Tuesday, May 29, 2007

You and me, Cassidy

This is Cassidy. She is a venerable, upright Thumbelina wheel. I bought her second-hand from Hazel Davis, the master spinner and weaver who helped me learn how to spin about 15 years ago. Hazel had purchased it new, in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

I had my first brush with spinning way back when I was in college. To earn extra money, I knitted chainmail for stage props, and historical items for friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Although I wasn't a full-blown SCA member, I found myself out on the skirts and the fins of a lot of SCA events, and at one of these events I saw a woman spinning yarn with a little wooden spindle. I asked her if she would teach me, and thanks to her kindness and patience during the short time we had for a spinning lesson before the jousting began, I learned a few things:

1. I learned that it was called a "drop spindle."

2. I learned why.

For some unknown reason -- although beer may have been a contributing factor -- the kindling simply didn't ignite that day in the late '70s, and I went back to my dorm thinking, "that was interesting, and maybe I'll ask her again one day when she has more time."

I continued to knit, largely with Red Heart Superwash from Woolworth, which I could afford with my part-time waitress budget, and an occasional splurge at Schoolhouse Press through the mail when I had birthday or Christmas money.

Fast forward to the early '90s. I was married, working, and an official grown-up. Still knitting furiously, but spinning only crossed my mind when I bought a hank of lovely handspun at a crafts fair, and I would sigh deeply, wishing I knew how to do that.

One day, my dear friend Leef Bloomenstiel decided to buy a drop spindle and teach herself to spin. I learned to spin from her, and this time I learned that you could drop the spindle without breaking the yarn, and that the spindle would hang suspended in midair and continue to twirl, and it would make more yarn, and you would drop it again on purpose, and that was the real reason is was called a drop spindle.

And this time, the same thing happened to my fingers that happened the first time knitting needles were placed in my hands as a child.

I needed some guidance to manage the twirl-and-drop-the-spindle part. But my fingers figured out how to draft right away. Something in my genes (likely the Irish genes) told my fingers exactly what was the right amount of fuzz to deploy, how hard to pinch, when to let go, and when to pinch again. Just like when I learned to knit, I could almost hear my fingers saying, "Wait a minute! We remember how to do this!"

My first spinning efforts turned out reasonably un-lumpy, but grievously overspun. It took me about four ounces of wool to teach my right hand that the twirling-the-spindle part was not an Olympic event.

Once I figured that out, I could make decent and consistent singles.

Some time later, I bought a Navajo spindle while travelling on vacation, and learned to Navajo ply.

This was all fun, but it was slow. I had produced only enough yarn for a pair of mittens and a few hats. I started to yearn seriously for a wheel. On Saturday mornings, Leef and I would spin, knit, drink coffee and experiment with dyeing while her kids went about their kidly business.

Except that the excited shrieks of "LOOK IT'S TURNING BLUE!!!" weren't coming from the kids.

Then one evening, Leef phoned me and said, "Come over and see what I got in the mail!"

It was a spinning wheel.

I had a turn or seven at Leef's wheel, and this time I could make yarn fast. The same problem resurfaced: drafting, no problem. Treadling? Yes, it was a wheel, but if I carried on like I was in the Tour de France, I got singles that looked like stubby, kinky, eyelash yarn. With way too much mascara.

It wasn't long before I found my own wheel. By chance I saw an ad in the "miscellaneous" section of the newspaper classifieds: SPINNING WHEEL FOR SALE.

Hazel Davis had been spinning and weaving since God had baby teeth, and she'd spent countless weekends as a docent at Magnolia Mound Plantation, dressed in period costume, spinning and weaving for the touristy public. But her health was starting to fail, and she was selling off most of her wheels and looms.

By the time I found Hazel's ad, she'd sold off all of her surplus things, except for the Thumbelina wheel. I sat down in front of it, and fell flat-out in love.

"I bought that wheel for teaching, only because it was small and portable," Hazel said. "But it runs away from you, it rattles, and it's quirky. It has a mind of its own. If you can spin consistent yarn on that wheel, you can spin anything."

She sighed and added, "I'm not sure it's the best choice for a beginner."

So of course I bought it on the spot.

Because I am a Capricorn who has her Saturn (and also a few other major planets) in Capricorn, I really tried to study all the different ratios, and wanted to become an expert technical spinner, but in the long run, I turned out to be a "spin-by-feel" spinner. I count treadles: one, two, three, four. Then I draft a bit more and count again. I actually don't count -- it's more of a rhythmn, and I know which rhythmn yields firm plies for sock yarn and which rhythmn yields soft plies for sweater yarn. I could show you how I do it, but I couldn't write a technical article about drive ratios and all that. Hats off to those of you who can.

I experimented with novelty yarns and textures and found it ironic that the over-spinning I had to teach myself not to do, was necessary for certain effects, and it was very hard to make myself do it on purpose, and I did not like this at all. I decided that if I wanted novelty yarn I was going to buy it, that what I really wanted to spin was good, consistent, smooth yarn in sock, sport or worsted weight, as needed.

There are two things about spinning which I find extremely compelling: natural-color yarn right off the sheep with only a bath and carding ... and wild color variations. I would never insult a good natural yarn by dyeing it a boring color.

Natural undyed wool in worsted and sock weights.

I am endlessly enchanted by Jacob's sheep and other uncommon breeds who manifest multiple colors on the same sheep. So many options ... you can grab bits from the various colors at random, you can card colors together into a gradient, you can make one ply of dark brown and one ply of cream and then ply them together .... you can then ply the randomly-spun plies together, and get yarn that looks like fudge ripple ice cream.

I also like to make ragg yarns combining one strand of a natural black, grey or brown wool with one strand of boldly dyed wool, preferably in a color gradient: one natural grey ply and one ply with shades of teal; a brown ply together with a ply of golden yellows, a grey ply with a rainbow ply. I tend to consider this combination my "signature" yarn. It's rather yin-yang, actually: a balance of that which is calm and that which is vibrant; natural sheep color and colors imposed upon the wool. I like it.

Clockwise from top: Two-ply fudge-ripple randomness in natural Jacob's sheep ... natural grey wool with variegated green and turquiose ... natural grey wool with variegated navy, green and blue ... natural brown with Kool-aid red ... natural alpaca in tan and brown.

I am also easily amused. Other people need skydiving vacations in Bali, frequent relationship changes, fast cars, and surfing excursions at Tierra Del Fuego to keep their lives interesting.

I just need something that changes colors on me.

I neglected Cassidy for many, many months after Hurricane Katrina. Working in the animal rescue efforts meant running full tilt every waking moment, collapsing from exhaustion after midnight, and getting up again before dawn. From the day of landfall through Christmas of 2005, it was all I could do, most days, to get in a few rows of knitting right before bedtime. Many nights I fell asleep with needles in my hand, having knit one or two rounds on a sock.

Spinning at the wheel, on the other hand requires a chunk of time to actually sit and relax, and for a long time after Katrina I was utterly incapable of relaxation in any form. For the first few months, with the immediate business of sheltering rescued animals, it was almost impossible to knit at all. And once the immediate business was under control, I spent many more months commuting between Baton Rouge and New Orleans for shelter recovery efforts, so I was either working, sleeping, doing household chores or driving. Again, if I found myself with twenty minutes to knit before bed, I was ecstatic.

At about the same time as the animal sheltering situation came to an even keel, we were able to begin repairs on my mother's house in New Orleans, and, as anyone who's ever renovated a house knows, that is a full-time job in itself.

There was also a problem beyond the actual lack of time in which to relax: as the enormity of the jobs became somewhat more manageable, and my schedule began to approach something resembling normal, I realized that I had completely forgotten how to function in a non-frantic environment.

So, when things settled down a little bit in the spring of this year (2007) I had to learn to relax all over again.

What I actually had to do was give myself permission to relax again.

So I removed the old pillowcase I had draped over Cassidy, and cleaned her, and lovingly rubbed all of her wood surfaces down with lemon oil, and waxed and greased her various moving components, and started spending time with her again.

Lately, I have been spinning color-variegated roving. If it looks like Jackson Pollock threw up all over it, so much the better. I want color. I need color. There were only three colors after Katrina: dirty-concrete grey, dried-floodwater brown, and gunky, dark, dried-mildew green.

Oh, yes ... there was also FEMA-tarp blue.

So now I want color. Lots of it, and lots of variety.

I am also enjoying some samples of natural fleece, fresh from healthy, spoiled-rotten sheep belonging to friends. Nothing quite like the smell of a clean, fresh fleece from a healthy animal.

That's another post-Katrina yearning, wanting things to smell good.

So I have discovered that it's fun to lubricate my wheel with essential oils. I like a gentle fragrance to fill the room when I spin. I dab it onto the leather components and use it to lubricate moving parts. It soothes me.

Now I suspect that some engineer-type spinner from MIT is going to chime in and helpfully suggest that I should be using sewing machine oil or silicone spray or mineral oil, and it will have something to do with higher or lower viscosity being good or bad for the metal parts, or the wood parts, or something like that.

I don't care. This creaky old wheel and I have been friends for well over fifteen years now, and we both just like things to smell good.

I may be revealing myself as a helplessly hopeful hippie (just in case you haven't figured that out by now), but I like the scent of patchouli oil best for spinning. Sometimes I use sandalwood, clove or lavender oil, and occasionally bergamot or cardamon. Now and then, it's rosewood, ylang-ylang or lemongrass.

It depends on the mood I am in, and who the yarn is for, and the purpose for which the yarn is being spun. I'm more than a little bit of a granola-head in that department. But if I am spinning for my own pleasure, I oil the wheel with patchouli, and, yes, of course it makes our house smell like a head shop ... and I don't care. My wheel is named after a Grateful Dead song, for Pete's sake. It would almost be wrong not to oil it with patchouli:

"Flight of the sea birds,
scattered like lost words,
wheel to the storm and fly."

If I am spinning for somone else, I most often use lavender because it helps to disguise the wooly scent from marauding moths. I'm also aware that a whiff of fragrance always manages to get into the wool, and that the scent of lavender rarely causes allergic reaction and is pleasing to almost everyone.

Scent is a good medium to help me meditate, and to travel without leaving my spinning chair. Some scents remind me of places I've been to, and others help me travel farther back in time. A little patchouli, jasmine or sandalwood in the air, and all of a sudden I can remember how it felt to be that slim, black-haired girl in a batik skirt and huarache sandals, threading her way through life with a bicycle and a backpack. A girl whose biggest worries were finishing papers on time, earning enough money for tuition, rent, groceries and cat food ... and wondering if the "Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater" was really true.

"Close the gap of the dark years in between
you and me, Cassidy."

Hmmmmm ... I've got a few ounces of periwinkle wool roving, and a few ounces of wool from a real black sheep, patiently waiting for me over there in a basket.

I think I'm gonna go spin now.


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At 4:11 AM, Anonymous Barbara-Kay said...

I'm so happy for you that you have found your way back to spinning. Love the idea of a little patchouli.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Ronni said...

Well, I'm an engineer-type spinner from MIT but I think the idea of essential oil lubricant for the spinning wheel is wonderful. I intend to try it next time I oil my wheel. I might try just adding the scent oil to the standard oil rather than using straight essential oil but that's at least as much because I tend to like my scents to be lighter rather than stronger as it is any concern about viscosity or the botanicals causing issues.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous oneken/unokhan said...

a heads-up for you (pun intended)-- naylor's hardware on old hammond had a tray full of small patchouli PLANTS last weekend. when you tap a leaf or a stem that amazing flash-back scent spills softly into the air, like proust's madeleine, to restore the soul and set one's internal gyroscope (spinning wheel?) steady again.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Heidi said...

Wonderfully written. I hadn't thought of using essential oils but just love the idea. I can't wait to get home and try it.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Dez Crawford said...

Now Ronni, you know I meant that in the friendliest possible way!
I find that the essential oil, used straight, smells kinda strong the first day but is just fine on subsequent days. Good idea to mix it into the usual stuff. And I'm really, truly glad that an official engineer type person isn't too worried about the wrong viscosity.

Folks, if you do try the essentail oils, do make sure it's 100% oil and not an aromatherapy blend so you don't get water or other non-oil type liquids onto the metal parts, which we all know is not good. Also, read the labels on bath oils for salt content -- bad for metal!

And Oneken? I just love what you wrote. Proust indeed. I'll be off to Naylor's this weekend for pathcouli plants.
We have to meet in person sometime ... maybe with Barabra Kay?

Y'all let me know if you like your own experiments with spinning scented oils.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Jo at Celtic Memory Yarns said...

I loved every sentence of your tale of spinning. It seems to have been for you, as it was for me, a rediscovery, a moving along a very important path. Other crafts are good, but spinning has a special quality like no other.

And I love the idea of the essential oil! Off to use it right away on my little Orkney upright!

At 1:57 AM, Blogger Jo at Celtic Memory Yarns said...

Forgot to say, I am also enchanted at the fact that you knitted chainmail for re-enactors and the theatre. Now you really are a girl after my own heart!

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Moz said...

Did you ever find a source for new bobbins for the Thumbelina? I bought one back in the day and still spin on her and love it. But I could use some new bobbins. I was going to try to see if a Baynes bobbin would fit.


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