I wrote already about why I wanted a spinning wheel, so now I’ll go into what I want that wheel to do.
One piece of advice that stood out to me in all my endless Rav-trawling over the subject, was along the lines of “I asked people what they bought for their second wheel.” It makes sense, because the first wheel may have shortcomings that don’t become obvious until you’ve used them for a while, or features that you don’t really ever end up using. I don’t really want to leapfrog straight to what my next wheel will be, if I have one; at the same time, I won’t rule out buying a second wheel, either. But after doing a lot of reading of forums, blogs, and specs, I have a pretty good idea of what I want in order to get the most use and enjoyment out of my first wheel.
The most essential considerations:
- Price: this was my starting point. While I don’t have a strict budget, I didn’t want to get into the really high-end range, because I feel like if I do end up getting sick of it, it will be easier to recoup my costs if those costs are more accessible and more attractive to more people.
- Ratios: because I like to spin fine (I would probably top out at a DK, and spend most of my time in the fingering-sport range), and I want to spin fast, I want higher ratios that come standard. Many of the wheels I’ve looked at seem to come standard with lower ratios, which makes sense for a beginning wheel user. Additional sizes are available at additional cost, but I’d like to have as many as possible available right off the bat.
- Treadles: most wheels seem to be double treadle, with single treadle being offered as a more budget-friendly option. I would prefer to be able to distribute the work between both legs. I don’t have any joint problems outright, but my right knee is starting to sound a little like it’s full of Rice Krispies, and I’m pretty sure that if I had a single treadle, I’d use my right foot, since that’s how I drive. Also, double treadles make a wheel easier to start without using your hand.
- Flyer: I would prefer a sliding or spring-loaded hook. Fixed hooks produce hills and valleys on the bobbin, which fills unevenly and wastes space; to address this issue, there is a third-party device called a WooLee Winder, which is a flyer and bobbin set that uses gears to move the hook back and forth as you spin. This lays the yarn evenly along the bobbin (much like a bobbin made on a sewing machine), allowing you to fit the maximum amount of yarn on the bobbin. The sliding hook is a middle ground between the hooks and the WooLee Winder; it doesn’t move on its own, but it gives a wider range of positions, and I want to be able to fit as much yarn as possible on a bobbin without spending an additional $300.
- Appearance: I want an upright (castle) style wheel. I especially appreciate a unique, non-traditional shape or style, for example the Bliss or the Hitchhiker. The old-fashioned fairy-tale wheels aren’t really my thing (fortunately, they’re also not really my price range). Generally, I don’t care about appearances as long as an item is useful, which is pretty much the target demographic for Babe wheels. However, this is one of those cases where I would like just a little bit of style to go with my substance, and a spinning wheel made out of PVC pipe and a wheelchair wheel is just not something I want to sit in front of for any significant amount of time. Usually I’m all for the no-frills, utilitarian option: I made a niddy-noddy out of PVC, and a terrible-looking wobbly swift out of scrap lumber. But these are items I use for 10 minutes at a time before I disassemble them and pack them away. Some of the Heavenly Handspinning wheels use metal bicycle wheels, but they have nice hardwood frames, and while they do look a little odd paired together, they’re more aesthetically pleasing than the Babes. (Which, from what I’ve read, seem to be perfectly acceptable function-wise given their price, so they might be great for the spinner on a budget who is less shallow than I.)
Additional concerns – things that are good to know but not crucial to the decision
- Bobbins: Most wheels seem to come with at least three bobbins to start with. Personally, I’d prefer to have four so I can make a 3-ply yarn easily, but it’s possible to get around that by using some kind of divider and spinning a different singles on each half of the bobbin (as in this blog post). There’s also the matter of bobbin size: there are extra-large ones for plying, chunky yarns, and art yarns. Personally, if I were interested in spinning heavier or novelty yarns, I’d get a wheel designed with that in mind (the Bluebonnet CraftyBee), but since I plan to spin on the finer side, I’ll probably be fine with standard-size bobbins, but I’d like a wheel that came with four.
- Size and weight: I’m not looking for something I can carry around with me; I have spindles if I want to take my fiber on the road, so a wheel specifically billed as “travel” isn’t something that appeals to me. (In fact, after a spinner got pretty well lambasted by some creeper on Reddit, I doubt I’d spin in the wild unless I was among friends/family or other fiber enthusiasts). I live in a house with ample spinning and storage space (I may occasionally want to take the wheel out on the patio), but I also have a rabbit, so whatever I buy will need to be able to fit in a space where he can’t reach and nibble – on a table, or on top of storage bins, or in a closet. Something that folds or has a small footprint would be a bonus, but it’s not a must-have.
- Finish: I don’t need a wheel to be finished. The difference between a wheel with a varnished/waxed/stained finish, and one that is just bare wood, is usually a difference of at least $100. It’s not that I don’t value the work that goes into making a wheel look shiny, it’s just that I would feel I got a better bang for my buck if I spent that money on extra bobbins, whorls, or fiber, and then took the time to finish it myself with stain, wax, oil, or paint. When the option was between finished and unfinished, I went with unfinished for the savings.
- Tension: without having tried a wheel, I couldn’t say what difference it makes in my personal spinning whether a wheel is single or double drive, or it is flyer-led (Scotch) or bobbin-led (Irish). There are wheels that can be converted back and forth (the Schacht Ladybug is a popular wheel that does this). While I understand the basic mechanics of the different systems, I don’t have any firsthand experience with how they behave, so here I defer to the expertise of Abby Franquemont, in her incredibly helpful post “Choosing Your First Spinning Wheel”: for finer spinning, double drive or scotch are going to work best. Since that’s what I plan on spinning, and most of the wheels I looked at were Scotch tensioned, it wasn’t something I really had to factor in.
- Lazy Kate: some wheels have them built-in, but most of them seem to have space for only two bobbins, maybe three. Most of the ones I’ve seen that had built-in Kates didn’t specify whether they were tensioned or not, but I’ve wrangled enough singles to know I’d much prefer a tensioned Kate, so I’m probably going to have to buy one separately.
Of course, these are just my opinions, based on having spent the majority of the last week poring over discussions, blog posts, videos, and wheel dealer sites (Woolery in particular, since it’s local, and probably where I’d buy my wheel from). Using these factors, I managed to narrow it down to half a dozen wheels to choose from. In no particular order, they are:Ashford Kiwi 2 $395 Ratios: 5.57:1 and 7.25:1 Weight: 12 lb Standard Features: built-in Kate, 3 bobbins, orifice hook, sliding-hook flyer Notes: Bobbins $14.25, high-speed kit $31.50 Bluebonnet HoneyBee $310 Ratios: 6:1 and 8:1 Weight: 15 lb Standard Features: 2 regular and 1 jumbo bobbin; jumbo flyer (sliding hook), built-in Kate, foldable, solid hardwood Notes: Bobbins: $30, whorls $20 (made to order) Bluebonnet Thimble $495 Ratios: 4:1, 6:1, 8:1, 10:1, 12:1, 14:1, 16:1, 18:1 Weight: 11.5 lb Standard Features: 3 bobbins, 2-bobbin Lazy Kate (freestanding), sliding-hook flyer, solid hardwood, foldable, finished with Danish oil Notes: Selection of designs available for wheel at additional cost Kromski Fantasia $399 Ratios: 5:1 and 8:1 Weight: 13.5 lb Standard Features: 3 bobbins, “quick change” magnetic bobbin system, sliding hook flyer, orifice hook Notes: Bobbins $19, whorls $24.25 Fricke S-160 $421 Ratios: 5.7:1, 6.8:1, 8.7:1, 12:1, 19.4:1 Weight: 12 lb Standard Features: 4 bobbins, Lazy Kate, sliding hook flyer; finished Notes: level-wind flyer and bobbins available for $693; Etsy seller crystalcreekfibers offers bonus 1 lb Merino top Heavenly Handspinning Bellus $297 Ratios: 6:1, 9:1 and 13:1 Weight: 10 lb Standard Features: spring-clip flyer, attached orifice hook, solid oak Notes: Irish tension, larger-than-average bobbins; bobbins $9 or 3/$24
(All wheels are double treadle. All prices are for unfinished model unless specified. Prices are from Woolery, except the Fricke and Heavenly, which they do not carry; those prices are from the manufacturers’ sites.)
Unfortunately, at this time, the only one available for me to try locally is the Ashford (this is what happens when you’re trying to pick a wheel right after the fall fiber festival season has wrapped up). However, I feel like the most important thing for me to do is just to sit down in front of a couple wheels and try them out, to ensure I even enjoy wheel spinning to begin with, so sometime in the next weekend or two, that’s what I’ll do. Assuming I enjoy it, hopefully I’ll be treadling away by December.