Get started spinning: what's a drive system and why you care

In the Sheepspot newsletter, I'm working on a series that introduces you to spinning. Part 1 was all about spindle spinning, Part 2 covered what you need to do before you buy a spinning wheel, and Part 3 discussed what type of wheel to buy. Want to join in? Subscribe here.

Spinning wheels are fascinating machines, and if you're just getting started with using one, you might find them intimidating. Sheepspot is here to help. Read on to learn about a key aspect of what makes a spinning wheel spin yarn: its drive system.

When you spin on a spinning wheel you exert energy by pushing down on the treadles with your feet. That energy turns the drive wheel. What happens next depends on the wheel’s drive system—how the drive wheel interacts with the flyer and the bobbin. The drive system transfers the energy from the drive wheel to the bobbin and flyer via the drive band, a piece of string or elastic tubing. How exactly it does this varies from wheel to wheel: some wheels can use only one drive system, while others can be set up in different ways with different drive systems.

A Scotch tension system.

A Scotch tension system.

The drive system is one of the factors that affects how strongly the yarn is “taken up” or wound onto the bobbin, and each drive system has advantages and disadvantages, depending on how you spin and the kind of yarn you want to make.

The first drive system I’m going to discuss is called “Scotch tension.” On a Scotch tension wheel, the drive band goes around the drive wheel and around a whorl (some folks call whorls “pulleys”) that’s attached to the flyer. Another string goes around the bobbin; this is called the brake band, and it ensures that the flyer and bobbin rotate at different speeds. Those different speeds are what makes the yarn wind on to the bobbin. When spinning on a scotch tension wheel, you tighten or loosen the brake band to adjust the amount of tension, or take-up, on the yarn as you spin.

A double drive system.

A double drive system.

Another common drive system is called “double drive.” In double drive, a single long string is looped twice around the drive wheel; one of the loops goes around a whorl on the flyer, and one of them goes around a smaller whorl on the bobbin. The difference in the size of the two whorls makes the flyer and the bobbin turn at different rates, causing the yarn to pull onto the bobbin. On a double-drive wheel, two factors affect the take-up: the difference in size between the two whorls, and the amount of tension on the drive band.

The final drive system is called “Irish tension.” In this case, a single drive band goes around the drive wheel and the bobbin. The brake band on an Irish tension wheel is positioned to adjust the speed of the flyer.

Many spinners form a deep attachment to the drive system that drove the wheel on which they learned to spin, and experienced spinners love to debate the pros and cons of the various systems. Drive systems aren’t destiny: if you’re a good enough spinner, you’ll eventually be able to spin any yarn on any wheel. That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think Scotch tension wheels are the best for beginners because they are simplest to adjust and very versatile. So my advice is to look for either for a Scotch tension wheel or, for the best of all possible worlds, for a wheel that can be set up in Scotch tension and other drive systems as well.

Feeling in a little lost? Click the button below to get a handy printable cheat sheet about the different drive systems emailed right to your inbox!