When I was a little girl, I used to save the silks when we'd peel corn-on-the-cob. I'd turn my bicycle upside down, and turn the pedal to get the back tire spinning, then I'd feed the silks into the spokes. I was spinning straw into gold, or wool into yarn. I was fascinated by the process and remember wondering how the expert spinners I'd see at country fairs and local pioneer museums made it look so effortless.
Although it was a lifelong dream, the cost of learning seemed like a tremendous obstacle to me: hand carders are costly, not to mention the cost of a spinning wheel! Courses that teach spinning seemed pointless if I didn't have my own wheel on which to practice. Over the years, I've housed other people's wheels, but these seem as quirky and unique as their owners and I just didn't have enough basic know-how to produce anything.
So, I took my hand-made drop spindle, a gift from a friend, into my hands last month. I delved into a bag of roving I'd accumulated during my needle-felting phase, and got to work spinning funny little balls of colourful thick-and-thin yarn. I was hooked.
Once I got through the roving I had, I was hungry for more. Coincidentally, my husband has been at work learning about wool with his Kindergarten class, and had arranged to visit a farm where they'd be shearing sheep. He came home with a big, smelly, filthy fleece, and I dove right in, so to speak.
The first ball of uncombed, unprocessed yarn was brownish, pungent, and greasy with lanolin. I washed a small bit of fleece in a bowl of water, and the next ball came out whiter and softer.
I'd read about washing larger amounts of fleece in the washing machine. As I had no lingerie bags (alas, having no lingerie), I improvised, stuffing two net onion bags with filthy fleece and putting them to soak in a washer-full of hot water. I added less than a 1/4 cup of dish soap, and checked back now and then. When the water was really gross, I carried the bags up to the kitchen sink and let them soak in a rinse bath.
They still didn't seem as clean as I'd like, so I opened the bags up and let the fleece free. I continued adding a bit of dish soap, rinsing, and very gently swishing. I know that heat and agitation signal death to wool (unless you're intentionally felting); I was experimenting here!
I stuffed the fleece back into the onion bags and ran them through a spin cycle in the washer, then spread them to dry on a beach towel. They still had way more specks of grass etc. in them than I wanted, but I figured this would be as good as it gets.
Well! When it was dry, I carded it (on borrowed hand-carders), and almost all of the flecks of foliage ended up on my lap. The wool is white, lofty, and just calling to me to be spun!
If you're new to a drop spindle, or if you've always itched to spin but haven't the budget for it, here are a few tips:
1. Borrow Abby Franquemont's excellent book, "Respect the Spindle" from your library (I got this one through inter-library loan!). Read it!
2. Make yourself a drop spindle using a wooden toy-wheel, a piece of dowel, a small hook, and some wood glue. A bit of sandpaper is handy, too.
3. Procure a fleece...ask around! Although the world's economy was built on wool at one time, fleeces are pretty much worthless (read: FREE) now (the shearer told my husband that it would cost him money to transport it to the processing plant).
4. Clean it (you can follow my dodgy method or find better tutorials on youtube). Use onion bags if you don't have lingerie bags. Be resourceful. Women have been spinning on spindles forever, and didn't need fancy, expensive tools to do it.
5. Card the dry wool. Guess what? You can even use dog brushes (the kind with wire-bristles) if you're in a pinch. I learned this by asking a friend's mother, who happens to be a master-spinner.
6. Play, and practice! It's not about the product, at this point. I may create some silly hat with all my funny balls of yarn, but it's not the point right now. The focus is on the process, not the product...which makes it fun!
There you have it. My first forays into spinning. When my children get older, I'll hopefully find time to take a course or two, and will start saving for a wheel as quirky and unique as I am. Until then, never fear: my hands will not be idle for a moment as they spin balls and balls of imperfect yarn.