Spinning a Yarn (Part 1)

by JJ Starwalker

The cooler temperatures and lengthening evenings of autumn evoke images of cozy sweaters and time spent curled in a favorite easy chair, fiber craft in hand. At least they do for me. After a busy summer of fighting weeds, picking, eating and putting by both  the garden’s abundance and the meat we have raised over the summer, I am as ready for more sedentary pursuits as I am for the “dark seasons” of the year.

My three Icelandic sheep, Rigby (out of Eleanor), Enterprise, and Major Tom will be having their fall shearing soon. These sheep are all from the flock at the University of Maine’s Witter Farm. Icelandics are a more primitive breed and are often shorn twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, to better manage their wool. They are not part of my meat production crew though, as I did not want the stress of breeding; they are all neutered males, called wethers.

They do provide plenty of black, brown, and white wool for my use. I do like spinning pretty much straight from the sheep–called spinning “in the grease”–as was traditionally done in areas where home yarn production was typically used to knit outerwear sweaters for the farm family. The naturally occurring lanolin in their wool makes a water-repellent yarn when spun and tightly knit. In addition, it feels wonderful on the hands as one works with the fleece to spin and again to knit the yarn.

Of course, most folks who knit or crochet use commercial yarn, as do I on occasion. But I find so much more satisfaction working with the fiber “from sheep to shawl”… or sweater… or mittens… or hat.

Seeing and feeling it as it grows on my wooly–and sometimes demanding–sheep buddies (if I am late for a feeding, they let the whole neighborhood know). Watching a skilled young woman catch each sheep in turn, positioning each then, relatively compliant, beast on its rump and quickly removing the wool in a continuous motion of clippers, arms, cord flipping, and sheep being adjusted is visual poetry. 

So is the quiet dance of bits of “fluff” as I call the ready-to-spin fleece, as it catches on to yarn already spun and is pulled out of one hand as the other directs and guides it onto the bobbin, to the rhythm of my foot on the pedal turning the spinning wheel.

I often am drawn to places far and wide, into the past and, following threads of thought as the yarn moves from my hands to the bobbin, into the future as well. I think there is good reason why our language is so full of the metaphors of fiber craft. We can spin a yarn, both literally and figuratively as I do here. We all have strings attached — in my world view they are literally attached to everyone and every thing, connecting and twining together (yep, another fiber word!) to weave what I call the Tapestry of Life. Some refer to the web of life in talking about the interactions between all of the living beings on the planet: The animals, plants, fungus, microbes, bugs and of course us, being only one of many, many parts.

But I see more than that. I see the threads of the sheeps’ lives, connected back to their mothers, and onward from them, branching off threads with each fleece that is shorn, and with each encounter with an admiring visitor. Those threads connect with me, if I process the wool to spin it. Or they connect both the sheep and me with the lovely folks who own and work Underhill Fibers in Gorham, Maine, if I choose to send it out for processing.

And the yarn, once spun, will reach into the future and to the wider world as I knit and gift my work or share the yarn with other crafters. And this happens again and again, each year, adding to the warp and weft of the tapestry being woven by us all.

I am not just a spinner, knitter, crocheter, sewist (what do we properly call someone who sews and embroiders these days?) but along the way in my wandering path, I realized that I was a pagan, and a while after that I met up with Frigga, one of the Goddesses of a northern tradition path. I guess it was my German ancestors, as well as my love of fiber working that connected us, for Frigga is also a spinner and it is to Her that my first spinning wheel was dedicated and for Her it is named.

So, in my world, much of my spiritual work is done along side the physical work of preparing fiber and making yarn.

photo credit: Alex H. Pflaum, Unsplash