried were bolts of fabric produced in the Eastern textile mills.
Finally, Sister Mary Buckner’s 1898 History of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth instructs us that some sisters wore calico habits.  There is no mention of homespun habits, which would have been as anomalous as calico ones. Calico, an inexpensive printed cotton fabric, was industrially produced and widely purchased in 19th century America. In fact, producing cloth on a wheel and loom would have been prohibitively time-consuming in an era in which industrially-produced cloth was so abundant.
So why did the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth own a spinning wheel?
The answer, I believe, may be found in this photograph from the community archives:
To interpret it correctly, then, we must view the Heritage Room’s great spinning wheel as a remnant of a teaching mission rather than an outdated means of production. It is a symbol of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s enduring commitment to women’s education.
 The Arabia Steamboat Museum. http://1856.com/arabias-story/the-arabia-museum/ (accessed February 17, 2017).
 Mary Buckner, History of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Hudson-Kimberly, 1898), 207.
 “Calico,” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016) EBSCOhost (accessed February 17, 2017).
 “Living Picture [tableau vivant]” in Banham, Martin, ed., The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 647. New Orleans Tableau Vivant Society, “History of Tableaux.” http://www.notableauvivant.com/about/ (accessed February 17, 2017).