Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why I Spin, or, The Smell of Home

I used to card wool when I was, like, 8-12 at the home of a family friend. She had a spinning wheel and they raised sheep and angora rabbits. She would sometimes set the kids to carding, if we were willing, to give us something to do while the adults played bridge. Their family did the local 4-H stuff and several fairs each summer, and sometimes my family went along for a nice, wholesome, inexpensive day out. I also washed my first fleece with them - although, it was still on a live sheep that was being prepped for show (For the record: The sheep did not take to it kindly, which was why it was “the kids’ job”). My mother’s favourite mittens came off her spinning wheel and needles.

My childhood was, in retrospect, mostly idyllic.

Naturally, I got older, and forgot everything I knew. I moved away to a large city for university and an even larger city after that. I remember asking my grandmother to teach me to knit when I was in high school or college, to which she replied, “Oh, honey, you can learn that from a book a lot faster than from me.” A few years ago, still mourning her and using her old needles, I did just that. Grandma Helen was a gem, but not really one for the patient teaching. It was probably for the best.

Not quite two years ago while I was visiting my parents, I spent a couple days at a medieval event that is held very nearby. I was pleased to have a chance to spend some time with my then 19-year old niece. I also wanted to experience this large event that seemed to have grown up with me. I had watched - from the road - as it expanded over the years. I crashed in my niece's teeny-tiny trailer, which she graciously shared, and she served as my guide for part of a day.

We split up in the afternoon, and I wandered around for several hours, in and out of merchant booths, people watching. My old memories of sheep, wool, fairs, farm shows and pioneer festivals (especially if it had a blacksmithing demo - Dad was all over that) began to work their way up to the surface as I walked. Some of the smells were there: grass, dirt, sweat. Fried foods from the food tents, complete with the teenagers who made spare summer cash working them. I had friends who did that every summer in high school. I spent one memorable summer week volunteering for charity at a dunk tank at the county fair, myself.

There was something missing. A smell common to all of those summer events, modern or historical. The smell of the animals. Something clicked in my brain. Yes.

I turned around, walked determinedly back into a merchant booth and left with a drop spindle and some roving. This seemed a good compromise; I had been thinking about it for a couple weeks. I had never spun before, but I knew I didn’t have room for a wheel and couldn’t, at that moment, do what I did remember (washing and prepping fleece). Worst case it would make a nice display piece. I netted another bag of roving, a book, and a second spindle from another merchant a few minutes later because I didn't know if I would be able to handle the fancy low-whorl one I bought originally. Tired of walking, I bought some iced tea and plopped myself down under a shady tree overlooking a sea of tents. With the ever-present sound of drums and laughter as a soundtrack, I had at it for a while.

My niece found me there a little later, in our pre-arranged meeting spot, trying to practice joining, a few feet of impossibly overspun yet still lumpy yarn on the spindle. I must have had the most content look on my face ever.

"I didn't know you knew how to do that," she said.

"I don't. Er, I didn't. Well, not for a long time, anyhow, since I was, like, 10 or 11. And then I never learned how to spin, just card wool."

"Oh. Well, it suits you. Like you've been doing it forever."

"Thanks, hon."

24 hours later, my spindle, iced tea and I were sitting under the same tree, joined by a pound of lovely RomniX fleece. Earlier in the day, I had found myself sitting in a tent with a handful of ice, chatting with a lady and admiring the piles of lovely fleece surrounding her, wrapped up in sheets and peeking out in bursts of browns, cremes, whites and greys. My new fleece was washed, but it still smelled a little sheepy. I didn’t have carders or combs, so I spun a little straight from the locks. And quite suddenly, with all those smells together (sheep, grass, earth, iced tea), all was right with the world.

Sheepy Goodness is not a common smell in a large city, unless you know where to look. It had never occurred to me to try. But it's a smell I've known since childhood. My niece and I woke the next morning in our cramped accommodations to the sound of a cannon shot (ooops, missed the opening ceremonies of war week, I guess). I rolled over in my sleeping bag, and came face-to-face with the fleece. Again, there was the smell of grass, and earth, and sheep.

I knew I had finally come home.

And so that's why I spin. Because when I spin, no matter where I am, I am home. My drink of choice while spinning is still iced tea, and I’ve determined that I prefer sharp, pointy combs to carders. I’m in no hurry to get a wheel. I have processed a fleece straight off the sheep. I continue to acquire more drop spindles at an alarming rate.

It feels like I've been doing it forever.

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