03 October 2011

in praise of something real...

In those instances when I have pushed my mind out of the way and acted on an impulse, lonely, delightful or otherwise, I have been happiest.  Many enthusiasms have taken me over and when I gave way to them I learned something invaluable.  Lately, important psychic real estate has been occupied by a single insistent idea: hand-spinning the lofty fleece of sheep.  Naturally, when I learned that a spinning workshop was taking place this past weekend at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival I had but one thought: Carpe Diem.

I drove to Tunbridge, Vermont to take a class with Patty Blomgren, a spinner from East Dummerston.  The class was designed for beginners - no experience necessary, nor do you need to own sheep! - which was good, as I have neither.  It was my first encounter with a spinning wheel, apart from Walter Crane's illustrations for the tale of the forlorn miller's daughter and that capitalist imp, Rumpelstiltskin.  Patty urged us to "start treadling and don't stop", which meant removing our shoes and continually pumping the treadle - the thing that makes the wheel spin - and it's not as easy as you might imagine. 

Trial and error time. Eventually, I got it, I could make the thing spin.  I challenged myself to keep the movement consistent, to create smooth, unhesitating revolutions of the wheel.  Eight workshop participants made eight wheels twirl in fluid rotation while Patty laid out an immense Shetland fleece and explained how, when shopping for shorn wool, one ought to be on the qui vive for stray tags of sheep poo and undesirable accumulations of  "vegetable matter".   The class was only three hours long, so the business of cleaning the fleece was covered fairly quickly, but I will say that having read a bit about this painstaking process which rids the fleece of dirt, dye, manure, sheep dip, grease, vegetation and sheep sweat,  I know it requires an elegant and  respectful solemnity and for me, there is something irresistibly counter-culture about that.  Unfashionable as I may be,  I despair of the carelessness that is the byproduct of our moment's manic hyper-acceleration.  The meticulous nature of this process necessarily resists that warp speed imperative.

By the end of the day you will be putting yarn onto the bobbin, admiring your first skein of yarn and leaving with the confidence to continue spinning on your own!  Whatever you say, Patty.  The end of the day was beginning to loom so we were provided with prepared fleece and given general instruction on how to turn it into yarn.  Like every other thing worth doing, it is only learned by doing it badly then doing it slightly less badly until you finally do it a little less badly than that.  Someone new entered the room, a tall man.  He sat down next to me.  If you yearn to experience the kind of compressed focus that reduces every exterior detail to muddy imprecision, or a form of concentrated energy so powerful that you should really be able to  forge diamonds with it,  hand-spinning is the thing.  I think he said something about the yarn I was spinning, how it looked like ... yarn.  This much I remember: I was in a trance and I said, "I'm in a trance, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just doing it".  I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just doing it.  Right now, having produced, in a trance, nearly 61 yards of perfectly knittable, albeit occasionally slubby yarn from the lofty wool of a Romney sheep, I can think of no better counsel than that.  There is an unmatched pleasure in not knowing what you are doing, but pressing on anyway. 

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