THE TRUTH IN SPINNING
By Bill Wyatt
What is a custom built spinning wheel? The majority of spinning wheels made today are made on automatic machines, and for the most part they work fairly well. Custom wheels are handmade, and are usually one of a kind. Wyatt wheels are truly custom spinning wheels. Each part is hand made and I only build one wheel at a time. After a wheel is finished, I spin on it until it meets my exacting standards.
When I first started to spin, I knew very little about spinning wheels. I bought a commercially available wheel kit, and put it all together and more or less taught myself to spin. I have somewhat of a mechanical mind and thought I could build a better wheel. It took me about three months, and a lot of research to come up with a working wheel. Since that first one, I have made quite a few improvements and think I have come up with a spinning wheel that is as near perfect as one can make.
I only make wheels on order and let the customer choose options such as; ratios, type of wood, left or right handed, orifice height, etc. All wheels are serial numbered, dated, and signed. They also come with a certificate of authenticity. . Also, a brass plaque with the name of the person the wheel was made for and the year it was made.
A spinning wheel is nothing more than a tool to twist fiber. The way they work is very close from wheel to wheel. Most spinning wheels have either a double drive or a single drive band. The double drive band looks like two strings but is only actually only one that goes around twice, crossing once as it goes around the wheel. Drive bands are usually made of cotton string, but some wheels use a poly or plastic band.
The double drive wheels that I make (Norwegian and Saxony) have a double drive unless the person wants Scotch tension. I’ll explain all the spinning jargon a little later. Let’s start with this ratio thing. The ratio of a wheel, or how many times the spindle turns, with one revolution of the wheel; such as 12 to 1, means every time the main wheel makes one complete revolution the spindle turns around 12 times. So if you draft one inch of fiber with each turn of the wheel, you will have a yarn with 12 twists per inch. I have used a digital tachometer on many wheels, tracking all sorts of people spinning, and with all kinds of ratios, and they would be turning the flyer or spindle approximately 750 rpm (revolutions per minute). A good spinner might make 1000 rpm whereas a slow spinner about 500 rpm. I would have them change ratios and go back to spinning and after awhile they would be back at roughly the same rpm. They would just treadle a little faster or a little slower to make up for the change in ratio. Some spinners treadle at a constant speed and vary their drafting or change the whorl size. I think, and it’s just my own thought, that you have more latitude in your yarn if you can vary the speed of the wheel to meet the needs of the fiber you’re spinning.
I like to spin on the Great Wheel, which has a ratio of over 200 to 1, and I can spin super fine to rug type yarn with the same ratio and not worry about twist per inch. I just turn the wheel the speed that produces the type of yarn that I want. There are a few people that say you need to know the exact ratio to spin a yarn with so many twists per inch, but I have found that as you gain experience you will be able to make a very consistent yarn with the twist you want with just about any ratio. Most spinners like a ratio of about 12 to1. They change their treadling speed or drafting speed to produce the required twist. There is no way you can count the twist on the Great wheel when you are making the spindle turn at 4000 rpm, you just vary the draft to get the yarn you want. My standard whorl has three ratios, 8/1, 12/1, and 16/1. I can very easily spin at 32/1 by treadling twice my normal speed on the 16/1 whorl or 4/1 on the 8/1 whorl with half speed treadling, or anything in between. The real worth of a wheel is how easy it treadles and how smooth it spins.
I find that most spinners do not really understand how the flyer and bobbin work together to spin and wind on. There are two basic ways that a flyer assembly (flyer and the bobbin) work, one is flyer lead and the other is bobbin lead. The double drive is an example of bobbin lead. The whorl or pulley on the bobbin is smaller than the one on the flyer. The drive band goes around the main wheel, over the bobbin pulley, over the main wheel again and then over the flyer pulley. Because the bobbin pulley is smaller it wants to turn a little faster than the flyer if there is enough tension on the drive band. In actual spinning the tension is set to let the bobbin slip while the flyer is twisting the fiber and wind on when the spinner lets up on the drafting hand. The tension has to be adjusted with enough pressure to wind on but not so tight that the yarn is pulled away from you. The best way I have found is to hold the flyer still with one hand and then pull out on the yarn from the orifice with the other one and set the tension just so it pulls out with just a small amount of drag.
There are several ways to change the tension on spinning wheels. The most common on a traditional wheel is a hand screw, wood or metal that moves the flyer assembly fore and aft to change the friction on the drive band. On some, mainly Canadian wheels, the flyer assembly tilts back and forth to change tension. One of the fallacies in spinning is that the bottom of the groove on the bobbin has to be rounded and made very smooth so that the bobbin will slip very easily. If the bobbins slip too easily you will need more tension to get any wind on and more tension just makes the wheel harder to treadle. Remember that the drive band is only one string going around the wheel twice and any tension on the bobbin also affects the flyer whorl. Because the flyer pulley, being larger, has more surface area than the bobbin pulley, the tension on it is always more. If the flyer and bobbin pulleys both have a sharp V groove, the band can get a lot of friction with very little tension so that the bobbin will slip and the flyer will still spin with almost no tension and the wheel will spin with very little effort. Another thing I don’t know where or when it started, but some whorls have a left hand thread. There is hardly any pressure on the whorl when you’re spinning, so a right hand thread works fine, and besides when you ply the whorl is turning the other direction. It doesn’t really matter, but we are use to turning things counterclockwise to loosen.
The Wyatt wheels have sharp grooves on the bobbin and whorl, and along with the double treadle make a very smooth spinning wheel that almost spins by itself. The double treadle though not necessary, does give you two power strokes per revolution and adds to the smoothness of the wheel. The Wyatt treadle is a true heel and toe with no slop so that you really have four power strokes using your heels to keep the wheel momentum going.
The other most common spinning type is flyer lead or better known as Scotch tension. A single wrap string (only once around the wheel) drives just the flyer whorl. The bobbin has a brake of some sort; usually a string or monofilament line such as light weed eater string going half around the pulley. One end is fastened to an adjustment knob and the other to a light spring, giving the bobbin a drag to hold it back in relation to the flyer. This lets the yarn wrap around the bobbin because the flyer is turning a little faster than the bobbin or flyer lead. Spinners like Scotch tension because they say the tension can be set very soft to spin a light loose yarn, which it does very nicely. If a double drive (bobbin lead) is made correctly it will spin the same type of yarn, I think, just as well. The Wyatt Wheels require very little adjustment of the tension screw from just starting, to a full bobbin. If you start with a little too much tension, but still controllable, you don’t have to touch the tension at all.
Another bobbin lead is called Indian head or Irish tension, where the flyer has some sort of brake such as a small leather strap rubbing on the spindle near the orifice to make it turn slower than the bobbin. A single band drives the bobbin. Here again the bobbin turns a little faster than the flyer, making it bobbin lead. Some folks think that there is a magic ratio between the bobbin whorl and the flyer whorl. The bobbin whorl has to be smaller than the flyers or you won’t have any wind on. If the pulleys were the same size, the bobbin would turn the same rpm as the flyer and the yarn would not wind on. All you really need is a bobbin pulley about 2/3 the size of the flyer’s whorl. The smaller the bobbin pulley, the faster the wind on, but you can’t go too small because the surface area would get too little to have enough drag without using too much tension.
Spinners that like to spin fast, want a high ratio and usually have a so called production wheel, one with a large main wheel, around 30 inches, and a ratio of 20/1 or higher. If the wheel is made to tract true with the whorl and the flyer assembly is balanced, you can spin just as fast and do it on a much smaller wheel with very little effort. The Wyatt 24-inch wheels with the standard whorl will handle just about any yarn you care to spin. One of the reasons is the flyer is balanced on a magnetic balancer and can be turned very fast with no vibration. Also, the horizontal spindles on the Norwegian, which are threaded through the wheel post, allow you to tract the wheel by turning the spindle, moving the wheel side-to-side, keeping the drive band inline with flyer whorl and cutting down on friction and making treadling much easier. Some features of the Wyatt wheel include ball bearings in the bobbins and a starter yarn clip that lets you attach the starter yarn without tying it. When you stop spinning there is a notch on the rear of the front flyer bearing that lets you park the yarn without the normal half hitches around the maidens. Another feature is a small brass post on the rear flyer bearing to hang the band when you change the bobbin. The main wheel has ball bearings and the flyer assembly runs in Delron bearings. There is zero slop or movement where the pitman arms connect the treadle to the crankshaft of the wheel. This makes for a very smooth and quiet running wheel. None of the parts require oil, but I recommend using light oil on the flyer and pitman arm bearings, which are also Delron, and wiping the spindle shaft now and then with a rag to keep things clean and running quiet.
The other type of spinning wheel is the spindle wheel, such as the Great Wheel and the Charka. Spinning on a spindle is a little different than spinning on a flyer wheel. You have no bobbin just a shaft, or spindle that turns. You spin by holding the yarn at about a 45-degree angle to the tip and turning the spindle letting the yarn spiral out to, and then falling off the tip. Each time the yarn falls off the tip, (once per turn of the spindle) one twist is added to the yarn.
The Great Wheel is also called the walking wheel; because the spinner walks back from the wheel to spin then walks forward to wind on. Winding on is very easy, you just stop turning the wheel and then turn a little the other direction to take the spiral off the spindle, stop turning and then move your drafting hand over near the wheel and turn the wheel the same way as you spin. Most Great Wheels were direct drive, meaning the spindle was driven directly from the big wheel and were around 50/1 (for each turn of the wheel the spindle would turn 50 times). In the early 1800’s a man by the name of Amos Miner (sometimes spelled Minor) invented the accelerator head which increased the spindle speed three or four times. This was a real improvement over the direct drive and in its hay day the Miner head was turned out at the rate of 4500 per week at a cost of .49 cents each. At the end of the 19th century there was estimated to be around three million Great Wheels in this country. Some think the Great Wheel is only good to spin wool on, (another name is the wool wheel) but you can spin just about any thing you can on a treadle wheel. You can also ply on the Great just as easily.
The Charka wheels spin exactly like the Great except you can only draft as far as you can reach, where as the Great you can walk back a long way, on the order of 6 to 8 feet or more.
The Wyatt Great Wheel has two speeds, 50/1 and 200/1. The high speed is great for most spinning, especially cotton. The low speed is good for learning or if you have cantankerous fibers that take two hands to draft. To use two-hand drafting give the wheel a good spin, and being on the slow speed the wheel will spin a long time allowing you to draft for a much longer period. The Wyatt Great Wheel has all ball bearings and requires no oil. The spindle rides in what looks like traditional leather bearings but they have ball bearings inside the leather. To change speed from 50/1 to 200/1 or back, takes about 20 seconds, you just switch the drive band to the larger pulley on the accelerator wheel. The spindle is slanted back about 7 degrees back. This makes winding on easier because the angle of the spindle let you clear the wheel better as you wind on.
The Charka goes way back in history. It is still used in parts of the world today, without much change. Most people don’t realize that most fabric was not made on a spinning wheel or even a charka, but on a drop spindle, which in its simplest form is nothing but a weight such as stone or clay on the end of a stick. The robes and gowns of long ago, even the sails of Columbus’ ship, were made on drop spindles. Somebody, over a thousand years ago, got the bright idea to turn the spindle with a wheel and the Charka was born. Nobody really knows when and where the spinning wheel was invented; the best guess is India or China. I tend to lean towards China because of silk, which is a story in itself.
The Wyatt Charka is a little different than the original one, mainly because it has an accelerator wheel very similar to the Great Wheel. I make them with a ratio of around 30/1. Here goes that ratio thing again. Because you turn the wheel on the Charka much faster than you do on the Great Wheel you wind up with about the same yarn. Some Charkas have very high ratios such as 180 to1, but the effort to turn such a high ratio takes quite a bit of effort, and some of the small Charkas such as the little book Charka, has a stick that you have to sit on to hold the wheel down. I have found that around 30/1 works fine and you can spin super fine cotton with a lot of twist with little effort. The Wyatt Charka has a table clamp, but you don’t really need it for most spinning. When you are learning or have a fiber that doesn’t want to draft real easy, it helps to use the clamp, but most the time it is not necessary to use it.
I hope this helps you to understand what makes a spinning wheel tick. I like to think that the Wyatt Wheels, which I put every effort into making them as close to perfect as I can, will be around for many years and handed down as a true heirloom that represent a piece of history.