Saturday, March 08, 2014

The myth of the Great Wheel

Great wheels have (or had) several virtues.  They are much faster then either a drop spindle or a supported spindle. Great wheels are easier to make than a flyer/bobbin assembly (but today are similarly priced).  And they can insert a lot of twist without any take up, which facilitates some drafting techniques.

I certainly bought into the myth of the great great wheel. Everyone that I trusted said how wonderful they were, it was just that they were big and expensive.  And they are a bit rare and exotic - that gives big wheel spinners a certain cache. For a long, long time, I wanted one.  I thought it was certainly the fastest and best way to spin woolen.  The only reason I did not get one was that I was focused on worsted for my gansey knitting.

As I planned spinning weft for the next weaving project, I thought sure I was going to have to get a great wheel.  Then as I spun the warp, I realized that I was spinning on a flier/bobbin  much faster than I had seen anyone ever spin on a great wheel..  I stopped, and did the math, coldly and rationally.

Great wheel's vices are that they are best with long-draw woolen drafting, and they cannot wind on at full speed.  Yes they go fast, but they also go slow. Their cyclical behavior is also a problem in handling fine yarns.

My conclusion was that the mythology arose as great wheels designed for production spinning were compared to flyer/bobbin wheels designed for leisure spinning.  In this comparison, the great wheel is always faster.  However, my flier/bobbin wheel designed for production is also always faster than a  flyer/bobbin wheels designed for leisure spinning. Thus, the real question is is a great wheel designed for production spinning faster than a flyer/bobbin wheel designed for production spinning?  The answer depends on the grist of the yarn being spun.  At low grist, the wheels are equal. At high grist, the flyer/bobbin wheel designed for production is significantly faster.

By the by,  the Canadian Production Wheel (CPW) was designed after the professional hand spinners had died out, and those skills were lost.  It was designed for amateur spinners, spinning low grist yarns.  Canadian Production Wheels were  not sold to professional spinners with the elan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur.  The CPW did not have to be very fast because it not designed to spin industrial quantities of lace and weaving singles. After friction losses  and belt slip, CPW are hard pressed to insert twist faster than ~1,200 rpm.    That is much  more than required for 1,600 ypp singles for knitting yarn, and hence the myth of the CPW was born.

In truth, the ratio on a CPW was about the same as the ratio on the AA fliers as delivered.  So, in the context of modern spinning, a CPW was/is actually fairly fast.  However, as soon as you start spinning higher grist yarns the performance starts to lag.  I thought about buying the very fine CPW that Will Taylor had, but it was not fast enough, and I could not seen any easy way to make it faster.  On the other hand the the path to more speed with the AA fliers was clear - just a bit of wood turning.  As soon as I got the AA fliers, I made/installed new whorls with a higher ratio.  That was 2.5 years ago, and I am still making sacrifices to the Gods of Speed, so that I can spin faster. Current ratio is about 44:1,  which is more than twice that of a CPW (~20:1).  However, my actual flier speed after drivebelt slippage is about 3,600 rpm or 3 times the speed of Will Taylor's fine CPW at the same treadle cadence.  I run my wheel that fast for warp, but for woolen, I slow down to ~2,400 rpm because I think it produces a better yarn.  However, that is still twice as fast as a CPW.

My math says that a great wheel (spinning woolen)  is a bit faster than a CPW or, my AA fliers as delivered. That means a great wheel can be faster than the vast majority of modern spinning wheels. It also means that my wheel spinning 10,000 ypp woolen is 30%  faster than a great wheel.  That 30%, is enough time to weave the spun yarn. And, my worsted is spun much faster.  I no longer desire a great wheel.

These days, I spin (woolen) sitting in a wooden arm chair with my forearms resting on the chair arms, ~24 inches apart, with my right hand some 6 to 10" from the orifice.  (For worsted, my hands are about one staple length apart.) The support gives me the stability that I need to control the fine stream of fiber marching past. DRS controls take up and twist insertion.  This allows spinning very soft and very fine yarns.  I have never seen anyone else spin like this, but it is very fast.  If there is a problem, I have a few seconds to fix it before it disappears into the maw of the beast.  Arm movement are small  There is simply no way I can get that speed and control from a great wheel.  I am very happy with my woolen spinning, and no longer want a great wheel.

CNCH is coming up. I am going, and am taking my wheel..

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