On a trip to a giant conglomerate craft store the other day I passed though the yarn department and I must say … not too shabby folks … not too shabby at all. I remember a time not so long ago when the yarn department at these types of stores was rather, well, lacking. Think “The One Pounder” in five different primary colors. Everything was a nylon blend of worsted yarn that reminded me of Crayola colored bailing twine. But the yarn department has upped its game. I found myself ogling over some pretty impressive machine spun yarns that looked very hand spun. There were art yarns with plies of fancy feathery blends and mixes with beads and sequins and all sorts of fun additions. This was no Granny Square yarn.
So why spin? Why spin when there are all of these beautiful yarns out there to choose from at half the price, with double coupon days? And my answer to that question lies in an equation. For me, spinning is to yarn as gardening is to dinner.
Have you ever tasted an heirloom tomato? The big, juicy purple ones that make you want to sink your teeth into the flesh like a maniac. They taste like … and I know this is ironic … a tomato! The flavors are complex, sweet, acidic, tart, almost smoky at times. I could talk about heirloom tomatoes like some people talk about wine. (It’s a problem really, sometimes my husband gets jealous.) But a grocery store tomato might as well be that Playschool plastic food that my 4 year old niece plays with. You’ve seen the rubber cheese, convincing, but not appetizing.
Raising fiber goats, and shearing, and spinning for me, is the equivalent of toiling in the garden, pulling weeds and composting. All that work, just to experience that delicious burst of flavor. Sure it’s easier to go to the store and buy a bag of tomato “looking” vegetables, but not nearly as satisfying.
I learned to spin a few years ago, after we adopted our two Angora does Knit and Purl. I loved goats, and was (then) afraid of the whole milking routine. So we decided that we would just keep a few goats as pets. Then I found a breed called Angora that could be sheared like a sheep. At the time, fiber seemed a lot less scary than milking, and with the same reasoning as in keeping chickens, why not raise pets with benefits?
After our first shearing, the fiber was too tempting, too irresistibly beautiful not to do something with it. So I learned to spin. And I fell in love with the whole process.
Spinning, knitting, crocheting and weaving are on an up swing as far as popularity these days. In general, it seems that there is a whole movement toward the old artisan crafts. And that’s a great prospect, as these skills are being lost from one generation to the next. But spinners aren’t exactly common, and spinners who raise their own animals are even rarer. So just as heirloom seeds and heritage breeds are dwindling, so are the traditional skills that our no-so-distant ancestors carried. Spinning, blacksmithing, basket weaving, traditional woodworking — it’s a part of our history. It is skills like these that have brought humanity to where it is today. But tragically, in only a few generations, has all but disappeared as a way of living and become only a scarce hobby.
If you have the interest to start spinning, do it! Learn it, and teach everyone you know! (Or at least those that are interested.) A hand spun yarn tells a story. Somewhere on a farm, an animal turned hay, grain and pasture into fleece. The fleece was sheared and washed and carded and dyed into colors that were selected and dreamed up in the imagination and creative enthusiasm of an artist. Every inch of the twisted plies has been lovingly touched and contemplated by the craftsman who spun the yarn. It has slipped through the fingers of a human who sat before the wheel with the soft clickety clack of the treadle pumping the twining fiber. A hand spun yarn is not just a lifeless medium to turn into a scarf, it is strands and skeins of art and skill.
Story and Photos by Jennifer Sartell
If you want to learn more about the craft of spinning, dying fiber or raising Angora goats, visit Jennifer’s blog at www.ironoakfarm.blogspot.com