Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lessons from the Spindle

I've been avoiding the spindle for a while. For such a simple instrument, it can be quite intimidating. As spinners, we all dream of creating beautiful even wool, free of scubs, strong and useful. But it doesn't work like that in real life; most of us didn't grow up in places where girls learn to spin from a young age and where using the spindle is second nature. Before I started to spin, I was warned by a spinner from Saugerties that when you're learning to spin, you get to know the 'drop' in the term 'drop spindle' very well. I was advised to sit on a bed while I learned, so that I wouldn't have to go too far to retrieve my spindle again. Forearmed with this knowledge, I prepared myself to learn a simple skill that's notoriously deceptively difficult. As it was, when I finally picked up a spindle, I managed to create my first length of yarn without even reading the instructions or watching a youtube video. I read the instructions because I couldn't believe that I was doing it right because this wasn't the skill I'd been warned so much about. I'd heard such horror stories about learning the drop spindle, warned to get a top whorl spindle and to stay the hell away from Merino (all good advice, and thankfully I started with Corriedale). As I continued to spin, I decided that my method wasn't very efficient, and that I would look for some videos on Youtube to try and become faster and better. My first skein was really quite even too for a first skein and I was pleased with myself. Unfortunately though, by the second skein, I was expecting *perfection* from myself. Quite simply, in my head, I'd skipped from beginner to spinner without the practice. Over the next couple of years, I made lots of mistakes, I still do. I found out the hell of handspinning merino, I learned about using different spindles for different weights of yarn (for example, my top whorl spindle is far too heavy for spinning lace or fingering yarn), I went through periods of nervousness of picking up the spindle and especially not spinning in public. I had good spinning days in which I'd never drop the spindle, and would be stood up in order to spin longer lengths and others when all I seemed to do was drop the spindle. I mostly spun skeins for offerings. My first skein was offered to the waters of the Frau Holle Teich with some homemade bread. One could say that learning the spindle teaches persistence and that the process of drafting teaches the virtue of only using as much force as is necessary and not grasping onto things too tightly, but there is also a sense of peace. It's meditative, and at certain points, it's almost as though you can feel some kind of approval from female ancestors long deceased. Perhaps the greatest lesson that the spindle has taught me to date is that of Frau Holle; I became interested in her through spinning, and that interest led to researching her origins - something I'm still working on today. Now, I don't just see her as Frau Holle the character from folklore, but for me she is Frija, the Germanic goddess, and to take it a little further, the spinning goddess depicted on the Oberwerschen bracteate.
Of course I don't have solid evidence for this, this is mostly UPG. We have some evidence, but nothing that allows us to say without a doubt that that is so. That spinning was important, intrinsically linked with women and magic though, is without doubt. In Anglo Saxon England and for a while after that, the woman's side of the family was known as the 'Spindle side'. There are a plethora of folk tales that tell of Frau Holle, Frau Percht or Frau Herke being particularly concerned with a woman's spinning and that a woman's industriousness at the spindle was in direct proportion to the luck her family enjoyed for the coming year (UPG, but things always seem to go better for me when I'm doing a lot of spinning, I seem to have much more luck). Spinning was ritualised, with days when it was acceptable to spin and days when it was not. Certain feasts were observed around the numens connected to spinning too, such as the prescribed porridge and herrings of Perchta's feast day. In Swedish folk tradition, pregnant women in their 7th month would spin three lengths of thread, dye one black, one red and leave the other white. After complex preparations to the threads they would be kept until the birth, when the white thread would be used to tie off the umbilical, the red around the baby's wrist for protection and the black burned, that death should stay away. Eldar Heide's work strongly suggests that spinning is linked to Seidr, that Seidr magic in the form of a kind of 'emissary' called a 'gandus' could be something that was 'spun'. Indeed fiber arts have long since been linked with magic; from the jet and amber spindle whorl finds from the viking period, to the card weaving card find bearing the inscription 'Sigvor's Ingvar may have my bad luck' and laws that detailed the penalties for weaving intent into cloth, such as the ones laid out in the Corrector of Burchard of Worms. Spinning is about *creation*. For a while I've considered forcing myself to spin each day, even if it's just a little. Just to see what other lessons the spindle can teach me and I started that this week with the new spindle I purchased from Phillipsburg Manor on Sunday. The trip to the manor was incredible, lots of fiber geeks there, good conversations with other spinners and helping to shear a sheep. It was all wonderfully familiar, if I could work anywhere, I think being a reenactor there would be pretty close to my dream job. The spindle I picked up is just fabulous. So unassuming and simple, but very, very well designed. Very evenly balanced, light but not too light, and with a handy groove in the shaft so that the half hitch knot doesn't slip and cause the spindle to fall while spinning. So this week I've spun each day. Not a lot, maybe a half hour a day so far. I want it to become a habit, like cleaning my teeth. I want it to become second nature. Not only that, but each week, I'm assigning myself an amount of roving to spin by each Saturday. I can go over, but this base amount has to be spun up by 9pm on Friday evening of each week. Why Friday evening? It's arbitrary. There are far too many variants of times when it's acceptable to spin and when it's not in the folklore, depending on region. So I've created my own. Why am I imposing this on myself? I want to know what it's like to ritualise spinning and have taboos around the craft. A while ago, on the Heathen group on Ravelry, my friend Ulrike asked why the spindle wasn't as much of a symbol of Heathenry as the hammer. With everything I've read about spinning, goddesses concerned with spinning and folklore, I'm asking myself the same thing with increasingly regularity. About a year ago, I commissioned my friend to make me a silver spindle pendant and I made several different beaded necklaces to home it. The last one was quite elaborate but really didn't work out; this is the new one:
Bearing in mind various folk traditions, I wanted to focus on white, red and black as the main colours, but also give a nod to the amber and jet whorls from the archaeological finds. For the white I chose moonstone because I really love its almost otherworldly look. It's the same reason why I'm a sucker for opal too. The red is represented by red garnet as a kind of nod to the prevalence of the garnet used in Anglo Saxon jewelry, the black is jet. Then there are amber beads and wooden beads. Everything is spaced in groups of three, not only because of the three stages of life represented by the white/red/black, but also simply because three is my favourite number. I think my spindle pendant has finally met its beady match. Oh well, time for bed...


Anonymous said...

Hello! I saw your blog referenced on and I've been going through your old posts ever since. Forgive me for breaking the internet taboo of commenting on old posts :P

As a spinner myself this post stood out to me (and that necklace is such a cool, beautiful idea!). I've been thinking about what spinning means to me lately and I'm in agreement with a lot of what you write here, particularly with regards to female ancestors. They're my motivation for spinning and crocheting threads.

I can understand the perfectionist problem though, it's what kept me from offering my first skeins to anyone or anything (I still have them sitting in a box, but it feels a little too late now). I admire that you turned the spinning into a regular requirement, I've been thinking of doing something similar within Frau Perchta's "calendar" and it's neat to see someone else have a similar idea.

Birka said...

Well hello there! Don't worry about breaking any internet taboos about old posts, they don't apply to blogs as much as fora as far as I know. Either way, this is my blog and I don't care lol.

Thank you for your comments, it's nice to see that I'm not the only person doing or thinking about doing this. Sometimes it's hard to keep such a 'calendar' and sometimes I slip up, but I spin up by Friday at 9pm about 99% of the time. If you do decide to do this, I'd love to read about your experiences if you have a blog somewhere :).