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Journey Wheel

Eating my words. Yum.


It's kind of fun when someone makes you eat your words, especially when they make them go down so easy. In my case, the chef was Nancy Finn. But first, some necessary backstory.

Last issue, I made it quite clear that I. Do. Not. Like. Spindles. I'd tried them; I'd hated them. They were pretty! They were maddening. I was ready to give them away, trade them, feed them to the rabbits.

Then I went to Rhinebeck. Actually, though we all call it that, it's more correctly called the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, but it's held in Rhinebeck so that's what most everyone calls it.

The word "Rhinebeck" was not in my vocabulary until two years ago, when knitbloggers started rhapsodizing about the place with pictures of piles of fleece and spindles and wheels and, of course, sheep. And since I was a] not a spinner and b] allergic to two words in the name of the festival, it never seemed like a place I'd want to go. But that was two years ago.

Since then, I've learned that spinning is about much more than the fuzz off a four-legged creature's back. It's about plant fibers and cocoons and the waste from food production. Using this column as an excuse, I decided I should go. I found out that my vehemently non-spinning friend Steph wanted to go as well. But that's not much of a road trip, just the two of us. Enter bookbinder and passionate spinner Emma, who enabled us right into a ride, a fourth to add to our party, a place to stay and a travel plan, all within 24 hours of our first meeting.

And so, Rhinebeck. The morning we arrived, the skies opened and were flushing themselves of excess moisture. We were soaked but giddy with what might be waiting behind the gates. Within the first 10 minutes, Steph and I passed a woman carrying two clear plastic bags that cleverly showed off her first purchases...fiber. Gorgeous, ethereal batts of merino glowing with color. "Where did you get that," I asked. She pointed us into building B, to Grafton Fibers. We practically ran.

We found an entire booth of shelves lined with huge, soft swirly cakes in every possible color combination. Sheep-based, sure, but I had a wool-loving friend to buy for, so I got to pretend I was a normal fiber fanatic for a few minutes. Steph and I wandered through the booths, drooling over skeins of handpainted superwash merino Socks that Rock [and their non-wool counterpart -- Sock Candy!] and dreamily eyeing the walls of cleverly plied fiber at Brooks Farm.

Then I turned and saw it. The booth that would change my spinning life forever. Chasing Rainbows, run by Nancy Finn. As with so many booths at Rhinebeck, it was lined with gleaming skeins of hand-painted wool and sleek, softly fuzzy braids of roving that shimmered and caught the light. How could you not look, even if you couldn't touch? But there was silk to be found, and I found it soon enough. As I was waiting to pay for my purchases, I glanced over a tableful of plastic zippy bags, each filled with a hand-dyed square of what looked like silk. Silk hankies, Nancy told us. Each hanky was actually a tidy stack made up of individual silk cocoons. "What the heck do you do with them?" I asked. How could you spin a square of cobwebs into anything without driving yourself nuts? So Nancy showed us.

She opened one of the bags and pulled out the pile of hankies. Gently, she flicked at the corner until one gossamer-thin layer allowed itself to be pulled away from the others [above]. She tugged, not too delicately, and there it was. One cocoon, hand-dyed into beautiful colors, stretched into a a square, lighter than air. Then she did the unthinkable -- she plunged her fingers into the centre of the hanky, making a hole [right]. She widened the hole gently and evenly, and suddenly, the cocoon wasn't a collection of individual strands of silk -- it was now, clearly, roving. She pulled and tugged at the silk, lengthening the tube of roving, thinning it, and then broke it at one point [below]. "You can knit with it just like it is," she said. "Or you can spin it."

She smiled, and I -- a certified adult -- jumped up and down in front of her as the lightbulb went on. "I can do that!" I said, and Steph, the avowed non-spinner got the same glint in her eye. We pawed through the piles of hankies to find just the colors that we couldn't live without, made our selections and gleefully handed over our credit cards. Whether or not the rest of the festival was a success, I knew this had made the trip worthwhile for me. I had discovered something I couldn't wait to try.

The next day and a half was a blur of fiber and friends. There was always something at the next booth that we had to see, something someone else had discovered that they wanted to share with us. Because of the amazing people I spent time with at Rhinebeck, I learned about Norm Hall -- someone who makes wooden spinning tools of such beauty that he has a 7-year waiting list. I picked up one of his niddy noddies and had to force myself to put it down. If I'm very lucky, he'll actually have time to make the half-yard version I ordered from him that day. He wouldn't take a deposit. I know it's all about faith with an artisan of his calibre. I can wait.

I got to watch Emma Jane, a passionate spinner, interrupt her shopping more than once to teach someone how to use a spindle. I got to watch formerly unspinny people with their new spindles, making yarn as they walked the aisles. All of us were like kids who'd just figured out how to tie our shoes like the big kids. Still, as far as I was concerned, spindle spinning wasn't for me. I'd figure out how to put twist into the silk-hanky roving when I got my new wheel.

Back at our cabin that night, Emma Jane began to spin some of the wool roving she'd bought that day. Steph pulled out her bag of silk hankies and started turning them into roving, which she rolled into a tiny ball. Even in the harsh single-bulb light of the cabin, I could see how beautiful the roving was and how hypnotic the movement of Emma's spindle could be. I told everyone about the booth where I'd found ridiculously cheap piles of undyed silk hankies. And Emma...she told me that you can dye them with kool-aid. That was it. I planned to go back the next morning and clean out the booth.

Which I did.

And then we were driving home. Steph continued to make more silk-hanky roving in the back seat of the overstuffed Subaru, adding it to her ball. And I couldn't resist any longer. I pulled out one of my bags of hankies and started doing the same. As long as I kept my hands far enough apart -- 12 inches, at least -- it was easy drafting. But this stuff didn't feel like the glossy, slippery silk roving I had at home. Drafting that stuff while working the spindle felt like trying to corral a sneeze. Silk hanky roving, though, has a little tooth. That plus the long staple's so much easier to work with!

And then it occurred to me -- if I was already making roving that was knittable as it was, to turn it into yarn, I just needed to add twist. I wouldn't have to draft any further, which was part of what made me crazy with the spindle in the first place. I just needed to get twist into that roving. I. Could. Use. My. Spindles! I couldn't wait to get home and try it out.

That night, before I'd even unpacked, I pulled out the spindles and gave it a try. I felt like someone had smacked me on the forehead with a V-8. Doi! This couldn't be easier. The beautiful Cascade St. Helen's spindle I'd formerly resigned to dust-catcher status spun like a dream, almost forever. It turned my ball of roving, length by length, into quite passable yarn. Talk about energized singles! I was an energized spinner and kept it up till all the roving I'd made was on the spindle, twisted into crazy but mostly usable yarn. Silk hankies are a new spinner's best friend. [For more on how to spin silk hankies, read the article in this issue of Knitty.]

Today, I ordered another spindle.

Nancy Finn, thank you.



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.

She might take a break to spin another ounce of hankies on her St. Helen's, though.

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