Threads of Meaning
When I told my husband I’d signed up for a spinning class, his response was, “It’s about time we started using our gym membership.”
With a “sheepish” smile, I explained that wasn’t that kind of spinning I meant. I was talking about a class designed to teach people how to make yarn out of raw wool.
“It is actually a spinning and dying class,” I clarified.
“Sounds like a painful way to go,” he said.
I could tell by his smile he was amused by the concept of me sitting, peddling a wheel with a basket of wool in my lap, like one of the Mennonites we paused to watch at historical festivals.
“Why go to the trouble of spinning when you can buy all kinds of interesting yarn at Wal-Mart?” he asked.
Honestly, I couldn’t answer him. I just thought learning how textiles were made would be interesting. Furthermore, I’d asked for (and received) a llama for my birthday and I couldn’t help but think this was the prime opportunity to justify owning what had turned out to be a high maintenance, temperamental, yard ornament.
I said, “I figure, if I learn to spin, I’ll be able to do something with my llama fiber.”
“Are you spinning llama fiber in the class?”
“No. Just sheep’s wool.”
His eyes narrowed. “I am not buying you a sheep for Christmas”.
I waved my hand as if to dismiss his threat. He’d acted as if I was insane when I started talking about wanting a llama, but three months later, on my birthday, he proudly presented me a big, fuzzy, camel-like creature with a bow around its wooly neck. Besides which, I was pretty much assuming that, after taking the class, I’d be campaigning for a spinning wheel for Christmas. I did make a mental note to try to make enough yarn for a scarf for him though. I think I too needed to associate some logical purpose to this endeavor. “Why spin?” was a good question.
A few days later, I entered a barren classroom at the John C. Campbel Folkschool to begin my 6-day spinning seminar. The room was nothing more than a vacant space with eleven chairs arranged in a circle. Sinks and stoves were built-in along the perimeter to define a long narrow strip of kitchen slipping around the corners like a bow around a present. A shelf holding pots and buckets for dying raw materials hovered overhead. Boxes of raw fiber were stacked up on the counters, but there wasn’t a single (intimidating) spinning wheel in sight, an absence that surprised me, yet I was grateful for all the same. Perhaps this would be a theoretical class. Maybe we would be using simple hand spindles. The lack of wheels made me think it was going to be easier than I imagined.
On a blackboard on the wall behind a long table featuring a mass of unwashed animal fur a quote had been written:
” Our ability to hold and to live in the memory of the primal creative source is an essential thread that binds together the fabric of all existence.”
– J. Lambert –
Could this be the answer to that nagging “why spin?” question? Perhaps, by learning to spin, I would tap into my primal creative source and understand the fabric of my existence. It seemed a tall order for a ball of yarn to deliver, but I was ready to embrace my primitive side to explore the possibilities. Eager to experience the process my ancestors went through to make yarn and thread for sweaters and shawls, I craved a glimpse of life, pre-Wal-Mart. I trusted that even if the adventure didn’t offer me an explanation of the essential thread of my existence, it would certainly make me appreciate the conveniences I enjoy today.
My teacher, Margaret Owen, was a 53-year-old woman who’d been spinning since she was seventeen. Bustling with enthusiasm and warmth, her love of all things pertaining to wool was evident from the start. After introductions were made, she showed us a few complex sweaters she’d knitted from hand-spun wool, giving us a bit of history regarding the piece and sharing stories about who taught her the stitches and what materials she used to dye the wool to make the colored pattern. Then, she entertained us with antics of the sheep this particular fiber came from. Suddenly, the sweater seemed far more than a garment made to wrap around shivering shoulders. Now, the sweater had personality, an intimate and meaningful history. Such a thing was bound to chase away a chill just by nature of its significant journey into being. Oh, how I wanted one of my own!
Margaret put us at ease talking about her early introduction to spinning, her harrowing introduction to raising sheep, and her recent thrilling trip to Scotland (the Outer Hebrides and Orkney) where she explored spinning traditions and knitting techniques. Her philosophy leaned towards a “whatever works for you is best” attitude. She pointed out that wool enthusiasts often fall into two categories; those that believe a good spinner does not veer from tradition, only doing things in ways that will preserve the original art, and those who take artistic liberties and enjoy encompassing new techniques and innovations, leaning towards more experimental textiles. She was determined to expose us to both tradition and all the other possibilities wool presents. Informed (and with her blessing) we could then sway towards whichever direction suited our personalities.
But before learning to spin, we needed to learn about fiber, which meant learning about sheep. There are thousands of breeds, each with unique qualities that affect the fur. We discussed what breeds were common in different regions and the elements of diet and lifestyle that resulted in softer or courser wool. After an overview, we concentrated on those sheep with wool we were most likely to work with, such as Rambouillet, Marino, Corriedale, Cotswold, or Lincoln. We taped samples of each into a notebook, creating a personal resource for recognizing wool types in the future. The tighter the kink in the wool, the softer it would be, and in no time we learned to inspect the crimp (perm) and staple (length of wool where it is cut from sheep) to judge what kind of project the fiber would be best suited for.
Soon, we were being pelted by wool-associated words, until keeping up with the definitions was like playing a frantic game of scrabble. Hogget is the first shearing of a lamb, tippiness describes the brittle ends of wool, skirting is a way of cutting away courser areas of the full coat (legs, stomach, and neck) to leave only quality wool to work with, kemp is the undesirable hollow fiber that doesn’t take dye. We learned about lambs wool, virgin wool, worsted wool, and woolen yarn. We were introduced to picking, teasing, lubrication of dry fiber, carding, and combing.
Once we understood wool, it was time to begin working with it. We gathered around a huge mass of raw fiber that had been recently cut from a sheep and learned to recognize what area of the animal each section was from. Still filled with dust and small twigs, we picked out the debris, then each student washed one pound of it in huge tubs of warm water with shampoo (it is hair, after all) . No agitation or it would mat and turn into felt. No abrupt changes in water temperature or it would break down the fibers. Raw wool was, apparently, a delicate thing, so I approached it gingerly with a touch of anxiety. I plunged my hands into the water, feeling the cotton softness of the raw wool under my manicured nails, imagining my ancestors doing the same, yet vividly aware that their hands would be work-worn and calloused because, while for me such a task is a hobby, for them it was mandatory life’s work. Yet, going through the motions seemed a way of honoring my past, so I worked with a reverence for the process, enjoying even the mess a pound of wool can make on a person’s jeans and sneakers.
After soaking and rinsing our individual pound of fur, we lay the eleven clumps on screens to dry and began discussing natural dyes. Margaret introduced us to a variety of natural elements we would use to color the wool, pointing us to areas of the garden outside where we were to harvest the flowers. Some of the students took a walk to gather materials. I helped others lift the huge pots off the shelves to begin brewing water that would soon welcome marigolds, madder root, and lichen.
One jar was filled with ammonia and a piece of copper pipe to create sea foam green. We crushed cochineal bugs to make red, brewed onionskins to make beige, and tore up indigo to make blue. In order to make the wool colorfast, it had to be treated in another bath of five gallons of water with three ounces of alum and one ounce of cream of tarter. The wet, treated wool was then introduced to the dye pots and left to soak.
Meanwhile, we created a “rainbow” pot where our freshly cleaned, treated, white wool was layered between cheesecloth with handfuls of dye materials dropped in random clumps. Walnuts, marigolds, madder and cochineal lay buried in the folds. We covered our lasagna-like fiber creation with just enough water to saturate it and let the pot sit. Hours later, we lifted beautiful colored wool from the pot, a tie-dyed wonder, arranging it to dry as we “oohed” and “aahed” over surprise pigments and the swirls of color that the positioning of the wool created.
Out of each dye pot arose a gift from the earth, vibrant colors with depth and wholesomeness that no box of Rit could ever offer. The sheer subtle variety within each pound of wool was like the natural varied shades in a beautiful head of hair, far richer than flat (died) hair, making the natural dyes all the more striking. While I knew I shouldn’t be surprised that these awesome colors were born of simple things growing outside, I still couldn’t help be amazed. Deep down I think I assumed chemicals were required for vibrant color, as if man’s inventions were all to enhance product, when in reality, it is often convenience we seek.
With wool now hanging to dry on clotheslines about the room, clumps sitting on screens, or left unwashed on tables, the room looked as if had been taken over by a wooly fern that had grown haywire while we weren’t noticing. We were working in a forest of wool, dripping clumps hanging like moss from the ceilings, dry heaps of fuzz pooling about our feet.
It was time to get out the spinning wheels. A large closet in the back of the room stored dozens of spinning wheels for the school. We gathered inside, encouraged to pick whatever style peaked our interest. I chose what appeared to be a traditional style Ashford Spinning wheel, my eye on the big granddaddy wheel that looked like something designed for show rather than functionality.
Margaret smiled at my gaze and dragged it out, saying “Everyone should try this one too.”
“Isn’t that going to be hard to work on, considering we are beginners?” I asked, staring with reservation at the three-foot wheel that took up the entire corner of the room.
“Size doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “It only changes the ratio of twists in the yarn. Bigger is just faster, which means you can make more delicate threads.”
I sat at my slower model feeling I had made the right choice, but I enjoyed the granddaddy set up nearby all the same, for it served to inspire as it created ambiance.
We still had work to do before spinning. It was time to card the wool. With two flat brushes sporting hundreds of short prongs, we brushed the raw wool to detangle it, picking out leftover twigs or burs and combining colors for fun. When the fibers were all going in one direction, we lifted the feather light mass onto one card, then rolled it into manageable tubes. While it isn’t necessary to card wool before spinning, prepared wool is easier to work with, resulting in more uniform, delicate yarn. As beginners, we brushed studiously, determined to set ourselves up for success before tackling any actual spinning.
Finally, it was time to spin. Spinning is actually remarkably simple. It is the act of pulling clumps of fiber into long narrow tubes and adding twist. Wool has tiny scale-like qualities, so it attaches to itself easily to make an ongoing thread that is really just millions of tiny independent “hairs” spun together. A single ply (single, twisted yarn) has a bit of kink in it, and when knitted or woven, it has the potential to distort the shape of your finished project (like sewing off the bias), so you must keep a single ply loose and later, hang it wet, weighted, to “set the twist”. For this reason, most often, people make a two-ply yarn. This involves taking two colors of single twisted yarn and spinning them together in the opposite direction, an act that loosens the twist and evens out the hang. Two-ply is also how bigger, textured yarn is made. Combining two individually spun threads together offers unlimited opportunities to create original color and texture combinations. I found the wealth of creative options engaging, and the moment I blended two simple yarns together into a complex bundle of swirls of color and texture, I was hooked. I was making yarn that no one else in the world would have. Few things in life are that original and I considered those soft chords of wool in my hand precious because of it.
For the next few days, we spun wool according to our goals, our light or heavy hand, and our eye for color. None of the student’s end products looked alike. The originality of the yarns was as fascinating as the range of personalities in the class.
It was now clear many of us would continue spinning after the course was finished. Margaret discussed other fibers, such as Mohair and Cashmere (goats), camel, alpaca and llama. She even introduced us to one of her angora rabbits and demonstrated a neat parlor trick of spinning directly off the rabbit sitting calmly in her lap. When I got home that night, I found resources on the internet for yak and musk ox fur. They even make yarn of possum. I wanted to try it all.
On the last day, our minds saturated with information and our hands smarting from hours of friction running wool between our fingers, Margaret invited us down the street to her farm to meet her sheep. Here, we saw live samples of corriedale, merino and Shetland sheep, along with her Pyrenees dogs, (who guard the sheep and whose hair can also be harvested for spinning). I found the sheep rather lacking in personality and seeing how much goes into caring for them made me think I would be better off sticking with buying raw fiber for now. (A detail that delighted my husband.) I always have my birthday llama’s wool to add intimacy and significance to future projects, just in case I want to associate personal meaning to a sweater I might make.
Wandering around Margaret’s pasture with the other students, I looked at the animals, curious about which one gave me the gift of wool I’d spun that morning. I yearned to stroke the head of sheep that unintentionally brought me so much pleasure. They seemed happy with their lot in life. Sheep do not have to die to offer us this marvelous gift of fiber, a detail I am grateful for.
That evening, our class culminated in a ceremony, the John C. Campbell folkschool<ST1 showcase, where students in a variety of classes display the creations they’d worked on all week. I admired all sorts of Scottish Heritage crafts, but my eyes kept slipping back to my yarn, tangible proof of my new talents, and I couldn’t help but wonder if everyone was as grateful of their week’s experience as I was.
Learning to spin introduced me to a new hobby that is both utilitarian and creative, but mostly, it taught me to look at the world differently. An avid lover of history, I often peruse museums to enjoy vintage costumes, furniture and/or rugs. Often these antiques have been preserved for hundreds of years. I know that when I see these pieces now, rich with handmade textiles, I’ll have a new appreciation for the colors and how they’ve survived over the years. I’ll understand how tedious the work must have been to create such beautiful objects and acknowledge how talented the artisans who planned and executed such complex designs must have been. I can’t stop marveling at man’s innovation to extract a rainbow from the earth, his ability to transfer it to wool and spin it into delicate fabrics or useful materials of various feel. And I am filled with respect for the animals that lived hundreds of years ago and the people who tended them, for they worked in harmony to leave behind a legacy of art and ingenuity that defies anything sitting on the shelves of Wal-Mart today.
“Why spin?” is a good question, one I have an answer for now. J. Lambert, whoever that is, said it succinctly.
“Our ability to hold and to live in the memory of the primal creative source is an essential thread that binds together the fabric of all existence.”
The way I see it, my life is filled with “things”. Things I need to exist, things I own to be comfortable, and things I’ve collected to assure a life of convenience. Most of these “things” can be acquired at Wal-Mart, but beyond that, I rarely consider their origin.
“Things” only have the meaning we associate to them. Suddenly, I’ve come to a point where I’ve stopped associating meaning to most everything I own. I associate the value of a sweater in terms of its cost or if it makes me look slim. I think nothing of tossing away a blanket because the color no longer suits the room. The things cluttering my life have little meaning, making me feel as if the trappings of my life are disposable. Is it any wonder so many people in our society complain about feeling disconnected?
Learning to spin has taught me history, science, and the story of the textiles that fill my world today. I now have the ability make things by hand, and I can, and will, associate personal meaning to them by nature of the time and trouble they took to create. But I have a deeper appreciation for the items sitting on the Wal-Mart shelves now, too. In the memory of man’s creative source, our history, I understand and appreciate all that is available to me today.
The fabric of my existence is composed of much more than the surface implies. It stretches back, long before I was born, all the way to man’s primal discovery of how to use the gifts of the earth in artistic ways. Somewhere along the way, the wool’s been pulled over our eyes -people have forgotten the base origins that lay the foundation for what we have today. Learning to spin has taught me more than how to make yarn. It’s taught me that I must combine the twisted threads of past and present to create a deeply textured life that will maintain shape. This kind of awareness becomes a sweater of substance I can wrap around my shoulders. And it will warm me through all the seasons of my life.