Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Historical Spinning

I’ve talked before about “historical knitting” – now let’s shift the focus a bit to “historical spinning,” or some of the ways spinning has changed in Appalachia in the last 100 years.

My grandmother, shortly before her death, saw some of my earliest alpaca/silk blend handspun. She was astonished at the softness, shine and clarity of color. One of the comments she made was “I wish Mother could have felt this!”

I pursued the comment just a bit, but Grandma was weak, and had little to say except that the sheep’s wool spun during her young years by her mother was prickly and rather harsh. The finest stuff was from the neck area of the sheep, and even that was rather stiff. Her final comment was that her girlhood socks always made her legs itch.

I’ve done a bit of back-tracking, collecting recollections and reminiscences from relatives and neighbors, trying to find out what sort of sheep Great-Grandma was most likely to have had access to as a spinner. The best guess to date is a cross of Shropshire and Shetland or Romney. These sheep did fairly well as wool producers and lambs provided a helpful dose of protein for the diet of hill farmers and coal miners. The wool would have probably been a medium type, with a Bradford count in the 50s, especially given the diet of scrub brush and hill grass available in that place and time. So Grandma probably did have scratchy socks!

I’ve seen bits and pieces of the various fabrics made from this wool; as quilt pieces and scrap bits of hand-woven, and bits of the wool as quilt batting. I’ve marveled at the fineness of the singles, noticing that the normal weaving sett appears to be 30-36 ends per inch. That translates into a single of about 60-70 wraps per inch! Remarkable indeed for a medium fleece. That same fleece would have been used for knitting yarns, of course, after plying.

There was little variation in materials for spinning in the Appalachia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local wool and your portion of a bale of cotton purchased every year or two was interspersed with local flax. Those lucky enough to have ‘bottom’ land could trade their extra flax and wool to neighbors or perhaps a local store; others had to make do with what they could raise on the scrubby, sometimes slag-poisoned hillsides behind their cabins.

Spinning wheels were primitive by our standards; hand-made, single-treadle, with hand-carved flyers and a few bobbins of variable balance and size. Flyer hooks were bent nails salvaged from other projects – metal was expensive. Orifices and axles might be salvaged metal, but were just as likely to be wood wedged firmly into leather bearings greased with lard. Treadle tie-ups were sometimes leather strips, most times string. Wheels were noisy, too; conversations while spinning were likely to be shouted over the squeak and squeal of wood against wood. The sophistication of the spinner’s wheel was completely dependent upon the woodworking and metalworking skills of her husband, father or brother. Those with the skill to make ‘good’ spinning wheels, looms and quilting frames were likely to have a profitable sideline to their miner’s paycheck if they could come up with the energy to make tools after a 12- to 16-hour day in the mines. But even then the most profitable trading items would have been plows, harnesses, shingles and buckets.

“Profitable” is a relative term, of course. Cash money was rare in that time and place. Miners were paid in scrip redeemable only at the company store, where prices were high. “Tradin” is the term my great-grandparents and grandparents used for shopping, and is a better term for the actual exchange of goods in that place and time. That type of bartering is now used mostly between craftspeople; little exchange of services and tools is “traded” in the day-to-day scheme of modern living. This has little to do with historical spinning except as background material, of course.

One of the main reasons women like my great-grandmother could spin 60-70 wpi singles from medium wool was that they were expert spinners of that type of wool. Remember the types of fiber available? Cotton was imported from further south, with a 500-pound bale divided up among an entire community. It was precious and expensive, and so saved for ‘special’. Linen was a local crop, dependent upon rains and the disinterest of insects. It was also labor-intensive, requiring time-consuming processing before spinning. Wool was the most readily-available fiber, coming from your own sheep or bartered for locally. In any case, you probably spun the same type of wool year in and year out for your entire lifetime.

Wheels were more specific-purpose than those we use now, having at most two ratios – about 7:1 for wool and linen and 12:1 for cotton. Most had only a single ratio, and the spinner adjusted her spinning to suit. Spinning was an integral part of the daily chores, and the less time spent on each yard the more time available for weaving, cooking, canning and cleaning. High-twist yarns were made, but only for warps and high-wear applications like socks. Those high-twist yarns were carefully segregated from the weft and general knitting yarns, which were lower-twist yarns, normally from lower-quality parts of the fleece.

Oh, and before you ask, I’ll answer the question of whether drop spindles were part of life in Appalachia. My grandmother laughed the first time she saw me use a drop spindle, a year or so in advance of the conversation related earlier. “I haven’t seen one of those since I was a girl!” was her comment. “How good are you with it?” I showed her what I was spinning, and she wasn’t impressed – just surprised that I was using that particular tool. When I laid my top-whorl spindle on the table to reach for the coffee cup, she picked it up and immediately spun a few yards that exactly matched the lace-weight singles I had begun. “You know, when I was little I used to be sure this was magic,” she commented. “Then I learned to do it!”

I was a bit surprised, since I’d never seen my grandmother spin at all, let alone on a spindle! And magic was a word I don’t recall her ever using before – miracle, yes, magic, no! Further conversation revealed that drop spindles were made for all the children at about age 5, just as wooden knitting needles were whittled for all the girls (and some of the boys) at about the age of 6. Once you were a proficient spinner, you could take your turn on the family wheel, but the spindle and a bit of fleece (or a bit of knitting) was almost always tucked into an apron pocket for odd moments. Obviously it isn’t a knack you forget, since my grandmother estimated that it had been about 60 years since she had picked up a spindle. Hers had been carved from apple wood, she said, and was a bottom-whorl with a notch at the top. “Did you keep it?” I asked, anxious to know if this relic of her childhood had survived. “Goodness, no,” she replied. “It’s been gone a long time!” My face must have fallen, because she next said, “Your uncles could probably make you one, if you asked. Or you could whittle it yourself.” Of course I could – although I probably won’t. I would, however, love to have had the tool she used as a child!

Between 1860 and 1920, metal tools were expensive, but a considerable portion of the yearly family income went toward maintenance and any necessary replacements. Clothing was as necessary as shelter and food, and equally home-made. Metal spinning wheel axles and bobbin shafts, metal-teethed cards, and metal pins, needles and knitting needles, among other things, were frequently gifts for very special life occasions like marriage or perhaps graduation (education wasn’t easy to come by and took considerable effort). Those tools were scrupulously maintained. Rust on a needle was a sure sign of a slipshod personality, and as unacceptable in that society as rust on a plow. I’ll always remember my grandfather’s scathing denouncement of a proposed daughter-in-law, “You can’t marry her - she don’t even know how to use the emery bud on a pincushion!” It was the ultimate dismissal.

Dyes were another luxury item. Many dyes were obtained from natural stuff, of course, and the Appalachian Mountains abound in patches of madder and other non-native dye plants planted around old cabin sites. Synthetic dyes were available by 1900, but equally important (and less expensive) were indigo cakes. I still saw them in the country stores in northeast Tennessee when I was a child in the 1950’s and 60’s.

It’s hard now to realize, but dyes were important indicators of wealth and influence. I’ve heard stories all my life about the crimson wool wedding dress worn by a great-grandmother, and how her husband-to-be had sent for the ground cochineal used to dye the wool from his father’s relatives on an Indian reservation in the Southwest. Now those stories draw little attention from my children and grandchildren – we’ve come too far from those rural roots where independence and self-sufficiency were the measure of a family’s worth.

Modern spinners don’t concentrate on a few specific types of fiber to the degree of our ancestors. We’re by and large hobbyist spinners, producing yarn for our own or a limited number of consumers’ use. We can choose fibers from all over the world, in mixtures that would astonish my great-grandmother. The average spinner in a so-called developed country spins fibers every day that were unobtainable luxury even three decades ago – well within our adult life spans.

Our wheels are works of art and engineering, and almost as multiple-purpose as our kitchen appliances. We can spin cotton, flax, wool, alpaca, yak and cashmere on the same wheel, moving a drive band from whorl to whorl to adjust the ratio.

Dyes can be synthetic, natural, or concentrated crystals in several preparations. They’re easy to use; mordants are either unnecessary or available in easy to use forms from the same vendors from whom we purchase the dyes, and the resulting colors are light- and wash-fast.

It is no longer necessary to spin every inch of yarn or thread for every inch of fabric we use each day. So we get less spinning practice than did our forbearers. We have more articles of clothing than anyone except the very wealthy did even a hundred years ago, and spend a considerably smaller proportion of our income to obtain those clothes. So spinning is now a hobby, not a necessity.

Are we therefore less-accomplished spinners than were our ancestors? Yes and no. We tend to be more comfortable with multiple fiber staples, and spin our wealth of fibers into various weights and in various blends for specialized purposes. We seldom concentrate on one or two fibers to the exclusion of any others. This means that we lose the ability to ‘make-do’ with fibers that may not be perfectly suited to our end use. But to my mind, the wide-ranging fiber education we receive balances the scales nicely. We may not be more practiced spinners than our great-grandmothers, but we’re definitely better-educated ones!

We have, as a society, more disposable income than at any time during human history. We treasure our leisure time as an opportunity to pursue our avocations. We tend to spend “extra” money on those same avocations, whether spinning or trout-fishing. Combine those facts with the rapid transit and better communication of 2006, and you can see that the fiber explosion of the past fifteen years or so was inevitable. Spinners, knitters, quilters and other fiber artists both amateur and professional are taking full advantage of this wealth of materials. I am no different from the rest, enjoying the time invested in learning basic techniques of spinning new-to-me fibers like yak, buffalo down, ingeo and tencel.

Eventually, I predict that the pendulum will swing back the other way, and spinners will ‘specialize’ in certain fibers – in fact, some are already doing so. But whatever our individual choice in the matter, we should remember that we live in a time where spinning is a choice, not a necessity, and thus comes under the heading of luxury. Nobody must spin these days in order to clothe a family. We choose to spin for a multitude of reasons. The fact that spinning is now a choice is what moves it from the category of necessity to luxury.

I can’t help but wonder if spinning historians in the future will look at our current exploration of many different fibers as a sort of aberration, unable to fathom why we rush to try every new fiber available. I can hear my own grandchild asking, thirty or forty years from now, “But why didn’t you concentrate on the sheep’s wool, alpaca and llama that were all around you instead of buying exotic fiber from someplace on the other side of the world?” Or perhaps, with advances in cheap transportation, the question will be slightly different – “Why did you have to buy the fiber from a vendor across the country? Why not just go to Tibet (Australia, Indonesia, South America) and buy it directly from the grower?”

The only unchanged thing in the conversation will be the tools we’re both using while we talk – the spinning wheel and the drop spindle will still be the way we soothe our minds and busy our fingers. The quiet click of knitting needles or tatting shuttles will still accompany our evening rituals. Fiber will still be available to spin, and spinners will still exist. Because there is no substitute for the magic of watching fibers slip through your fingers to become yarn. It mimics creation itself, this yarn spun from the ethereal gossamer web of fiber and air. True magic will always be part of humanity, and spinning is absolutely true magic.