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Get started spinning: drive ratios

behind the scenesAlicia de los Reyes2 Comments

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?

Whorls for my Schacht Reeves wheel. I write the ratio for each groove of the whorl on the back for easy reference. Because the drive wheel on the Schacht Reeves is very big—30 inches—the ratios are high.

Whorls for my Schacht Reeves wheel. I write the ratio for each groove of the whorl on the back for easy reference. Because the drive wheel on the Schacht Reeves is very big—30 inches—the ratios are high.

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

behind the scenesAlicia de los ReyesComment

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!