I’ve knit for most of my life, and eventually realized I needed to make yarn, too. Sourcing a spinning wheel in the pre-internet early eighties involved a good deal of asking, and eventually my younger daughter Shelly brought home a card she picked up at a festival in Kirtland, Ohio. It was for a spinning and weaving shop down in Chagrin Falls, tucked away in a nice enough alley.
The owner of the shop was very knowledgeable, but couldn’t read my mind or my future, and in my ignorance I left the shop with a double drive band Saxony wheel with the most tichy mother-of-all ever. I spent more than a year teaching myself to spin on that wheel, and really didn’t become a good spinner until I bought a chair style wheel from a local craftsman. His wife spun; he watched her and figured out how to do it better.
Of course, one thing leads to another. If you spin you may learn to weave. You’ll probably find a guild to join and then you learn a lot faster. Pretty soon you’re caught up in the whole thing—washing fleece. Dying fleece. Carding fleece. Signing on with your fellow guild members to be a team in a Sheep-to-Shawl contest.
A sheep-to-shawl contest is a juried competition of several teams of spinners and weavers, generally held in a fair or festival context, offering a cash prize to the team that spins and weaves a shawl, washes and dries it and presents the shawl for judging according to the stated rules. Beside judging at the end, the end, the judges walk around observing warping, weaving and spinning technique. It can be a long three hours.
Along with some other local guilds, ours sent a team to a local contest. We began gathering about nine in the morning, getting space assignments, setting up looms, leveling spinning wheels. Then two out of county trucks pulled in and another loom was unloaded, together with three more wheels, and assigned a spot. A local judge whispered to one of our more experienced members and the word spread quickly. The Washington Court House team! Four hours south. They got up mighty early in the morning!
I was the weaver that year and Jan was one of the team of three spinners who produced the yarn I wove. I wove to the end of my warp, we set about the finishing, turned it in and waited. When we got the results, our weaving was good, our spinning was good, our shawl was judged short of the required length. The team from Washington Court House took home the money.
Undeterred, our guild put together two teams for a contest the next year. Jan would be the weaver on our team, and we made at least one practice shawl. Then, with days to the contest, one of our spinners had to drop out. Fielding two teams meant our guild didn’t have a reserve spinner to make up the required team of three spinners and one weaver. The two of us left spinning knew output was not the problem; the two of us could keep up with Jan. We needed a ringer.
Shelly was in the tenth or eleventh grade then. Heck, she could have been in first grade as long as she passed as a spinner. I broke the news as soon as she was home from school. You’re going to be a ringer in the Sheep to Shawl contest Saturday.
The only wheel I had for her was my double drive band impossible to tension mother-of-all Saxony wheel. I didn’t tell her all that, I just told her she had to make it look like she could spin. By the day after tomorrow.
Shelly did nothing on faith. She had to question everything. Understand everything. Analyze everything. Eventually I grabbed my car keys and told her I would be home when she passed for a spinner. I came home from my girlfriend’s house, hours later, and found her taking off a bobbin of nicely spun yarn. My ringer was the real deal.
At the Sheep to Shawl contest our guild’s teams took first and second places. Washington Court House was disqualified. They thought they had tipped the scale by appearing with a painted warp. But the other teams protested the violation of the plain wool warp and they were disqualified. Shelly’s bobbins of wool went right into that shawl, along with mine and the other spinner’s.
I was so pleased with her skill and effort that after the event I offered her to buy her a wheel.
“No thanks, Mom. I got my ribbon. That’s all I wanted.”
A Saxony wheel. Image borrowed from the Michigan Fiber Arts Guild. The drive band is twice as long as seen, and doubled. One strand of the band rides along each side of the wheel. The other end of the drive band does two jobs. One side drives the flyer that holds the bobbin and the other side drives the bobbin. The entire assembly, two uprights wtih the bobbin between, rides in a groove and is connected by a screw thread on the knob in front. This assembly is called the mother-of-all, and must be tensioned properly in order to make wool spin to yarn and take up on the bobbin. Wooden screw threads don't lend themselves to fine tensioning.