Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Yarn Connection
 by: Mary Egbert
Sheep and wool have a long, steeped history all over the world.  Before 10,000 BC wool was spun into a crude yarn by twisting the fibers by hand.  This yarn was woven into a cloth that could be draped over the body for protection from the elements.  

As spinning yarn evolved so did the process;  a stick with a wooden ring were used as a drop spindle.  The spinning wheel was introduced in China during the 11th century,  which greatly sped up the process and allowed for more consistent and smoother yarns.  The spinning wheel made it’s way to Europe some 200 years later paving the way for the textile industry.

Raising sheep for wool and spinning yarn with a spinning wheel  became a necessity in many homes around the world.  The yarns produced were knit into sweaters, hats, socks, gloves or woven with looms into blankets or other necessary textiles.  

A system developed called the putting-out system or also called the cottage industry. Home-based spinners and weavers made products via a contract with a merchant seller, who supplied all the raw materials.

This system disappeared due to the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Large woolen mills churned out machine spun yarns and the introduction of the power loom produced textiles at a rapid pace to supply the demands of the times.  

As time went on people no longer had to spin their own yarn anymore out of necessity and spinning was reserved for the poor, who could not afford to buy finished textiles.   But countries like India, China and South America have continued this fine tradition of hand spinning yarns on a spinning wheel in their homes.  

In America, hand processing wool and hand spinning yarn is on a resurgence. What’s old is new again and people are interested.  No longer is it necessary to raise sheep, hand process wool, spin yarn on a spinning wheel, knit, crochet or weave it into a garment.  We can merely run to the store and most likely buy a wool garment at a very reasonable price.  So why do people still perform a process that is so labor intensive and takes great skill to master?  You will be surprised to hear that it’s not so much about the yarn, but the connection to the past of an ancient art form,  honing the skill required to spin a beautiful yarn, the calming effect it seems to have on some people or even the hands on raising of the sheep.

Miranda Alijah Howard who is a stay at home mom and raises rare Jacob sheep said of why she spins, “I'm old fashioned, I like odd things like raising jacob and leicester sheep, I do it to increase awareness of our past and roots. I find spinning yarn is relaxing and it’s exciting to see all the things you can do.   It shows the diversity of sheep too. Not only do you get  wool, you also get milk, meat, horns, and pets. It’s a business I can do at home, get passionate about and do with my kids.”

Jausonne Elizabeth Spencer adds “The biggest thing for me, is I can design my own clothing, from the texture, color and style. I can have exactly what I want, the way I want it from sheep we raised. Making it sentimental as well. Not to mention the fact that clothing lasts forever, so my grandchildren will have sweaters and coats I made one day. You can't buy that.”

Judith Kob feels a more zen approach to spinning, “ I love to spin and knit, it's therapy, I enjoy the process and creating something totally unique and beautiful. I also think it is inherent in us as a survival instinct. It soothes my nerves and keeps me sane.”

The repetitive rhythm of the spinning wheel and hand gestures when making yarn have a somewhat calming effect. It’s a quiet endeavor that lets us reflect on past cultures that have done the very thing thousands of years ago.  Jane Bentheimer Brown who is a long-time quilter and yarn spinner agrees,  “It is relaxing. Any kind of repetitive action, such as spinning, knitting, needle work is relaxing and a form of meditation . It is good for the body and mind.”

Spinning guilds are popping up all across the country allowing groups of like-minded crafters an outlet to learn and mingle.  There are more and more instructors that travel the world teaching everything from hand processing wool, dyeing, spinning, knitting and weaving.  In this day and age of electronics there is a yearning to create something with our own two hands and many are taking that giant step back to the past carrying it onto the future.

So if you want to improve your mental health, bond with the earth and nature, connect with our past ancestors or just have an outlet for creativity, color and texture, spinning yarn may be exactly what you need.

Mary Egbert
Avid spinner, dyer and fiber lover