A wheel is usually a faster method of producing yarn than a spindle, and is a more stationary tool. Obtaining a wheel (at least new from the manufacturer) is also more of an investment. If you’re going to invest in a wheel, it’s important to pick the right wheel for you and your space.
It’s worth trying out a wheel or type of wheel before you decide - they can be a large purchase, and it’s important that you are comfortable using your wheel. Some spinners find that particular arrangements are kinder to their bodies (spinners with repetitive stress injuries or chronic illnesses, take note!) or to their preferred techniques (better for left or right handed use, or for switching, for instance).
They might feel strongly that the aesthetics of the wheel is important to them - this is a tool you may be spending a lot of time with, and it is, essentially, a piece of furniture! Esthetics are important, too!
If there’s a spinning guild near you, check if they have a library of wheels and tools members can borrow or rent to try them out - it’s a very reasonable way to experience a range of different kinds of equipment. If you can find some spinners in your area, many will be glad to let you try their wheel at a meetup once you get to know them (maybe not in the middle of a spinning project!) If you can visit a fiber festival or fiber shop that deals in wheels, they will often let you try out a demo wheel in the shop or booth for a few minutes to see how it fits you.
To help understand the parts of the genertic spinning wheel, here’s a few general diagrams of spinning wheels and their parts.
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Wheel Styles and Types
Since this is a beginner session, we won’t be covering ‘spindle wheels’ like the Great Wheel or charkhas - that’s a more advanced topic, would make this muuuuch longer, and, at some point, you’ll want to go find some snacks!
But here are some different common types and arrangements of wheel you may encounter.
Castle or Saxony Style Wheel?
On a castle wheel the drive wheel is situated directly behind (or in front of depending on how you look at it) the treadle(s). The orifice is in front of your body and you feed your yarn in front of your body/sitting position.
A Saxony wheel has the drive wheel to the side of your flyer/bobbin/orifice setup. You may sit and treadle at a slight angle. The orifice will be to one side (left or right, and not all wheels can swap between flyer positions) and you feed your yarn in from the side. At my (owenj) Saxony wheel I draft across my body, whereas at the castle wheel it’s pretty much straight front to back.
Single or Double Treadle?
Wheels can come in single or double treadle options. I’ve only ever spun on double treadle wheels, and both of mine treadle so lightly that it’s possible to treadle using only one foot but that isn’t the case for all wheels. There’s no right or wrong here--it’s all personal preference!
Something to consider when looking at wheels is the drive system. Some wheels are only able to spin using one drive system, usually Scotch tension, also called Flyer-led. The drive band moves the whorl, which is attached to the flyer. As you treadle, the flyer moves but a brake band over your bobbin keeps your bobbin moving slower. The take up, or speed (and feel) with which the yarn is fed onto the bobbin is very adjustable in Scotch tension.
Irish tension or Bobbin-led is the opposite, where the drive band moves your bobbin while the brake band is on your flyer. Irish tension is known for having an aggressive take up and some spinners enjoy this system for plying or spinning art yarn.
Double Drive: no brake. A single continuous piece of string acts as your drive band and goes over both the flyer and bobbin and moves them at different speeds. The take up in Double Drive is generally much lighter and lends itself well to fine spinning.
Some wheels are able to switch between all three drive systems.
Other considerations when looking at wheels:
Aesthetics. The #1 “complaint” seen about the Ladybug is that people don’t like the red plastic wheel. Completely valid! If your heart is set on a traditional-looking wooden wheel then neither the Ladybug nor Flatiron is a good choice. There are tons of wheel makers (including Schacht) who make entirely wooden wheels.
Weight. A plus side of those light, plastic drive wheels is that they can weigh considerably less than their wooden siblings. Usually in order to match weights to a plastic drive wheel a wooden wheel has to scale down its size. If space is a consideration for you and you’ll be needing to pick up and put away your wheel often, a lighter weight, easy to pick up wheel will save your back. Also something to consider if you think you’ll want to travel with your wheel. Travel method will affect just how “travel-friendly” you’ll need your wheel to be. Several brands make folding wheels that can pack into a suitcase.
Drive Wheel Size. I don’t know all of the technical specifics to speak confidently on drive wheel size, but bigger wheels can generate twist faster than smaller ones. You can affect how fast your wheel spins by how quickly you treadle, but if you find you have a natural treadle cadence and like to stick to it, factoring in your drive wheel size can speed up your spinning.
Price. With the understanding that a wheel is generally a larger investment than a (or several) spindle, there’s a wheel out there for every budget.
An e-spinner is an alternate method of getting twist into fiber. Rather than the spinner moving the flier by pumping treadles (or flicking with fingers or rolling a spindle), an electric motor spins the flyer.
They have speed control, either a smooth adjustment on a dial or foot pedal, or a hard jump between settings, and otherwise work much like an electrically-driven flier assembly from a wheel, including tension adjustment.
They will (often) run off either a battery pack or a power outlet.
Neither of us have extensive personal experience with e-spinners, but they are worth a look for many people!
They are usually smaller than a toaster oven - important for those whose physical space is at a premium. They’re relatively portable (they may or may not be something you can carry on a plane, so be warned, but they’re light enough and small enough for most people to lift and carry with ease). If you have issues with leg movement, body position, or repetitive stress injury, an e-spinner permits more flexibility in spinning position than a wheel, and no leg effort is required.
They do tend to be fairly expensive, and, where it is usually possible to find a second-hand wheel if you are patient, there are not as many e-spinners out there ,and the secondary market is not as developed - you’ll likely have to buy new.
But if you have problems with ankle or knee joints, or you want to spin as you circumnavigate the world on your sailboat or in a tiny house? An e-spinner may be your best friend!
Useful Spinning Accessories
Spinning gauge/control card, WPI (Wraps Per Inch) tool
This group of tools are all measuring tools, used to quantify your yarn: The main question they’re answering is ‘how thick is it?’.
These tools are used to help you keep your yarn consistent while you’re spinning. You would use the tools to find information about a sample - like a gauge swatch for spinning - and then make sure your whole batch stays the same as you work over an extended period.
You might use them to try and spin yarn similar to a commercial yarn, to substitute in a pattern. Or you could spin as the spirit moved you, and measure afterwards to find out what you had, so you could classify it in your stash, and pick an appropriate pattern.
The number we are looking for with all of these tools is the ‘WPI’, or ‘wraps per inch’. That’s an indicator of how many wraps of the yarn will fit snugly - but not too snugly - around a section of dowel an inch long.
A control card (Bottom row, center and right) is a card, opaque or transparent, showing lines of various thicknesses. To use the control card you lay your single over the lines to find the one that corresponds to its thickness. The number next to the matching line gives you the WPI. (This can also be used for a plied yarn).
A WPI tool has you wind your single (or plied yarn) around the tool. If the provided space is exactly an inch long, you count the wraps for WPI. If the space is smaller or larger, you divide/multiply appropriately (depending on the length). Why would you wrap more than an inch? For a more accurate sample! Why would I wrap less than an inch, then? Because you may want a measurement with less available yarn!
So does the WPI correspond to my finished yarn weight? (DK, fingering, etc?)
Well… sort of. When you finish the yarn (we’ll discuss that later on in the course) - soak it in water, for instance - it’s going to change, and that WPI will shift! It’s that plied, finished WPI you’re really concerned about for determining a finished yarn weight. Some yarns change a LOT in finishing.
Soooo…. Why on earth am I measuring as I spin, then?
If the beginning of your skein is fingering, you don’t always want the end of the skein to be worsted, right? Imagine if you’re spinning enough for a sweater, and it’s taking you a month (or three). You might vary a lot, and that’ll make knitting a sweater that fits pretty tough. So you make sure the yarn you’re spinning matches your sample all the way along! (I want the fresh singles to look like this, and the unfinished plied yarn to look like this, and the plied yarn to look like that!) so every skein is similar.
When you are doing a project where this is important to you - or when you are curious about how the singles you’re getting are going to relate to the final finished yarn, for the sake of learning, you measure as you go. Sometimes you don’t really care, as long as you get yarn when you’re done! That’s great! And some spinners - especially those with a lot of experience who tend to use the same spinning tool all the time, can become very consistent without checking. It’s up to you, and to your needs!
The WPI for specific yarn weights is more a range than a specific number. You can do a quick internet search, or you can check on Ravelry when adding a new Spinning project under Handspun! Different sources may give slightly different ranges of WPI for different yarn weights. Partly this is because yarn weight is ultimately about gauge, not diameter - and handspun knits up differently than commercial yarns of similar diameter, and people have different preferences for the knitting gauges of their handspun… and different handspun characteristics! (And organizations take different yarns as baselines.)
Niddy-noddy, Skein-winder, Lazy Kate
These are all tools for managing your yarn after spinning or between spinning and plying.
You definitely don’t need any of these tools in order to start spinning. But! They can make parts of the process easier/more convenient. A niddy noddy is used to wind your yarn off into a skein and if using a uniform tool made to a specific length/dimensions (like the Kromski one pictured above, right) then it can measure how many yards your skein is. However, all sorts of things can stand in for a niddy noddy--the back of a chair, someone else holding their arms out for you to wrap around, or even your own arm.
The same can be said for lazy kates. Some wheels come with or have the ability to add an on-board lazy kate (the Schacht Ladybug pictured above in the wheel section has an on-board kate). Others stand alone, and they come in several configurations and tensioned/untensioned. You can also make a simple lazy kate by punching a few holes in a shoebox and sliding chopsticks, dowels, or long single-pointed needles through. You place your bobbin or whatever method you’re using to hold the cop from your spindle (sliding off onto straws, toilet paper cores, and other bobbins are all common) onto the rod in the kate.
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