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How Does a Spinning Wheel Work?

A recent fibre frustration with my old, Spin-Well spinning wheel, brought me back to some basics that I thought worthy of sharing with you here.  I’m not renowned for my patience when it comes to preparing the yarn, I want to get on and knit, but my yearning for yarn provided me with some valuable lessons this past week.

Spinning wheel, spin well, manitoba
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The Perfect Day

We all do it; we learn a technique and then we use it every day to such an extent that it becomes automatic, until eventually, we forget why we do it.  It happens in all areas of our lives.  This recent cold snap created some problems for the llamas, particularly when the wind picked up, driving the chill factor down to about -25 Centigrade and even these hardy creatures were really shivering!   As well as doubling their oat rations, we stretched some tarps across the front of their shelters.  Unfortunately, David was having to slip his mitts off in the bitter cold, to tie the tarpaulin straps.  He needs some thin woolen gloves to wear inside the mitts, I thought.  That’s where the fun started.

Whilst my body was still holding up the tarpaulin in the biting cold, my mind was already 

llama feeding
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indoors, planning the yarn and glove design.  I wanted a thin, but hardwearing yarn to make the gloves with.  The llama guard hair is tough and wouldn’t be too itchy on the hands, but it would need a bit of added elasticity.  A 50/50 blend of llama and sheep should do the trick.  I also decided to use some sheep wool  that had been soaked to remove the suint, but still contained most of the lanolin, which is great for the hands and feet.

David has made yet another picker; this must be number four now, since he’s always trying to squeeze a bit more versatility out of the machine without losing functionality.  After two or three trips through the new picker to open up the raw fibre, followed by another couple of trips to blend the two fibers, I gave it a single run through the drum carder to complete the blending process and then combed it on the big Doukhobor paddle combs.  Being in too much of a hurry, of course, I impaled my finger on a comb and then repeated this process a minute later, just to hammer the message home, about keeping my hand out of the way!

At last I was ready to spin, but for some reason I just could not get it right.  Either I couldn’t get enough spin or it was too much and not taking-in.  No matter what adjustments I made, the yarn was inconsistent and I had a couple of hours of intense frustration, before my dear husband suggested I go back to basics,  …and so I did.

Indian Head Spinning Wheel on a treadle
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Indian Head Spinning Wheel on a Treadle - Brilliant but Heavy!

Putting a spinning wheel  through its paces is a very useful exercise for all spinners, no matter how experienced or otherwise and ideally, should be done on a regular basis.  That’s the theory.  I’m sure there aren’t many spinners that perform this exercise regularly.  I certainly haven’t, until now, but perhaps I should start to practice what I preach.

To find out what your machine can really do, you should practice spinning yarn over the full range of adjustments.  This exercise doesn’t take more than thirty minutes, but what an important thirty minutes it can be.  Certainly, it can save hours of frustration.

‘In a Nutshell’ How a Spinning Wheel Works

In very simplistic terms, a spinning wheel puts the twist into fibers, whether of plant or animal origin, and then winds the spun fibre onto a spool or bobbin.  Easy stuff, huh?

You pedal the pedal and the wheel goes around.

The wheel drives a thin belt or cord, that in turn, rotates either the flyer or the bobbin, depending on the type of wheel you have.

Flyer-Driven Spinning Wheels (also known as flyer-lead)

If your spinning wheel is flyer-driven, it means that the drive belt is turning the flyer, which flies around the bobbin.

If the bobbin was fixed and could not turn, then as the flyer revolved around the bobbin, the yarn would wind directly onto the bobbin, without collecting any spin.

On the other hand, if the bobbin revolved at exactly the same rate as the flyer, then the yarn would not wind on to the bobbin at all and would continue to collect spin until something broke.

Once you grasp this tiny, but incredibly significant fact, you will understand that you want the bobbin to turn at a rate somewhere between standstill and the same speed as the flyer.  This is the reason for the bobbin brake.

bobbin brake on a spin-well spinning wheel
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The Bobbin Brake on the Antique Spin-Well

The bobbin brake, which is known by various other names, including the Scotch tension brake,  is usually a simple band of string or leather that loops around a groove in the bobbin and creates friction on the bobbin to slow it down.  The tighter you make the band, the more friction you create on the bobbin and the slower it goes, relative to the flyer.  Reduce the tension on the brake and the bobbin will speed up, thereby reducing the rate at which the yarn winds on.  It requires very little tension to slow the bobbin, so we are only making tiny adjustments to the brake!

This is where regular practicing comes in.  If you are used to spinning the same type of yarn all the time, it is easy to forget what else the wheel can produce.  The skill of the spinner is in determining exactly how much tension is required on the brake to achieve the desired yarn size and twist.

Modern wheels have wonderful little knobs that can be tweaked to adjust the bobbin brake as well as the belt tension of the wheel.  You will also find several different variations on the braking system, but they all work according to the same principle.

Firstly, if your wheel has several different sized pulleys on the flyer, place the drive belt on the largest pulley to begin this lesson.

The belt tension is the next thing you should set.  If, whilst you’re pedaling, you hear a slight hiss and the yarn appears to have a rather changeable desire to be sucked into the spinning wheel, then there is a high probability that the drive belt is too loose.  The belt should not be tight though, you want just enough tension, so that it doesn’t slip.

Next, slacken the bobbin brake all the way off.  What should happen now?  Correct, the flyer and the bobbin will turn at about the same rate, giving plenty of spin, but the yarn will be very reluctant to wind on to the bobbin.  This should provide you with a thin yarn, depending on the amount of fibre you are letting into the yarn.

Break off that piece of spun yarn, fold it in half, stretch it and then release it, allowing it to  twist back on itself.  This in effect, plies the yarn and thereby, retains the spin; then place it on the table.

Now add a tiny bit of tension to your bobbin brake.  Neither of my wheels comes equipped with a built-in tensioner.  David created a little gizmo for fine-tuning the Spin-Well machine, but otherwise it’s done by tightening the main drive belt.  This is not a good example when trying to show how the modern wheels work!

With that little bit of added tension on the brake, you should find that the yarn takes up a bit faster, with less spin and should therefore, be fractionally thicker than number one yarn. Break it off, ‘ply’ the piece of yarn as you did before and place it on the table, next to your second piece.

Now, tweak the brake to add just a little more tension and spin again.  Again, you should have a slightly increased take-in rate, slightly less twist and an even thicker yarn.  Break it off, ‘ply’ the piece and place it on the table, next to your second piece.

Repeat this process until either the brake runs out of adjustment (unlikely) or the yarn becomes too fat and fluffy, with barely any twist.

There, you have now demonstrated the full range of the wheel’s yarn making, for the largest or slowest drive pulley.

hand cranked spinning wheel
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A Huge Hand-Cranked Spinning Wheel - It Looks So Uncomfortable!

Now repeat this process after moving the drive belt onto the smaller size pulley.  You should discover that you can produce much finer yarn on the smaller pulley.  Why?  Because the flyer will be spinning much faster.  This will produce much more twist,  much faster, enabling you thereby, to use a smaller amount of fibre and thus produce a finer yarn.  Whereas, if the twist is added very slowly, you will find you have to feed more fibre into the yarn, otherwise it will break easily.  Speed up the spin rate and you can hold back on the fibre, but still produce a fine yarn.

If you have one or even two more pulleys on your flyer, then repeat this process for each in turn.

If your spinning wheel is a super-duper, all-singing, all-dancing machine, you might even have two or more different sized grooves on the main wheel.  In this case , you should start off with the belt in the groove of the smallest sized, main wheel and repeat the whole of the above procedure for each groove.

In my personal opinion, whilst having this amount of adjustment may seem like a great idea when you are considering buying a wheel, remember that simple is better.  We will definitely be scheduling a spinning wheel demonstration workshop this year, so you can come along and try out different wheels before buying one.  This will be a terrific workshop, so stay tuned!

Now that you have so carefully and diligently pushed your spinning wheel through its paces, you should have a selection of yarn pieces on the table, that demonstrate what you and your machine are capable of producing together.  I hope you are pleased with the results.

If your machine is bobbin-driven, you should use exactly the same procedure as outlined here and achieve the same results.  If the brake is on the flyer and not on the bobbin, then increasing the tension on the flyer will slow it down; this increases the differential in speed between the bobbin and the flyer and the yarn will wind onto the bobbin faster, just as with the flyer driven example.  Either way, the more brake tension you apply, the less spin you will achieve and the faster the yarn is taken up.

Phew!  I hope this makes sense.  It’s much more difficult to read it or even write about it than it is to actually see it and do it.  If you have a spinning wheel and you have never put it through its paces before, do it today!  If you want to buy a wheel, then come along to the wheel initiation workshop.

I didn’t get around to describing what I learned about my own machine, which uses a double-drive system and is not quite so easy for the beginner, so I will do so in my next post.  You will be shocked to learn how much I didn’t know about my machine, until recently.

feeding llamas in the winter
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Thank You Llamas

Oh, and David now has one finished glove, which he took cross-country skiing yesterday, but since the weather is considerably milder, he doesn’t need them so urgently now.  However, the second glove is almost complete and at least he’ll have a pair for the next cold spell!  It’s a really groovy glove pattern too, which I’ll write out properly and share with you here.

Until next time… keep warm!

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