Learning to Spin

How wonderful! It was a sweet May evening, 35 years ago, and here I was, very, very pregnant, heading to the spinning class I had always dreamed of. Mind you, a class on handspinning was actually the last thing I needed at that particular time. Because my baby could come any time in the next month, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to turn up for all five lessons. What was more, it was a year when every penny we made was accounted for. But when I heard that noted teacher, Margaret Richardson, was offering evening lessons in spinning, complete with the use of a spinning wheel of your own to learn on, I signed up immediately. A spinning class in the small village of Westport was exceptional.

Ashford Spinning Wheel

Ashford Spinning Wheel

As Margaret was distributing the New Zealand Ashford spinning wheels each of us would have for the duration of the class, I glanced around at the nine other eager, friendly women in the circle. (Spinning lends itself to circles, I’ve found.) I wish I could say that I took to spinning naturally. But, as in most pursuits, I’m actually a slow (but thorough) learner. Furtive, I watched my fellow students, as the spinning wheel ate my yarn. Snatching more of the cloud of fluffy, teased fleece, I clutched desperately, while pushing back hair from my sweaty forehead. As Margaret moved around the group, calmly offering suggestions, I couldn’t help seeing that the serious, seventeen year old girl and her mother both had mastered the combination of slow steady treadling and careful drafting of the downy handfuls of fleece. Two grandmothers, best friends, chuckled as they chatted together comfortably, while they handily made yarn.

This was not fun. But I was supposed to do this. I’d always known I could do this. Flustered, yet again I was hunting down the ragged yarn which had dashed from my fingers to wrap itself around the bobbin, hoping my sympathetic neighbur didn’t notice when my belt whipped off the wheel altogether. Right from the time, as a little girl, when I had watched the Scandinavian lady spinning dog hair and knitting it into the fluffiest and warmest of mittens on a darling small, upright wheel, I knew I was meant to spin. I had the nasty feeling that the teacher was ignoring me, having offered many suggestions, none of which worked.

Then, just before the end of the second class, when the others were enjoying talking about a possible trip to a nearby woollen mill and making plans to bring farm eggs and jars of goat milk to sell next time, I sat back a moment, hoping nobody was noticing the snarled mess I was making.

Margaret was gathering her supplies, ready to start making trips to her car, when she announced, “Next week I will bring some different fibers, so you can have a taste of them—yak, camel, mohair…” She gathered a sampling of tempting kinds of fluff from one of her big willow baskets. Black, silky but wiry Yak. Oh, my, I wanted to try that for sure.

My eyes turned to my friend, Doreen, watching the way her hands moved. Somehow, watching a beginner made more sense to me than the teacher’s more polished style. Maybe I would try one more time. I couldn’t say how I changed, but something clicked, taking me to a realm beyond the tricky coordination of treadling feet and drafting hands. In the next ten minutes, while everyone else was getting ready to leave, I half-filled my bobbin with passably spun, if bumpy yarn, feeling the pleasure of fanning the fiber, letting the twist run up it, and then feeding it through the orifice and onto the bobbin, my wheel moving all the while. And from that moment, I never looked back.

In spite of a premature trip to the hospital, I did manage to make the three remaining classes, which was a good thing, because it turned out that the wheels were for sale. While it was outrageous to even think of buying my wheel at this point, it also was unthinkable to give up this newly discovered pleasure. I’ve never forgotten Barry’s generosity, encouraging me to take the chance.

My best, most joyous memory of the spring spinning adventure is of sitting with my lovely new birch wood wheel, in the midst of a field of yellow dandelions, a light breeze ruffling my hair, the baby within me calm for once, feeling the delicious flow of fleece through my fingers, to be shaped into yarn. This is something I’ll want to keep doing the rest of my days, I thought blissfully. And so I have.

About Peri McQuay

Peri Phillips McQuay is the author of Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home, The View From Foley Mountain, a book of nature meditations on her experiences living for 30 years at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area and A Wing in the Door: Life With a Red-tailed Hawk is the story of her adventures with Merak, a human-imprinted hawk, who lived free but saw McQuay and her family as her special people. Also Peri has written numerous essays, articles, book reviews and a weekly column, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard Magazine. Her credits include Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Snowy Egret, Seasons, The Fiddlehead, Herizons and Brick.
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