The accurate segregation of duplicated chromosomes, essential for the development and viability of a eukaryotic organism, requires the formation of a robust microtubule (MT)-based spindle apparatus. Entry into mitosis or meiosis precipitates a cascade of signalling events which result in the activation of pathways responsible for a dramatic reorganisation of the MT cytoskeleton: through changes in the properties of MT-associated proteins, local concentrations of free tubulin dimer and through enhanced MT nucleation. The latter is generally thought to be driven by localisation and activation of γ-tubulin-containing complexes (γ-TuSC and γ-TuRC) at specific subcellular locations. For example, upon entering mitosis, animal cells concentrate γ-tubulin at centrosomes to tenfold the normal level during interphase, resulting in an aster-driven search and capture of chromosomes and bipolar mitotic spindle formation. Thus, in these cells, centrosomes have traditionally been perceived as the primary microtubule organising centre during spindle formation. However, studies in meiotic cells, plants and cell-free extracts have revealed the existence of complementary mechanisms of spindle formation, mitotic chromatin, kinetochores and nucleation from existing MTs or the cytoplasm can all contribute to a bipolar spindle apparatus. Here, we outline the individual known mechanisms responsible for spindle formation and formulate ideas regarding the relationship between them in assembling a functional spindle apparatus.