May 20, 2018
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The art of spinning: How and why people are taking to the wheel to spin their own yarn

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine ― For Jodi Clayton, owner of One Lupine Fiber Arts yarn and fiber shop in Bangor, it was her lifelong knitting habits that led her to discover a love for the ancient craft of spinning yarn.

But in a state rich with fiber traditions, Clayton said a prospective spinner doesn’t necessarily have to be a knitter to become addicted to the art of making yarn, all they need is the passion for creating something out of raw materials.

“People come to [spinning] for all sorts of reasons,” Clayton said. “There is a really high correlation that I found over the years between people who garden or knit or spin. … People who want to make, make ― whether it’s functional art, fine art or food.”

Clayton herself has been spinning yarn for the last 23 years. In 2012, she was named Artist of the Year in the 17th annual Belfast-based Arts in the Park for her fiberwork. During her years spent in Maine fiber circles, she said she has seen an uptick in the number of people taking up knitting and spinning as their craft.

Whether it’s a farmer who raises sheep or alpaca and wants to make something out of the fiber sheared from the flock, or a knitter who wants to make his or her own garments by going the full spectrum from fiber to frock, Clayton said once someone gets the hang of spinning, it becomes something else entirely.

“There is a lot of just muscle memory and coordination, and then once you get it, [spinning] shifts into something that is incredibly soothing and meditative and tranquil and lovely,” she said.

The meditative powers of spinning have been enough to keep a group of Maine women, the Wednesday Spinners, coming together weekly to enjoy each other’s company and spin ― a gathering they have maintained for the last 41 years.

The tradition behind spinning and the broad realm of fiber is something that Christine Macchi, executive director and founder of Maine Fiberarts, said is rooted in the state’s history.

“It builds on long traditions in Maine, where people have made things they need for themselves forever,” Macchi said.

Getting your foot on the wheel

The more that people are exposed to Maine’s vast fiber crafting options, the more they want to find out where they can find the resources and get involved themselves. After giving a talk on fiber and spinning to a group of students at the Maine College of Art in Portland, Macchi said the students were fixed on where they could find a farm that was shearing so they could get their hands on the raw fiber.

“The more people find out about it, the more they want to spin,” she said.

Five years ago, a year after opening One Lupine, Clayton began offering lessons to people who wanted to learn how to spin. While demand for the lessons varies, she says she typically does a dozen or so per year, selling about five to 10 spinning wheels within that same time frame.

When people approach her expressing an interest in learning how to spin, Clayton poses two questions for them: what do their timelines and budgets look like?

Before getting on the spinning wheel, Clayton suggests that people try spinning yarn with a drop spindle, the most easily affordable and ancient tool to make yarn with. The wooden hand tool is simple in looks but fascinating in how its few parts work together with gravity and the hand movements of the spindle operator to draw fibers from a raw bundle of fleece, twisting them together to become a string of yarn.

Clayton said taking the time to practice with a drop spindle gives a prospective spinner a good lesson in what to do with the hands while spinning before spinning yarn on a wheel, which involves using the feet to power the wheel via foot pedals.

“Typically people that do a little drop spindling pick up the spinning wheel action more quickly because they’ve begun to build some muscle memory, some mapping, between their hands and their head,” Clayton said.

Making the jump from using a drop spindle to spinning on the wheel features a bigger learning curve and a bigger cost, both of which are aspects that Clayton says are worth the investment if someone has the means to do so and finds a love for the craft.

For this reason, Clayton’s lessons include an initial two-hour instruction lesson, a one-week spinning wheel rental and a follow-up lesson to touch base on how the spinning student did while working on his or her own.

“I really believe it’s important if you don’t already have a wheel to hop on the wheel everyday even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes because you’re going to get better each time,” Clayton said. “My experience has been at the end of that [rental] week, everyone has a sense of this is for me or this is not for me … a two-hour lesson is not going to tell you that necessarily.”

Spinning wheels are a pricier tool to work with compared to the drop spindle but allow for a faster and more efficient spinning experience. The American-made brand of spinning wheels that Clayton carries in her shop start at $750 and go up to about $1,600. However, Clayton stresses that once you make the investment in a wheel you will never have to buy another one.

Buying a used spinning wheel also is an option, though because wheels maintain their quality, Clayton said a used wheel might not be that much less expensive than a new wheel. Used spinning wheels and fiber tools can be found online through pages such as the Fiber Artist’s Marketplace, or at the equipment sale at the annual Maine Fiber Frolic festival in June. Other options for finding used spinning wheels include Craigslist and antique stores.

On Monday, Clayton was spinning yarn on her shop wheel. To spin the yarn, her hands were working to draw the fibers from the bundle of fleece she was holding, while the first two fingers and thumb of her front hand were twisting the fibers together as the yarn was drawn onto the bobbin. The yarn is spun around the bobbin that is rotating from the spinning of a drive band that is attached to the wheel. Foot pedals are used to spin the wheel in a clockwise motion.

“I like to describe spinning on the wheel as having a steep but fairly short learning curve. It’s a lot of front loaded discombobulation and then you kind of hit the sweet spot,” Clayton said.

From fiber to final product

Macchi herself has seven spinning wheels and has been an avid spinner for the last 30 years. One of the things she loves most about the craft of spinning is having full artistic control over what she knits ― from the type of raw fiber she chooses to spin to the finished garment she ends with.

“It is just fantastic to make your own yarn,” she said. ”You can have full artistic control over your knitted item by creating the yarn that goes into making the fabric.”

The type of yarn that people can spin varies based on their experience with spinning and the type of fiber they are choosing to work with, whether that be wool fleece, alpaca, llama, angora or a synthetic fiber.

Clayton said she prefers spinning with natural fiber and recommends that beginner spinners learn with wool, given the elasticity of the fiber. Two breeds of woolen fleece she suggests people start with are Corriedale and Blue Faced Leicester, because they are relatively easy to find and to work with. Four ounces of these types of fleece will cost about $12 to $20, depending on where the fiber is purchased form and how it has been processed, Clayton said. This amount of fiber will make a skein of yarn ― which is 4 ounces in weight. What could be made with a skein varies on the type of yarn that was spun and what is being knit or crocheted.

The fiber spinners use to work with comes in various forms including locks, top and roving. Locks are the fibers that come straight from the sheep and have not been opened up, or processed. Fleece in roving form has been opened up and still has an airy quality. Top is similar to roving, however, the individual fibers are more densely aligned.

“Once they discover wool and the wide variety of breeds and natural colors, the durability and the incredible spectrum that can be made with the hundred of breeds of sheep that exist, you get really addicted,” Clayton said.

As far as the type of yarn people choose to spin, when they’re beginning, Clayton suggests they spin the type of yarn they want to work with. As they learn, spinners discover what their “default” spinning styles are, which can range from a chunky open ply to a thin lace weight style, depending on the spinner.

Regardless of the type of yarn being spun, or at the speed at which a person is spinning, Clayton said there is an inherent draw to the process of spinning that is rooted in tradition.

“There’s something really reminiscent somehow about sitting down at a spinning wheel and making fabric and making clothes. There is something for me that’s really mindful and important about that,” she said.


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