Debates: Wheel vs. Spindle

Here we go with round one of my series tackling some of the classic debates in the handspinning arena. A few of you laughingly commented this might be an odd choice of timing to go picking fights, what with absurd heat waves going around and how that affects temperaments — but then again, perhaps a little productive debate serves as a constructive outlet, eh?

In emailing with folks a bit following last week’s On Opinions and Disagreement, one of the things I found myself talking about was, “Why?” Why get into the arguments at all? And you know, it comes down to something Deborah Robson said in her comment:

Abby, at the first SOAR I attended (not “participated in,” I’ve never done that) just after I became editor of Spin-Off I was given the job of moderating a panel “discussion” on woolen and worsted.

I am a profound introvert (occasional appearances to the contrary) with an entrenched ability to see most sides of nearly any question (may have been my saving quality).

The panel consisted of between six and eight of the most knowledgeable and opinionated handspinners the English-speaking world has ever produced.

Let’s just say (1) I was still standing at the end of the evening (miracle) and (2) there were no definitive answers, although there were a *lot* of opinions expressed and most of the folks in the room (which was packed) thought a lot about yarn while the conversation(s) went on. Whew.

So: Are you going to add “woolen/worsted” to your list of topics?

At some levels, it’s quite straightforward. . . .

That’s exactly it. Even when you sit down a panel of undisputed experts and ask questions that seem straightforward, odds are you won’t come away with definitive and absolute answers; and experts won’t always agree (in fact, they might argue heatedly). But if we listen, and argue, and are invested in the discourse, then odds are we’ll walk away from it all with lots of food for thought, and perspectives we hadn’t considered before.

I told Deb that part of why I want to do this series is to point out that when you go looking for good, solid information, the sources you find don’t have to agree with each other in order to be authoritative. Like Perl programmers always say, TMTOWTDI. Er, excuse me, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

And yes, Deb, I do plan to cover woolen vs. worsted in this series!

Right, then — moving along. One of the questions that newer spinners often ask — and it tends to start debates and sometimes ruffle feathers — is “What’s better, a wheel or a spindle?” Or sometimes, it starts out simply enough with someone stating an assumed perspective such as “I’ve gotten a spindle, and am starting to learn, and I can’t wait till I’m skilled enough to move up to a wheel.” Then someone says “You aren’t required to get a wheel! It’s not necessarily moving up!” and someone else says “Well, since I got my wheel, I sure haven’t spun on spindles,” and the debate is on.

So let me tell you about my own preferences.

I started out with a spindle. A low whorl spindle, fairly clunky and imperfectly balanced, I suppose. I’d guess it must have weighed in around 1.5-2 ounces (or, say, 45-60 grams). The spindle consisted of a fairly straight, smooth-whittled eucalyptus stick (fairly round), and a wooden whorl that had been carved by hand. This was a typical spindle to give to a child, but also a pretty typical spindle for an adult to use. Children and adults alike, once accomplished spinners, would use these spindles for production work.

Now, this isn’t to say that some weren’t better than others, or nobody had favourites, or anything like that. Of course that kind of thing happens — some tools just seem to be better or more comfortable than others, and then too, with use and wear, many tools break in and get better at being tools.

So, too, do spinners. I think this is a key thing in the wheel vs. spindle debate, one we’ll come back to shortly. Well, insofar as “shortly” is something we can ever say about my writing, eh? But seriously, what made it possible — makes it possible — for Andean spinners like the ones from whom I learned to produce fine, spindle-spun high-twist warp yarns in quantity, at the rate they do in the Andes, using only the humblest of tools? The answer is practice. Just as the spindles break in, so do the spinners. It becomes reflex, instinctive. That doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen — though, perhaps, in years rather than weeks or months.

Indeed, it took me about three years, or three years and change, to reach the point of being an adequate spinner. I started shortly after turning five years old, and it was the year I was eight when people in the Andes first deemed my spinning acceptable in quality, if slowly produced. It was later that same year, back in the USA, when I encountered my first spinning wheels. One was a Shaker-made great wheel that my parents had found who-knows-where, which still resides in my mother’s house and which I covet. The others were wheels that I tried out during the time when my parents were demonstrating Andean weaving at the Sunapee Craft Fair, which our family attended routinely for such purposes for a number of years.

Having finally been deemed a near-adequate spinner by Andean standards, my reaction to the flyer wheel was one of scorn. Its usefulness in producing yarn that qualified as good yarn by Andean weaver standards was almost nonexistent (certainly for such examples as I tried then, which were older Ashfords and Louets, none of them fast wheels). The people spinning, as well, were spinning thick, floppy yarn (often thick and thin) — yarn which my Andean teachers would never have accepted as functional. In a classic display of 8-year-old arrogance, I concluded that the only real purpose for flyer wheels was to make it possible for people who couldn’t really spin to produce any yarn at all — and certainly, no real spinner would stoop to doing it mechanically like that.

The great wheel, on the other hand… ah yes, the great wheel. Spinning with it was hard, for one thing. It was a kind of spinning I just didn’t know how to do yet — you only had one hand to do all the fiber wranging, and the other was used turning the drive wheel. In short order, I came to absolutely love plying on it; in no small part because my parents had started teaching workshops in Andean weaving, but no millspun yarn could readily be found that stood up to the wear and tear of warp-faced weaving where the warp is a structural element in the loom itself. As a result, my parents purchased millspun coned weaving yarns, and added plying twist to them to make them wear better for those classes. This was tedious for certain — and a great opportunity to put a willing kid to work with an incredibly fast means of twist insertion.

By the time I was 10, I had learned to use hand cards, produce rolags, and spin long draw woolen yarns. I did enjoy that, but the problem was that I couldn’t use those yarns for Andean weaving, absolutely my fiber art of choice. The woolens made great weft (but who cares, if you want to weave warp-faced fabric?) and knitting yarn (but knitting is boooooooooring!) so again, I mostly stuck with spindles, which I viably could use to produce the yarns I wanted to use.

Indeed, it wasn’t until my late 20s when I decided that I wanted to spin “gringo yarn” for crochet and, later, knitting. When I did, reluctantly at first, I eventually concluded that I was going to need a spinning wheel to do it, if nothing else because I’d spent decades with my spindles producing yarn for Andean weaving. I needed a small flyer wheel too, because space was at a premium in my life then, and I ended up with one of those very Ashfords that I’d scorned all those years ago. There I was, working on spinning thick, loose, low-twist, floppy yarn on purpose. I never would have imagined it possible when I was a kid, but it was true.

Then, I set out to try to spin Andean weaving yarn to my satisfaction with a flyer wheel. UGH! What an exercise in futility and boredom — yet it was a trifle to do with a spindle. I felt like I simply couldn’t do it fast enough. And in the long run, you know what? The truth is that I spin Andean weaving yarn faster with a low whorl spindle than anything else. That simplest of tools is truly the best one for the job.

The thing is, it might not be the best tool for the job for everyone. I’m not an objective judge; I have the experience of being trained from early childhood to produce that yarn in that way. While I learned other spinning methods and so forth as a child as well, they’re not what I was steeped in. I’ve got a level of expertise with the Andean spinning that I will most likely never achieve with any other kind of spinning.

Trying hard to be as objective as possible, though, one thing I can definitely say is that being a hard-core production spinner with a spindle requires more of someone than producing that volume with a wheel. There is a longer learning curve. Once you commit to it, and once you achieve the comfort level the tool requires to be used in a production capacity, you can do tremendous things with it, and indeed, even outperform more technologically advanced tools in many cases. But the more technologically advanced tool will allow you to reach higher production levels more quickly, with less time invested in training.

In watching some one of those many history channel type shows, one time I saw one that was talking about weapons development, and the English longbowman. These were dudes who were trained for lifetimes to be able to deliver a deadly sustained rate of fire on a battlefield. They were terrifying, and extremely valuable because of the time involved in training one up. But then the firearm entered the world, and the same sustained rate of deadliness could be brought to a battlefield by someone *without* a lifetime of training. Suddenly, the same level of deadliness was available to people who were investing money in firearms rather than time and related resources in training for the longbow. Instead of that military force being something you could only get through lifelong training programs, it was now something you could get thanks to machinery.

Exactly the same thing is true for textile production. In the Andean town where I spent so much of my childhood, tremendous levels of productivity were achieved thanks to training up from childhood on, and everybody being involved in it. In the more modernized world, however, the need to produce textiles is solved more by mechanization than by lifelong training.

Let’s take a side trip for a moment, and consider too the John Henry story — no matter how good he was at driving spikes, he couldn’t beat the railroad-laying machine. Then, too, Paul Bunyan was defeated by a machine in the end. The same holds true for textile production: no human, no matter how amazingly skilled, can beat the mill in the end.

The implications of these historical events and these folk tales is worth pondering. Is it in fact the case that a peasant with a gun does exactly what a longbowman does? Are tracks laid by John Henry indistinguishable from those laid with a rail-building machine? Can we detect any difference between Paul Bunyan’s logs and the logs cut by a logging machine? I would say that some people can, and some people can’t.

For some, there’s clearly an art to the longbow that’s different from, and unrelated to, simply putting firepower on a battlefield. There’s a mythos to the figures of John Henry and Paul Bunyan that speaks to people — an allure in the capabilities of humans who seem larger than life because they can perform amazing feats. And so in some cases we glamourize the longbowman, mourn the defeat of John Henry or Paul Bunyan — even as we avail ourselves of the advantages of greater speed, availability, and lower cost. Eventually, we mourn the loss of whatever it was that we might have learned from these archetypal figures — but we don’t stop to think, what did it take to defeat the longbowman, the John Henry or Paul Bunyan? It required that we create machines to do so, because the capabilities of these highly-skilled humans was such that their accomplishments seemed impossible.

The spinning wheel is a machine. It is one of the machines upon which civilization is built. And mechanization isn’t bad; it’s essential to our lives and those of our forebears going back aeons. Machines are invented, by and large, to do things that people do and do them faster and cheaper, or to do things people can envision doing, but can’t quite.

The spindle, on the other hand, is a simple tool. It is a hammer, a straight saw, a chisel, a source of heat, a pot or pan, a knife, a pen. Where the spinning wheel is a printing press, a spindle is a pen. Both require skill and training to operate… and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other, and that goes both ways.

My son sometimes contends that there is no reason to write longhand, given computers and typing, which are faster. Some say there’s no reason to memorize multiplication tables if you have calculators (or, heck, the table itself written out to refer to). Most of us would reflexively disagree, though, and say “Sure there is!” And much of that, I believe, is because we’ve memorized our multiplication tables, learned to write longhand, and the skills are second nature. But will they be generations from now?

Consider: if one has not spent a lifetime writing longhand, one has not developed the skills in it of a person who has. Someone who has spent that lifetime possesses a facility with the tools of paper and pen which can’t be matched by someone who’s spent little time with it. For that person — like my son — typing is just faster and writing doesn’t seem worth it. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe the thing I find magical about putting pen to paper and making marks is really… nothing, or nothing universal.

If we were to look carefully at children now, we would likely find that many of them can’t tie their shoes — something that people in their 30s and older would assume is an essential skill. But in this era of high-tech fasteners like velcro, is it really? It isn’t, if you never get shoes that must be tied.

But now let’s go back over all of these examples. While the first gun-armed troops to take the field may have been less skilled, less trained than a longbowman, now, there are skills and arts and highly refined practices that go with firearms, too, and people who spend lifetimes perfecting those. There are things achieved because railroads could be laid, or lumber could be brought in, faster, safer. There are things written and published thanks to typing, which never would have been if written longhand. So it’s not like these technologies are bad. They just do things a little different, and what we get from them is a little different, and in general, the technological approach appeals to most humans — at the very same time as there is a romance to thinking about the humans who have so excelled at what they did that the only way to outdo them was by building machines.

The down side to mechanization is that we do lose a little, sometimes. Where, now, are the longbowmen, the superhuman railroad-layers and loggers, the illuminators of manuscripts? They’re gone; and with them, perhaps, the facility with a bow, hammer, saw, or pen that those folks must have possessed to do what they did.

If they aren’t gone, they’re few in number. Certainly this is true for those who can do production work with spindles — and that’s part of why I think we now believe, and accept so readily, that wheels just are faster. It’s true that they are, for some things. But not for all. However, most of us never have the chance to develop the real spindle speed that made spindles so ubiquitous a tool for most of human history. We tend to move on quickly to things that get us results faster, and perhaps not explore the results we never really knew were possible with the simple tool.

For this reason, I do urge spinners not to simply eschew the spindle altogether, and not to view it as only a low-cost starter tool that will help you to decide if you want to do this enough to spend the money on a wheel. Spinning on a wheel and spinning on a spindle are the same, and not. They are related, and they’re totally different.

Lately, truth be told, I do more spinning while sitting around; and I do more knitting than anything else. So I’m spinning more on wheels than I am on spindes. But I never leave the house without my bag that carries, among other things, a spindle and some fiber. Spinning on the go is easy for me, being a skill I learned in early childhood. I can do it while I’m doing almost anything else. It’s more portable, more forgiving, than knitting projects (though maybe if I ever knitted anything that wasn’t lace…) and spinning on the go is really just part of my way of life.

Summing up, if I want to spin very fine or short-stapled fibers, I do it on a spindle. If I want to spin on the go, again, spindle. If I want to spin super high-twist yarn, spindle. If I want knitting yarn, thicker yarn, or to spin while watching TV, then I opt for the wheel.

And lastly, don’t assume — like I did, about flyer wheels as a child — that a tool you scorn or dislike now will never be one that you find useful. It may take decades for perspectives and wants and needs to shift, but they can; and being open to that can be very rewarding.

33 thoughts on “Debates: Wheel vs. Spindle

  1. I so enjoyed this post…Part of me wishes I had a wheel, but part of me is afraid of them simply because they are machines…machines have moving parts, they can break, they must be understood. Most of my experiences with machines in the past have been mediocre at best.

    Whereas….I love my spindles, and they never give me any trouble. They are not only tools, they are lovely handmade tools, art in themselves. I am not fully satisfied with the product I get or the speed at which I get it, but who is to say that I will not progress with faithful practice? I think that I will stick with spindles for the time being, and wait to get a wheel until I can afford one that is made with as much care as my spindles are.

    Thanks for helping me come to terms with what I already knew in my heart….I may use a wheel someday, but I am a spindle gal.

  2. Thanks for the great artical Abby. Your writing is always very insightful, and enjoyable. My self I like both the spindle and the wheel, my spinning experience has been limited only to the past two years, but I feel that I have learned alot in that time. I started out with a spindle since I knew I could not afford a wheel and spun on the spindle only for the first year and then last year I got my older Ashford Trad. and I am finding i spend equal amounts of time on both. At work and out I use my spindles, and at home in the evening I use my wheel.

  3. I love all of your articles, and this one is no exception. I learned to spin in November 2006, so I’m still a baby spinner, and I hope to be learning from other spinners and from the wool itself for the rest of my life. I learned on a spindle, and my hands seemed to know instinctively what to do – by the end of the afternoon, I was spinning consistent singles and the spindle had stopped its constant dropping. 😉

    I got to know my spindle well over the winter, and even after borrowing the guild’s wheel in January, continued to practice with the spindle. I learned wheel-spinning very quickly, which I attributed to the good tutoring I’d received on the spindle. Drafting by then was familiar and comfortable, and I was able to focus on the intake and treadling without fretting over the drafting. Got my own Schacht Matchless wheel in May and have been exploring its capabilities.

    So I’m glad I learned on the spindle first, though I do spin more often on the wheel. Like you said, I mostly sit when I spin, so the wheel is more convenient. I still take a spindle with me when I travel, and often take it to work (at a preschool – I love to show the children and their parents how yarn has been made for thousands of years).

    Wheel, spindle – apples, oranges. Both so very sweet.

  4. When I was a brand new knitter in a brand new city I sought out the closest yarn shop that happened to be Mind’s Eye. Being a Midwestern gal, I wanted to have an adventure on the T and that was the first stop that I could manage by myself.

    When I walked in I spotted the wheels. Actually a Schacht Matchless first and I knew – just knew in my heart that I would spin. I was meant to spin. I bought my yarn, asked a few questions and went on my way.

    The thought festered and festered and I researched and researched settling on a Joy because that fit in the closet of the untra tiny home at the time and went back to learn and buy one.

    We started with a few minutes on the spindle, but I could get it. That didn’t discourage me though, I knew I was after a wheel… and I said let’s work on the Joy.

    I bought her then and there and hauled her back on the T. To this day I love her, but a year later I added the Schacht Matchless and recently a Lendrum. I love them all and won’t part with them.

    Finally though I met a friend with an affinity for spindles and I love their delicateness and fine woods. They really are a work of art. While I don’t know how much I will spin on them in the future, I do now have a little collection of those going as well.

  5. I love wheel spinning – the steady rhythm is like a meditation mantra to me. I can spin fairly fine worsted singles on it (the weight of a coarse sewing thread) out of jacob fleece or similar (I’ve never tried a finer fleece as I’m still firmly in the novice camp and utterly broke), or bulky up to the size of the orifice. Plying is a dream too: my foot treadles, and my hands can concentrate on chaining and feed. Spindling, on the other hand! I get horribly flustered and usually end up hitting myself with the spindle somewhere. I have the greatest admiration for anyone who can produce anything that holds together on one, and I wish I could. I think some people (as someone suggested earlier) find it easier to coordinate hands and feet, and others can do several processes with their hands simultaneously more easily – hence the frequent inability to get the other side’s point. Aby is very lucky that she can do both!

  6. I was following links on Raverly, which brought me to your site.

    I recently bought my first spindle on an outing in Portland, OR (a simple Louet top whorl) and I have a hard time putting it down. It’s like a little piece of me now, and while my yarn isn’t the most perfect yarn I could spin, it’s really endearing to me to be able to spin it at all.

    I think the point you made about technology antiquating artforms was incredibly moving. I have only a passing interest in the spinning wheel, though I was one of those people who mistakenly thought, at first, that it was somehow superior to using a spindle. For instance, I’d only recently discovered the absolute wonder of watching Andean women spinning–it’s magical to see in video and photo form (and there’s a book coming soon, but I’m sure you’ve heard of it at this point). I would have felt blessed to grow up learning and perfecting this. But for now it’s just me and my spindle, doing things the old old-fashioned way. And I am totally loving it.

    Thank you for writing about your wealth of knowledge and opinions on spinning. For someone who is going it alone, this is completely invaluable.

  7. This post was fascinating. My spinning education was (and honestly, still is) very motley and scattered, and no one ever taught me how to spin on a spindle well when I was beginning. I hated my spindle and I couldn’t figure it out myself. But for some reason, I was still convinced that I wanted to learn how to spin.

    I asked for a wheel for my 18th birthday and I think everyone was a little shocked – How can you be asking for a wheel? You don’t know how to spin on a spindle yet! You don’t even know if you like spinning!

    I got my wheel and there was the initial period where it was HARD and it DIDN’T WORK but I was determined and it finally clicked. Now I wonder, learning to spin on a wheel wasn’t any easier than learning to spin on the spindle. Why was I willing to try so hard to learn to spin on the wheel but wasn’t willing to work at the spindle? I think it comes down to the idea of spindles being a “beginner” tool. I didn’t feel like I had to be good at or enjoy spindling because I would just move up to a wheel anyway.

    I learned how to spindle last summer from a vendor at a local farmers’ market, and I liked it, but now it’s become a question of how I fit spindling in my life. I don’t know how to introduce the humble spindle into a spinning “career” that already includes a fantastic wheel. This post has made me realize that a spindle doesn’t have to be compared to a wheel, that it’s a skill worth learning simply for the joy of understanding a new art.

Comments are closed.