This was an article I wrote for Ply Magazine a few years ago. I thought you might enjoy it here. I wasn't sure quite where to put it, but I think it could be seen as something of a physics tutorial as it pertains to spinning- so tutorial it is. It might also help you understand why certain things are included on your spinning wheel and what they do to help you create that beautiful yarn. Let me know what you think!
Have you ever considered that every time you spin, you are harnessing the power of the universe? I’m not overstating it, either. With your feet nice and snug in a warm pair of wooly socks, your fiber in hand, you are capturing awesome power – to turn your fluff into a beautifully twisted singles yarn or your single into a stunning plied yarn. The universe has its rules, and the power you create at your spinning wheel is no different than the power used to propel a steaming locomotive. Sure, the source is different, but power, when it comes down to it, is just the amount of work done over time.
It is, however, fun to peel back the layers. While power is power and the laws of the universe do not seem to care if it is a small wheel turning or a thundering engine, understanding how power is created is important. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, however, as we start to consider the efficiency of our treadling, the friction on our wheels, the whorls, the drive band systems – you get my point. So, for this particular conversation, we won’t sweat the details and will leave off factors such as friction and ratios, simplifying our system. In fact, imagine I am sitting across from you with a cup of tea, a cafe napkin, and a pen. We will fit all we need on that little napkin and walk away feeling very powerful indeed.
A Simple Machine
We have our spinning wheel. It is a machine. It is, in fact, a simple machine. Maybe you guessed that. Specifically, our beloved spinning wheels are pulleys. This is how all of that power is transmitted from your busy feet up to your fluffy stuff. You have your wheel and your whorl, so really, your spinning wheel is a 2-part pulley, and this is how all the magic happens.
Let’s revisit those sock-clad feet of yours. You move them up and down, pedaling away at your wheel. Why? How does that pedaling motion turn your wheel? If you look closely at the construction of your spinning wheel, you will see what is called a footman going from your pedal up to your fly wheel. If you have 2 pedals, there are 2 footmen. When you press down on your pedal, it pulls the footman down as well, which is connected to an axle running through your wheel. You may also notice that the footman is connected to the axle much like a handcrank, meaning it is a little to the side of the actual axle. This positioning allows the footman (or footmen) to apply a tangential force to the axle which causes the axle to rotate. The rotation of your axle then rotates your wheel and you have taken the first step in the peaceful transfer of power.
I know I said we would ignore friction. I lied. We need friction because that is how the drive band on your wheel works. We will ignore friction as it affects the efficiency of our wheel and embrace it as a means to move our flyer. A drive band runs around the wheel and up over the whorl (it is a whorl for flyer-led wheels and the bobbin for bobbin-led wheels ). Remember when I mentioned our spinning wheels are a 2-pulley system? Your fly wheel is pulley number one and your whorl is pulley number two. The drive band exists to transmit power from the fly wheel that you are turning with your feet (the driving pulley) to the whorl that is connected to the flyer (the driven pulley). With friction, the drive band is able to use the rotating motion of your wheel to grip and rotate the whorl.
Now power has been transmitted twice. The power from your feet treadling has been transferred to your wheel and the power of your wheel has been passed along to your whorl. We arrive at yet another axle that runs through the flyer, which can be seen as yet another wheel. Power is transferred once again, and your whorl’s rotation spins the axle that spins your flyer. Whew, we have finally arrived at your fiber. With your fiber secured to the flyer, it too experiences rotation. Because you hold your fiber source outside the orifice and do not allow it to just flop willy nilly while you treadle, the rotation of the flyer creates an applied torque (or twisting force) on your fiber. If you take this twisting force and multiply it by how fast your flyer is spinning, you will arrive at the power used to impart twist in your fiber.
We have arrived safely at the conclusion of our power trip. I have finished my tea and filled up the cafe napkin and you smile and politely say you use a drop spindle, not a spinning wheel. I blush, embarrassed to have taken so much of our napkin up on a spinning wheel but am relieved I can assure you that drop spindles can join in the fun, too.
The power you create for a drop spindle goes on a much shorter, much simpler trip. In fact, you impart power directly with the flick of your wrist to set the spindle going. The twisting motion you make to get your spindle spinning is actually an applied torque (remember that twist force?), just like what the flyer applies to your fiber on a spinning wheel. Because you secure your fiber to a lead and hold the fiber source, this applied torque is contained in your working fiber as the spindle twirls. You can think of a spindle like a spinning top, where the axis of spin runs perpendicular through the center of your whorl and the only impediment (in a perfect world) to your spindle is the restoring force building up in your fiber wanting to untwist. The construction of your spindle helps keep that applied torque going, though, and you continue to get twist in your yarn beyond that initial flick of your wrist. The type of whorl on your spindle and its location will affect the speed of your spin and thus the amount of power used to twist your fiber, regardless if it is a drop or supported spindle. But without you as the initial source of power, the spindle would never be able to do its work, no matter how much time it was given.
The power you create when you spin goes on a journey out of you all the way to your yarn. All of that glorious twist is from you, and the subsequent creations derived from your yarn are originally powered by you. In a small way, you have passed along part of yourself to add beauty to the world in many forms. So, while the universe does not bend its laws, it allows you, as a spinner, to be powerful. That, my friend, is a very empowering thought, don’t you think?