How many people does it take to fix a spinning wheel?


Alden Amos showing Linda how to get the most out of a wheel.

Alden Amos hand-turning parts for his spinning wheels.

The Schacht Spindle Company factory floor. (Can you spot Elvis?)

Cindy Lair showing Linda about tension.

Possessed drive bands and other quick fixes

A spinning wheel is a machine, right? Big wheel goes around, little wheel turns, yarn twists, different wheel ratios make yarn wind onto bobbin. Foot makes big wheel go around. All the moving parts are right there where you can see them. As machines go, it's pretty simple. If the drive band breaks, I can replace it—unlike my car, which required a host of computers, robots, zombies, whatever, to fix one little switch thingie.

Besides its simplicity, though, a big difference between my spinning wheels and my car or my refrigerator is that the former were made by people. I mean, made by people I know. Somehow that feels right. If I'm going to make yarn from scratch, it's good to do it with a simple machine made by real people.

So it was with great delight that I visited a couple of wheel makers recently, to record their knowledge of spinning wheels and how to get the best performance out of them. Alden Amos is one of a vanishing breed of people who make spinning wheels one by one. His workshop is a joyful jumble of tools, cats, wood stock, oddments—but everything is right where he knows it is.

I learned so much hanging out there for a day. For instance, on my double-drive wheel, a frequent problem has been that the drive band will just fly off, as if possessed. I know that one cause can be that the drive wheel and the flyer whorl aren't lined up. That's pretty easy to troubleshoot and fix. But I didn't know that the way the drive cord loops can cause this mischief. The path of the loop can work just fine for spinning, but it might need to be reversed for plying. Now I know, and now I can fix it.

A visit with Cindy Lair at Schacht Spindle Company is a very different experience. The factory is a model of efficiency and state-of-the-art production machines (well, if you discount the Elvis posters and one little friendly mouse). But it's still all about people paying attention and actually touching and taking responsibility for what they make. Computer-driven machines cut out precision wheel parts, but actual people fine-tune, sand, finish, and assemble.

So much to learn. One of my wheels has a synthetic, seamless drive band—a great convenience. I had never thought about how to deal with the stretchiness of the material, though, until Cindy showed me about adjusting the tension, or just waiting a while. And as for lubrication, White Grease, here I come! Well, for some things, anyway.

We are so lucky to have a host of wheel makers, from one-at-a-timers to large production runners, and everything in between. And like Alden and Cindy, they are universally generous with their know-how and advice. In Know Your Wheel, you'll see a lot of different wheels—Ashford, Haldane, Schacht, Lendrum, Louet. You'll get useful hints, solid grounding in how wheels work, and best of all, the confidence to be the master of your machine. Wish you could have been there with me. (Actually, you could be, sort of. It's all in the video.)

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