Want to start spinning your own yarn with your own wheel? Here are the spinning wheel basics for complete beginners.
Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links. I use all the products listed below and recommend them because they are companies that I have found helpful and trustworthy.
If you are like me, you can’t help but be in awe when watching a spinner at work. I was a knitter for years before I finally decided to dive deeper down the fiber rabbit hole and learn to spin my own yarn. But when I started to look into different types of spinning wheels and how they worked it was like learning a new language. Every article I read was more technical than I had the experience to understand and it was pretty intimidating.
I am not an expert spinner, but there is a lot I wish I understood when I looked around for my first wheel. I hope this helps you on your fiber journey to your own handspun yarn.
Parts of a spinning wheel
To understand what you are getting with a specific spinning wheel it is important to know the parts of a spinning wheel and what they do. This will help you decide what features are important to you later.
The drive wheel is the big wheel that is the first thing you will notice when looking at a spinning wheel. This usually will face the same direction as the spinner sits, but some designs have the wheel perpendicular.
Drive wheels come in a variety of diameters, usually ranging from about 16 inches to 24 inches. The size of a drive wheel will be a factor in how fast you can spin yarn. A smaller wheel will be lighter and have more control when you are first starting to spin. A larger wheel will be heavier but have more power directed to your spinning.
Treadles are essentially foot pedals that power the drive wheel. There are two main categories of treadles for spinning wheels: double treadle, and single treadle. All this is referring to is how many feet you use to make the drive wheel spin. A double treadle wheel uses two feet while a single treadle uses one.
Many people prefer a double treadle wheel when they are learning to spin. The rhythm is similar to walking so it is easy for people to keep a steady pace.
Single treadle wheels allow for a bit more flexibility in how you sit by the wheel and you can switch out feet if one leg gets tired.
If you have ever used a sewing machine you may be familiar with bobbins for holding your bottom thread. The bobbins for a spinning wheel are very similar, although they are quite a bit larger. While you are spinning, the yarn will build up onto an empty bobbin and when you are plying (that is twisting two or more pieces of yarn or thread together) you often work from a full bobbin.
Bobbin size is an important consideration because your bobbin size will limit how much yarn you can spin without switching out bobbins. If you mostly want to spin fine yarns you may not need extra bobbin space, but if you want to spin bulky art yarns you may want to find a wheel with a large bobbin or a bulky bobbin accessory. Some wheels are compatible with different bobbin sizes, so even if the wheel you want doesn’t come with a larger bobbin, there may be one available.
The flyer is part of the spinning wheel that puts the twist into your fiber to make yarn. The rotation of the drive wheel makes the flyer spin, which makes the fiber spin. Flyers on their own always remind me of the sai wielded by Raphael in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When you get ready to spin, the metal shaft goes through the center of a bobbin and the arms fly around the bobbin, hence the name flyer.
They usually have hooks along the arms of the flyer that you move the yarn you’ve just spun around so it fills the bobbin evenly. Some flyers can seamlessly move the yarn along the side as you spin to evenly fill the bobbin without stopping.
Mother of all and Front and rear maidens
This was the strangest term I came across when I first started learning about spinning wheels. They are just terms for structural parts of the spinning wheel that hold everything together.
The Mother of All sits below the flyer and supports the maidens. The front and rear maidens hold the flyer and working bobbin.
Whorls and Ratios
One spinning wheel basic that can be very confusing for new spinners (and even a few advanced spinners) is understanding spindle whorl sizes and spinning wheel ratios.
Whorls are different size circles that help the flyer spin faster or slower, like gears on a bicycle. The smaller the whorl, the more times it will complete a circle for each spin of the drive wheel. A bigger whorl will complete fewer circles.
The ratio of a spinning wheel is exactly this relationship of drive wheel circumference to whorl circumference. So if you have an 8:1 ratio, the whorl and flyer will complete 8 rotations for every 1 rotation of the drive wheel. The bigger the ratio number, the faster your flyer will spin.
In general, lower (slower) ratios work better for bulky yarn and higher (faster) ratios work better for finer yarn. Any new wheel you purchase will likely come with a variety of whorl options to give you a range of ratios. Many wheels have different sizes of whorl available to purchase separately to expand the ratios you have available.
So what is the best spinning wheel ratio?
There is no perfect ratio!
The ratio is only a piece of the spinning experience. You will also be controlling the overall speed with how fast you are using the treadles. If one spinner moves the drive wheel very quickly but uses a larger (slower) whorl they can have a similar experience to a spinner moving the drive wheel more slowly but using a smaller (faster) whorl.
If this all seems too complicated try not to worry too much, the specific ratio you are using isn’t as important as it may seem. When you finally get your hands on a spinning wheel start with a slow whorl and get a feel for the wheel, then adjust if necessary.
Lazy Kates hold bobbins of yarn and can make plying multiple singles of yarn much easier. Some wheels come with built-in lazy kates, some can be added on, and some sit on their own.
I do recommend getting some kind of Lazy Kate, but don’t let it be a deal breaker when looking at a spinning wheel. You can even make a perfectly functional Lazy Kate with an old cardboard box and some dowels.
Spinning Wheel Tension
When you first start shopping for spinning wheels one phrase you will see pop up time and time again is tension. To make the bobbin take up yarn as you are spinning there needs to be a bit of pressure on it so the bobbin stays in place while the flyer spins around it. The two types of tension you will see on most wheels are Scotch tension or Double Drive. Some wheels can even be set up with either form of tension. There are other forms of tension such as Irish tension or a bobbin lead, but since this overview is meant to not overwhelm you, we will focus on the most common types.
Double-drive wheels have tension on the whorl and the bobbin coming from the drive wheel. You can easily spot double-drive systems because they will have two tension bands going around the drive wheel. This is a classic style of spinning wheel tension is often seen on traditional spinning wheels.
This is a slightly more modern style of tensioning a spinning wheel. You will still have a tension band around the drive wheel but you will also have separate tension on one end of the bobbin from a spring, usually below the bobbin on the mother of all.
Scotch tension is great for beginner spinners because it is so easy to set up and adjust. Most easily acquired spinning wheels come with Scotch tension as its tension system or as an optional setup.
So which kind of tension should I use?
To be honest with you, I had never tried spinning with double-drive before. I had only used Scotch tension. As I was writing this section I wasn’t sure what to say without a first hand experience. Using this lack of knowledge as inspiration I took out my wheel, (miraculously) found the manual and extra drive band, and switched my tension from Scotch to double-drive.
As far as set up and adjusting the tension, Scotch tension was slightly easier since all you have to do is twist a knob. When it came to spinning fiber, the double-drive setup had a gentler pull than I am used to and when I relaxed and let myself spin naturally I found I produced a finer yarn more easily than with Scotch tension. It is also entirely possible I have my Scotch tension too strong.
Don’t be intimidated by either style of tension and if you have a wheel that can do both, don’t limit yourself to just one method. Try them both and you may be surprised!
Types of spinning wheels
There are several different styles of spinning wheels but the two most common styles you will see are Saxony wheels and castle wheels. If you are brand new to spinning you will most likely choose one of these. As much as I love a giant walking wheel, I don’t think anyone starts their spinning journey there. There are also electric spinners that are very compact and can make spinning accessible for people who may not be able to use treadles, but those are separate items of discussion.
The design of specific wheels can vary widely within these categories from ultra-sleek and modern to very classic. Keep in mind your preferred aesthetic when shopping for a spinning wheel. You want to enjoy your wheel in every way possible every time you sit down to spin.
Saxony-style spinning wheels are the classic fairy tale-esque wheel that is probably the first thing you think of when you think of a spinning wheel.
In general, a Saxony wheel will be fairly large. The drive wheel will sit off to one side from the flyer. They are usually more expensive than castle wheels and not everyone has space to store one. If you have the space and the budget there is no reason you couldn’t start with this style of wheel.
Castle-style wheels are more compact than Saxony wheels. The drive wheel usually sits below the flyer instead of off to the side, giving a much smaller footprint. The drive wheels on castle wheels are generally smaller than ones found on Saxony-style wheels, but there is some overlap between the larger castle wheels and the smaller Saxony wheels.
One thing you will notice when looking at castle-style wheels is many of them are designed to travel. They are smaller and lighter weight to begin with, but many are designed to fold up and take with you wherever you may find yourself wanting to spin.
Castle wheels also are a good choice for a beginner wheel because they are so versatile and generally less expensive than Saxony wheels.
spinning wheel comparison guide
Here are a couple of quick guides to help you compare some different wheels that are available. Whether you prefer the aesthetics of a modern wheel or a traditional wheel, there are options available. This is not an exhaustive list but should help you get started on your search for a wheel.
*Prices listed as of June 2023 on The Woolery website.
What type of wheel should you choose?
It may seem overwhelming trying to pick out your first spinning wheel. As long as it isn’t broken and you have the room and budget for a wheel, you can spin with just about anything. The most important thing is to remember to have fun and enjoy watching your spinning wheel work.
If you want to see more about spinning, click here.
Have more questions about spinning wheels? Let me know in the comments below!