Saturday, April 14, 2012

Aura - the spinning wheel review

I promised some time ago that I would review the Aura spinning wheel I had been loaned, to the best of my ability, I've finished spinning and plying my Aura project and its time for the wheel to go home to Vintage Purls.  In full disclosure - the wheel was on loan from Vintage Purls, and was not solicited, nor were any payments made.
The Aura, by Majacraft,  is a treadle spinning wheel with a drive system that is neither Double drive or Single tension, the two main style of drive system in use. Officially Majacraft describe the Aura as a new kind of double drive, as it has two drive bands not the doubled drive band more common on double drive wheels.

I had the Aura in my house for over two months, and spun some and plied some, at the same time I had a project on another wheel as a comparison. What did I think of it and would I buy one? Should you buy one? Read on and see.

Before the review I thought I'd better list my spinning wheel experience, so to frame my review in fuller context. In my house there are usually five wheels, I currently have two  wheels, bought as new A large Grace and a Majacraft Gem II. I once bought a new DD Ashford Traveller but quickly sold it .. the wheel didn't seem to have the personality that I wanted in a wheel - I found it bland to use in comparison to other wheels I had. I also currently have two vintage wheels, a Phillip Poore Pippy Saxony and a Wing Upright - both date from the 1980s and both are double drive. My daughter has an upright Woodspin Nagy, which is scotch tension.  I have also owned a Rappard Peggy, but like the ashford sold it - nothing wrong with the Peggy and it wasn't as bland as the Traveler but I preferred the other wheels in my stable. The Peggy had the advantage of being able to run as either double  or single drive.  To be totally honest there are also another two wheels in my house right now, a modified Baines and a home made electric spinner - both are looking for new homes so for the purposes of this review don't count. My dad found them and thought I could find homes for them.

Here is the Aura lined up between my Majacraft Gem II and my Grace. The Grace is a big wheel and should not be confused with the Little Grace, I was told the Grace was a a 'studio wheel' and not for out and about and it is, I wouldn't want to manipulate my Grace in and out of a car for fear of damage to the wheel or the car or me. The Grace has a  inch wheel 21 inches across and 1.5 inches in thickness. That makes for a weighty wheel that gains a good deal of momentum, the Grace  stands 38" tall. The Little Gem II is by comparison 29 inches tall and has a 9 inch wheel. In its defense the Little Gem is intended as a folding traveling wheel, and is quite compact and portable. The Aura stands up to 33 inches tall.  These three wheels are all designed to use both feet, the Majacraft with alternate treadling (the feel almost cycle - one up and one down)  and the Grace with synchronous treadling (both feet move in the same direction at the same time). All these wheels have almost solid wood or wood laminated wheels, so heavy wheels, but as noted the size of the wheels varies greatly.
Of course height isn't everything, and most spinners will be able to spin on most wheels. What I do find interesting is the difference in heights of the orifice of each wheel. My tallest wheel is the Grace and the orifice is 31.5 inches from the floor, which suits me fine, as I'm tallish (5ft 7ish on a good day). The Aura by comparison is 29 inches, nearly the same, whilst the Little Gem is only 26 inches from the floor. My shortest wheel is the Pippy with the orifice positioned at 24 inches from the floor, the Wing has a pigtail rather than an orifice and that sits at 30 inches. In practice I find the most of these wheels comfortable to spin on, despite the range in orifice heights. I guess that I adjust my hand position to where it needs to be, and I don't worry to much if the yarn is held at an angle to the orifice. I'm not a spinning purist.  With both the Aura and the Grace, the orifice height can be adjusted a few inches up or down, depending on the drive band and the whorl used, with the others the height is pretty much fixed.

So the Aura, well its a medium sized wheel, that folds small, tidily so, and has a lovely smooth and well positioned handle. Folded the Aura is a bare 2 feet tall (23 inches) and 22 inches across.  Very portable, I'd say as portable as the Little Gem, in a different way. The Gem takes up less room footprint wise in a car, it fits into a flattish bag that doesn't take up a car a seat space or nearly half the boot/trunk. But for weekly visits to spin groups if you had a spare seat in the car or space in the boot/trunk the Aura would be fantastic. Why? Well it is a slightly heavier wheel so holds more momentum and is nicer to use. As for treadling, compared to the double treadle Gem, the wee traveling take apart wheel,  the Aura is magic to treadle. The treadle is smooth, and has a solid quality heavy feel, I don't mean heavy in terms of use but heavy in terms of stability and smoothness. There is a nice solidness to the construction, and the diamond face plate that faces the spinner just adds to the sense that this is a wheel built to last, and one that will work well for a long useful life.
And that different drive system? As a spinner who has used and understands both double drive and single drive wheels, the set up seems in theory similar. To change the speed of twist adjust the drive band that controls that onto a different whorl, or treadle faster, or both. To change the speed at which the yarn is drawn onto the bobbin - adjust the band that controls the bobbin - either with the band tension adjustment or changing the whorl. In practice there is a an amazing range of balance points when adjusting both, and an equally amazing range of unbalance points. By balance points I mean settings where the draw in and the twist speed are such that spinning can happen, ditto unbalance points - settings that make spinning difficult. There are also other little things to watch for, like making sure the bobbin is seated properly. One of the main difference is that in this Aura system the bobbin isn't driven by a drive band, rather a bobbin whorl is driven by a drive band and the spin transferred to the bobbin via a drive shaft. To make sure there is no slip in the transfer - the bobbin has little pins at one end that lock into place on the drive mechanism, and if the wee pins are not locked into place - well the bobbin won't do what you think it should. The simplest mechanical  adjustment is to the take up, which is modified with a screw that increases or decreases the tension in the bobbin drive band. Turn it one way and the yarn pulls in faster, turn it the other and it pulls in slower. there are other adjustments which involved moving either drive band onto different whorls, or even the spinning head up or down using a Allen key to increase the flier drive band tension. Of coures like all wheels there are non-mechanical adjustments, like treadling faster or slower, or drafting faster or slower.

The main advantage of the Aura over other wheels is that it was specifically designed to spin a huge range of yarn styles, everything from lace to chunky art yarns like those by Plucky Fluff or Jacey Boggs. Yarns that have slubs, beehives and beads and even felted decorative eyeballs and sushi. Because of that the wheel has two deliberate features to help adventurous spinners. Huge bobbins, and really generous threading guides on the flier and orifice. The guides have spaces an inch across meaning you can (should you want to) spin yarn up to an inch thick, or yarns that have bits an inch thick. The bobbins are huge, I spun just over 150 grams onto one and it was only half full .... I chain plied it onto another and it was still only half full. Here I've shown the Aura bobbins (with their distinctive wooden ends and black groove) next to a standard Majacraft bobbin which easily holds 200 grams, and behind that a more traditionally sized bobbin - which holds just over 50 grams. The Aura bobbins are huge ... perfect for plying or making chunky yarns, and will as a result make rather large skeins. Initially I was enamored with the idea of making skeins that were large, I liked the notion of knitting with unbroken lengths of yarn. In retrospect I'm not sure that huge skeins are that easy to deal with, most ball winders won't wind that much, and really knitting from a large cake of yarn isn't as much fun as you would think.

So - what do I think of the Aura and would I buy one?
Well, if I was in the market for a new wheel it could be on my shopping list, it is expensive, but so was the Grace (in fact the Grace was far more expensive but it was made to order and has my name carved into it). I'm not looking for a wheel right now so this is a totally hypothetical  question. If I was looking for the wheel that would be my main wheel and had saved up for a good wheel, and was ordering online .... I'd probably be swayed by the huge range of yarns the Aura is able to spin, the fact it folds up for easy porting would be a plus.
Then again, to be honest after living with the Aura in my home and out to spinning for two months, and looking at what I like to spend my time spinning, I might consider other wheels. Here in New Zealand we have a good range of spinning wheel manufactures, the ubiquitous Ashford, the other little wheel maker in Ashburton,  the Baines, and Majacraft, plus the custom wheels of Mike Keeves. In the rest of the world there are other manufacturers, shops stock other brands beside the Ashford and Majacraft, such as Schact, Lendrum, Louette, Kromsky, and too many others to list. Here in New Zealand trying or buying  one of those is just too difficult and the  shipping to expensive unless travelling to the States.  And traveling to the states isn't cheap, so most spinners don't head of the US when they want to buy a wheel. Short story is in my neck of the woods I'd be picking a wheel from Ashford, Mike Keeves and Majacraft and I can only frame my review in terms of what I know. I suspect I'd plump for a Majacraft Suzie Standard ( or pro if I was feeling like a spurge - its a teeny bit more $ but has a heavier wheel) - honestly the Suzies are all the wheel I need and want, and they fold and transport just as easily, treadle as smoothly at one quarter less the price of the Aura. In fact in my neck of the wood the Suzie is only a tad bit more than a Gem so if I wasn't looking for a travelling wheel, one I could fly with, I'd buy the Suzie - no hesitation.

Should you buy an Aura? Maybe .. if you spin a lot, or spin a large variety of yarns, if you love fancy yarns and want a wheel that you can easily take out to spin groups - then this could be the wheel for you. If you are frustrated at wheels that need constant tweaking just to run smoothly  and that feel like your wheel bits and parts are always working loose or about to break - this wheel is made for you. If you are a timid spinner who is frightened to touch an adjustment or move to a different whorl - then this wheel could make or break you. You will either love it and learn how to use it .. or drive yourself mad with worry over having to adjust it. If you are the kind of person who likes new things, who adores new technology and craves new experiences - then this is probably the wheel for you. The Aura seems to be one of the hot new toys of the spinning world  right now and it will generate interest any where you spin on it, many spinners have seen the announcements, and the adverts but not many  not seen or tried the Aura wheel in person - you could be the first in your group, and a trend setting spinner for your area. You could be the spinner that the others envy.

One last thing - I've meet the Owen and Glynis Poad, the family that are Majacraft,  and they are lovely people, Glynis hangs out in the Majacraft thread on Ravelry and is  there to respond to questions and provide help. I've not experienced any problems with my Gem or with the Aura ... but I have no doubt that if I did they would do all they could to make things right.

So - I'll be handing the Aura back this Monday, there will be a pang of regret when I do, at what I could achieve with it. Those jumbo skeins and the minute adjustments that would allow me to spin anything I can imagine, if I can get my head around what to tweak where. So no,  I haven't started a savings account to buy one, but if I didn't already have a Grace wheel ... I would be saving up and considering one of Majacrafts larger wheels, and Suzie.

On the knitting front, Deciduous is nearly done, only the crochet edge to finish, and then blocking. I'm on leave this week - but the cubs will be underfoot and I have made some promises around baking, and paper making and sewing new things ... still it will all be fun.

take care
na Stella


Knitting Linguist said...

This is an excellent review - thank you. Not only is it interesting in terms of considering whether this is a wheel to try or consider for my own "someday" list, but it also is nice in terms of making me think about what I should be looking at in the wheels I already own.

Anonymous said...

Just the review I was looking for. Thank you.

Fiona MacBride

rubyslipperz said...

Wow! Great review...and VERY much appreciated. Thank you!

I have a Suzie Pro. With that in mind, I have a question for you. =). Would you, if YOU had a Suzie, buy an Aura flyer? or maybe the Jumbo Flyer?

thanks again,

Stell said...

In answer to your question, re aura flier and jumbo flier.
I am not sure the aura flier fits the Susie, as the method of attachment and drive is different, but I have upgraded my gem so it has an e-flier, which is smoother, and has much nicer ceramic lined guides compared to,the delta flier it came with. the aura flier has a pig tail orifice, the gem comes with a delta, I'm not a fan of the delta or pigs tail style as I like to spin fine and thin, if you like thick or bulky .., then they might be best for you. As for bulky fliers, I did investigate a bulky head for my gem, but was advised the gem was too light - and given how large the standard bobbins are, and how fine I like to spin, and the difficulty of dealing with skeins and winding balls over 170g - I decided that the standard bobbin was best for me. If you spin thick or art yarn - your mileage may vary (YMMV).