Choosing a spinning wheel
There are many types of spinning wheels, and the beginner is often
totally confused about how the different types differ, or their very existence.
We recommend spinning for a while, trying as many different types
as possible, before making a decision. It helps if you can
decide what kind of spinning you like to do before even looking:
do you want to make large amounts of fairly thick knitting yarn?
are you attracted mostly to spinning fine cashmere? is portability
important to you? Specs are often missing, vague, or downright misleading,
so direct experience is important. Types are more generally talked about
in terms of furniture style rather than mechanics. Wheels are like musical instruments in
that every one is slightly different, even the same model from the same maker, so
trying the exact one you'll buy is helpful. And finally, ergonomic factors
matter a lot but are almost never mentioned.
This was the first. It's the simplest mechanically, so also the sturdiest,
and the easiest to adjust and repair. The drive band goes directly to the bobbin.
Works by pulling a bit by definition, so not ideal for very fine and short fiber.
But generally excellent production wheels, very efficient.
Main adjustment is the front tension brake, which can be taken off entirely if you need.
Oil generously to reduce pull. Most spinners who have prejudices against them
have tried them in the 70s, when fashion dictated oil-free spinning.
Single-drive (aka Scotch tension)
There are 2 bands: the main drive band goes from the wheel to the flyer, and
a separate one goes over the bobbin itself (usually with a spring or elastic for give).
Most versatile, best control, allows to completely dissociate twist from pull
(kind of like stick shift vs automatic transmission).
Much easier to adjust, great for more complex yarns or more fragile ones.
Loosen everything completely, gradually introduce twist to a minimal amount,
then gently add scotch tension.
Continue tightening scotch tension only as you fill the bobbin.
Most fashionable at the moment, in almost all modern wheels.
First designed by Michelangelo, spread in 16th century from Germany.
One big figure-8 loop goes over both the flyer and the bobbin.
Very delicate to adjust, can be maddening.
Only one adjustment for both twist and pull, there may not be a perfect spot.
As efficient as single drive although people mistakenly think that it's better
because you can keep it in one place better (ie no adjustment as bobbin fills).
Much less efficient than bobbin-led, however it has no intrinsic pull
so can do short fine fibers better.
Loosen till wheel doesn't turn.
Gradually introduce tension till wheel starts to turns,
then add tension minimally so there's just enough pull to get yarn onto the bobbin.
Specialized Indian portable wheels,
only work for cotton or similar short fine fibers like cashmere.
You can only do long draw.
Often comes in book form, folds up into a small self-contained box.
Indian ones are erratic, you must try the very one you buy.
Recent Bosworths are jewels of precision engineering.
Antiques mosty (except for Rio Grande), designed for production wool spinning.
No orifice, just a spindle. Very fast, long draw only,
huge ratios, will rip the stuff out of your hands.
Not much scope for anything else.
Watch out for antique wheels in general,
many of them are optimized for flax (thin and hard yarn)
so you'll have trouble making knitting yarn on them.
Most are Saxony style, but not all.
Small parts that matter
Fashion is to double treadle now.
People think it allows for more even spinning, which is only true if you're
treadling in a very jerky way, which you should correct anyway.
But it requires both feet to work,
which is not always best, and they must work opposite each other.
Almost every modern single-treadle wheel has a double-treadle conversion kit available,
if you're set on it.
Single treadles can be designed for a single foot, generally in Saxony models.
Some brands have a central treadle so you can switch foot,
or a large treadle so you can use both or either (older Schacht, Louet).
Unless you're very one-sided or set in your habits, those are great from an ergo standpoint,
and will keep you spinning through injuries.
Hand-free control of wheel comes not from a double treadle,
but from an axle positioned so the heel can be used ( a couple inches into the treadle
rather than right at the edge). This also tends to prevent the wheel scooting
around the floor. Ashfords is bad at this,
most other modern wheels are fine.
All modern wheels have dizzying numbers of possible ratios.
As in bike gears, more can be just too much, but a good range is helpful.
Generally, you can go from 5:1 for bulky to 30:1 for very fine.
Wheels vary greatly in ease of adjustment.
If you tend to one kind of spinning, make sure your wheel does that range well
and has plenty of ratios available in that range, without too much overlap.
Too small bobbins can be maddening for medium yarn and up.
Too large ones are a no-no for very fine yarns.
Check out how hard it is to swap bobbins (Schacht), and whether your manufacturer
has a huge array of options to confuse dealers (Louet). Prices vary from $5 to $60,
some break easily (Jensen).
You can wind yarn off onto cardboard storage bobbins to minimize the number you need,
some people recommend that to even twist anyway,
but I recommend at least 4 so you can do 3-ply directly.
Make your own lace bobbin by adding a foam core (or TP tube) to a regular one,
the fatter core reduces friction and evens tension.
The flyer is the mechanical core of the wheel. If it's unbalanced or heavy,
no amount of engineering will make the wheel feel good.
Hooks are also important - they should be smooth and sturdy both.
If you do any fine spinning, you'll benefit enormously from
the most modern arrangement, where hooks are on both sides of the flyer
as before but on a single plane. This allows you to lace the thread
back and forth from one side of the flyer to the other, which
reduces drag a lot and allows you to make much finer yarn than
the rest of the wheel would let you expect otherwise.
If you don't have this on a used wheel, it might be worth upgrading
to a new flyer compatible with the wheel.
Note also whether the size of the hooks matches the size of yarn
you're most likely to do, and the rest of the wheel tends to.
You might need a spindle for bulky novelties.
Traditional bearings would use leather and metal, often brass. This needs quite a bit
of upfront oiling up and practice before becoming smooth, but then
it's great... till the leather wears or dries out and you have to
start all over again. Most 'weight bearing' joints in modern wheels, like
the wheel axle, now
have sealed bearings, which mean they don't have to be oiled every time.
They're well worth getting, as long as you aren't under the horrible delusion that
the wheel then doesn't have to be oiled at all in other places.
Plastic on one side is common but not great, and
double-metal bearings should generally be avoided.
More things to think about
Are you right or left handed? Can your Saxony wheel be assembled either way?
Saxony style became popular when being left-handed was a mortal sin,
liable to get your burned,
and being ambidextrous best concealed.
If you like to switch sides often, is the orifice in the middle?
Switching can be necessary if you develop RSI, or an injury.
How tall are you? Think about orifice height.
Make sure you don't trip over your own knees as you treadle.
Many older wheels are designed for midgets (no offense to grandmas everywhere),
and some modern foldable wheels as well.
Do you have at least one reasonably portable wheel to take to guild meetings or workshops?
It should fit easily in your car at least. If you ever go to SOAR, you'll need
something that can be fit into UPS size requirements without drama (108" total).
Almost everyone now claims their wheel is portable, but knocking them down
can be quite an adventure, even harmful. Also, keep an open mind:
Ashford traditionals for instance are very good for travel even though they
How big is your apartment? Wheels the same visual size can have very different footprints,
and Saxony is always bulkier than castle for instance.
The VW of wheels, from New Zealand - simple, sturdy, adjustable, and always keep going.
In production since the 40s, so everyone knows how to repair them and parts are everywhere.
The most affordable modern wheels, start at $300 new. Traditional but
unfussy look. My one gripe: small bobbins.
If you want more than one kind of spinning, get a Traditional,
which is the most versatile of anything ever made in adjustments and attachments
(lace or jumbo flyers, single or double drive, single or double treadle...).
Not foldable but easy shippable and travels well. Other models don't adjust as much,
although the Traveler can be tempting for a small apartment.
The Country Spinner (aka Indian head) is the main modern wheel available
to make super bulkies. Its only fault is that you can't take the
brake off entirely.
From Canada. A versatile wheel, foldable and light,
with also a range of flyers available from lace to bulky.
Simple modern look, strange forward tilt to it, only double treadle for a long while.
Many people swear by them.
The only modern bobbin-led wheels, from Holland.
The S90 which isn't made any more is the best foldable wheel around.
All the current models have been converted to spin fine, but early models (before 2000?)
are great bulky spinners. You can also easily swap your fine orifice for an earlier,
larger one, and get back some of that early functionality.
Excellent production wheels, most with a woody modern look.
Only one model, a very good one, sturdy and reliable.
Makes everyone spin fine and only fine however. Bit awkward in the bobbin change,
the whole front falls in your lap.
Single or double drive. Shaker-look woodwork from a very good loom maker in Colorado.
Only one model, and the company has been sold several times.
The latest rev seems not quite as sturdy, so aim for a used older one.
Double drive only. Very high-tech look, engineering driven design.
Very good for plying, novelty or bulky, huge hooks and orifice.
Little wheels from New Zealand, using an accelerating setup to get some speed
out of otherwise too small wheels. But still makes me feel kind of like
a hamster on speed. Very portable, ingenious, mostly for fine spinning.
Lovely woodwork from Wisconsin, if you're into turning.
Reprehensible scotch tension setup, use as double drive.
Claims to be knock-down-able, but don't really do it unless you want wobbles to develop.
The Tina II is good, fairly versatile, compact and portable.
All rather fragile and twitchy to adjust though, and accessories are fragile and expensive...
Never drop a bobbin!
Excellent British wheels. Double drive but also very good Scotch tension.
Sturdy, smooth, very good production values, but expensive.
Many models of ingenious design, most simple antique look.
Now retired alas, but still plenty of them around.
First published: 10/22/03
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