catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 3 :: 2007.02.09 — 2007.02.23


Spinning a yarn

Or, giving it a whirl


My spindle rests above my writing desk, out of reach of the new kitten. I keep glancing at it, fingers itchy to spin up every bit of my new hand-dyed wool supply, purchased cheaply from eBay. I have no particular intention for the yarn I’m making, only the intention of smooth, fine fiber and the experience of color. This wool spins particularly well. I’m not sure the rainbow coloring will look good when knitted—it might be “muddy,” blending too many colors. But yesterday I spun all the ruined sections where too many colors met in the dying process—and these complex browns emerged, with shades of light blue and pale green plied into “beads” of contrast. It’s gorgeous, and I wish more of the fiber had been so “ruined.”

I grew up in a family of do-it-yourselfers, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. Like the time when I convinced myself to open up my own stereo to repair the broken radio tuner— the tuner was a simple repair, but of course I broke something else on the way to it.  But do-it-yourself is also a great legacy as we seek to live simply. Our kids know the mantra: mama’s family makes things.

When I settled into adult life and parenting, I began to consider how deeply my upbringing stands in contrast to most modern folks. My mom cross-stitched a plate for my daughter’s bedroom light switch, to match the crib sheets she designed, to match the dresser I painted with stars and swirls, to match the fabric of the window shade I sewed. The nursery also sported the rocking horse my father crafted and a wooden gizmo on which to hang the “State Birds” quilt my grandmother stitched. Each room is graced with similar handmade furnishings. The tapestry futon cover, the Chinese checkerboard made by my dad’s dad. Members of my extended family continue to learn new skills: my younger brother blows glass. My teenage niece designs and sells handbags.

When I was a child, my mother would do her best to copy any of our friends’ toys made of fabric or wood. So I grew up sleeping with a delightful rendition of The Jolly Green Giant, designed from an illustration in a newspaper. He had fabric leaves for hair and buttons for eyes. From the time I could manage the materials, we crafted simple yarn dolls, corn husk dolls, doll clothes, stuffed animals—I received a sewing machine for my eighth birthday. We make things for ourselves, and sometimes the things we make are better than store-bought alternatives, by a country mile.

As a teenager I read some very-1970s devotional based on the phrase “waste an hour with God.” I found this notion freeing, being capable of so many practical projects. I’ve since tried my hand at a hundred craft processes, from the world’s most artful crayon rubbings to creating family scrapbooks, but I gravitate to projects closest to “completely wasting time.” Perhaps it’s easier to lose myself in the process of something without a clear end in mind. Cross-stitch drives me crazy, for instance, as it has only one end result designed by someone else. Washing a handful of gray wool into an egg-shape, on the other hand, then carefully snipping and crafting the wool into a long-eared bunny (with no trace of cute, thank you)—this requires working with the egg-shaped chunk of wool in my hand, assessing it, asking which end wants to be the rabbit’s nose… I do the same with shrunken sweaters, crafting monogrammed treasure bags and dresser trays as birthday presents for the children’s school friends, assessing what shapes will craft most easily into what projects.

Years later, I entered entrancement in the “handwork room” of the local Waldorf School, having never heard of the Waldorf School, amazed at the array of needlepoint flosses, arranged in rainbow order, and upholstery fabrics, and the scent of beeswax in the air. On the chalkboards were simple directions for a knitted polar bear, hand-felted wool slippers, and Ukranian Easter eggs. Several sixth-graders’ handmade dolls-in-progress were in the process of getting their hair. I want this for my children, the world where we know how to make things, and if we don’t know, we can always find out.

I learned to knit at age 33, and when I wanted to knit socks at age 40, I found The Twisted Sisters’ Sock Workbook. The Sisters grasp my need to understand every possible way a heel can be constructed, but the book is also an advertisement for spinning your own yarn. “Like knitting socks doesn’t require enough hours of work!” I pooh-poohed. I knit socks because wool socks are ridiculously expensive to buy. But interesting yarns are also expensive.


When my husband took us to the New Hampshire woods for his summer job, I packed my three- and five-year-old children and six weeks' worth of craft materials for things I wanted to explore. My favorite knitting magazine indicated our camp was located near several renowned fiber studios. Three spindles and twelve dollars worth of hand-dyed wool roving later, the children and I arrived back at camp to try our hand at spinning lumpy-clumpy funky colored yarn. The children spun for a few weeks—I spun through naptime and bedtime, trying again and again. The results were uneven and the process was not relaxing, until one day nearly three years later when the children pulled out the spindles for the twentieth time. It clicked, and spinning became effortless.

I’m not sure why I picked up my spindle during a migraine headache last year, but it saved me from complete madness. Sleep is impossible with a migraine, anything with a lighted screen was impossible, and knitting only worsened the pain. But my spindle offered distraction from pain, a place to aim my concentration away from my head, and the experience of beauty emerging from darkness. After the six months of recurring headaches finally passed, my basket of beautiful yarns overflows. I don’t know what they’ll become: they are complete wastes of time, small joys.

I pick up the spindle when I’m fretful, now, or when stresses prevent me from sleep, or when I need pure-right-brain absorption. I teach willing children to spin and weave in Sunday school, discussing shepherds and life in nomadic herding cultures. I recently hosted a yarn-spinning birthday party for half a dozen nine-year-old girls, all of whom grasped the process happily and could barely put down their spindles to eat cake. They split up my entire stash of hand-dyed fiber, draping their hair and wrists with bubbly yarn of all colors.

This is my legacy to my children and their friends: you can make things yourself, things more precious than you can buy. You can make beauty, and honor this beautiful world where we live. Quality materials make all the difference. You can see what happens when this color mixes with that. It’s an experiment. Spinning, knitting, weaving, painting, stitching—this list is just the beginning. Give it a whirl. Mama’s family makes things that make them happy.

I do pray when I spin, loosing myself from the demands and needs of my family and my writing, wasting my hour in the company of the Creator who spun the world from nothing. I see the joy of creating as the fibers slip through my fingers, shifting color schemes as I go. Like writing, it happens best when it’s a complete waste of time.

And I make some seriously beautiful yarn.

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