I originally wrote this in 2008, but have updated it annually ever since.
At this time of year, we seem to always have a huge crop of new spinners and would-be spinners looking for information about getting started. So I thought I’d take a morning and pull together an overall post linking to things I’ve written on the subject and various other resources too. What’s more, I’ve been spending part of my holiday fixing and updating old posts with current information, so you may find a few new things.
Bear in mind this is a list of information and resources for those who are brand new to spinning; I’ve tried to keep from going too far into the more intermediate or potentially esoteric stuff that could be confusing for a beginner. We’ve got plenty of space for that under a heading other than “Getting Started.”
1. What do I need to get started spinning?
I wrote a whole post about that entitled What do I need to get started spinning? — start there! You can do it with as little as $5-10. At a minimum, you’ll need a spindle and some fiber. You can make the spindle, but you’ll probably want to be sure you start with fiber in great condition.
How do you know if the fiber you’re getting is in great condition? That is tricky if you’ve never spun before! If there is a brick and mortar within an hour of you that sells fiber, you’ll probably learn tons just by going there and touching some things. If you can’t get to such a shop in person, there are plenty of shops online. I recommend doing your very first shopping with one that has a dedicated storefront website, rather than using a sales-hosting platform — not because there aren’t great vendors on etsy and similar sites, but because until you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to sort through listings with confidence. Please note: once you know what you’re looking for and what you like, it’s a completely different story. But I’ve seen a lot of folks end up frustrated with their first purchases as they’re trying to learn, so it’s something I like to suggest.
3. Are there any books or magazines you recommend?
PLY Magazine is the must-have magazine. Founded by spinning teacher Jacey Boggs, PLY is a grassroots, community-driven magazine about spinning, and you’ll want every issue — they’re based around a common theme, so each issue is an excellent reference at many levels of expertise. You can also subscribe digitally.
Interweave Press’ Spin-Off Magazine is the “big name” in spinning magazines, having been around for 40 years, evolving from a grassroots publication to its present incarnation as a brand in the F&W Media empire. Despite no longer being the grassroots publication it once was, Spin-Off’s editoral team remains excellent and there’s an incredible body of information here.
Some excellent books when you’re starting out:
Start Spinning by Maggie Casey. Maggie is the owner of Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins in Boulder, and a spinning teacher par excellence.
Spin Control by Amy King picks up where Maggie’s book leaves off, and teaches you how to take control of your yarn.
Respect The Spindle is my own humble offering in the field, dealing with spindle spinning topics from beginner to advanced. This link is to the ebook for all your instant gratification needs, but it’s also available in print (and there’s a video, see below).
Spinning in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts is the canonical book about spinning with a high whorl spindle, and an excellent resource.
Start Spinning, The DVD from Maggie Casey is the perfect 2-disc companion to her book. This is also available for download.
Drafting: The Long And Short Of It, my first instructional DVD, is a more intermediate DVD that goes into lots of detail about various fiber options, multiple ways to spin your yarn, and how to fine-tune what you’re doing to get exactly the results you want. You can download this from Interweave as well.
Respect The Spindle: The Video is more or less one of my half-day spindle classes condensed to an hour in DVD form. It shows many of the techniques from the book, but also works fine as a standalone video. Like the others, it’s also available for download.
4. What about online sources?
There are tons! More than you can shake a stick at, even if it’s wrapped in yarn. I’m going to pick out a handful of online resources I recommend highly for new spinners, though.
One thing to bear in mind as you delve into the world wide web of spinny stuff is that as with anything online, there are good sources of information, and less good sources, and even sources that are filled with falsehood. It can be hard to know which is which. And whereas formal publication usually ends up being something done by people with a ton of experience in a given subject, casual publication like having a web site is something anybody can do. That doesn’t mean casual publications are bad — far from it! But it does mean, as a reader, that it pays off to spend a little time figuring out who’s giving you information, and what that person’s perspective is.
For example, my perspective is that of a spinning teacher and writer about spinning, who’s been at it for almost 40 years in a variety of contexts. I will obviously see things differently from someone who started spinning a couple of weeks ago. Does that mean you should only read one of us? Absolutely not; but it’s worth thinking about the differences in perspective or experience, as you read things. Consider: my experience trying a brand-new prototype spinning wheel is probably not going to be the same as a brand-new spinner’s. Which perspective you’re after is up to you. You may be looking for instruction (in which case I’d recommend seeing what an experienced teacher has to say), or you may be looking for a peer group as you start out on your spinning journey (in which case, you’ll probably be most interested in meeting fellow new spinners). One of the fabulous things about the online spinning world is that you can have all of those things.
KnittySpin is the spinning focused section of web pioneer Knitty.
Spin Artiste is always great eye candy, and I love the interviews.
Facebook features a number of spinning-related groups, among the most active of which is Fiber Artists and Yarn Spinners, with over 13,000 members. Also check out A Spinner’s Study on Facebook.
You can find all kinds of things — and share your own — with hashtags on all the social media sites that support them. You’ll probably never run out of anything to look at with #handspun, and if you use social media, sharing about your process is a great way to meet new people and learn new stuff yourself.
Starting late summer/fall 2017, I’ll be updating my own youtube channel extensively and regularly, including selecting the best videos I run across by other people and organizing them into playlists for your viewing pleasure.
As with web sites, videos on YouTube vary wildly in terms of the quality of information they contain. There are some reasonably well-produced videos that contain horrible misinformation. Wherever possible, try to take a minute and figure out where the video came from — someone who spends a lot of time spinning, or someone who started a week or two ago? The more folks sharing what they do, the better — but be wary of authoritative pronouncements from people who haven’t been spinning any longer than you have! In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that most people making really authoritative, “This is how you do it” pronouncements, instead of saying “Here’s one way to do this,” are relative novices.
Why do I think this matters with videos? Because ideally, I think you should be looking at good spinning practice, or good form, if you’re looking for something to emulate and practice. If this was dancing or gymnastics, I would be saying you’re better off watching someone who’s been dancing for years than someone who just started and has never been to a class or performed or anything.
6. What are some great places to shop for spinning equipment and supplies?
Well, here are a few of my longstanding favourites. These are people who I can call up and say “Hey, do you have… or can you get… and is there anything like…” and who I trust with every fiber of my being (har har). These are the kinds of folks who you can go to with a dilemma and they’ll solve it. They’re the ones you can trust if you can’t make up your mind. These people are pillars of the larger fiber community. These are the people my family calls up to figure out what I should get for Christmas.
Carolina Homespun was my local shop when I lived in the SF Bay Area. If you are in that area, run, don’t walk, and then camp out and wait for Morgaine and Lann to let you in, if that’s what it takes. Make sure you visit them at every fiber show where you see them.
The Fold, better known as “Toni.” Not only does Toni Neil have an incredible full-service fiber shop — at least, I assume she does although I’ve never actually been to her shop, only her booth at various events, and dealt with her lots on the phone and in email — but she’s someone who Makes Stuff Happen. Like, she talked Jonathan Bosworth into making spindles. That kind of thing. I can’t say enough to praise Toni. I just can’t. She’s too fabulous.
The Spunky Eclectic is run by my longtime friend Amy King, author of Spin Control. I’ll put it this way: I call Amy up when I need a treat for myself, and can’t figure out what it should be. I place standing orders with her, and when there’s a new product on the market, she’ll know about it, have tried it, and have the scoop. And she can Get Things Done. When I have a task I know I can’t get to in time, I can count on Amy to do it to my standards and beyond.
If you’ve talked to that list of people, and they can’t find what you’re looking for? Then you can’t have it; it either doesn’t exist, is a treasure of rarity beyond compare and you have to hope someone’s leaving it for you in their will, or is backordered for however long they said. Seriously, if that list of people can’t make it happen for you fiberwise, nobody can. These are the folks you can call up in total chaos, confusion, despair, whatever — and they solve it, and give you a good deal besides.
7. Any other thoughts for a new spinner?
Just that, if there is any way at all for you to swing it, go meet other spinners. Take classes if you can, but even if you can’t or don’t want to, just meet other spinners. There are things about this that can’t be learned from books, videos, and so on. There are things that must be passed from one hand to another. You will get things out of a few minutes spent with other spinners that you can’t get out of years of spinning alone, even with the greatest references in the world. Spinners who’ve been doing this for a while make it look easy, and it is — with just a little practice. But in the beginning, just like riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument, you might be surprised to find it’s not as easy as it looks. The good news is it’s also not that hard — it just takes practice, and within a month you can easily be making lots of great yarn.
Oh, and one more thing: this. Consider it a yarn manifesto, and enjoy.
That’s it! Please feel free to share your thoughts about being a new spinner, and any questions you might have, in the comments.
Updated as of 11 February 2015, 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.
HOW TO FIND A WHEEL
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 from learning to spin — but if you have the option of going to a real full-service spin shop, or meeting with experienced spinners, don’t miss out. It’s an incredible leg up on getting started.
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW WHEN I GO SHOPPING?
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.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR USED WHEELS
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 Spinners, Weavers & Knitters Housecleaning Pages, Facebook groups like All Fiber Equipment For Sale, 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.
That being said, if you do want to see about a used or antique wheel, I’ve made a video that covers just the basic things you need to check out to be sure it’s even remotely viable.
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.
Here’s how I boil this down: unless you are a spinner, don’t buy a used wheel from someone who isn’t a spinner. It’s like buying a used car from someone who’s never ridden in a car. They may not even know if it’s a spinning wheel. In fact, experienced spinners sit around all the time talking about the unbelievable thing they saw on craigslist (or wherever) that someone thought was a spinning wheel, but actually, it was a lamp or a plant stand or an antique grinder for wheat. There’s many a would-be spinner out there who has been taken in by a SWSO, or Spinning Wheel Shaped Object.
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 at the same speed, and turn 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 (which means these generalizations may not apply to someone’s $2500+ custom wheel). 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.
Many (probably most) antique wheels will feature only one bobbin. This was common in the era where interchangeable parts were not necessarily easy to manufacture, and where each flyer and bobbin array is a meticulously crafted and matched set that should never be broken up. If you fall in love with a one-bobbin wheel, that doesn’t mean it’s a deal breaker; it just means you may want to invest in something additional, like a bobbin winder and some storage bobbins, in order to get the spinning setup you’re after, because you’ll have to wind off your spun yarn and empty your bobbin any time you fill it up.
By the way: Because there are such things as bobbin winders and cheap bobbins you can usually feel confident that you don’t have to have more than 4 bobbins. So this means you don’t necessarily need to worry if the wheel you love uses expensive bobbins.
WHAT ABOUT ELECTRIC SPINNERS?
In the past five years or so, there has been a surge in the popularity of electric, or motorized, spinning equipment. These consist of a flyer and bobbin array driven by a motor. Because there is no need for a large drive wheel or treadles, they can be made very small, and some can be driven by portable batteries in addition to being plugged into the wall.
Let’s address two common myths: first, that e-spinners are “cheating.” Seriously? Not any more than spindles are cheating because, unlike just using your hands, they give you a place to store yarn you’re making, and they let you set it in motion quickly to generate twist rapidly. An e-spinner won’t actually make it easier to make yarn; you still have to learn all the hand stuff. And that brings me to the next myth: that an e-spinner will make you faster. This is most likely not the case. Most e-spinners function in the same general range of possible twists generated per minute as most wheels do, and most contemporary spinners — certainly new ones — don’t spin that fast anyway.
One possible down side is that a lot of instructional content focuses on procedures like counting treadles, or adjusting ratios. Those aren’t relevant to spinning with an e-spinner, so you’ll have to find other sources of information or your own ways to deal with those questions. I don’t think this is a big deal; you also can’t count treadles with a spindle, but you can make a lot of yarn with one. A more likely down side is that most spinners subconsciously adjust a lot of things to sync their treadling speed with their hands, speeding up and slowing down without realizing it. E-spinners don’t have that capability unless equipped with a rheostat foot pedal, which still feels different, and so one of the things that can feel strange is the relentless, ceaseless steadiness with which they deliver twist. Some people simply do not like that feeling.
The really big down side to a lot of e-spinners? They’re not very quiet. This is a hard thing to work through, because in a lot of the settings where you might go try out an e-spinner, it’s going to be noisy and you’ll have a hard time telling if the machine is noisy enough to bother you or people sitting with you while you spin. One of the things that makes the pricier e-spinners pricier is that they are quieter; the top-of-the-line ones are very quiet indeed.
All of those things being said, e-spinners are the penultimate (which is to say, just shy of being the ultimate — What’s the ultimate in portability? A spindle, of course!) in portable spinning solutions, with many being the size of a shoebox, and that small size is enough to make them appealing to a lot of people. What’s more, because you don’t have to treadle to power the device, if you’re someone who has foot, ankle, or knee issues, an e-spinner can make it possible for you to enjoy spinning with a flyer setup. If you can’t sit and treadle for a long time, an e-spinner might be the answer you’re after.
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.
WHERE SHOULD I SHOP?
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.
WHAT CAN I GET FOR MY BUDGET?
Following are my picks for strong multi-tasking wheels in each price range.
New, for around $300, 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. Babe’s is transitioning to its new owners as of the start of 2014, and extending its lineup as well.
For around $400, 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 around $500, 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), and Kromski. In addition to its line of traditionally-styled wheels, Kromski offers the Sonata ($600-700), a folding wheel with sealed bearings for lower maintenance (priced higher, see below) and Fantasia (in the $500 range, less unfinished), 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 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 in the past decade 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 soon. I’d rate this wheel as the most versatile all-around option around $600, although it faces very stiff competition from Schacht’s Ladybug wheel — in fact, the only thing that makes me pick the Pioneer over the Ladybug is that Majacraft has a more varied line of accessories. However, Schacht’s accessories are incredibly well-designed and tested by a wide range of spinners, and they work beautifully for an extremely broad range of wants.
For around $700, 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 Julia, a wheel with all the benefits of Louet’s experience and warranty and everything, in scotch tension.
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? Well, it still depends somewhat on you. All around, 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 combined with modern conveniences like interchangeable bobbins and add-on flyers, I recommend the Kromski Minstrel or one of their larger Saxony-style wheels.
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.
WHO MAKES SPINNING WHEELS?
Almost nobody, in real life. Seriously — I’d be willing to bet there are more people who have recorded albums of classical music played on the kazoo than there are people who make spinning wheels in the 21st century. Even the largest makers of spinning wheels have fewer employees than a typical small town fast food franchise, and mostly, they’re family operations. In other words, there really is a Barry Schacht, a Richard Ashford, a Jan Louet, a Gord Lendrum, and so forth. So no matter what brand you buy, you can feel confident that you’re buying from a small, independent business. It just might be one that has been small and independent for 40+ years. But even the “big names” are mom and pop operations.
Longer-standing spinning wheel makers will have dealer networks who can supply you with service and support, and generally produce in sufficient quantity to meet ongoing demand meaning there will be wheels in stock at those dealers. Since they’re production items, that also means buying things like more bobbins, add-ons, or replacement parts will tend to be easier. What’s more, since there will tend to be large numbers of wheels out there from longer-standing makers, you’re more likely to be able to find support online from the extended community of spinners who will know how your equipment is supposed to work just from you saying “It’s an Ashford Kiwi” or what have you. They’ll also have had the opportunity to work out the kinks in their designs, which can be a really big deal for a new spinner who doesn’t know yet if problems are encountered with the wheel, the fiber, or the technique.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a chance on a new maker if the deal is right (or right in front of you). It just means that, if you’re hoping to buy a wheel and ask the internet how it should work, you might be happiest being able to say “I can’t figure out why my Schacht Ladybug feels stiff to treadle,” and hearing immediately from a bunch of people who also have Ladybugs in front of them.
WHY AREN’T SPINNING WHEELS CHEAPER?
There’s a lot of stuff on a spinning wheel that takes attention to detail in order to make it work well. Yes, these are very simple machines, but they’re machines that have to work seamlessly in concert with a human being, and that’s not easy. There are many moving parts and wheels need to be quiet enough that you can stand to sit at them, or that other people don’t hate sitting in the same room as you. These moving parts also need to handle wear and tear and sometimes be replaceable or interchangeable with others. At first blush, many people think “How on earth can these things start at $400 new?” and I really get that it’s a lot of money to put out for a new hobby, which is the big reason why it’s common for people to suggest learning to spin with a spindle first — they’ll almost always be cheaper than wheels. It’s also why I recommend looking for spinners near you as a first move.
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 (actually, my first wheel was an antique great 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 $1000. 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 $1000 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.
A common stumper for many spinners working on producing yarn to a specific thickness involves the question of plying structures. How many plies do you want? How do you know how thick or thin to spin your singles if you know how many plies you want to use?
When you get right down to it, the best answer to this series of questions is to do a series of samples. A couple of years ago, I did just that while designing a yarn for a friend (read more here). Sampling is the only way to be sure. There are lots of variables between fiber and preparations, and even more things that vary from spinner to spinner. There is no single formula that will answer these questions for all possible cases. However, there are some generalities it can be useful to know.
First, let’s talk about structure and define our terms. A singles is, well, a single strand if you’re a handspinner. At its most technical, some define it as being a yarn which is twisted in only a single direction, so you can technically have yarn composed of multiple strands, but if there’s only one direction of twist it’s still a singles. There are contemporary yarns spun at the mill which are like this — roller-drafted down to being very fine, assembled with multiple strands, then introduced to twist. I can’t really think of a good and functional way to replicate that as a handspinner though, or of a good reason to do so, but it’s relevant to the question of what a singles yarn is.
A plied yarn is one where multiple strands of yarn — already spun yarn — are put together and twisted in the opposite direction from that in which they were first twisted. A 2-ply yarn has two strands; a 3-ply yarn has three. A cabled yarn is a plied yarn which is plied again in turn, going back the other way from that in which it was first plied (so, the same direction as the singles were spun). There are lots and lots of other plying structures, but those are the only ones we’re going to talk about right now, and we’re only going to be seeing pictures of singles, 2-ply, and 3-ply. We’re keeping it simple!
Any time you ply your yarn, you’re making it stronger. This is because twist adds strength; multiple directions of twist add even more strength. You’re also tucking some of the surface of the yarn inside, away from the elements and wear and tear. Plied yarns will always be stronger and sturdier than singles yarns. For some applications, they also bring the benefit of counteracting twist energy in the singles yarn, such that plying can eliminate the risk of bias or skew in certain types of yarn uses — like some knitting. The nitty gritty of that subject, too, we will be leaving for another day. For now, suffice it to say that more strands make a yarn stronger, and more kinds of twist make a yarn stronger.
But this is only one reason to ply your yarns. Plying can also even out unevenness in your singles — whether we’re talking about varying amounts of twist throughout your yarn, or getting a little thick and thin, or pretty much anything. Plying regularizes your yarn, and also changes how the yarn behaves, how it feels, and how finished fabrics made from it behave and feel. In general, a 2-ply yarn will have a somewhat nubbly texture — the two strands twist around each other and there are little bumps. Judith MacKenzie McCuin likes to say that a 2-ply yarn, properly plied, looks like a string of pearls.
By contrast, a 3-ply yarn has a smooth, even surface. Instead of twisting around each other, the three strands in a 3-ply spiral around a hollow core.
Yarns with more than 3 plies essentially behave the same as 3-plies; we could say “3-or-more-plies” as handspinners, but we don’t usually bother. You aren’t going to get the same kind of structural changes from going from 3 to 4 plies, or 3 to 8 plies, as you would get going from a single to 2 to 3.
Now then, if you take your plied yarn — whether it’s 2-ply or 3-ply — and then ply it against itself again, like we were saying, you get a cabled yarn. These tend to be very nubbly in texture, but extremely even in thickness.
In general, 2-ply yarns will tend to grab hold of each other, and it’s said this is a reason for their popularity in weaving. They make very stable woven fabrics. By contrast, 3-plies are a little slipperier and slinkier, so they tend to make drapy woven fabrics. Cables tend to create textural effects in weaving.
In knitting and crochet, 2-plies spread outward in the stitch, meaning they block out huge for things like lace. 3-plies tend to come together in the stitch, making a fuller fabric that is still stretchy, so they’re popular for socks, sweaters, hats, mittens, and so forth. Cabled yarns have some texture, but make a really cohesive fabric that’s stable and a little neutral, so they’re popular for textural stitch patterns or cable patterns.
So let’s look at that all again, in knit swatches that are backlit so you can really see how the fabric looks. Singles yarn:
Allright. This should be plenty for you to ponder what sort of plying structure you’re aiming for, so on to the next question: how much difference is there in thickness depending on how you ply? I took an opportunity during my BFL binge recently to document some of this for you.
First, I spun these singles:
Because I’m sometimes too lazy to change my double drive bobbin, I spun all three sets of singles onto the same bobbin, separating them with a little bit of white wool of a different type — a yarn delimiter, if you will (I know — the geek is showing). Once everything was spun up, I rewound onto three separate storage bbbbins…
…stopping and changing when I got to the delimiter.
This got me three similarly-full (but not exactly so) bobbins. The leftovers would come in handy documenting things for this post.
I put ’em on my Will Taylor Kate, and plied ’em up. I ended up with a nice big skein of 3-ply yarn, a little waste skein of 2-ply, and a bit of leftover singles. I measured these all at this stage of the game.
Singles, unfinished: 42 wraps per inch
2-ply, unfinished: 27 wraps per inch
3-py, unfinished: 17 wraps per inch
So, interesting! A lot of people think the 2-ply would be double the thickness of the single, but it isn’t so. It’s thinner than that. So what about the 3-ply? Is it 3 times the thickness of the single? Nope; it’s a bit more than twice as thick as the single.
The story isn’t over, though. Washing the yarn is going to change it again. I took my plied samples upstairs — ignoring the little bit of singles for now, because what we’re really talking about here is how we want that single to look while we’re spinning it, relative to the yarn we’re shooting for in the end.
I ran a sink full of water as hot as I could get the tap to produce. I poured in a little bit of Eucalan. I threw the 2-ply and 3-ply yarns in there, and left. I went back some 20 minutes later, and gave those skeins a good swishing around in the hot water, which by now was still hot, it’s true, but not so hot I wouldn’t stick my hands in it. I pulled the skeins out, wrung them out (seriously, I did), and drained the sink, replacing it with a sink full of cold water. I rinsed the skeins in the cold water, pulled them out, wrung them out, put my hands inside the loop of the skein, and snapped it open a few times. Then I just hung it up to dry on a clothes hanger on the towel rack, and ignored it till the next morning.
That left me with this skein of 3-ply yarn, and a little 2-ply sample. I measured these for wraps per inch, to compare to our earlier numbers.
And now the 2-ply, with moderate twist, measures in at 19 wraps per inch — thickened up from the 27 it was before washing. And that is pretty close to twice as thick as the unfinished singles.
And the 3-ply came in at 13 wraps per inch — or about 3.3 times as thick as the unfinished singles we were spinning.
In general, I find a 2-ply is usually a little less than twice as thick as the single I’m spinning, and a 3-ply is usually a little more than three times as thick — but remember, there are lots of variables, and to be sure, you will need to do a sample.
Honestly, there are plenty of times — many of them in December — when I find myself thinking I clearly did better living closer to the equator. It’s partly the shorter daylight hours and the sad, oblique nature of what sunlight you seem to get. When you couple that with a frantic rush to finish lots of things by the end of the year, then throw in a heaping pile of holiday, it’s like a nasty conspiracy aimed at getting me down. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of winter, and it’s been a struggle to find Christmas cheery ever since my dad died. You’d think you would get used to people being gone — and you kinda do, I suppose, I mean this will be Christmas number five since he died and it’s sinking in — but it’s still a total buzzkill at times like this, especially when thanks to the season, you try to do something like go outside for a breath of fresh air and some sunlight or something, and all you get instead is cold and bleak.
Deep in my brain, I always know that once the corner is turned and days start getting longer, my mood starts to improve in short order. But simply knowing that doesn’t eliminate the mood. Mostly, I push through the darkening of the year by dint of sheer momentum, which I fuel with loud music when it flags.
But, although I’ve been sadly remiss on the blogging front, lots has been happening. Momentum, it would seem, is reasonably effective. I’ve managed a few classes and a few deadline projects, and one of those is big. A lot has been non-bloggable. But I think I’m through most of that at this point. Just not without casualties.
A major casualty is my workspace. Actually, both of my workspaces.
Due to deadlines, I’ve just been pushing through getting stuff done as things become more and more chaotic in my work areas. It’s truly unpleasant. At this point, I have to haul huge piles of things out the hallway, and spend days on straightening. I thought I’d get to it this week, but… I haven’t; work intervened. Maybe next week. Of course, then, kid-home-from-school and Christmas will likely intervene. Argh! It’s going to take a lot of loud music. That much is certain.
So, maybe you’re wondering what kind of deadlines, eh? What would be so all-encompassing and nonbloggable that it would leave me with so thoroughly trashed a set of workspaces? What would keep me from even blogging about not one, but two, new spinning wheels?
Oh, okay. I have some new spinning wheels. The first one is my walnut Lendrum Saxony that I’d had on order for a while.
I got to pick it up at SOAR, and Beth took it home for me, then drove down with it just before Halloween. Plus she brought the other wheel, but we’ll get to that. The Lendrum Saxony comes unfinished, and my better half’s been wonderful about working on the finishing for me, which is just plain ol’ oil. Why? Because my mother-in-law has a fabulous old walnut table (and other dining room stuff) made from beams salvaged from a 16th century monastery, and that’s what she has used tending to it for decades. She reports it has really been the right thing for that wood in our wildly variable Ohio Valley humidity and temperature, and I believe her. So we’re going with the old and low-tech solution.
It’ll take time and lots of coats and it isn’t going to be a high-gloss finish. But I know it’ll darken nicely over time, and it’ll happen faster than I expect. Things always do. I was astounded a few weeks ago to look at Beth’s new Journey Wheel. Mine is so much darker than hers, and mine’s not quite five years old.
But, anyway, the Lendrum is a wheel I’ve been eagerly awaiting for a good while. As a few folks have been mentioning and asking me about, I did get Gord Lendrum’s prototype “stupid fast flyer,” as a few of us have been calling it. This flyer isn’t on the market or available — it’s a beta test kind of thing, and hopefully Mr. Lendrum won’t kick my butt for blogging about it; seeing as how it was seen and tried out by a number of folks at SOAR I think I can get away with it. It is indeed stupid fast. So fast nobody with any sense wants one. So, you know: stupid fast. It’s like driving a car that doesn’t go under 30 mph. It can be stopped, or at the slowest, going 30 (but usually, it’s going about 110. You have to be some kind of mutant who can exhibit telekinetic powers over it to make it go 30). So parking it, you have to go from 110 down to 30 using the power of your sheer force of will, and then straight to stopped. Just right. And if you don’t….
…this happens in about a half a second. I’m not exaggerating. Plus, to park it successfully, you have to establish physical contact with the flyer so you can use your brainwaves to safely bring it down to about 30mph, and the way you do that is by sticking your hand — your SMART hand even, the one you like to use to control twist and stuff — into the flyer that’s rotating at, no lie, like 4500 rpm. It’s a little like making a leap of faith that it’s going to be totally fine to stick your hand into the hub of a propeller.
I adore the flyer. I just love it. But, you have to realize, this is because I’m stupid. I don’t want a thing about it to change, really, because… because it’s so totally badass. But yet there is no way I would recommend it go on the market. Sane people would hate it. I’m about a month into coming up to speed with it, and I still have a ways to go before I really own it. All my wheel-spinning habits are so ingrained now, complete with little things to slow down my drafting… and it’s like learning to spin all over again. At 110 miles an hour. You know. Stupid fast. Reckless endangerment speeds. It’s fine for the track, but no wheelies on the freeway, know what I mean?
Well, so. I also had a terrific opportunity to pick up another big Saxony — this one a 30″ Schacht-Reeves. Beth brought that one down for me along with the Lendrum. The irony here is getting two fabulous new wheels while in the middle of deadline madness. So I used the new wheels as bribes for myself — “Just finish this up and then you can play.”
Mmmmm. I picked up this fiber at SOAR but didn’t get a chance to actually sit and spin it until recently, seen here on the Schacht-Reeves.
It’s BFL from Gale’s Art, and it was really a delight to spin.
So it’s kicked off a bit of a BFL binge for me, but we’ll talk about that in an upcoming post. I’ve also had lots of spindle spinning to do.
Beth pitched in. Such a friend. All of these spindles, and more besides, are off right now being photographed. Off where? Photographed for what? Well, now that I’ve handed in the manuscript and all, it’s bloggable. They’re off at Interweave Press, being photographed for use with said manuscript… which sometime in fall of 2009, will be a book about spindle spinning.
So, you know, what with having lots of spindles not at home right now, I’ve had to restock. Fortunately I’ve had help. Just look at this fabulous early Christmas present:
It’s the most fabulous Moosie ever. It just plain is. See what I mean about a BFL binge, too? Yup. BFL binge.
I’m still down a lot of spindles for the time being, but I have picked up a few (and I’ll blog more of ’em). Like this Greensleeves Loki, seen here with some slubby cotton going onto it.
Okay, the truth is, the only reason I spun that cotton on that spindle is because I liked the colour combo. I just thought it went really well.
Well, realistically, I’m out of blogging time today. On the bright side though, I mostly have blogging mornings back now. Just in time for hectic holidays!
Tune in again in a day or so for some fun and exciting info about plying and finishing. No, I swear, it’s going to be exciting. And informative.