In this series, I'm sharing the basics of learning to spin: what you'll need, how to get started, and resources (all of which I've used myself). In case you missed it, part 1 (all about spindle spinning) is right here, part 2 (on the one step you need to do before you buy a wheel) is here, and part 3 (what type of wheel to buy) is here. Part 4, a dive into drive systems, is here on the blog.
Last week, we talked about drive systems. Though each of the three drive systems (double drive, Scotch tension, and Irish tension) work a little differently, the principles of drive ratios apply to all three.
What’s a drive ratio? Technically, it’s the ratio of size of the flyer whorl (in double drive or Scotch tension) or bobbin whorl (in Irish tension) to the drive wheel. But what does that mean to you?
Drive ratios are just like gears on a bicycle; you can shift between them to go faster with fewer revolutions. This allows you to put more or less twist into your singles without altering your treadling rate, which, once you've been spinning for a while, can be hard to change.
On a spinning wheel, you “switch gears” or change your drive ratio by putting your drive band or brake band around whorls of different sizes (or, on some wheels, around different grooves of the same whorl). A bigger whorl/groove will put less twist into your singles, while a smaller one will put in more, assuming that you're treadling at the same rate.
When you’re just learning to spin on a wheel, you're likely to want to use a medium to slow ratio. But once you’ve settled into the rhythm of spinning on a wheel, you might want a faster speed for finer, shorter fibers (like Targhee or Cormo) and a slower speed for longer wools (like Coopworth or Perendale). You might also want to spin faster when you ply (twist two or more singles together).
So why is this information important for you as a beginning spinner? Because when you're shopping for wheels, I want you to be sure to ask about what drive ratios the wheel can support, because as you advance in your spinning, you'll likely want to have as big a range as possible available to you, so you can spin the greatest possible range of yarns easily. The number of available drive ratios is one of the things that separates most inexpensive "starter" wheels that you might outgrow quickly from more versatile wheels that can accommodate you as you grow as a spinner.
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