Updated as of 8 July 2011, to reflect the latest wheels on the market and latest pricing.
Choosing your first spinning wheel is somewhat like choosing your first car. There’s a level on which it doesn’t really matter exactly what it is, because it’s going to do the trick to get you started, and odds are it’s going to be a little while before you’ve refined your spinning and your ideals for your spinning to a point where you really know what your exact needs are.
In some respects, the best spinning wheel to start out with is one that someone will let you borrow or rent; this is especially true if the person doing the lending is going to be able to spend some time with you in person showing you how it works and getting the ball rolling for you. If you have such an option, it’s an unbeatable first choice. You might be surprised at how readily you can find such an option, too: handweaver’s guilds and sometimes knitting guilds may have loaner wheels, and so may spinning teachers. Shops may do rentals and layaways. Experienced spinners may have extra wheels to lend out as well. At any time, I usually have at least one wheel out on loan to a new spinner — and often more than one.
The second best thing you can do is find a fiber shop or fiber show that you can get to in person, where there is a selection of wheels that you can try out, again with expertise handy to help you figure out how things work. This is what experienced spinners will generally tell a new spinner to do if at all possible — there are so many individual variables that it’s impossible for someone to be sure that what really works for one person will work as well for another person.
It’s not an absolute requirement that you find in-person assistance, but if you have never spun before, never seen anyone do it, and have no idea how wheels operate mechanically, it will make a huge difference to be able to get a little orientation. A few minutes with an experienced spinner can save you a world of frustration and possibly even prevent unnecessary damage to your equipment. If you absolutely can’t meet a real live spinner or do any in-person testing, don’t let that stop you — but if you have the option of going to a real full-service spin shop, or meeting with experienced spinners, don’t let anything stop you. It’s an incredible leg up on getting started.
Those things said, there are a few things to consider when you start wheel shopping, which a little advance thought about can really prepare you to get the most out of a trip to try out wheels. The first is your lifestyle: where, and when, do you expect to spin? Do you have a good-sized dedicated space that’s where you expect you will always be spinning, or are you uncertain? Do you want to be able to spin sitting on the sofa watching TV or visiting with other people? Do you think you’ll want to take your wheel with you from place to place, or travel with it? If nothing else, this can help you rule out choices because they simply won’t fit your lifestyle or your space.
The second thing to consider is if you have a sense of what kind of yarn you feel you’re most interested in spinning. Although a skilled handspinner can spin pretty much any kind of yarn on pretty much any type of equipment, the fact remains that different setups are not always best suited to the same things. Although the majority of modern “mass-produced” wheels are aimed at being multitaskers that can easily handle a wide range of things, if you know for certain that you have a specific interest that’s on one side of the spectrum or another, you might do well to choose a wheel that’s less aimed at versatility across the middle ground, and more tuneable for what you think you want to focus on specifically. If that’s the case, a good idea might be to contact people who you know regularly spin yarn like what you want to spin, and ask them what kind of wheel they use. Chances are spinners will be delighted to expound upon their wheel choices and give you all sorts of useful information that you can add to the pile of things to think about while you shop.
Most newer spinners shopping for a first wheel, however, are not likely to have complete confidence that they know exactly what they want to spin most of the time. In this case, it makes very good sense to choose one of the aforementioned multitasking wheels that currently dominate the spinning wheel market. In addition, many new spinners these days do not have ready access to a real live spinner who can help troubleshoot or answer questions or show things in person, and must rely on literature and the Internet for help. This can mean it’s a good idea to choose a wheel that many other people use, so help is just an email away, or even already present in searchable, archived mailing lists and forums on the web. Don’t discount how instantly you can find the answers to your questions by searching through past discussion! Chances are good that if you have a question, someone else had it first and it’s been answered. The Internet is a great resource.
New or Used?
Used wheels can offer a great value, and with proper maintenance will retain essentially the same price value that you paid for it; if you decide you don’t like it after all and want to sell it, you’ll get almost all your money back. You can often get a much higher-end wheel used than you’d be able to afford brand-new; and sometimes, someone who is selling a used wheel will be selling it with a range of add-ons, accessories, and extras which they won’t be using anymore without that wheel.
However, as a new wheel spinner, it can be hard to know whether or not a used wheel is in good working condition and operating as it should. In some cases, people are selling wheels that have sat unused for a long period of time, often deteriorating or having pieces run off without anyone even realizing it. And sadly there are a handful of disreputable folks selling wheels that they know have problems, and such problems may not be apparent right at the outset. Consider, too, that you may not get much (or anything) in the way of documentation or manuals with a used wheel. You may be able to find such information online, but it’s not a guarantee, and even if you do, accuracy might not be 100% either.
Don’t rule out a used wheel, but if you don’t have an experienced wheel spinner handy to help you evaluate it, or you can’t check it out in person, or you don’t really know the seller, be aware there are risks and potential frustrations that you might encounter with your purchase. Excellent sources for used wheels can be a local spinning and weaving guild (where you also might find rental or loaner wheels), local fiber or yarn shop (perhaps they’ve got a for sale bulletin board), and several online sources, such as the Yahoo! group spin-sales (only for active members of the Yahoo! group spin-list, but that’s a list worth joining), the Spinners, Weavers & Knitters Housecleaning Pages, and various for-sale and marketplace groups on Ravelry. Although there are often used spinning wheels on eBay, condition is a much more hit-or-miss proposition with those wheels than these two sources; and the same goes for the classified ads in your local paper, or your local Craigslist, where you might get very lucky, but you also might not. If you are able to make contact with other spinners via the Internet, ask them to take a look at online listings for you and give you an honest opinion before you buy. You could save yourself quite a bit of time, money, and disappointment.
A used wheel that isn’t in good working order can end up costing you more than buying new. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great deals out there, but don’t assume that $200 used wheel is actually a better deal than a $450 new one — it could easily cost you $250 to get it working again. Or more. If you aren’t sure, and you can’t spin on it, you may not want to take the chance.
Antique or Modern?
Antique wheels, while often beautiful, will be subject to all of the potential down sides of any used wheel, in some cases multiplied over a longer span of time. They also may be incomplete and really being sold as decorative items rather than working wheels, and can be expensively priced because of that as well. Even when an antique is in good working order, another thing to consider is that such wheels were generally made to spin specific kinds of yarn, and aren’t likely to be strong multitaskers. They’ll also often make use of more complicated systems to operate, and finding replacement parts or someone who can do repairs can be a bigger challenge. Unless you have someone handy who knows a lot about old wooden machines (or you are such a person), as well as about spinning, an antique wheel could pose a significant challenge for a new wheel spinner.
Most modern wheels, by contrast, are designed with versatility in mind rather than being aimed at production spinning of specific types of yarn; they often use modern materials and design elements like sealed ball bearings which make for less maintenance, simpler systems, and more readily replaceable parts.
While antique wheels are often quite fabulous, they can also be a labour of love to get working and to care for, and that doesn’t always make for an ideal first wheel experience. Does this mean you shouldn’t let your grandmother give you her old spinning wheel? Absolutely not — see the first paragraph of this article, that says a gift wheel is almost never worth turning away, and this is particularly true if it’s a wheel with which you have a personal connection. However, bear in mind it might not be the easiest first wheel in the world, and you might not be spinning the yarn of your dreams on it immediately.
Single vs. Double Treadle?
The cold hard truth of the matter here is that it pretty much doesn’t matter. Both systems work well, both are implemented in a variety of different ways, and there are good ones and bad ones of either variety. If you happen to know (say, from having used a treadle sewing machine) that you really like, or really hate, one kind of treadle mechanism or another, you can take that into consideration — but barring a known physical problem that pushes you to one side or another of the debate, the bottom line is, this is a question of personal preference. Don’t rule out a wheel because it’s one or the other, unless you’ve tried it or you have firm and absolute reason that you must have one or the other (like you only have one leg you can use to treadle, or you have knee problems that rule out getting one leg very tired). As it happens, I have the latter issue, so most of my wheels are double treadle — but I do have at least one single treadle wheel which causes me no trouble at all because I can switch legs easily, so long as I remember to do so. I also have multiple double treadle wheels which can be operated with only one foot.
You can spend a lot of time thinking about whether you want single or double treadle, and the truth of the matter is, it’s not worth worrying about extensively in most cases, not for a first wheel. Let your gut decide.
Scotch Tension, Double Drive, what?
The short answer here, too, is that it sort of doesn’t matter, because as a new wheel spinner you don’t have preferences yet, and whatever you learn with is going to be part of what shapes those preferences, at least for a while.
The longer answer is that there are basically two kinds of systems for driving spinning wheels, and these are single drive and double drive. In single drive, the drive wheel is connected via a drive band to only one thing, a whorl connected to either the bobbin or the flyer. In double drive, your drive wheel (the big wheel) is connected via a drive band to both of those things. A single drive wheel has a drive band that is one single loop, and only drives one thing; a double drive wheel has a longer drive band that is in two loops and it drives two things — the bobbin and the flyer.
In order for a bobbin and flyer mechanism to allow yarn to wind on to the bobbin, both things need to be able to turn together, and at different rates; when they’re turning in unison yarn isn’t winding on, and when they’re turning at different rates, yarn will wind on to the bobbin. Depending on the setup, and how you have things configured, the amount of pull you’ll feel on the yarn as you’re spinning is going to vary. So, all types of flyer wheels do offer some mechanism by which you can adjust this. On a double drive wheel, it’s generally adjusted by managing how tight the drive band is, which can be done in various ways. Examples of double drive spinning wheels include the Schacht Matchless, most antique Saxony-style wheels, and double drive Ashfords and Kromskis. Most modern double drive wheels can also be easily rigged as single drive wheels, operating in either Irish tension or Scotch tension mode (see below).
With single drive, braking action is applied to whatever item is not being driven by the drive band. If your drive band goes around a whorl attached to the bobbin, the bobbin is the thing that will start moving first, and this is called a bobbin lead system. In this case, braking action will be applied to the flyer, often with a leather strap that goes across the front of the flyer near the orifice. How tight this strap is controls how hard the pull is on your yarn as you are spinning. Single drive and bobbin lead with a flyer brake is sometimes called Irish tension. Examples of Irish tension wheels are most Babes, most older Louet wheels, and the Roberta electric spinner.
Single Drive (in this case, flyer lead or Scotch tension)
If, on the other hand, your drive band goes around a whorl connected to the flyer, then the flyer will move first, and the bobbin will follow after, and braking action must be applied to the bobbin in order to allow for wind-on to happen. This type of setup is commonly called Scotch tension. You can identify a scotch tension wheel by the presence of a separate brake band that goes around only the bobbin, often with one or more springs attached to it, and a knob to turn that tightens that brake band. Examples of Scotch tension wheels are the Lendrum upright, Majacraft wheels, the Louet Victoria and Julia.
There are good, and bad, implementations of all of these systems. For the purpose of talking about a first spinning wheel, though, I’m going to generalize a bit about wheels in more entry-level price ranges. Double drive wheels have the most consistent pull-in, but are the finickiest to adjust. Bobbin lead single drive wheels have the easiest treadling action, but the strongest pull-in and it’s hard to get the takeup really really light. Flyer lead single drive wheels using scotch tension offer the easiest-to-change takeup settings that span the widest range, but can be fiddly and require a lot of minute adjustments as you go, particularly in low-cost implementations.
So what does this mean? In my opinion, if you know you want to spin a lot of fine yarn, go with double drive or scotch tension. If you want to spin more bulky yarn than anything else, go with bobbin lead single drive (irish tension) or flyer lead single drive (scotch tension). Yes, you can spin anything with anything if you’re a good spinner, but that doesn’t mean you have to, or that it must be your first choice. Spinning a thick, low-twist yarn on double drive can be frustrating and require more fiddling, and the same thing is true of spinning extremely fine with bobbin lead single drive wheels.
Just as an added consideration, any double drive wheel could, with relative ease, also be manufactured to include a scotch tension setup option, and there are a number of wheels on the market today which offer exactly that combination. These are extremely versatile wheels that offer a lot of room to grow.
What about drive ratios?
Drive ratios, too, affect the type of yarn you can easily and comfortably spin on a given wheel. For a lot more detail on this subject, take a look at my recent articles about drive wheel size and drive ratios, here. The short version is that bigger numbers in the drive ratios mean the twist gets in your yarn faster, which is great for fine yarns; smaller numbers mean the twist goes in slower, which is great for fat yarns. I generally recommend that new wheel spinners look for a wheel which can use a fairly wide range of ratios, as this is a key element in versatility, and one of the things about spinning with a wheel that really uses mechanical advantage in ways that broadens a spinner’s capabilities. Drive ratios are like gears on a bicycle or in a car; you want several, for different purposes, in order to get the most out of your equipment.
What about bobbins and accessories?
Ah yes, bobbins and accessories! If you expect to spin a lot of 2-ply yarn, odds are you’ll want a minimum of 3 bobbins. If you are looking to spin 3-ply yarn, go with 4. When you’re looking at wheel prices, also look at what they come with in terms of bobbins, flyers, and any accessories — and price those out individually. You may very well find that some new wheel packages are significantly better buys than they appear simply by looking at the numbers on the total packages — they’re not all the same.
If you’re looking for a setup you won’t outgrow quickly, and that won’t send you back shopping for a few more things in very short order, I recommend either choosing a new wheel package that comes with 4 bobbins and a lazy kate that can hold 3 bobbins, or else buying an additional bobbin and a 3-bobbin lazy kate. Another accessory you’ll likely find very useful is a skeiner or a niddy-noddy, for making skeins from your yarn, which you’ll want to do in order to wash it and finish it and so forth.
This is a lot of information. Just tell me what I want.
Okay, okay. For a “you can’t go wrong” versatile, general-purpose first spinning wheel, I think you want one that offers the following:
- a good range of ratios, or add-on kits that can extend the ratios you spin at
- a scotch tension wheel, or double drive wheel that can be rigged for scotch tension
- a wheel that either comes with multiple flyers and different sizes of bobbins, or for which that’s available
- a modern spinning wheel, not an antique
- at least 4 bobbins total, and a lazy kate or similar device to hold 3 of them
- a wheel that you can try out in person and make sure you actually like how it feels!
So how much can you expect to pay for all these things? Used, it very much depends; $150-500 for a lot of entry-priced, very solid wheels with all accessories, in good working order, though there are custom and high-end wheels on the used market as well, which can be priced much higher.
Please note that the following prices on new wheels factor in costs such as tax and shipping; and on sale, it may be possible to find them a little cheaper. When shopping for a new wheel, I definitely recommend a new spinner try to purchase one from a full-service spin shop, ideally one close enough to go visit for service and support if necessary. Obviously, not everyone will have a local (or even local-ish) fiber shop, so if you don’t, I’d recommend mail-ordering from a great and reputable dealer who’s been in the business for a while and carries a wide range of products for spinning. Your dealer is your first line of support, and can make a huge difference for you. Even though I am a very experienced spinner and am regularly in direct contact with wheel builders, I still usually get my wheels, parts and service through a handful of dealers I’ve known for a long time. Those dealers with whom I have longstanding relationships know me, know what’s coming out on the market, and can always give me the fastest service and support that’s most tailored to my needs. What’s more, they’re available on a retail schedule, which wheel builders may not be.
New, for $300 and under, you can get something from Babe’s Fiber Garden. These are consistent and reliable performers made from PVC, you can get similar accessories and in some cases make your own, and they’re all but indestructible. They’re a great value, and Nels Wiberg, their maker, is a great guy who stands by his products. There is a strong and vibrant community of Babe aficionados who can provide you with a lot of advice about these wheels.
For $400 and under, you can get a Fricke S-160. These are durable, rugged, very versatile, quiet, and low maintenance. By default, they come with a delta orifice, but a standard tube orifice is also available. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry — you probably don’t care yet, and won’t until after you have some spinning miles on your odometer.
For $500 and under, you can choose from offerings from Ashford (the Honda Civic of the textile world — everyone has one, or has had one, so everyone knows how they work, you can always find a used one and you know you can sell yours used too), Baynes (terrific wheels at a great price, that perform on par with many higher-priced wheels), and Kromski (like the Baynes, fully functional wheels at a great price, and every one is both double drive and scotch tension). In addition to its line of traditionally-styled wheels, Kromski offers the Sonata, a folding wheel with sealed bearings for lower maintenance (priced higher, see below) and Fantasia (in the $400-500 range), a very competitive entry-priced wheel with sealed bearings and a modern sliding hook flyer, allowing you to fine tune how you fill your bobbins. Similar flyers are available now for Ashford and Fricke, most Louet wheels, and have been standard on Majacraft and Lendrum for decades.
The Baynes and Kromski wheels are the most affordable “traditional-looking” and decorative wheels around, so if a historical look is important to you, these are in my opinion your best options. In this same price range, if super-mega-extreme fine yarn (and I mean as in the kind of laceweight yarn you use for a wedding ring shawl) is not an immediate interest for you, consider bobbin lead offerings from Louet, which are modern in design, durable, and much loved by their owners for their extremely strong performance and ease of maintenance. These wheels, such as the S17, S10, and S75 are icons of the spinning world — especially the S10, which is quite possibly the most indestructible wheel ever built, even without factoring in Louet’s superb lifetime warranty.
Perhaps the strongest offering to come on the scene in this price range recently is the Majacraft Pioneer — fully compatible with all Majacraft accessories except the accelerator head, the Pioneer is an exceptional value in a wheel you won’t outgrow. I’d rate this wheel as the most versatile all-around option under $500.
For around $600, an extremely popular choice is the Lendrum folding wheel, or a Fricke that’s been equipped with level-wind flyer and bobbins. New in the past couple of years from Schacht, the Ladybug is a terrific lower-priced sibling to Schacht’s venerable flagship wheel, the Matchless. Capable of double drive and scotch tension, and with all bobbins, flyers, and accessories entirely compatible with the Matchless, the Ladybug is a winner for any spinner at any level. Also in this price range you can get Louet’s new Julia, a wheel I’m confident will ultimately see the cult status the S10 enjoys, only in flyer lead.
So what’s my number one recommendation, supposing you just have to order something right this minute, and you can’t go try anything out, and you want to get the best bang for the buck? The Fricke S-160, which of all the teaching wheels and student wheels I’ve owned over the years, is the only one I’ve kept, and the one I find most of my students get the most mileage out of the fastest, and keep the longest. The number 2 spot goes to the Lendrum, followed closely by a tie between the Majacraft Pioneer or the Schacht Ladybug, with Louet’s Julia rounding out the top 5.
Supposing the same thing, but adding in a desire for historical appearance, I recommend the Kromski Mazurka or Minstrel, or the Baynes.
Supposing you’ve no idea if you’ll like having a wheel and you don’t know how long you’ll keep it and you want to be sure you can destash it quickly, get the ubiquitous Ashford Kiwi, Traveller, or Joy, or look for one of these used. For my money, Ashford’s best value is in its workhorse Traditional wheel — many spinners have had a Traddy and nothing else for decades and they’re easy to keep running and get fixed.
What About Building My Own Wheel?
Spinners on a budget often ask if I’d recommend building a spinning wheel, potentially using some of the low-cost plans out there, as a way to save money getting a working wheel. My answer is always no — not if your goal is to save money. There are lots of other great reasons to build a spinning wheel, which could be a tremendously enjoyable and rewarding project. However, it’s a tricky one to tackle without some knowledge of spinning, wheel types and wheel mechanics, and some mechanical aptitude as well as general building / carpentry / woodworking skill. Even master woodworkers and mechanics have made spinning wheels that don’t perform well. A lot goes into building a good wheel. So, I wouldn’t generally recommend building a wheel from scratch in order to learn to spin, any more than I would recommend building a bicycle from scratch to learn to ride a bicycle. It’s just very hard to know if you’re on the mark, and once learning, hard to know if a problem you’re having is you or the equipment. This doesn’t mean it’s not a great project to do — just that it may not be the ideal way to get your first spinning wheel, and most likely won’t save you anything in the way of money if you’re looking at a flyer wheel.
What if the wheel plan you’re looking at is for a driven spindle? In that case, you may be able to do it very cheaply indeed — but you’re also going to get something entirely different from a flyer wheel. That’s not bad, but what draws a lot of new spinners to look for their first flyer wheels is the search for a shallower learning curve to achieve productivity than the handspindle typically offers. I love spindle wheels, and would never say one doesn’t make a good first wheel — but you should know it’s a different experience than you may be thinking of when you’re a new spinner considering a first spinning wheel.
A final note
The specific wheels I’ve discussed are all generalist wheels, multi-taskers, and I’ve left out serious travel wheels, specialty wheels, driven spindles, and wheels priced over about $700. Price ranges given figure for paying tax or shipping and possibly an extra bobbin or something of that nature. I’ll cover wheels upwards of $700 at another time, but generally set that as a likely ceiling for a first wheel purchase. Links provided are to wheel manufacturers or reviewers, and not to vendors; I strongly recommend finding a local fiber shop if at all possible, and giving them your support as well as making use of them as a resource.
If you have questions or comments about any of these wheels, I’d love to hear them — please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and share your experiences, or ask about wheels not mentioned here.