Spinning wheel ailments

– Simple remedies for when things stick or slip, or just don’t feel right
(First published in Creative Fibre magazine  June 2017)

(Click on a photo to enlarge it)

Spinning wheels come in many varieties, but every one has at least some of these components

Is the yarn refusing to go into the orifice, and just corkscrewing into a tangle? Or is it drawing in jerkily and intermittently? It’s not only beginners who sometimes have trouble persuading their yarn to twist and/or wind onto the bobbin. Here are some problems to check for.

Is something caught up? It just takes one or two fibres wound around a hook or caught on a rough patch to bring takeup to a dead stop.

On a flyer lead (scotch tension) wheel, has the brake tension knob worked loose? A few of them do.

We shouldn’t automatically reach for the tension and give it a good tighten. Of course it should be checked – does it need a tiny bit more tension as the bobbin fills? But too-tight tension can cause all sorts of problems. For ease of spinning, the tension should be as loose as is comfortable. Be kind to your wheel and your ankles – slacken it right off, and then while treadling, gradually tighten till it’s just drawing in adequately. This applies to all drive systems: scotch tension, double drive, or bobbin lead.

Look at the bearings the ends of the flyer rest in. Are they aligned parallel to the drive wheel? That’s really important. More later.

The flyer assembly is often the most problematic area

When was it last oiled? Take the flyer and bobbin off and check the centre hole of the bobbin is clear. Is the orifice smooth and free of gunk? Is the metal flyer shaft straight and smooth? If it’s bent, it needs an expert, but a bit of rust or tarnish can be polished off with steel wool and a drop of oil. Then oil it and reassemble. Oil the flyer bearings too. (But don’t oil sealed ball bearings.)

Does the bobbin spin freely on the shaft? Sometimes one bobbin in a batch is a little warped or tight. If your other bobbins spin perfectly, a piece of medium sandpaper wrapped around a knitting needle can be used to file inside the rogue one smooth and straight. But just do a little at a time and check often; a bobbin with a too-wide hole will be noisy.

If your wheel has a whorl that screws onto the flyer shaft, has it come unscrewed? Screw it back on firmly – but not too tightly! Overtightening can eventually strip the threads. If that has already happened, it may not be possible to screw the whorl on properly, or it may screw on so far that it presses on the bobbin and stops the winding on. The magic word here is shim. A shim is a little piece of something inserted between two things to help them hold together. For a loose whorl, just a few fibres of wool over the screw threads before putting the whorl on is an excellent temporary fix. If you want a permanent solution, you will need a skilled repairer.

Does the bobbin fit properly in the curve of the flyer? Occasionally an ill-fitting bobbin may get jammed against the orifice end of the flyer. Or its back end may bind against the whorl. Either of these will stop the yarn from winding on smoothly. Often all it takes is a washer or two at the sticking place, but if the bobbin is really too long or too wide it will need altering (or replacing).

Is the drive wheel turning but the flyer isn’t, or only intermittently, and you’ve checked all the above? The drive band may be slipping in the groove around the rim of the wheel, or in the groove of the flyer whorl. Is the band slippery? (I have a personal hatred of venetian blind cord, partly for this reason.) Is it too thick to fit properly into the whorl’s groove? Or is it lumpy? Replacing it may work a miracle. Simple non-synthetic packaging string makes good drive bands, but some wheels have special preferences.

Soon after she started spinning, the owner of the wheel at left was encouraged to spin and crochet her own driveband. She’s been struggling with sticky takeup ever since. In the second photo a thinner, smoother driveband has been fitteed, and – magic! She’ll give it a finer scotch brake too.

In the third picture it’s a different wheel and a different spinner. The homemade driveband is quite a few years old and still happily spinning miles of lovely yarn. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

If the drive band seems suitable, look at the rim of the drive wheel where the drive band rides. Is it smooth and slick? Even some very good makers have made the mistake of covering it with shiny varnish. The best remedy is sandpaper.

Then there’s the scotch brake, if the wheel is the kind that has one. Unlike the drive band, this needs to be a bit slippy, as it has to be able to slip in the bobbin groove. Thinnish is generally good. Fishing line works well for some people, as long as it’s very flexible. If it’s stiff (perhaps with age) takeup will be annoyingly inconsistent.

If an Ashford has this type of hub pin, it might be starting to slip. (Photo: Lorraine Cross)

One more thing – is the wheel an older Ashford Traditional? And does it clunk and jerk when spinning? This is a known problem caused by wear in the hole in the axle where the hub is secured by a pin. Test by holding the crank firmly with one hand, while gently trying to turn the drive wheel in either direction. If it can move at all, it needs fixing as soon as possible before it gets worse. The solution is a “Clunky Wheel Kit”, which you can order from any Ashford dealer. They have eliminated the problem in their more recent wheels.

Does the drive band keep coming off? Being too loose can do it – but so can being too tight. Again, don’t overtighten.

Is the drive wheel warped? Stand end on to the wheel while someone turns it and see whether it wavers from side to side. A slight wobble is very common. If it doesn’t cause a problem, you can ignore it, but if it’s bad enough to make the wheel throw its drive band it needs expert attention.

(By the way, this is an important thing to check if you are looking to buy a wheel – particularly from a second-hand dealer who thinks it’s OK to display a spinning wheel in his nice sunny window.)

The tiniest wisp of wool will tighten a loose maiden.

Is the drive wheel lined up correctly with the whorl, so that the drive band runs in a straight path? If not, any self-respecting wheel is likely to get cranky and toss off its drive band. You may just need to twist the maidens to realign the flyer bearings. If they won’t stay put, they need to be shimmed (it’s a verb as well as a noun). If that’s not the problem, more serious adjustment involving a screwdriver may be necessary.

Is the knot in the drive band an enormous lump? Most wheels will tolerate a simple reef knot, though a few antiques are fussy and insist on a sewn or spliced drive band.

Are you using double drive – one long drive band in a figure-of-eight that goes over both the flyer whorl and the bobbin whorl? Check that it’s strung correctly (see ‘Under tension’, Creative Fibre December 2013, 18-19).

This Ashford treadle connector may be getting a bit soft.

Is the treadle not working smoothly, perhaps with an annoying clatter? Look at the connection between the footman and the treadle. Is it soft and clunky?

If it’s the older Ashford type, the leather piece may have stretched and become floppy with age and oil. (That’s why it shouldn’t be over-oiled.) You can buy a replacement on Trademe, or make an exact copy, or go to some trouble, buy the round poly connector from Ashford, and convert.

A bit of foam is one way to stop a treadle-footman clunk.

If it’s a tie-on connection, such as on Rappard wheels, it may still be in good condition but have stretched. You could insert something like a piece of felt or foam and secure it, to cushion the footman from hitting the treadle; you could tie the two sides together, also cushioning the two parts; or you could replace the connector. A slender strip of leather, like a bootlace, is recommended; strong cord will do the job but not last as well.

If the treadle at its lowest point is very close to the floor, or even hitting it, you might consider fixing this. Using such a treadle is apparently not good for our legs! It may just need a new, shorter connection, but if it’s really bad, perhaps the footman could be shortened. Of all the parts of a spinning wheel, that is probably the easiest to alter or replace. Ideally a treadle should be approximately horizontal at the end of the downstroke.

More on shims
Is something slipping out of place, or hard to keep secure? Is there a leg that wants to fall out (a certain overseas make of wheel is notorious for this problem – owners like them but avoid picking them up). Or does something else slip or slide?

Many things that won’t stay put can be fixed with a shim. You might use a slip of paper or cardboard, one or more whittled-down matchsticks or toothpicks, a wisp of wool, a piece of fine soft leather … whatever works. Something temporary like this is often a better idea than glueing or screwing, at least till you’ve thought about it properly.

It doesn’t do to be dogmatic about spinning or spinning wheels.
Wheels are more complex than they look; even two that look identical may behave differently. And every spinner is different in the way they use their wheel and the way they like it to feel. If you are enjoying your spinning and getting results you like, don’t change anything! But if you have a problem, perhaps these suggestions may help.