When someone asks you what kind of spinning wheel
you have (or lust after), you might answer
with a brand name (oooh! Schacht-Reeves)
or a style (Saxony or castle). More generically,
wheels are described by how they work
mechanically: spindle wheels and flyer
(also called flyer-and-bobbin) wheels.
Modern spinners are most familiar with
flyer wheels because they dominate the
current wheel market.
But flyer wheels are younger than their driven-spindle cousins.
For millennia, the hand spindle ruled
across the globe, and when the first spinning wheels appeared
(some say in India, others argue for China), they were based
on the spindle (see Patricia Baines’s Spinning Wheels, Spinners, and Spinning for
a lovely historical tour).
Picture a spindle turned on its side, and you’ll get the
Spindle wheels are fairly simple, mechanically speaking. A pointed
shaft (the spindle) is turned by a larger,
usually hand-operated, drive wheel.
Since the spinner needs one hand to power the large wheel, drafting
must be accomplished with the other hand.
The spinner spins off the tip of the spindle
at about a 30 degree angle. And once the length of yarn has been
twisted, the spinner must stop drafting to wind the yarn onto the
spindle before repeating the process. Thus, you can’t spin
continuously on a spindle wheel. Great wheels (also called walking
or wool wheels) and charkas are examples of spindle wheels.
Grande wheel has a spindle but allows continuous and
two-handed spinning, so I’m not including it as an example
here.) Florence Feldman-Wood, editor of
the Spinning Wheel
Sleuth newsletter, has
other interesting images of early spindle
In general, spindle wheels tend to have high ratios, which make
them great for producing high-twist singles, especially from short-stapled
fibers such as fine wools and cotton. Spindle wheels are not as
efficient for plying.
For those who needed to spin out of necessity rather than
for leisure, all that stopping to wind on must have seemed
like a significant disadvantage, and the flyer wheel was born
out of the need for a machine that would allow continuous spinning.
As with much of the history of everyday
life, the exact locations and dates of what were probably simultaneous
developments have been lost, but most sources agree that flyer
wheels were known in Europe by the fifteenth century. The spindle
of the earlier spindle wheel became the shaft that holds the
bobbin with a U-shaped flyer rotating around it.
The earliest images
of flyer wheels show a hand-operated
wheel; it seems that the foot-powered
treadle was a later addition. Pulleys (whorls) with different
circumferences on the bobbin and shaft enabled the fiber to
be twisted into yarn and simultaneously wound onto the bobbin.
Once the treadle was
added, the spinner could use both hands
to draft. We may take it for granted
when we sit down at our flyer wheels
today, but this must have been an incredible development: the
ability to spin without stopping!
For a highly technical and entertaining exposition on “differential
rotational speed,” the
principle that allows flyer wheels to
add twist while winding yarn onto the
bobbin, pick up The
Ald en Amos Big Book of Handspinning and sit down
with a pint to ponder the intricacies.
If you’re the kind of spinner who loves to read about
the history of spinning wheels and tools, you’ll enjoy A
Book of Spinning Wheels by Joan Whittaker Cummer and A
Pictorial Guide to American Spinning Wheels by D. Pennington
and M. Tyler. Both books have lots of photos of a great variety
of antique wheels—both spindle and flyer—including
some very unusual pendulum and double-flyer wheels.
In the next Spinner’s Glossary, we’ll take a look
at the categories of flyer wheels, which are based on the drive
and tensioning systems. Stay tuned!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel
when she was twelve in a summer workshop at
Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She
bought her own wheel in 1990, and she’s
been at it since then. Lee is the designer
of several patterns published in Knitty, including
Shroom and Brighton.