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What is the Difference Between Scotch Tension and Irish Tension Spinning Wheels?

  • 9 min read
The S10 spinning wheel was first developed 45 years ago by Jan Louet. (Photo credit: Louet)
The S10 spinning wheel was first developed 45 years ago by Jan Louet. (Photo credit: Louet)

Understanding Scotch and Irish Tension

When choosing a spinning wheel, you'll be presented with either a double-drive spinning wheel or a drive spinning wheel. Single-drive spinning wheels can be categorised into Scotch tension and Irish tension spinning wheels. These tensioning systems represent distinct approaches to controlling the movement of the flyer and bobbin in spinning wheels, influencing the production of yarn.

What is the origin of the Scotch and Irish tension systems?

Little is known about the origin of these drive systems or even when the spinning wheel was invented and by whom. We know it is in the realm of hundreds to thousands of years ago. As to why they're called Scotch and Irish tension? No one really knows. It is not geographically linked, but one theory is that Scotch tension got its name because when wagons were the primary means of transport to ensure your wagon wouldn't run away, you "scotched" the wheels – you used a wedge of wood to act as a brake and stop them turning. So when spinning wheel makers wanted to slow the bobbin, they scotched it with a little string brake. The best guess regarding the naming of Irish tension wheels is that someone thought if one system was "Scotch", its opposite should be called "Irish".

What is Irish Tension?

An Irish tension wheel is a single-drive wheel in which the tension of the bobbin and the flyer are independent of one another. These wheels are considered bobbin-led, as the drive wheel drives the bobbin. In the following section, we further define Irish tension, discuss how it works, how to adjust this system and explore the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a wheel with Irish tension.

Defining Irish Tension

Irish tension is "Bobbin-led, " meaning the bobbin turns faster than the flyer as the yarn winds on. The drive band wraps around the drive wheel and the bobbin with its built-in whorl, rotating the bobbin. The brake band on an Irish tension wheel is positioned to adjust the flyer's speed depending on the tension applied to the fibre being spun.

The drive band turns the bobbin and always spins. Pulling or adding tension on the yarn causes the flyer to spin to add more twists; releasing tension on the yarn causes the flyer to slow to wind on the yarn. Because the bobbin is driven, take-up can be very strong with Irish tension. This makes it an excellent wheel for bulky yarns.

Components of the Irish Tension System

Spinning on a Louet S17 wheel
Note the break band situated at the front of the flyer (over the orifice) on the Louet S17. Photograph: Samantha Gehrmann

The Irish tension wheel visibly and mechanically differs from the scotch tension and double drive wheels in the flyer and bobbin.

The flyer is tensioned by a brake band, usually leather, which fits over the flyer and attaches to a small knob.

The bobbins differ in appearance and function from those of scotch tension and double-drive wheels. They still act to store yarn, but one end of the bobbin has whorls or pulleys carved directly into it. This is where the drive band travels in an Irish tension system, determining the drive ratio.

Regardless of the type of wheel you use, the ratio is selected by which groove of the whorl you put the drive band in. The larger the whorl, the slower the ratio, and the smaller the whorl, the faster the ratio. Selecting the ratio that gives you the yarn thickness you desire with respect to the fibre type is essential. Some fibres, such as cotton, require a lot of twists to hold together, while too much twist in alpaca would give coarse rope-like yarn.

Adjusting Irish Tension

Adjusting the tension on an Irish tension spinning wheel is very simple. The spinner makes minor adjustments to the knob attached to the brake band on the flyer to adjust the take-up or wind-on tension. Tightening this knob increases the pull; loosening it reduces it.

The tension you choose depends on the yarn you're creating. A finer yarn requires lighter tension so that enough twist is imparted before it is taken onto the bobbin, and it doesn't pull apart from the applied force. Larger yarns and art yarns typically require less twist, and therefore, more tension is needed to ensure yarn winds on before it gets overspun.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Irish Tension

Irish tension wheels are particularly advantageous for spinners requiring more robust uptake. It is the easiest braking system to learn. It excels at spinning chunky, low-twist singles yarn and is perfect for plying yarn. Art yarns can be spun with ease if the flyer's orifice allows it.

The same key characteristic of strong take-up, advantageous for some spinners, can be a disadvantage. Spinners who predominantly spin fine yarns may find it challenging to obtain light enough tension to spin the yarns they enjoy. This can be overcome by using specialised lace flyers, fat core bobbins, or by lacing the flyer.

What is Scotch Tension?

Scotch tension wheels are single-drive wheels that operate with the drive band on the flyer whorl and the brake band on the bobbin. As with Irish tension, the tension between the flyer and bobbin is independent from one another. These wheels are flyer-led as the drive wheel drives the flyer. In the following section, we look further at scotch tension, how it works, how to adjust it and explore advantages and disadvantages of Scotch tension wheels.

Understanding the Scotch Tension Mechanism

In scotch tension (flyer-led) wheels, the drive band wraps around the flyer and drive wheel. An adjustable brake on the bobbin controls the tension.

The flyer, equipped with a whorl, is responsible for twisting the fibres into yarn. The brake band controls the tension, which encircles the bobbin, and this brake band regulates the speed of the bobbin's rotation. Adjusting the tension on the brake band through a user-friendly tension adjustment knob allows spinners to finely tune the twist in the yarn and control its winding onto the bobbin. As the drive band imparts motion to the flyer and the brake band determines the resistance on the bobbin, the Scotch tension system enables precise control over the entire spinning process, making it a versatile and favoured mechanism among spinners.

Components of Scotch Tension System

Scotch tension on a Shacht Ladybug spinning wheel
Scotch tension on a Schacht Ladybug. Brake band over the bobbin and drive band over the whorl on the flyer. Photograph: Samantha Gehrmann

The Scotch Tension component of your spinning wheel involves a tension peg and spring attached to a cord (often fishing line or fine jute), which runs over the bobbin to act as a bobbin brake. This is adjusted to achieve the desired braking or tension for effective yarn production.

The drive band on the scotch tension wheel runs over a whorl attached to the flyer, as opposed to Irish tension, where it runs over the bobbin. Thus, the drive wheel "drives" the flyer in scotch tension.

Adjusting Scotch Tension

Begin by locating the tension peg and spring, typically near the flyer assembly on the spinning wheel. To control the tension on the bobbin, you can manipulate the spring's length by either elongating or compressing it. This adjustment allows you to customise tension based on specific characteristics of the fibre you are working with and the desired yarn characteristics.

Experiment with different spring tensions to find the optimal setting for your spinning preferences. By mastering the adjustment of the tension peg and spring, you gain precise control over the spinning process, resulting in well-crafted and consistent yarn on your Scotch Tension spinning wheel.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Scotch Tension

One notable advantage lies in the system's versatility, allowing spinners to finely tune the wheel according to the type of yarn they intend to create. The tension peg and spring play a pivotal role in this adjustment, offering control over the tension on the bobbin. This level of customisation is particularly advantageous when working with diverse fibre types and varying spinning techniques. However, the adjustment process involving the tension peg and spring requires a degree of familiarity and experimentation, which can be a steep learning curve for new spinners.

In terms of drive band tension, Scotch tension systems commonly employ tension knobs or handles on the spinning wheel. These components allow spinners to adjust the tension of the drive band, impacting the speed of the flyer and, consequently, the twist in the yarn. While Scotch tension provides valuable control over the spinning process, spinners should weigh the benefits of customisation against the potential learning curve of mastering the system's adjustments.

Modern Applications of Scotch Tension

With its roots embedded in traditional spinning, the Scotch Tension system continues to find modern applications in contemporary spinning wheels, showcasing its adaptability and enduring relevance. In modern spinning, the Scotch Tension system has undergone refinements and updates to cater to the diverse needs of spinners and the array of materials available. This classic tensioning mechanism is known for its versatility, allowing spinners to control the tension on the bobbin for various spinning techniques and materials.

Several popular spinning wheel models incorporate the Scotch Tension system, seamlessly blending tradition with innovation. Examples include the Schacht Ladybug and the Ashford Traditional Spinning Wheel.

In modern applications, the Scotch Tension system is celebrated for its ability to handle a wide range of fibres, from traditional wool to contemporary synthetic blends. The adaptability of this tensioning system makes it well-suited for both beginners and experienced spinners who seek precision and control over their spinning process.

Comparing Scotch Tension with Irish Tension

To summarise the Irish tension and Scotch tension systems discussed above, we offer the following comparisons to further simplify the subtle but significant differences between these single-drive options.

On a Scotch tension wheel, the drive band goes around the wheel, and a whorl is attached to the flyer. Another string, the brake band, goes around the bobbin, ensuring that the flyer and bobbin rotate at different speeds. The flyer always spins and adds a twist when the drive wheel is spinning. When spinning on a scotch tension wheel, an adjustable brake band on the bobbin is set so that applying a small amount of tension to the fibre with your hand will allow the bobbin to spin, but releasing the tension on the fibre will allow the brake to stop the bobbin, and take up yarn. Bobbin tension can be set very light; you can have very light tension while still adding a twist: scotch tension is excellent. You want to spin fine yarns as they often require more twists to accumulate before being taken onto the bobbin.

The drive band of an Irish tension wheel wraps around both the drive wheel and the bobbin whorl. The bobbin usually has different whorls directly carved into one flange for the spinner to use, though sometimes only one whorl or ratio is available. The brake band on an Irish tension wheel is positioned to adjust the flyer's speed depending on the tension applied to the fibre being spun. The drive band turns the bobbin and always spins. Pulling or adding tension on the yarn causes the flyer to spin to add more twists; releasing tension on the yarn causes the flyer to slow wind on the yarn. Because the bobbin is driven, take-up can be very strong with Irish tension, making it an excellent wheel for bulky yarns. They also tend to treadle easily.

Utilising Single Drive Spinning for Specific Applications

The choice between a single-drive spinning wheel and a double-drive spinning wheel depends on the spinner's preferences, spinning goals, and the characteristics of the yarn they want to produce. However, note most double-drive spinning wheels can also be set up as a single-drive wheel options. Here are some reasons why one might prefer a single-drive spinning wheel over a double-drive:

  1. Ease of Use: Single-drive wheels are often considered more user-friendly, especially for beginners. The mechanism is more straightforward, with a single drive band controlling the flyer and bobbin. This simplicity can make it easier for new spinners to grasp the basics of spinning without added complexity of managing two separate drives.
  2. Versatility: Single-drive wheels, particularly those with Scotch tension systems, are known for their versatility. Spinners can easily adjust the tension to accommodate different fibres and yarn thicknesses. This flexibility makes them well-suited for spinners who work with various materials and want a wheel that can handle different spinning techniques.
  3. Control over Twist: Some spinners appreciate the level of control they can achieve over the twist in the yarn with a single drive wheel. Adjusting the tension allows spinners to fine-tune the twist added to the fibre, crucial for creating specific yarn textures and characteristics.
  4. Consistent Yarn Production: The control over tension and take-up allows spinners to maintain a steady spinning rhythm, resulting in a more uniform yarn.
  5. Balanced Tension: While double-drive systems offer balanced tension, single-drive systems can also provide a balanced and controlled spinning experience. The tension adjustments on single-drive wheels allow spinners to find the right balance for their preferred spinning style.

In summary, choosing a single-drive spinning wheel over a double-drive wheel often comes down to personal preference, ease of use, versatility, and the spinner's specific spinning goals. Both types of wheels have their advantages, and the best choice depends on the individual spinner's needs and preferences.

Choosing a Single Drive Spinning Wheel

If you've decided that a single-drive spinning wheel is the right wheel for you, many options are available.

For those who have decided on an Irish tension wheel, the market is limited as very few spinning wheel manufacturers produce this type of drive wheel. Options include the Louet 17 and the Louet S10.Ashford offer the Country Spinner 2, a much more specialised wheel designed for spinning and plying copious quantities of large yarn.

For the spinners who prefer the Scotch Tension system, your options are broader and even encompass double-drive wheels, which can be converted to a scotch tension single set-up. Some of these wheels include:

Regardless of the wheel or drive system you choose, unless highly specialised, you can produce almost any kind of yarn you can dream of with adjustments.

If you have any questions about which wheel may be best suited to the types of yarns you know you'd like to produce, please contact our knowledgeable team at Thread Collective.

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