The Scotch Tension System – Is it Scottish?

I have had a question about the scotch tension system on my spinning wheels for a while now. Because it is often mentioned in the same context as Irish tension, I always wondered if scotch tension had something to do with Scotland.

The fiber arts are full of terms and words that tack on cultural descriptors. While giving recognition to a group of people for their contribution to textiles is wonderful (eg. Icelandic sweaters), too often I’m learning that many of these cultural terms are inaccurate (eg. Navajo plying).

For this particular research project, I wanted to figure out where the term scotch tension came from and of course determine if it has anything to do with Scotland.

What is a Scotch Tension System?

My first clue that something was amiss had to do with the fact that all the antique Scottish spinning wheels I could find featured a double drive tension system. In contrast, scotch tension is a single drive system with the drive band connecting the drive wheel to a whorl that spins the flyer. This gives the fibers their twist. The scotch brake is placed over the bobbin to create drag. This drag is what allows the fibers to wind around the bobbin.

A painted Ashford Traditional spinning wheel is shown with the scotch tension band stretched over the bobbin for spinning.
The scotch brake on a Vintage Ashford Traditional is placed over the bobbin to cause drag.

The spinning wheel in the picture above is my Vintage Ashford Traditional that I painted myself. You can see how I did it here!

Being unable to find an antique example of scotch tension on a Scottish spinning wheel doesn’t mean there never was one. It is actually very easy to convert a double drive wheel into a single drive, scotch tension system, so they may have existed. But if they did, they are now hard to find. I had a feeling that maybe there was a different meaning behind the term “scotch” that was different than the usage for “Scotch whisky.”

A Definition of Scotch

So I went to the dictionary where I found this…

scotch noun (3) Definition of scotch (Entry 6 of 7)

a chock to prevent rolling or slipping

scotch verb (2) scotchedscotchingscotches Definition of scotch (Entry 7 of 7)

transitive verb

1: to block with a chock


And that is when it all made sense!

For a scotch tension to work on a spinning wheel, you must prevent the bobbin from turning at the same rate as the flier. You have to hinder or thwart it from rolling around as fast so the yarn will be able to fill the bobbin while you spin.

“Scotch tension” does not indicate that this tension system has something to do with Scotland. It is using a more archaic meaning of the word scotch to describe what the spinning wheel actually does.

So, do we capitalize scotch tension?

This means two things for me. First is that unless it starts the sentence, scotch tension should not be capitalized. And second, I need to figure out where Irish tension came from, because I have a feeling it might not have been Ireland.

If you want to know about the history of the Ashford Traditional spinning wheel’s iconic scotch tension system plus learn a few trouble shooting tips to help you spin better with your scotch tension wheel, you can watch this video!

8 thoughts on “The Scotch Tension System – Is it Scottish?”

  1. From the Oxford English…
    scotch something to stop something from happening; to take action to end something Plans for a merger have been scotched. Rumours that he had fled the country were promptly scotched by his wife.

    1. I think this fits too because scotch tension is about the scotch brake stopping the bobbin from turning so fast. Thanks for the Oxford definition!

  2. I have struggled to understand the tension adjusting – now I’ve got it. You are a great teacher. I think I’ve watched most of your videos. Thanks. I have an Ashford traveler, a Pocket Wheel, a Lendrum and cute little 2 Electric Eel wheels.

  3. Can’t seem to get the bobbin to turn after switching to scotch tension on my Matchless. I’ve tightened n loosened with no movement! Help! Took a pic but can’t seem to include. If u respond via email I can include that way.
    Truly frustrated,

    1. Hi Judy! I’m so sorry, I only just now saw your comment. Have you been able to figure out the tension trouble? What I usually tell people is to take the tension band over the bobbin all the way out so it is really loose and then slowly increase it from there while you are spinning. Hopefully, you will find the point where the bobbin starts to tug the yarn in. It can be very subtle. I hope you already have it figured out and you are happily spinning away by now. If not, send me an email and I’ll try to help you further.

  4. Thank you I did. Took to my LYS who also spin n weave. Their fix was the same as yours. I’m spinning like crazy now!

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