The Hand of Fate
“Why breed alpacas?” This is the question that you will have to answer over and over if you own alpacas. In the U.S. the answer will invariably be, “For their valuable fleece.” or “They’re luxury fiber producers.” Every breeder I talked to said this, every alpaca website and magazine I looked at gave this answer, this was, and still is, the only acceptable answer in the U.S. alpaca industry. Since it was all about the fleece, it seemed obvious to me that my next research step should be hand spinning lessons. If we were really going to buy and breed animals whose main value is in their fleeces, I should know how to use my own product. How else could I correctly judge the quality of fleeces we were producing?
Turns out, this simple idea of using your own product, to gain experience with it, was not as much of a no-brainer to most other alpaca breeders as I imagined. The majority of them were not interested in learning to shear or spin, knit or weave. I was one of the weirdos in this regard, a position that is comfortably familiar to me.
I can admit that it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice for me to get into hand spinning. I’d been dying to try it for years, ever since my first visit to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Seeing hundreds of women spinning, in public, on spinning wheels and drop spindles, at an event that was all about wool and other spinnable fibers caused a sudden, sharp revelation from deep within me. I wanted to spin too. I wanted to magically transform an amorphous mass of soft, fleece into a luscious yarn. I wanted to knit from yarn that I had created with my own hands. I would be like one of the Three Fates from Greek mythology. They spin, they measure and they cut the thread of men’s destinies. I would be walking in the footsteps of the goddesses!
Meanwhile, the nerd in me was fascinated by the mechanics of the process. A band running around both the large drive wheel and the small, “whorl” wheel on the flyer mechanism, turns both wheels, and the difference in size between the drive wheel and the whorl, i.e. the ratio between their circumferences, decides how many twists will go into the yarn. It works something like a 12-speed bicycle with the gear wheel standing in for the whorl. How cool is that?
The oldest spinning wheels had no flyer or bobbin, so the spinner had to stop and wind the spun yarn onto a spindle. Sometimes these were pointy like the one Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. But, if you can figure out a way to make the spindle also turn, just a little faster than the wheel and whorl, you can make the yarn wind on to it automatically, as you keep spinning. The first person we know of who figured out how to accomplish this little trick of physics was Leonardo da Vinci. He left us drawings to prove that he too, had an avid interest in the mechanics of the spinning wheel.
It is impossible to measure how ancient the art of spinning really is. We have probably been rolling plant fibers along our thighs to make string since humans first appeared on our planet. Eventually, many of us realized that a stick with a weight on the end would spin fiber much more efficiently. You tie a piece of rolled fiber onto the stick, twirl the stick with a round weight on it and keep adding more fiber as your yarn or thread appears. From time to time, you wind the spun yarn or thread onto the shaft of the stick. Thus was the first drop spindle invented? It may have been a stick with a roundish fruit on the end.
In her brilliant book, Women’s Work, author Elizabeth Wayland Barber places the invention of the drop spindle at 20-30 thousand years ago and notes that, while spinning, stone age threads and fibers would not be sufficiently hardy to survive to be found archaeologically, the presence of rows of evenly spaced beads encasing the bodies and heads of people found in archeological digs from this time period, indicates that these beads were sewn onto a garment with thread. It would be impossible to spin a fine thread without some type of spindle, as the rubbing on your leg method is just too imprecise.
Without that finely spun thread and the spinner who created it, there is no biblical coat of many colors, no tapestry woven by Helen of Troy in the Iliad, no goddess Athena jealously turning a rival weaver into the spider Arachne, no linen death shroud for King Tut, no sails on the ships of Christopher Columbus, no Bayeaux Tapestry and no Fates that spin our lives into a thread to be measured and cut. Remarkably, that metaphor is still meaningful today. Referring to the twisted pair of the DNA strand, Matt Ridley, author of Genome writes, “The secret of life is indeed a thread.”
We think of hand-spinning as a quaint craft from the past but it has been an integral part of our lives throughout most of human history. The diversity of spinning fibers, spindles, and wheels is astonishing. Imagine the person who first thought up the idea of unwinding a moth’s cocoon and spinning it into silk yarn, or the person who first gathered pieces of sheep wool stuck on a bush and realized it could be spun into yarn. Yak undercoat, alpaca, cashmere, rabbit fur, buffalo undercoat, camel undercoat, cotton, flax, hemp, sisal, and jute are just a few of the animals and plants whose fibers humans have learned to spin. The more I learned about hand spinning, the more fascinating it became.
My spinning teacher was named Dalis. Her “farm” was one of those farm-ish businesses that depend more on artistic style and ambiance than, say, manure and muddy boots. The setting is breathtaking, a classic, white country house, charmingly decorated, and surrounded by lovely, green fields, with an unobstructed view of the bluish mountains as a backdrop. She had a small “spinners flock” of sheep, and a few chickens, just enough animals to make it cute, not enough to produce much of the aforementioned mud or manure. A small barn-shaped yarn shop in her backyard provided the setting for the spinning lessons.
Dalis had a talent for arranging and displaying her wares. The shop was full of whimsical touches like the skeins of yarn nestled in Chinese food containers with handmade, glass knitting needles poked into the yarn like chopsticks. This “farm store” setup is perfect for day trippers from the city to drive out to the beautiful countryside, see some adorable animals, try their hand at spinning or knitting lessons, and buy hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn right from the farm artist, but you have to have a certain charisma and sensibility to pull off this type of artsy farm business. I couldn’t imagine myself doing it.
The spinning wheels used in our group lesson were “castle-style” Majacraft Rose wheels, as opposed to the more sideways layout, “Saxony” wheel that most of us have seen in a Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin storybook. They are made in New Zealand from the lovely, soft, Rimu wood, and have a delicate rose carved on them. We each sat at one and tried treadling it. At first, it is hard to keep the flywheel going in only one direction. It sputters and reverses direction, seemingly at random. If you treadle harder, generating more momentum, the flywheel goes way faster than your hands can move. As your feet treadle, your hands must gently pull apart a continuous roving of fleece and allow just enough of that fleece to be twisted by the wheel and drawn into the “orifice” of the flyer mechanism. From there it should wind on the bobbin inside of the flyer. Allow too much of the fleece to be twisted and the twist may move up the entire length of the roving, past your hands. Now you will be unable to pull apart the fiber at all, and it is too thick to fit through the orifice anyway. You will end up with a gigantic, spun yarn bigger than 10 or 20 strands of bulky yarn put together, and will have to unravel the entire thing and start over. Allow too little of the yarn to be twisted and you end up with a thread that breaks. Or, you can alternate between fat pieces and thin pieces. This is called “slubby” yarn and spinners sometimes make it on purpose to create designer yarn.
Knowing how badly I wanted to learn to spin, I was certain that I would be one of the first of our small group of students to get the hang of it. I wasn’t. In fact, I think I was the only one who did not manage it at all during the three-hour lesson. I knew what I was supposed to do. My brain got it, but my hands were out to lunch. Every one of my “yarns” was either way over-spun resembling a curly piggy tail, or under spun and broken before it could wind on. Several times I let the twist move up through the entire roving and had to stop and unwind the whole mess. It reminded the time I tried to learn to bowl. The harder I tried, the more comical my efforts became. My confidence crushed, I left my spinning lesson a bitter woman.
Despite this utter disgrace, the desire to spin stayed with me. Inexplicably, I began to shop around for a spinning wheel. I eventually bought a small Kiwi model wheel made by Ashford. This was not the elegant Rose wheel of my lesson. The flywheel was pressed wood that begged to be painted something cheery, and the whole contraption had a blocky, unfinished look to it. Nor was it as fast as the Rose wheel I’d tried to learn on, but it turned out to be the perfect wheel for me. As soon as I sat down to spin on it, I felt the rightness of it. Yarn began appearing and winding on the bobbin where before I had only produced a twisted mess. And so I learned an important lesson. The fit between wheel and spinner matters.
Years later when I, myself, taught hand spinning, I would use five different wheels and make my students try each one. Invariably a student who was a complete train wreck with one style of the wheel would suddenly triumph with another wheel. Each wheel is unique in size, speed, stability, height, and configuration just as each person is. Some spinners hate the single treadle, sideways layout Saxony wheel while an equal number despise the double treadle castle wheel. My observation of spinning students has convinced me that hyper people with good posture often like double treadle, castle wheels, while laid back, slouchers often prefer single treadle Saxony wheels.
I amateurishly painted my Kiwi wheel with some alpacas and a sunny face and sealed it all with Minwax. Then I spun the rest of my first roving. Next, I bought a sheep fleece from a neighbor, washed it in a tub outside with a ton of soap and some salt, carded it with hand cards, and spun that up too. The hand cards were rustic and looked like authentic antiques, but they were also painful for my small hands. I invested in a drum carder before processing my next fleece. Once my hands got the hang of it and I managed to stop over-thinking it, spinning was very pleasurable. It was also kind of addictive. I wanted to try different styles of preparation and spinning as well as all different types of fiber. I needed to learn to ply two spun yarns together if I was going to make a more usable yarn. I read books on spinning and fiber preparation. I subscribed to “Spin-Off” magazine. I was well and truly caught in the web of my new obsession.
Having the excuse of doing research for our alpaca business was what allowed me to give myself permission to learn the art of hand-spinning. It would have seemed a pretentious extravagance to me if I had taken it up just for my own pleasure. Isn’t that sad? We are taught that it is OK to experience the joy of creating art with our hands as children, but as “grown-ups” it seems silly or not worth the expense to many of us. I wonder what our great, great grandparents would think of this. Would they, who worked so much harder, had to fear so many more illnesses, lived with so many fewer luxuries, had no films, televisions, jet planes, or the Internet, pity us because we did not have the simple joy of creating things with our own hands as part of our daily lives? It’s hard to imagine how much richer creating things makes your life if you don’t do it regularly.