Mama used to spin when I was a little girl. She would take the spinning wheel out of the basement and set it up in the spare room, and spin very fine yarn. I liked watching the wheel, but I wasn’t interested for myself. I remember she tried to teach me , but like everything else in the fiber world that she tried to teach me at that time, except for sewing, it didn’t really sink in just yet.
I went to a class on drop spinning last summer. I don’t remember why I wanted to go, but I figured it would be interesting, and after all, I didn’t have to keep doing it if I didn’t want to. Little did I know . . . . . .
Drop spinning is done with a drop spindle, so called because you, well, drop it. A lot. If you know what you are doing, you drop the spindle in a controlled fashion, with the right amount of spin to the spindle to make it turn, and then you twist the raw fiber into yarn. If you don’t know what you are doing, you spend a lot of time cursing while you bend over and pick up your drop spindle, which has inexplicably become detached from your yarn and fiber for the third time in three minutes. And your yarn is unraveled, and won’t lie straight and even and you can’t make the bit on the spindle reattach to the bit in your hand. And you drop it again. And, because you are a both a masochist and a perfectionist, and now that you have started learning a new craft, you are going to figure out to do it right, you swear! you do it all again.
The first thing I discovered is that while I have been right handed for my entire life for everything, using the drop spindle with my right hand just felt weird. The teacher, a lovely lady whose name I don’t think I knew then and certainly can’t remember now, told us to hold the spindle in our less dominant hand, and turn it with our dominant hand. It was a perfectly serviceable spindle that she had made by drilling a while in a circular piece of wood and sticking a dowel through it. But I couldn’t do it. Every time I tried, it just felt too awkward. I think I first tried flicking the spindle with my left hand out of desperation, but it felt so much easier! So I did it again, and suddenly I was spinning!
Well, sort of. It took the rest of the hour to figure out the details, but by the end of the class, I had a spindle full of hand-spun wool yarn! And I already knew the basics of plying, so I did that, too. Single-ply yarn has been spun up, and then left alone. It certainly can be worked with in this state, but it sometimes unspins itself, and it’s not as strong as it could be. Plying is taking two or more strands of single-ply yarn and letting the twist already in them twine around each other. This means that they are less likely to unspin themselves, and they are also stronger over all. Rope is made this way, for example. So I took the two ends of the yarn I had just spun and put them together, and plyed my yarn (no, that isn’t a typo, spell check program, it’s really spelled that way). And then, since I came at this from the mindset of a knitter, I knit my lovely new yarn.
You can see that the top edge is much wider than the bottom edge. I am a good enough knitter that this isn’t a gauge issue, but a result of my increasing skill with spinning over just that hour. Since I took the two ends and put them together, the top is the very first bit of spinning, and the very last bit, and the bottom is the middle. The middle is where I made thinner and more even yarn.
Then I went a little crazy and bought a little bit of lots of different fibers. And a very cheap but slightly nicer drop spindle. And weird fibers, too.
Let me see if I remember them all. The one on the left is the wool from the class. The second, the dark brown, is tussah silk. The third narrow strip is angora rabbit fur – it hadn’t been prepared for spinning, and had mats in it so there isn’t much. The last is soy silk. I spun them all on one of the two similar drop spindles, and knit them all on the same needles, and you can see how different they are. The soy silk came out much thicker than the tussah silk, and the angora is very fuzzy and drove me crazy. I had more of the soy silk than any of the others, so I spun and knit up the rest of it to see what it would look like.
I was addicted. I bought a bunch of bamboo, and started spinning that up. I carried my drop spindle around with me, and spun while waiting for the bus, or at the train station,and during lunch at work. I spun while watching movies, and while talking with friends. I spun at Craft Night, and this led to the next step in my addiction. Bigger and better ways of getting my fix.
I was talking about something with a friend at Craft Night, a weekly crafting group I run in a nice café. We were off to the side a little, and another friend came up and I prepared to go rejoin the main group. “I’m off to continue spinning,” I believe I said. “Oh, you spin?” said the friend I had been talking to. “You know, my aunt has a spinning wheel she wants to get rid of. Do you know anyone who might be interested?” I sat back down at the table.
Mama had a good spinning wheel, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask if she’d be willing to lend it to me. I drooled over the ones at the yarn stores, and in the magazines. They were so pretty! Like this one. And this one. And this one. But they are all expensive, and this was about the same time as Himself quit his job to do his last semester of his masters’ of education and his student teaching, which was great in the long run and we referred him during that time as gainfully unemployed — but there was no spare money. Particularly not that much money. But my friend’s aunt wanted to get rid of a spinning wheel . . . .
“How much is she asking for it?” I ventured.
“Well, she had thought about just giving it to someone who would give it a good home, but we convinced her she should at least ask for maybe $50 to $100.”
I shook my head. Even that was more than I could spare at the moment. However . . . . “I have absolutely no spare income right now,” I said, “but do you think she’d be interested in barter?”
And that’s how I got an Ashford Joy spinning wheel for just one pair of hand knit socks – and I didn’t have to spin the yarn to knit. The Joy is a folding spinning wheel and I got the bag as well, so I can take her places. I named her Esmeralda de Periwinkle.
Thus far, I have taken her to Maine, to western Pennsylvania, to Craft Night, and to the Sewing Circloid — which is supposed to be machine sewing, but they decided that a spinning wheel counted as a machine. I have spun lots of things on her, some with better results than others. She’s mesmerizing, and not just for me. I can stop an entire room of conversation when I open her up and start spinning!
In the beginning of all of my excitement about spinning, I spent a lot of time babbling about this cool new thing I was doing to anyone who would listen. My grandmother, 90 years old at the time, listened, and bought me a subscription to Spin Off magazine. She died five months ago. I don’t think I’ll be able to recycle the Spin Off issues that have come since them. I may not read them often, but I’m going to keep them, carefully tucked in with my knitting books. Maybe someday I’ll take Esmeralda out of the basement and set her up in the spare room, and try to teach my children to spin, and tell them about their grandma and great-grandma teaching me.