When I told my husband I was enrolled in a spinning class, he said, “It’s about time we started using our gym membership.”
I explained that I was talking about a class designed to teach people how to make yarn out of raw wool. “It’s actually a spinning and dyeing class,” I clarified.
"Sounds like a painful way to go," he deadpanned.
Spinning seems obsolete in today’s high tech world, but nevertheless the time-honored skill seemed perfectly aligned with my recent interests of quilting, canning, and the graceful art of raising chickens. Like many mid-lifers disillusioned with the frantic pace of a suburban lifestyle, my husband and I had recently walked away from our dance studio empire and walked onto 50 acres in Blue Ridge, a rural village in the hills of Appalachia. Traffic, franchise restaurants, and high-tech gadgets were being traded away for simpler offerings—an exchange of convenience for lives that attempted to approach self-sufficiency.
“Why spin?” My husband asked the question idly as he studied a tractor brochure with the same fascination he had once reserved for sports cars.
“Learning how textiles are made sounds interesting,” I said, “and I figure if I learn to spin, I’ll be able to do something with my llama fiber.” I’d asked for, and received, a llama for my birthday, and learning to spin seemed a prime justification for what had turned out to be a high-maintenance, temperamental yard ornament. My husband still didn’t understand my mid-life-crisis llama lust, and to be honest, neither did I. But since Mark was in full support of my assigning purpose to my pet, I signed up.
Several days later, with a bag of dirty llama fiber in hand, I was at the John C. Campbell Folk School to begin a six-day spinning seminar. Eleven chairs were arranged in a circle in the tidy, sparse space where the class was to be held. Sinks and stoves stood neatly around the perimeter of the classroom. Overhead, a shelf holding pots and buckets for dying raw materials loomed. Boxes of raw fiber were stacked up on the counters, but there wasn't a single spinning wheel in sight. I confess I was only mildly disappointed. Despite my enthusiasm for an organic lifestyle, I still considered knitting needles a complex appliance. If truth be told, the idea of using a spinning wheel as anything more than an interesting conversation piece intimidated me.
A quote had been written on a blackboard behind a long table heaped with a mass of unwashed animal fur. It stated:
"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 true answer to the "why spin?" question? By learning to spin, would I 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 experience what my ancestors went through to make yarn and thread for sweaters and shawls. By now I’d learned a self-sustaining lifestyle that discarded every modern convenience would never be for me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy a glimpse of life pre-Wal-Mart. 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, Martha, was a fifty-three year old woman who'd been spinning since she was seventeen. Bustling with enthusiasm and warmth, she had a love of all things woolen that was evident from the start. After introductions, she showed us a few complex sweaters she'd knitted from hand-spun wool, sharing stories about the various stitches in the garment and the materials used to make the colored patterns therein. Listening to her stories gave the sweater an intimate history that could chase away a chill just by nature of the garment’s significant journey into being. Oh, how I wanted such a sweater of my own!
Martha put us at ease by 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 Islands) 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 who believe a good spinner does not veer from tradition and those who take artistic liberties and enjoy employing new techniques and innovations. The latter strive to create more experimental textiles. Martha planned to expose us to both traditional and modern techniques so we could sway whichever direction suited our personalities, but before learning to spin, we needed to learn about fiber, which meant learning about sheep.
We discussed what breeds were common in different regions and how diet and environmental conditions resulted in softer or coarser wool. After an overview, we concentrated on those sheep producing the wool we were most likely to work with, such as Rambouillet, Merino, 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 after it is cut from the 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 coarser areas of the full coat (legs, stomach, and neck) to leave only quality wool to work with, and kemp is the undesirable hollow fiber that doesn't take dye. We learned about lamb’s 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 academically, 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. We picked debris out of a fleece still filled with dust and small twigs, then each student washed one pound of it in huge tubs of warm water using normal shampoo. No agitation was allowed or the wool 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.
I plunged my hands into the water, feeling the cottony 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. For me, spinning was only a hobby, but for them, such work would have been mandatory to clothe the family. Going through the motions seemed a way of honoring my past, so I worked with a reverence for the act, not even blinking when I discovered what a mess a pound of freshly cleaned wool can make on a person's jeans and sneakers.
After soaking and rinsing our individual pound of fur, we laid the eleven clumps on screens to dry. Martha 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 could harvest flowers for various tints. Some of the students took a walk to gather moss, berries and other natural materials. I stayed behind to help others lift the huge pots off the shelves to brew 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, three ounces of alum and one ounce of cream of tartar. 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 the lot and let the pot sit. Hours later, we lifted a beautiful tie-dyed wonder of colored wool from the pot.
Out of each dye pot we claimed 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. While I knew I shouldn't be surprised that these awesome colors were born of simple things growing outside, I still couldn't help but marvel at proof that chemicals don’t have to be responsible for the vibrant colors in fabrics we enjoy today. Man's inventions are not all designed to enhance but are often employed for convenience or cost efficiency. The work and natural resources required to produce such striking colors made the hues all the more extraordinary.
With wool now hanging to dry on clotheslines about the room, sitting on screens, or left unwashed on tables, the room looked as if had been taken over by the rampant growth of a wooly fern that had grown haywire while we weren't noticing. We were working in a rainforest of dripping woolen clumps hanging like moss from the ceilings as dry heaps of fuzz pooled about our feet.
Martha announced it was time to get out the spinning wheels and she went to a large closet in the back of the room to pull out a dozen. We were encouraged to pick whatever style piqued our interest. I chose what appeared to be a traditional-style Ashford Spinning wheel, but my eye was on a big granddaddy wheel in the closet that looked like something designed for show rather than functionality.
Martha smiled at the direction of 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’re beginners?" I asked, staring with reservation at the four-foot wheel taking up an entire corner of the room.
"Size changes the ratio of twists in the yarn. A bigger wheel is simply faster, which means you can make more delicate threads. This big granddaddy is fun." I wasn’t convinced, but the stately antique certainly added ambiance to the classroom.
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 before tackling any actual spinning.
Finally, it was time to spin. I assumed spinning would be more complicated than it turned out to be, but it’s nothing more than 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. A single ply (single, twisted yarn) has a bit of kink in it and when knitted or woven, has the potential to distort the shape of your finished project, like sewing off the bias. We learned to weigh and hang wet yarn to "set the twist". Two-ply yarn has less distortion because it involves taking two colors of single twisted yarn and spinning them together in the opposite direction, an act that loosens the twist and evens the hang. Combining two individually spun threads together offers unlimited opportunities for color and texture combinations. The moment I blended two simple yarns together into a complex bundle of swirls, I was hooked.
It was becoming clear that many of us would continue spinning after the course was finished. Martha discussed other fibers, such as mohair and cashmere (from 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 a rabbit sitting calmly in her lap. When I got home that night, I found resources on the Internet for purchasing 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 the friction of running wool between our fingers, Martha invited us down the street to her farm so we could meet her sheep. We took a gander at Corriedale, Merino, and Shetland sheep, along with the Pyrenees guard dogs with hair also periodically harvested for spinning. I thought fondly of my llamas back home.
"Why spin?" turns out to be a good question, one I now could truly answer.
I used to value a sweater in terms of its cost or how it made me look slim. I’d think nothing of tossing away a blanket because the color no longer suited the room or the edges were frayed. The things cluttering my life had little meaning, making me feel as if the trappings of my life were disposable. In time my entire lifestyle felt disposable, and so I disposed of it, moving to the country to seek a more purposeful existence.
Learning to spin taught me history, science, and the story of the textiles that are all about us in the world today. I now have the ability make things by hand, and I can and will associate personal meaning to these things because I’ve learned firsthand the time and trouble required to create something on your own. I’ve also learned I don’t have to go through the painstaking process of making everything I wear by hand just to appreciate how and why my possessions have come into being.
The fabric of my existence stretches back, long before I was born, all the way to man's primal discovery of how gifts of the earth can be used in artistic ways. Man and beast have long worked in harmony to leave behind a legacy of art and ingenuity. Perhaps my llama has always had some inherent knowledge of his authentic purpose, but it took the act of learning to spin to help me recognize it. In doing so, I spun purpose, not just in a pet, but in a sweater, an art, a life.
With hands filled with heaps of fresh fiber from my mid-life crisis llamas, I suddenly knew that our new life would allow us to combine the twisted threads of past and present to create a deeply textured life. Living in the mountains was starting to connect me to the fabric of my existence.
Beginning as an essay written in self exploration about a life experience, the work was later turned into a chapter in My Million Dollar Donkey.Threads of Meaning won the Creative Non-fiction award for the New Southerner Literary Award in 2008. Later it was also published in New Southerner, Winter 2008-09 anthology.
Threads of Meaning ended up on the cutting room floor when the book was trimmed for publication, but it remains a celebrated chapter in the life of the author, who desperately wanted to unveil deeper connections to life, her writing, the environment, and the people she loved.
Judge Kathryn Eastburn, author of A Sacred Feast and Simon Says, stated:
"This is a fascinating tribute to the value of craft in making sense of the world. The author's light touch takes us smoothly and swiftly through the complex process of washing, dyeing, carding and spinning raw wool. I especially appreciated her clear, direct language and her clarity of purpose."
Author - Writing Teacher