An ancient technology
I’m a spinner and weaver, so I am well acquainted with the length of time it takes to prepare fibers and to make textiles from them. And no, the process is not really “slow” or inefficient, and I’ll explain why.
In the old days, the time it took to spin fine threads to weave into cloth for a garment was regarded simply as the length of time it required to make something well by hand. After all, you couldn’t plant wheat in the field and expect your crop to spring up overnight. Everything had a season and a time.
Only when the Industrial Revolution arrived with its power machinery did the old ways began to be seen as slow and inefficient. But to embrace new ways simply because of their speed is equivalent to a person who, after seeing a car for the first time, announces “I’ll never walk again, I’ll cruise everywhere at 65 miles per hour.” Too many early adopters of technology made this error: that speed is intrinsically better. Speed is useful at times but it’s also beneficial at other times to stop and smell the roses. The slow path is often the most rewarding.
Although my spinning wheel is already “slow” enough that it takes me the better part of a year to spin a pound of fine thread in my spare time, I recently slowed down the process of spinning even farther by purchasing a hand-spindle, an antique French item of considerable elegance, with decorative incised bands along its length and a spiral groove near the tip to help seat the thread. Such spindles were used in many parts of Europe until the Industrial Revolution. Essentially, it is a stick whose ends have been tapered to fine points. The thing that struck me about it is that although my spinning wheel might seem quaint to some, it actually represents a fairly advanced technology, with drive-band ratios, moving parts and bearings. In comparison, the hand spindle represents a huge leap back into an even older time, a time before technology altogether. The use of spindles reaches back into the Neolithic and possibly even earlier. The fascinating book “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” suggests that the “String Age” was every bit as important as the Stone Age in advancing human culture.
When the antique spindle first arrived in the mail I confidently attached a leader, brought out my prepared wool roving and gave it a twirl. I had no fear; after all, I am a spinner, right? To my great surprise the spindle clattered out of my hand and fell to the floor. I picked it up and tried again. Many, many clatters ensued; many curses were muttered as insufficiently-twisted yarns slipped apart. Finally I managed a lumpish yarn that withstood pressure, and I began to understand how to use it. I shifted to cotton fiber, which is very difficult to spin, in the assumption that if I could master that, then I could spin anything. Failure, over and over. But finally last night the process all clicked into place and I spun several yards of perfectly even cotton thread atop the earlier wool (see photo).
It’s difficult to describe the sensation of pride and accomplishment that filled me. I never experienced anything like this with my spinning wheel, although there is indeed a quiet sort of overall satisfaction as I watch my bobbins slowly fill with perfect singles. But the oldest technology, a shaped stick, was despite its apparent simplicity the most difficult spinning I have ever done; it was the slowest by far; and it was also absolutely the most rewarding, bar none. If I had taken the fast route this wonderful experience would never have been mine. I will never forget this.
Read more fiber arts posts at my new blog, http://fiberfeast.wordpress.com/.