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Journey Wheel

This column is about my journey in learning to spin without wool or any other 4-legged animal fiber, using the same tools as everyone else.

So it seems I went away.

Not on purpose. Not as a result of any grand plan, but because I was in way over my head. And I'm not talking about how high the yarn is piled in my office.

When last we spoke in this column, it was about the purchase of my first spinning wheel. And then I went suspiciously silent. What happened?

Several things.

First, let's look at what I was able to spin on the Joy with a few basic lessons from some kind spinner friends:

That is what can legitimately be called soy fiber Yarn Barf, and it's the best I could do, no matter how patient my teachers were with me or how much I practiced. Enduring the constant wheel stoppage because my too-thin yarn broke or I hadn't put in enough twist and it all pulled apart was really discouraging. And then there was the tick.

I didn't notice the tick of the wheel [one audible "tick" for each revolution of the wheel itself] until I was spinning with some friends. Jen also has a Joy, and hers was blissfully silent. But mine annoyingly ticked with each revolution, and it was just another thing holding me back from getting into the spinning groove.

Jen's husband, Jason, came to my rescue that night. It involved a hammer, a heavy set of pliers and loud banging noises of metal against metal. When he was done, my Joy was silent too! [It seems the little very-rigid metal bar that joins the footmen to each other was slightly bent in the wrong direction and was making contact where it shouldn't have been. He fixed it and I haven't had a problem since.

Lesson learned: A spinning wheel isn't made of porcelain. It's a tool and it needs to function as expected. A quick visual inspection of the wheel and the tick showed Jason what was rubbing against what, and it was a simple, if loud, fix. Be brave and embrace the hammer and pliers if that's what you need to do!

So I should have been spinning better and better yarn after that, right? No. I was so mentally stuck in the "I'm just not getting this" groove that I couldn't shake myself out. When you're surrounded by spinners doing what you want to do – seemingly effortlessly – and you're making little to no progress, it's hard to keep yourself motivated. It didn't matter that they were spinning wool and I couldn't. I just wasn't getting any better and I was losing patience, and worse -- motivation.

I was at a loss about how to get myself out of this rut, until the brochure for SOAR [Interweave Press' Spin Off Autumn Retreat] came across my desk. My solution was staring me in the face:
Maggie Casey -- Spinning 101: Learn to Spin or Refresh Your Skills

Maggie Casey – the woman who taught Jillian [the editor of Knittyspin] how to spin? Really? A three-day workshop just to learn to spin? Perfect! I read further.

"… If you have always wanted to spin, have taught yourself a little, or haven’t spun for awhile, this workshop will be just what you need to gain confidence and skill. We will start with a beautiful fleece, learn to card, spin, ply, and set the twist. Then we will spin woolen and worsted yarns, some commercially prepared fibers and discuss wheel maintenance."

*My fibers: cotton, hemp, linen, silk, soy, bamboo, corn, milk or anything else that never grew out of the skin of an animal. I'm allergic to wool and sensitive to the tiny barbs on all animal fibers, so I just don't use any of it, in spinning or knitting.

Oh, crap. Almost every detail is just what I need, except that the class is based on using wool. I am, as usual when it comes to spinning, out of luck. I call Jillian. "I want to take Maggie Casey's workshop at SOAR, but it's all wool-based." Jillian laughs. "Call Maggie. Ask her if she'll do it with your fibers*." I hesitate. Call the teacher? The legendary Maggie Casey? Ask her to accommodate my specific fiber limitations in a class full of [probably] wool lovers? "Do it," Jillian said, rather forcefully.

So I did. Maggie was not only sweet and friendly, she was encouraging and enthusiastic. "Sure!" she said. "We can do it with your fibers."

Lesson learned: you get nowhere in life without asking. Ask, especially if you are non-woolly like me and want to participate in the usually woolly spinning world. You'd be surprised at how many instructors are willing to accommodate you!

And so it was arranged. I was going to SOAR, the legendary fiber retreat, to learn how to spin once and for all.

How do I describe SOAR? It's spinning camp for adults. It's 3-6 days of intensive learning, plus at least one day of intensive and pleasurable fiber shopping. It's a retreat, a workshop, a break from reality. It's where old friends meet each year, and new friends are made. Really, camp for adults, courtesy of Interweave Press [the people who organize it every year] and your own bank account [it's not an inexpensive excursion].

The first three days are the Workshop – three dedicated days with one mentor on one subject. The last two are the Retreat [two sessions a day with any of a selection of Mentors on a variety of fiber-related subjects]. In the middle, there's the big market day where spinners stock up on fiber and tools for the season to come.

So in early October, I packed the Ashford Joy in the carry case [that's it <-- over there on the left, tidily folded up for travel] and was off to learn with the cool kids. For those who wonder -- and I was one of them until this trip --  the Joy fits easily in any airplane's overhead compartment, even a tiny 3-seat-across Embraer jet. It was a real relief to be able to carry my wheel with me, knowing it wouldn't get lost or damaged in transit unless I was a doof and dropped it.

Rather than give you a recap of my entire trip, let's just say that the social aspects of SOAR were everything I could have hoped for. It was a serious blast and I had an amazing time. How could I not enjoy myself at a place where it's socially acceptable -- encouraged, even -- to spindle while waiting for dinner to be served? Everyone over there on the right --> looks all serious, but I think we were all just concentrating really hard so we wouldn't waste the roving. Especially since we were at a cocktail/dinner reception, and the first round of beverages had already been toasted with.

But the reason I went was to learn how to spin, so how did that go?

On the first day, we walked into a hotel suite and took our place in a big circle, our wheels in front of us. Maggie introduced herself and passed out the handouts. And then she pulled out a huge, sexy charcoal fleece.

I smiled and pulled out my knitting. I knew that not everything in class could apply to me, and I was happy to listen and learn. Maggie talked about sheep breeds and wool and fleece and other things, and then she got to carding.

Everyone grabbed a big hunk of fleece and got to work. Maggie handed me…hemp.

Seriously. Hemp? My first fiber to learn to spin is hemp? Okay, then.

I took the handcards that Maggie offered – the same tooth density as wool cards – and began to imitate what everyone else was doing, except instead of soft fluff, I was loading my hand cards with crazy stiff plant material. I surprised myself by turning off the normal skepticism neurons in my brain; I was there, Maggie was the expert and I was going to learn whatever she could teach me. I kept my mouth shut [uncharacteristically], listened and watched intently.

I mimicked the rocking motion Maggie was teaching us and…it started to work. What I was creating was enough like what everyone else was making that I could follow along with them and keep up. As everyone made woolly rolags, I made hempy ones.

Then Maggie got us all set up to spin. She made sure our leaders were suitable, and showed us how to attach them to the bobbins in a special way that wouldn't come loose when it was time to spin. Extremely cool. Everyone else used, of course, wool. I used a two-ply linen cord that Maggie gave me, and found it fabulously grippy and an excellent choice. She made sure our wheels were all correctly set -- because "it's always the wheel's fault" when a new spinner can't make yarn.

Then we began to spin, woolen, from our rolags. I watched everyone else go first, seeing how they did it and trying to get the motions in my head. Then it was my turn. And it worked. I was able to spin hemp woolen [softly, with lots of air in it]. It felt like a miracle. Sure, it wasn't truly soft yarn, but I was spinning just like everyone else in the room! The yarn wasn't breaking every two seconds. I was filling a bobbin!

While Maggie went around the room helping those who needed it, I tried something.  First, I loaded the carder evenly with a little less hemp than the first time. Then I added pure white bamboo roving evenly over the top of the hemp -->.

When I carded the two very different fibers together, I was pleased to see that the sheen of the bamboo evened out and softened the hemp, and the hemp had enough tooth to keep the bamboo from slipping off the carder's teeth. A few moments later, I had a hemp/bamboo rolag.

Rather than agonizing over how it would spin [would it spin at all?], I just went for it. It spun. It was working! Once again, the bamboo's smoothness made the rough hemp more enjoyable to spin, the the hemp kept the bamboo from being a slippery mess. I was making yarn. Maggie came over to see what I was doing, examined my work and gave her approval.

I spent the rest of the day making rolag after rolag of hemp/bamboo, and then spinning them, marveling at what I'd learned on just this first day and feeling encouraged for the first time in my very short spinning history. By mid-afternoon, I'd filled a good portion of two bobbins and then it was time to ply. Maggie showed us how and then it was our turn. My hemp/bamboo yarn plied <-- pretty evenly, especially for a beginner. I couldn't stop smiling.

That night, before I fell asleep, I imagined the different things I could card together and what they might look like.

Day two arrived and, let's be honest, I was sore all over. A full day of spinning is hard on anybody's body, and mine was suffering. My hands ached, my back hurt and I wasn't sure I'd survive the day. But within an hour of the beginning of class, I had forgotten all that and was into it again with a happy vengeance.

We soon moved to worsted spinning, which, I learned, was what I'd been sort of doing on my own with all the slippery fibers I was trying to spin -- bamboo, soy, silk. It was a quick transition to worsted spinning for me after Maggie's thorough lesson the day before. I was happy to see that the breaking and stopping wasn't happening nearly as often as it had before.

By the end of the day, I'd spun up 5.5 ounces of deep grey bamboo roving into a rather nice worsted single. My singles now had a lot less overspinny twisties than before and way fewer thick parts with not enough spin.

I let the twist sit on the bobbin overnight and Navajo plied it the next morning. It was thick, shimmery, 3-ply bamboo yarn, just like I'd wanted to spin. Not perfect yarn, but absolutely, unequivocally yarn and definitely knittable. That night, my friend Carla taught me to Andean ply, and this time, it stuck. I started madly plying off all the hanky singles I'd ever spun and just staring at the little 2-ply hanks I was producing.

After that, something clicked on in my brain. I finally gave myself permission to call myself a spinner. No more qualifying adjectives or apologies. I was just a new spinner, like every other new spinner, with a learning curve ahead of me, but no longer an insurmountable one. I was giddy with the possibilities.

I walked around SOAR with my handspindle and a bag of silk hankies and spun and Andean plied like mad. I could be spotted in the halls wearing a halo of whatever I'd just spun resting happily on my head. Those <-- are some silk hankies I'd bought on SOAR market day and just spun and plied up the final evening's Spin-In party.

Below you see my idol, Maggie Casey, talking with me about the hankies I've just plied [they're in that clear tube I'm holding] and watching me beam with joy because she's helped me become, in just three days, what all my friends are.

I am a spinner, too.

Postscript: It's a month and a half later, and I'm still spinning like mad on my handspindle, and have continued to work on my wheel spinning. My wheel-spun bamboo is getting better all the time.

Two other unexpected things resulted from my trip to SOAR:

1. a recurrence of my formerly dormant carpal tunnel syndrome. It seems I was holding my fiber not too tightly, but at too severe an angle for my right wrist not to complain. Rest and following my doctor's instructions have made this much, much better since I returned home.

Lesson learned: take care of your body, especially in such an intense learning environment.

2. a new wheel. The spinner's market was about more than fiber. A large number of wheel manufacturers were there with wheels for us to try. I manged to resist until the very last afternoon, when I was firmly urged to try the new Schacht Ladybug wheel. Once I got over that weird thing that new spinners have about being watched, I got into my groove and fell in love with the Ladybug and placed an order.

Lesson learned: if you are easily tempted, never spin on another wheel unless your wallet is prepared to deal with the consequences.

So now I have two wheels to talk about in this column, both very different from the other. I'll have more pictures of the yarn I'm spinning and more Ashford and Schacht wheel talk in the next issue.

But since I made you look at my yarn barf, I should at least leave you with something a little prettier. This is more than 100 yards of 2-ply bulky silk, spindle-spun from hankies dyed by Nancy Finn of Chasing Rainbows [colorway: pansies].


If you'd like to take lessons from the wonderful Maggie Casey, you'll find her at Shuttles, Spindles & Skeins in Boulder, Colorado.


Did you know Amy can spin? She can, thanks to the woman on the left of her headshot.

One might suggest, perhaps, that she could keep her tongue in her mouth a little more often.

p.s. the pink spindle at the top of the column is a Bosworth mini in pink ivory and ebony.