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Learning How

When part of your social circle are bloggers, you kind of can't help watch what they're writing about with a little I-wonder-what-that's-like kind of interest. It's what helps us all crave lace at almost the same moment.

A wave of lush pictures and enticing adjectives pushes you toward something you didn't know you wanted to do and suddenly you DO want to do it. Maybe you'd thought it was too hard and that's why you never tried it. Maybe it had never even occurred to you that you could do it. But they're doing it, so why not you?

And so it is with spinning, but with a twist. Pun intended.

About a year ago, I started seeing blogger-friends write about their adventures in spinning. Most with spindles, but some with wheels. None of them spun anything but wool. Where did that leave wool-allergic me? Actually, I soon realized, it left me in a really interesting place.

Ask anyone who's a spinner and I expect each one will tell you what I've already heard: nothing is as easy to spin as wool. But just how hard IS it to spin something else? Cotton. Silk. Soy silk. Ingeo. Is it like trying to capture a firefly in a thimble -- so frustrating that it's not worth the effort? Or is it just different?

I chose to believe the latter and started on a path to learn to spin. After all, how can anything be harder than something you can't even try?

I started with my associates at Interweave Press. They are the source of, arguably, the best spinning reference books currently available. The legendary Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, by Alden Amos is one of theirs, as is the book most people pointed me to to learn what I needed to get started: Hands on Spinning, by Lee Raven.

I also got a small stash of undyed spinning fiber to practise with in Soy silk and Ingeo, from South West Trading Company, and some silk and a small bag of a cotton/lyocell blend from Dreamspin Fibres.

To spin on, a wheel, maybe? Um, no. I thought I'd start small instead: two spindles from The Bellwether, chosen on the advice of the proprietress, Amelia Carlson. A Tabachek Compact Deluxe and a St. Helen's from Cascade. Two different weights to spin silky stuff of different thicknesses, she said. Plus they were very pretty. I'm a Gear Ho™. It's all about the pretty with me.

I was ready to go.

My first lesson took place last fall in the comfy chairs at Threadbear Fiber Arts in East Lansing, Michigan. My friend Carla, an experienced spinner, had offered to teach me, so she got the spindle started with some Soy silk.

Carla demonstrated what I was to do, her skilled fingers pinching the twist to control it. She gently pulled her fingers up, allowing the twist to travel into a small section of the drafted fiber, and it became yarn. Yarn!

She stopped, wound the new yarn onto the spindle, and continued spinning. It was beautiful. Then it was my turn.

What happened next was not pretty. I liked spinning the pretty wooden spindle, and watching it turn. However, my hands didn't quite get what they were supposed to do and I watched helplessly as the twist migrated into the big mass of fibers in my right hand, making cat barf out of what had been perfectly good fiber just moments before.

I was not encouraged. But in teaching people to knit over the last few years, I also know the student's natural urge to apologize for their lack of skill and was determined not to do that. I have a LONG way to go and a lot to learn, and I figured it'd be better to just get back to work.

I asked Carla to show me again. She did, over and over, and still, I didn't get it. Okay, that's not true. I got some of it. It reminded me of learning to drive a car. Turning the wheel is not hard. Applying the brake is not hard. Watching what's happening in front of you is not hard. But put those three together with watching behind you, checking intersections as you pass to make sure you're not gonna get t-boned and every other tiny thing experienced drivers do without thinking...and it's really overwhelming. That's what spinning felt like to me. I could spin the spindle. I could pinch the fiber. I could draw my fingers down and apply some twist. But man, you should have seen the mess I made when I tried to do it all.

After about an hour, I'd had enough. I put my fiber and spindles into my Knitty lunchbox and thanked Carla for the lesson. Then I bought some yarn and went home.

So where did this leave me? I wasn't feeling empowered in the if I just kept trying, it would come. Spinning felt completely out of my reach.

That's when my friend Jillian reminded me she never liked spindle spinning and found it much harder than spinning on a wheel. But a spindle costs around $30. A wheel is more than 10 times that, at the very least. A big expense for something I might not even like doing. And then came the offer -- she would lend me her small Reeves castle wheel indefinitely, so I could practise and learn to spin that way. She had another wheel and wouldn't miss the Reeves for a while and really it was okay.

How could I say no to such a generous offer? I didn't. I said thank you and neatly stashed the wheel in a dry part of the basement where it would come to no harm from out-of-control vacuum cleaners or a stray rabbit with itchy teeth.

And it sat there for 8 months. It scared me.

This past spring, my husband and I stumbled across a spinning show and sale just north of the city. In the center of the hall, a woman sat at her Louet double-treadle wheel, spinning wool in what looked like the most relaxed, effortless way possible. The yarn she spun was perfectly even, every inch the same thickness as the inch before and after it. The light caught it. It gleamed. I wanted. I watched her for a while. Asked questions. Was again told how much harder cotton and silk would be to spin. And when I left, I knew I was finally going to give it a shot this time.

Again, I came up against the wall of wool. Though we have four new yarn shops in my big city, we have none that specialize in spinning. One of the old standby yarn shops offers fiber and lessons, but again -- with wool. The spinning guild meets during the day on Mondays. No good for me. I've got a day job.

So I hit the net and found Ms X*. Her business is in supplying and custom-blending fibers for spinning, not spinning lessons, but I was getting desperate already. Because she carried cotton and silk fiber, I thought it was worth a shot, so I asked if she'd teach me. She said she would be happy to.

People are nice.

I headed up to her house with my borrowed Reeves, my spindles, a few bags of whatever fiber I had on hand already and a positive attitude. Ms X welcomed me into her home, showed me her huge drum carder [way cool] and studio lined with translucent plastic tubs filled with fiber of all descriptions.

She set up the Reeves, taking the two drive bands and putting them where they needed to be, pulled out some Ingeo from her stash and got it started. She got the wheel rotating, treadling in an even, smooth rhythm. The Ingeo turned from looking like the kind of fluff you'd clean your ears with into shimmery silky yarn that the bobbin quietly sucked onto itself. Oooh. My turn.

Instead of the instant frustration I felt with the spindle, I felt instant possibility. I could only make little inconsistent messes, but now I could see how the fiber was supposed to behave and maybe a little of how I'd get there.

Over and over again, I started the wheel, spun a little and watched the thick/thin/halfspun/ overtwisted/perfect quarter inch/big sloppy slub/so fine it could break if you breathed on it/yarn move through my fingers. Nothing I did matched anything I did the next moment, but it felt good. Every time I got a good quarter inch, I felt elated and then immediately lost whatever rhythm I'd discovered. No matter. I just kept going.

I'm going to keep going.

* I'm calling her Ms. X because she doesn't want to give lessons. She too has a day job in addition to her fiber business, and what little spare time she has she wants to be able to focus on her business. That's cool.



Amy R Singer is the editor of this here magazine. She's determined to learn to spin silk and cotton and soy silk on the same kind of wheel as the rest of y'all, and no one's going to stop her.

Read more about her adventures with wool-free spinning in the next issue of Knitty.