Article: The Bluenose Tribune, 1998

Spinning a yarn which weaves a life

Written by Leslie Hauck

Bending over steaming cups of tea, with winter whirling outside the frosted window, my friend and I sat watching our three year-old boys playing.  As my eyes roamed around her new apartment they came to rest upon a strange wooden object: an 18″ length of dowel sticking into a 4″ disk.  It had the warm, orangey tone of aged wood that has been well-handled.  I asked Rebecca what it was.  She told me it was called a drop spindle.  “What do you do with it?”, I asked her.  “Spin wool”, she answered simply.

In very short order she proceeded to show me how it worked and as I watched the magic of her hands working with the uncomplicated tool I experienced a feeling of excitement that made me blurt out, “I’ve got to do this!”  I had never before seen someone spinning yarn, and I went home enthused to tell my husband about this amazing part of my day.

Very conveniently he had a shop and tools and soon had created for me on his lathe a maple version of a drop spindle with beautiful turnings.  Unfortunately, it did not work very well because the disk portion was too small.

However, within the year he had, again with his own enthusiasm about my spinning, built me a spinning wheel out of leftover pieces of black walnut from his shop.  Using plans from an old Popular Mechanics magazine this “Wee Peggy” design also didn’t work as well as it was beautiful.

By this time I had taken my first spinning workshop and experienced the simultaneous frustration and thrill of learning this craft.  Now, when I teach others I liken it to learning how to ride a bicycle: it looks simple and easy, but requires studied concentration and coordination, and then suddenly as if by magic one has gotten the hang of it.

The next year my husband began to construct a birch, 1850 Welsh wheel by following detailed measurements and sketches he made from one in Halifax’s Citadel Museum.  This is my treasured wheel today and it works like a dream, like it is made of fresh-churned butter — smooth and creamy.

With a second workshop under my belt I began to hone the antique craft of spinning fibres into yarn.  I worked with my two year-old daughter playing contentedly beside me for hours.  She, now nineteen years later, is a spinner too.

I have been asked how I came to spin fibres other than the traditional wool.  It just seemed a natural progression: why not try to spin anything?  I became interested in flax, from which linen is made, because it too was a traditional spinning fibre in early Nova Scotia, Canada, and Europe.  Flax has a distinctive and earthy smell to it; I always put any fibre to my nose to complete the sensual experience.

I procured more exotic fibres like yak, camel, alpaca, Chinese cashmere, mohair from goats, angora from rabbits, silks, and the silk-like ramie, an Asian plant used to make life jacket strapping because it is extremely strong when wet.  And also not so exotic fibres from friends’ dogs and cats.

Rebecca had moved to Great Whale River in the Eastern Arctic and generously sent me a box of musk ox “down”, the inner coat that keeps those grand animals warm.  I even spun cotton balls!  On a trip to New York State I gathered milk weed pods and dried the inner “silk” which parachutes the seed down the road or across the field.  I was able to spin, gingerly and with great care, the contents of five pods into a three-foot length of lustrous yarn.

Then I felt ready to share my interest and skill with others.  With a display board of all the animal and plant fibres that I had collected, and samples of what they looked like spun into yarns, under one arm and my wheel under the other I visited the elementary schools in my community.  The children were lively in their fascination.  Demonstrating to tourists at various historic sites was also a great pleasure and elicited much interest, questions, and remembrances about great aunts and grandmothers who had been seen carding and spinning many decades ago.

Considering a business enterprise, I spun exotic fibres and designed and knitted sweaters to sell.  But Nova Scotians have a long history of knitting for themselves and it seemed there was not a strong market for expensive, luxury knitwear.  I decided to go back to university to pursue my old fascination with psychology and human behavior.

But no matter what I am doing otherwise, spinning fibres is never far from my mind, heart, and hands.  More often in winter when my garden is not enticing me out of doors I literally sit by the fire and spin.  For the last two winters I have been knitting dog hair mittens because they’re quick, practical, and a conversation piece.  These mitts, which get quite fuzzy with wear, are a big hit; people are amazed that dog hair is actually useful for something!

But underneath any practical application of this craft remains the deep satisfaction I get from the quiet clicking of the spinning wheel’s machinery setting up a soothing, hypnotic rhythm.  It takes me away from the cares of a puzzling world and connects me with tens of thousands of years of human activity and the millions of women who have gone before me.

And when I face new spinning enthusiasts, I always begin my classes with teaching the students how to use the drop spindle — the tool which enticed me into this craft with its simple beauty and the magic of creating yarn from a pile of fleece.

 

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