Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Spinster's Genesis

I learned to knit as a young child - I was only five years old when my grandmother put knitting needles in my hand for the first time. I remember sitting on her lap as she showed me how to make the knit and purl stitches. As I made the first clothes for a doll, I learned the very basics of knitting. (See my YouTube that covers this: )

The way my grandmother taught me was probably the best way to learn. Since I already knew that she was able to turn our an astonishing amount of knitting for all the family, I had the utmost confidence that knitting couldn't be hard. I'd knit for a while, and I'd go out to play in the fields and barns of my grandfather's dairy farm. When I returned, my errors in knitting would be (magically) repaired. Grandma would then take me on her lap and show me again how to do the stitches that I'd messed up.

I also learned the basics of modifying a knit pattern to suit the eventual recipient. Longer sleeves, larger or smaller, adding pockets if wanted, and any number of other changes to the knit pattern. It was only a very small step from that to coming up with my own knit patterns, or knitting without a written pattern at all. 

Some of my projects have been repeated so many times that written reminders are superfluous. My favorite slippers are a perfect example of this. ( )  It also helps that they are so simple that it is easy to memorize.

Most of my knitting was done with inexpensive acrylic and cotton yarns until I was an adult. While I was aware that natural fiber yarns had qualities that were valuable, I thought that the expense made using them unnecessary. In 1980, I got a chilly lesson in how wrong I was. 

Mount Washington in New England is not a very large mountain. It is barely 6,000 feet in altitude, but there is nothing higher on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, the weather at the top can be extreme. 

Memorial Day weekend the temperature in the town at the base of the mountain was in the mid 70s, but it was much colder at the top, with a stiff wind chill. I was wearing a sweater that I had knitted with acrylic yarn, and my companion was wearing a sweater that I had knitted from wool yarn. I nearly froze in the acrylic, and my companion was fine in the wool sweater.

I decided that I was going to use natural fiber yarns from that moment on. 

There was a local yarn shop in the town, and I persuaded my companion to stop there. I got a major shock at the cost of commercial natural fiber yarn. One skein cost more than three times my hourly wage at the time. I realized that a sweater from this lovely expensive yarn would cost more than a week's wage. 

Fortunately, the yarn shop owner has a solution for me. She owned sheep and had baskets and baskets of clean wool for sale. She gave me a short lesson on spinning with a spindle, sold me a spindle, a big bag of lovely brown wool, and I was suddenly off on this adventure of making my own yarn. 

This was well before we had the resources of the internet, Google, and YouTube. I haunted my local library, got everything I could on inter-library loan, found other spinners and guilds, and did everything I could to teach myself.

Spindle spinning is not the quickest method of hand spinning. It can add up if you can get bits of otherwise wasted time used in getting some spinning done. Lunch breaks at work, waiting at appointments, while someone else drives, etc.. Those bits were what I normally used for knitting, so I decided that I needed to learn to spin on a spinning wheel. 

I found a used spinning wheel and worked on getting my hands and feet coordinated. It didn't take very long, and I was soon piling up skeins of hand spun yarns.

Then I discovered that I could knit in an hour what it had taken me two or more hours to spin. My used spinning wheel was fairly slow, and I didn't have any spare bobbins for it. I had to wind off what I'd spun onto some rather creative holders so I could then ply the single strands together. 

Eventually, I was able to get a much faster wheel made for me. Repetitive motion injury to my wrists started interfering with knitting, but not spinning. My stash of hand spun yarns got rather extensive, so I added weaving to my creative pursuits. 

My interest in American history grew as I learned more about natural dyes, weaving patterns, sheep breeds used in the the early United States, and the impact of cotton. I started to find references on how much yarn could be expected from one spinner per day - and also the reason why the gender-specific term "spinster" also came to mean an older, unmarried woman. 

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