“Why should I learn to spin? I can buy any yarn I might want or need at my local yarn shop or big box store. It’s just yarn, you know?”
“Spinning is a lost art! We need to save crafts like spinning that are in danger of dying.”
“I would love to learn to spin. I even have an old wheel a friend gave me. It looks complicated though and I’m just not that coordinated.”
“Isn’t hand spinning something people used to do because they had to hundreds of years ago?”
“My budget is tight right now. I’m interested in learning to spin but using a spindle seems too challenging and I don’t have much money to spend on a wheel. Besides, I have no idea how to even get started.”
Hand spinning is an ancient and, until more recently, a necessary craft. Though households no longer depend on their ability to make yarn to keep family members warm it is neither anachronistic to choose to spin today nor is it a dead or dying art. As a quick internet search or a chat with a spinner will reveal spinning as a skill is alive and quite well, no saving necessary (though the well-meaning intention is appreciated).
Just as woodworking, weaving, sewing and other heritage crafts enjoy periods of renewed interest spinning has as well. Today many of these crafts actually have very active and engaged communities not only keeping old traditions alive but building new techniques and skills from them. There are a wealth of opportunities to connect and learn both online and in person and all are welcome. You’re in excellent company if you would like to learn!
Contemporary hand spinners choose to spin for a variety of reasons. They may be interested in creating yarn that has been carefully planned from start to finish by selecting a particular fiber for its luster or softness and using a certain technique to achieve a desired end result. They may spin because they raise fiber animals and enjoy working with their fleeces, hair or fur or enjoy re-creating a historical craft. Spinners may choose to spin to complement their other fiber art interests or they may find crafting yarn to be a relaxing and therapeutic hobby. Spinning can be useful in mindfulness or meditative practices and serve as a means to quiet the mind and center thoughts. And spinners may also spin for the simple thrill of watching colorful fiber transform into yarn that appeals to their inner magpie.
Hand spinning is less complicated than it might seem at first glance. Simply put, spindles and wheels are tools designed with the same singular purpose: to put twist into fiber and make yarn. The difference between them can be thought of like taking a trip by bicycle or by car. Though the journey may differ between the two they can both share the same destination.
Spindles are an excellent, low cost tool to get started spinning. They’re portable, generally inexpensive and are far easier to use than they might appear to be at first glance. I like to suggest new spinners at least give spindle spinning a try (or multiple tries) before considering buying a wheel to get started with. If the idea seems daunting keep in mind that most of us routinely interact with complicated technologies on a daily basis. Learning to use a whorl on a stick to make string with can be challenging at first but isn’t difficult in comparison.
If you’ve started using a spindle and are at the point of being ready to throw up your hands in frustration it’s perfectly ok to put spinning in time out and walk away. Consider some very good advice from the Beginning Spinning group on Ravelry. Be kind to yourself and hang in there. Grab a cup of your favorite relaxing drink or turn on music or a television show you enjoy. You might be pleasantly surprised that with time, something to help relax and keep you from overthinking and perhaps changing up a few variables spindle spinning clicks with you. It might even become fun.
You aren’t expected to spin raw fleece “in the grease” but you can choose to. Choosing to spin in the grease could be a nod to traditional spinning, a yarn design decision to take advantage of the lanolin or a learning experience choice. Many contemporary hand spinners choose to use fiber that has been scoured and prepared by a mill. Or we may choose to clean and prep raw fiber ourselves if inclined to do so. Mills wash and comb or card fiber into ready to spin preparations like top, roving or batts. Many times the fiber is dyed and there are a wealth of commercial and independently dyed fibers available to buy, such as those available from TVH member fiber producers. There are also fiber types ranging from different sheep breed wools to flax and cotton to newer manufactured fibers like tencel and soy silk.
New spinners are usually guided to choose a medium wool like Romney or Corriedale to start with as they have a good texture and staple length to make them easier to manage. (Barb Keyes’ colorful one ounce “dollar balls” are a great choice to get started with.) If you find the fiber you’re using isn’t working for you change it up and try something new. The yarn you’re making now is just as important as the yarn you’ll make later on. If you find you’re frequently frustrated with your starter fiber it is absolutely ok to treat yourself to fiber you love. Call it a sanity investment. Don’t let the feeling that you should use poor quality fiber so you don’t waste good inadvertently turn you off to a delightful hobby. If you don’t have the budget to buy better fiber try one or a couple of Barb’s dollar balls. Or a kindhearted guild friend will probably be glad to gift you some. We all want to see new spinners succeed, not struggle trying to make bad fiber behave in the name of thrift.
If you have decided to buy a first wheel it’s wise to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the parts of a wheel, wheel styles and drive types, researching reviews and test driving as many wheels as you are able to sit down in front of before purchasing anything. Think of buying your first wheel as you would a car. Spend time researching options and talking with other spinners, visit several dealers, kick some tires (so to speak), take the ones that pique your interest out for a spin and then try the ones that aren’t necessarily one of your first choices. You might be surprised by a wheel that unexpectedly clicks with you or has a style, setup or feature you find you really like after trying it that you can incorporate into your search.
As part of your test drive process perhaps you have a friend who spins and who would let you spend time with one of their wheels? Joining TVH also gives you access to borrowing one of the guild’s wheels after you’ve been a dues paid and meeting attending member for several months. And events like the Smoky Mountain Fiber Arts Festival, Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival, Fiber in the Boro and the Southeastern Animal and Fiber Festival (SAFF) are also great opportunities to test drive and experience a variety of wheel types and makes.
Finding and establishing a relationship with a dealer who can help answer questions, provide setup and repair services and offer basic instruction is a very useful thing for someone just getting started. Some dealers may even let you borrow or rent a floor model wheel for in-class use if you choose to take a spinning class with them. We are fortunate to have several local yarn shops in and around Knoxville that are dealers for manufacturers like Ashford, Louet, Schacht and Majacraft and who offer spinning classes. Check the resource list below for more information on these shops.
Many new contemporary wheels are what’s known as “kit wheels” or “kitsets,” meaning the wheel is a flat packed into a kit for shipping and needs to be assembled. Kit wheel assembly is generally easy — if you can assemble a modular shelf unit or Ikea type furniture you should be fine. If you have questions or run into difficulty dealers and manufacturers can help. Some dealers may assemble wheels for customers (and may even offer wood finishing services for unfinished models). If interested ask your dealer if these services are available.
If you’ve inherited, been gifted or have found a wheel for free and you are able to get it to spin then, by all means use it and enjoy! We have had many new spinners bring in vintage wheels found stuffed in the back of closets, gifted by a friend who used to spin or inherited from a family member. Often these wheels turn out to be Ashfords and Louets, in which case new parts and accessories may be available if needed. Some oil, a fresh drive band and a little TLC can quite frequently do wonders for bringing vintage wheels back to life.
If you are interested in buying a used wheel from Craigslist or from an antiques vendor specifically to learn to spin on consider spending some time researching before committing to purchase. Many antique and vintage wheels may be functional or can be made functional again and in the hands of an experienced spinner these wheels can be treasures. However, without knowing what to look for or background mechanical knowledge those wheels could be a waste of money (in other words, not a bargain) and a source of frustration if they need parts and repair before they can be used or turn out not be functional at all. And choosing a used wheel relies very heavily on that one key word: functionality.
If a wheel is determined to be functional or potentially functional consider what it would take to make it functional again. For example, the wheel may only have one bobbin, be missing or have broken essential parts (which, in some cases, may have to be custom made by a woodworker or machine shop) and/or require repair or restoration. I see “Museum Quality” in some ads for antique wheels. Museum quality is just a way to describe the value or desirability of antiques or collectibles. It has nothing to do with describing the wheel’s functionality. I could describe a Volkswagen bus that’s been sitting in storage for the last forty years as being of “museum quality” but that wouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not it could actually be made to run again (or how easily a willing and knowledgeable mechanic, the necessary parts and the money to make it all happen could be found).
For those who are looking to buy used locally here is a short guide to used wheel types that turn up on the Knoxville and regional Craigslists and in area antique malls:
Great or Walking Wheels: The most common of any wheel type posted on the Knoxville Craigslist and found in our local antique malls. They’re frequently described as “primitive” or “wool” wheels. Although they make lovely decor pieces and some can be restored by experienced spinners interested in a period spinning experience they probably aren’t going to be a good choice for someone wanting to get started.
The great wheel is straightforward and elegant in design. Unfortunately, when these wheels turn up for sale locally they are often missing parts; are warped, weathered or damaged or are overpriced because of antique market pricing. A well-intentioned seller may have even attached or swapped out odd parts to make it look intact when doing so could have actually damaged or destroyed the wheel’s functionality. If you are curious about what an intact and functional great wheel looks like and how it works Knitty has an article on the subject you may find interesting.
Other Antique Wheels Including Flax Wheels: Other antique wheels are somewhat less commonly listed than great wheels in this area. Many of these “fairy tale” style wheels are antiques and will require some level of repair or restoration. Some of these wheels were even built as decorative pieces and were never intended to be functional in the first place. (These are also known as SWSO – Spinning Wheel Shaped Objects.) Here’s a great post on “three really bad examples of antique wheels” including a SWSO style I’ve seen pop up on our local Craigslist on several occasions. (The same author has several other blog entries on evaluating antique wheels that are worth reading as well.)
If you are completely new to wheel spinning but have the assistance of a fellow spinner experienced with discerning the functionality of these wheels and who is knowledgeable about their restoration and care these wheels may be feasible. However, they may provide a less than ideal beginning experience or easy learning curve. In some circumstances these wheels can be excellent tools in the hands of experienced spinners who are familiar with their care and maintenance (and who have likely made the acquaintance of a wood worker who can make parts and bobbins).
If you have some spinning experience and are considering purchasing an antique wheel the Spinning Wheel Sleuth website has a good guide to evaluating and pricing potentially functional antique wheels that may be helpful to you. If you are drawn to the romance of spinning with a “fairy tale” wheel but the idea of tackling research, repair and restoration of antique wheels is daunting you’re in luck — a number of contemporary manufacturers like Kromski and Ashford make new wheels that combine an antique-like aesthetic with modern functionality.
Contemporary Wheels: Contemporary made wheels turn up from time to time on the Knoxville Craigslist and can be found somewhat more frequently on the Asheville and other regional Craigslists.
Ashford has been making the Traditional (aka”Traddy”) since the mid-sixties and it is a reliably solid, basic wheel. Parts are readily available and multiple local and regional dealers offer service and support. Ashford also makes the Traveller and Kiwi/Kiwi 2, both of which would also be good first wheels.
The Louet S10 is another kit wheel and was developed in the 1970’s. It is also a solid, basic wheel and needs a minimum of maintenance. Parts are also readily available and local dealer support and regional dealer service is available. Louet also makes other wheels like the budget-friendly S17 and S15 (out of production but can still be found) that are good first wheel choices. The classic S10 has been discontinued in 2015 and re-released as the S10 Concept. Ask a Louet dealer for more information about options for this new variation.
Lendrum wheels turn up on occasion. They are excellent wheels for someone looking to invest in a versatile wheel that can grow with them. Regional dealer service and support is available.
We have several Schacht dealers in our area. Their Ladybug wheel is a great value and has two drive systems built in (scotch tension and double drive). It is a solid wheel that travels well and will make new and more experienced spinners quite happy. Other brands to look for are:
- Bluebonnet Wheels
- Babe’s Fiber Garden
- Heavenly Handspinning
- Merlin Tree
- Other wheel makers mentioned in our Wheel Reviews
Buying used can be a very safe and easy experience if you look in the right places. Interested buyers may be able to find wheels being sold by spinners that can vouch for as well as demonstrate their functionality. Used wheels may also be found being sold on consignment at some yarn shops or online via sites such as Ravelry’s various used tools and/or manufacturer specific groups or the Spinners, Knitters and Weavers Housecleaning Pages. TVH guild members also list wheels for sale from time to time in our newsletter or in the Marketplace thread in our guild’s Ravelry group. Expect to budget from $300 to 500 for a basic, beginner friendly used wheel like an Ashford Traditional or Louet S10 in good condition or more depending on the wheel make and included accessories.
You can find posts on various marketplace groups from spinners looking to buy their first wheel for $100 or $200. Their ads usually say they aren’t certain what they want, just that they have a very limited budget and want something easy to use. Bargains absolutely do pop up from time to time but they can be rare. A very low price could reflect a motivated seller willing to sell a gem for a deal… or it could reflect a wheel in need of repair or in sad shape. Buying a used wheel is not quite the same as a buying a used appliance as used does not always mean the value will be greatly depreciated. Most contemporary wheels hold a good deal of their original value used as long as they’ve been cared for and are in good shape. This is actually a good thing for a new spinner. If it turns out that they don’t enjoy spinning after all or want to sell that wheel later they can likely recoup a reasonable amount of their original cost. Consider saving up until you find a wheel that you love versus compromising to buy one now that meets a very low budget requirement but may turn out not to be a great fit for you or the kind of yarn you want to make with it.
Are you thinking about building a wheel? There are plans available on the internet including the Dodec wheel you may want to look into. If you’re looking to build a wheel specifically to save money consider that there are many factors that go into wheel design and construction. The experience seems like it would be interesting and rewarding as a learning experiment. It probably isn’t going to be a massively money or time saving one (though for someone with woodworking skills and the necessary tools it very well could be). For those who want to build a wheel to satisfy their curiosity or as a woodworking challenge have fun! We would love for you to bring your project wheel to show and tell. For those who are on a very limited budget it might be worth considering investing in a well made and well balanced spindle instead (which can be purchased for as little as $25-45) or find a shop like The Woolery that offers a wheel layaway option in addition to parts, accessories, service and support.
In revisiting this article (as it is an ongoing work in progress) it’s probably worth emphasizing that this page is written with a local audience in mind. Our guild is very young considering the age of spinning traditions in other areas of the country (and certainly worldwide) but we are a growing, active group who receives regular inquires about how to get started from prospective new spinners in our area. None of the advice given is absolute but hopefully some part of it may be useful to someone who is interested in our guild and learning to spin .
In the end the best tool for learning to spin with is one that fits your body and budget and one that you can stick with as you push through from initial frustration to finding joy. Once you experience that eureka moment where everything almost magically comes together spinning can quickly become a fun companion craft to watching television, relaxing on your front porch with a mug of tea, sitting on the sidelines at a game or chatting with friends during knit group. You’ll attract attention and smiles when you spin in public and few children (or adults) can resist being entranced and delighted by the sight of a spindle dancing in the air or a wheel humming along.
In short, if you’re interested why not learn to spin?
Fiber and Spindle Resources:
Several TVH members are also fiber vendors and independent dyers. You can find a directory of member vendors on our TVH Fiber Directory page. Barb Keyes may have spindles available for purchase during meetings. Akerworks has recently developed a line of modular 3-D printed spindles available for sale on their website.
Several LYS’s carry wheels and fiber as well: The Yarn Haven is an Ashford dealer and Clinch River Yarn is a Louet, Kromski and Schacht dealer. In addition, shops like the Smoky Mountain Spinnery in Gatlinburg and The Woolery in Frankfort carry an extended range of spindles, wheels, fiber, kits and related fiber tools.
Beginning Spinning Friendly Groups (informal meetup groups, not classes):
- TVH Beginning Spinners Group – 2nd Thursday monthly from 10-1 (Knoxville/Fountain City)
- Check the Knoxville Ravelers group on Ravelry for an up-to-date list of groups and LYS spinning times.
Local Spinning Instruction/Classes:
- The Yarn Haven (Knoxville/Cedar Bluff) – Learn to spin classes
- Smoky Mountain Spinnery (Gatlinburg) – Spinning classes
- Fiber festivals like the Smoky Mountain Fiber Arts Festival
Online Information Sources:
- Knitters Review: Spinning Basics by Maggie Casey
- Abby Franquemont’s Guide to Choosing Your First Spinning Wheel
- Beginning Spinners group at Ravelry
- Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont
- Start Spinning by Maggie Casey
- Teach Yourself Visually: Handspinning by Judith Mackenzie McCuin
- Spinning in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts (previously published as High Whorling)
- Spindle Spinning From Novice to Expert by Connie Delaney (Out of print, although several copies are available from the Knox County Public Library system.)
Video and Online Class Suggestions:
- Respect the Spindle (Companion DVD to the book)
- Getting Started on a Drop Spindle (with Maggie Casey)
- Start Spinning (with Maggie Casey and Eunny Jang)
- Craftsy: Spinning – From Fluff to Stuff Online Class with Drucilla Pettibone
- Craftsy: Foundations of Spinning with Amy King
- Craftsy: Ply to Knit – Spin the Yarn You Really Want with Jillian Moreno