In years past, I used to live on the highway. That was, in fact, almost 20 years ago, and in an era when I never would have thought that, should the World-Wide-Web occur, it would be attempting to sell me Mississippi Fred McDowell ring tones for my cell phone at the place where I’d link to lyrics that attempt to explain that phrase. So, what’s living on the highway? In my case, I worked for a Chicago bluesman by the name of A.C. Reed. We’d go out on runs — a day’s drive in a Ford Econoline extended van full of musicians, followed by checking into a motel, setting up at a club, generally eating fast food, then playing ear-bleedingly loud music in a smoke-filled club full of variously intoxicated people, followed by breaking down, packing up the van, getting more fast food to eat, crashing for as long as possible at the motel, and then doing it all over again.
In that lifestyle, you spend most of your time squabbling with fellow musicians, talking… er, all manner of trash, chain smoking, arguing about whether it’s gonna be The Clown or The Colonel for lunch, asserting that you know it’s really Canada when the Tim Horton’s show up, and the real Mason-Dixon line is actually the Waffle House line (it’s the south if there are Waffle Houses, someone contended), telling the new guy he was stupid to buy smokes in Indiana when you’ll be in Kentucky tomorrow and they’ll be even cheaper, talking… er, trash, and, well, staring at a lot of asphalt. You get to know a lot about the interstate, and what’s close to it, and where they go, and what they’re like. That’s what living on the highway means. You’ll be out for weeks at a time on some run, driving frantically to make the gig, not a moment’s real downtime, your life in suitcases and plastic bags of stuff from the last truck stop, constantly on the move, constantly telling and hearing all manner of stories.
So, one of the things A.C. used to always say up on the bandstand was that he was fittin’ to get down. “I’m gonna get down like James Brown!” he’d shout, hot pink tenor sax in hand. And then, with a rueful sixtysomething grin, “I better not get down too far, though, or I might not get back up!” People would laugh, and A.C. would do a number — something lively and danceable — and the wisecracking would keep going. Eventually he’d say, “I done wore it out on that one. I’m gettin’ old! I can’t do the things I used to do! Man, I look like Keith Richards!” (He didn’t, but this would make people laugh a lot anyway.) “Only Keith Richards is already dead, all he’s gotta do is lay down!”
Any time any of us living out on the highway would get to feeling particularly worn down, we’d find ourselves saying that: that we looked like Keith Richards, and we were already dead, all we had to do was lay down.
Well, last week was spring break. And the poor manchild — he got sick. And then about Wednesday, I started to feel not so fabulous. Thursday I took us both to the doctor, who verified there was no contagious plague going on here, and gave me the good drugs so I could make my gig in Michigan that weekend. You don’t cancel gigs unless you’re in the hospital. You gotta make the gig, and once you’re there, you gotta do the gig. Old bluesmen know all this, and it’s exactly how so many of them have managed to quite literally play themselves into early graves. Which old bluesmen also know, but it doesn’t change the fact that you gotta make the gig, for lots and lots of reasons. So, medicated much more professionally than your average old bluesman, and taking full advantage of Trucky’s comfort, I hit the highway and pushed straight through the roughly 4 hours up to Howell, Michigan. Just a mild, short drive — nothing like having to go from, say, Atlanta to Telluride overnight (really, we did that once).
While I was driving, it dawned on me that despite all manner of experience with being out on the road, I pretty much never hit the road alone. On the one hand, it’s totally sweet to do so — you never have to argue about what music to listen to, or stop for someone else’s bio break, or any of that crap. On the other hand, it gets lonely after a while and it stinks to be fumbling for your own cough drops.
The Spinning Loft is on Mason, just off the corner of Michigan, in a little bungalow, with parking back behind it. Beth has the first floor — one large room and two smaller ones, plus storage, a bathroom, and kitchen area. And a front porch, it seemed, but this being March in Michigan, who looked closely at that? Not me. But still, it’s a fabulous, down-to-earth, comfortable space, with wonderful light and, let us not forget, fiber, wheels, equipment, books galore.
About the time I was done unpacking (but not setting up for the gig yet), we were joined by Sharon Winsauer and Faina Letoutchaia, and basically, that’s when it all started to get out of hand. Lucky for Faina and her cold, me and my cold took pity on her, and did not force her to hide under a table where I couldn’t video her showing us how to really use Russian spindles. Lucky for me, she showed me anyway, and now, given some practice, in another five years or so I might be able to spin a viable amount of yarn with one.
Sharon had brought, to show me — and I failed to photograph so this is her photo — the real, genuine, actual, original Heere Be Dragone shawl. Folks, there is no way to make photos do this one justice. I want one of these shawls so desperately, but I’m the biggest loser in the world when it comes to carefully following a gigantic chart… and when I said that, Faina chuckled. “The thing is, about Sharon’s designs,” she said, “It is only one repeat.” Faina and Sharon both scoff at my plaintive wails of “But I knit so slow! I’m not a good enough knitter to tackle this!” including when I confessed to Faina that I’m still chickening out of starting her famous Forest Path Stole due to gross incompetence in the execution of nupps.
That’s when Beth had Faina pull out her latest shawl.
This is Beth’s photo, because I was too gobsmacked to take a picture, apparently. Seriously, I came home without a picture. What Faina has done here is take Andean (including pre-Columbian) designs from weaving, and translate them to lace. This is a feat which Faina makes look easy, but I’ll tell you, it gives me fits, even with patterns I know off the top of my head since early childhood. A while ago Faina and I were talking about this general concept, and I was showing her photos of various kinds of things, and I think I probably pointed her to this incredible time sink — The American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropologial Textile Collection. If that link isn’t working, start with Anthropology Department at AMNH, and look around their collections links for the textile collection. There’s a searchable browser interface — ohhh what a time sink, full of the ability to look at things like this and that and… anyway. Seriously, go get lost in that collection. I don’t know if I can make any of those links work for sure if you don’t already have their site open, and the thing is, it’s just an incredible textile collection. Even if I am biased, and it’s a collection that my parents’ work contributed to years ago.
Anyway, Faina… Faina is truly one of the world’s finest textile researchers, and don’t let her tell you otherwise (which she probably would attempt to do). Her fluency with all things fiber is simply amazing. And her interpretation of patterns involving complex symmetries and subtle nuance is amazing. So there she is, standing there with this unbelievable shawl, the design sources of which are absolutely obvious to me, but they’ve never been knitted lace before, and she tells me I should name the shawl. Such an honor!
People were clamoring for the pattern for this shawl, but she has no immediate plans to write up the pattern. However (I’m so lucky) if I can manage to spin enough Faina-acceptable yarn, she’ll knit me one. That’s a done deal. It may take me some time, but it’s a deal. And that, of course…
…is why I need to spend a lot of time practicing with these, after the quick lesson Faina gave me. That, incidentally, was a real eye-opener! I can see the potential for quite an extreme level of productivity with the Russian spindle as pictured above. These are made by Edward Tabachek and the incomparable Faina has had input into them helping Mr. Tabachek get them fine-tuned into production-grade tools like traditional ones. I have to say, it’s often the case when I’m looking for some rather esoteric or near-forgotten fiber tool, Tabachek is the guy who makes it.
Anyway, right! So there I am in this fabulous shop, starting off my gig totally humbled by the stars who’ve shown up so far, and we’re just barely getting started with setup! Long about the first sound check, chairs are arrayed around the shop and those fiber packs are spread out and I discover that I forgot the stack of handouts and books I wanted signed by luminaries Beth had told me to expect to see around. Whoops! Well, worse things could have been forgotten. And that’s when Ellen walked in. She and I have been friends online for many years, but never actually met in person till this past weekend. I knew it was her by the exclamation, “Ah — wall of fleece!” and the fact that she stopped in her tracks right there.
You can just tell this is Ellen. She’s decimated the Wall of Fleece, and she’s grinning about it… in a t-shirt that reads “GOT FLEECE?” Who else could it be? And Ellen brought Jerry along too, of course, and he joined us for our spindle evening. We got started just about on time, immediately after the arrival of Marilyn Van Keppel and Greg Cotton, who drove all the way from Missouri and Iowa respectively. What an astounding list of luminaries! It’s humbling, and exciting, and possibly a little intimidating to realize you’re teaching a room at least half-full of teachers and people who drove further than you did to get here.
So, spindles. The subject of spindles is hard for me to distill down to a few hours, and I’m passionate about them. But yet, I sometimes feel out of sync with my fellow spinners in the US when it comes to them, and there are lots of reasons for this. So what can I teach people about spindles in a matter of an evening, that’s worth sitting around for? The short answer is a few tricks, a few techniques for low whorl, and some discussion that hopefully provides food for thought — and let’s try to make it all fun.
I’m fortunate to have handy examples of pre-industrial, spindle-spun textiles that have been in regular service, and to have examples of the tools used to produce them. That’s where we started things off, along with talking about the Andes a bit and how kids get started learning to spin yarn and handle fiber in general — some fiber, and a stick, followed by the transition to a weighted stick, and the fact that now we’re at the level of technological development which allows static civilization to arise and continue. Without this weighted stick, I like to point out, cultures stay hunter-gatherers. This is that primaeval tool which brings humanity out of ancient prehistory — and now we’ve grown to a point where we don’t even really remember it, or we see it as a novelty as often as not, if we see it at all. Even those of us who love textiles tend to overlook the simple spindle.
So, I like to tell a few stories, and pass around a few things. Last Friday, I passed around a child’s garment about 70 years old, and a bag I wove that’s about 23 years old. I passed around some spindle-spun yarn, and some simple — even primitive — spindles. These are low-rent, low-investment tools… but you can do amazing things with them. And then we hand out the modern American equivalent: the toy whorl spindle with the hardware store dowel. We played with those a while, and talked about what made them hard to work with. Then, we got into some things you can do easily and cheaply to change your spinning experience, and modify the spindle temporarily or permanently to behave more how you’d like it to. We talked about simple repairs, and compensating for problems, and what makes for more or less productivity — from lifestyle, to technique, to spindle attributes, and so on.
Eventually, everybody had some yarn built up on their spindles, so it was time to talk about how to ply with it. Everyone learned some simple winding-off techniques and ball-winding maneuvers, got the point where they had a small Peruvian-style ball, and we covered plying. We did a few stupid yarn tricks. And lo, we were out of time — too soon, too soon!
But the wool shop sleepover portion commenced. What madness! What fun! What a wonderful way to get to know folks better, and extend the too-short class time casually. Even if, as documented by Ellen…
…I look like Keith Richards at this point.
Seriously, that photo is half the reason why I kicked off with that story. I totally look like Keith Richards. I’m already dead; all I gotta do is lay down. But instead, I took my high-falutin’ decongestant, mourned its incompatibility with beer (I managed to drink ONE) and mostly guzzled the hot tea and chowed down on cough drops.
What a wonderful crowd of folks! Donna, with six kids, is in exactly the lifestyle situation which makes spindle-spinning productive. You know, because it’s about all you can do in between wrangling six kids. She was edging an absolutely gorgeous, snuggly triangle shawl. And if I had six kids, I’d be far less perky and charming and personable than Donna. Hah, Donna, I called you perky! Anyway, Donna’s post with things she took with her from the spindle evening really makes my week. With a class like that, it’s hard to know if, as a teacher, you’re really hitting the mark or not. And Donna, I think Beth may have found your crochet hook, if you’re missing it.
Beth just forwarded me a photo she got from one of the weekend’s Lisas — this would be the Lisa with the incredibly fabulous leafy sweater, not to be confused with the Lisa who brought her third handspun yarn to show, and I’m telling you, third yarn? The first two must have been a lot of yarn. There’s no other explanation for the impeccable spinning she’s already doing. Anyway, Fabulous Leafy Sweater Lisa sent Beth a picture of herself spinning off a rock outcropping out on a hike this week. See, Lisa? It’s addictive, this notion of goofy spindle tricks. Just you wait and see.
That’s Lisa, Faina, and Cindy, during sock yarn class.
Jofran also had to go early — the following day involving a multifamily trip to Detroit. But before she left, she very kindly offered me space to stay if I am able to make it up to Ann Arbor to see Stephanie’s book appearance next week, which I’d love to do, but don’t know if I can. But geeze, I’d love to.
We also had multiple Michelles! One was a model student, and one was definitely big trouble. However, this can be forgiven on account of her Trans Am is actually cooler than mine. I have a totally pedestrian 2000 that’s bone stock except for the cat-back exhaust, whereas she has a ’79 Bandit Trans Am with a bored 454. Perhaps we can schedule a spin-in at a midwest Firebird event. Here’s Michelle and Marilyn.
Michelle… had me sign her wheel. Man, now I really feel like Keith Richards. Patsy Z had already signed it, too. Marilyn brought a SpinTech — so now of course, since I sat right next to her and it’s totally quiet, that one’s going on my shopping list too. Let me know if you see one.
Here, Kat is hiding her face from us, Greg is surrounded by the pair of Lisas, and Faina is giving me the stinkeye for taking pictures.
This is the LOUD corner. The moist side of things. In the center, Beth is crowned with a tiara. That’s Beth! Oh, and Shannah is back there doing some sort of “keeping the shop running” thing or another. You can only see the tops of their heads, but on the other side of Ellen from me, you’ll find the heart of the trouble: Jillian and Carla. They’re unmistakably trouble, and unmistakably fun… and Jillian caught me by surprise when she passed along greeting from Kristi Porter — who I haven’t seen since she was in college and I was living on the highway, and we used to hang, doing absolutely nothing yarn related whatsoever. Though I often looked like Keith Richards back then too. Kristi, as then, looks far more presentable than me.
And Jillian’s new book is out now, woot! Definitely calls for a beer. And no, I swear, I’m not saying nice things about Jillian just because she brought me two sixpacks of fine local beer. That would totally take at least three sixpacks.
And hey, speaking of apple-for-teacher type stuff, will you look at this?
Faina is such a show-off. Well, okay, she isn’t, but she really should be. This little drink cozy makes me want to drag a random chullu knitter to Faina’s place and leave them to it. What’s most shocking is that I don’t think Faina’s ever seen a) anybody knitting a chullu or b) a chullu, up close and personal. This is a feat of knitting prowess that truly astounds me. “But look at the inside,” Faina insisted.
This is shockingly close. The fabric totally feels right too. “All three colours at once is tricky,” Faina commented mildly. Total understatement.
Anyway, so, spinning for socks. Ellen was kind enough to bring along a variety of sock disappointments, and tell their tales of woe. That was a huge help, because what I’d brought along for show and tell, other than some yarn, was a selection of socks, in various states of done-ness, from the circular sock machine. My problem, you see, is that I love to spin sock yarn… and just can’t seem to finish a pair of socks.
“Do you have second sock syndrome?” several folks asked in unison. I was trying to think how to answer that, when Ellen answered it for me. “She has first sock syndrome,” she said. It’s a fact. I want to like knitting socks. But… but I seem to just… not knit them. I start them, don’t get me wrong. That’s just as far as it goes. I truly need a designated knitter. I’m not kidding; if you’re a zippy sock knitter and you want to knit me socks in exchange for sock yarn, holler. This is getting embarrassing.
We started off spinning a firm, dependable sock yarn, with marling and striping, from two colours of blue faced leicester top. We spun firmly, and then we plied firmly, and then we gave it a rough finishing wash, and talked about a variety of things while we ate our tasty lunches. I’m telling you, nobody believed that the just-plied yarn above was going to look like it did. But that photo is of the very skein I passed around, that everybody liked.
After lunch, we passed around Beth’s skein of 100% merino, super-stretchy, super bouncy sock yarn. “I’d swear it has elastic in it,” she said, when she called me up asking about it. “Oh yeah,” I said, “We’ll be covering that in sock class. I promise.” And it’s easier than you think it is! By the time we were done with those 100% merino samples, and washed ’em up again and put ’em out to dry, it was time to get into a little bit of talk about the structure of 3-ply yarn, and why a true 3-ply yarn is going to wear better than a chain plied yarn. We did both of those anyway, using SWTC’s Karaoke space-dyed merino/soy silk.
In sum, we did worsted spun sock yarn, woolen spun sock yarn, and “spinner’s choice” twice. I think pretty much everyone managed to have a moment or two where the long draw clicked — and that was HUGE fun, because that’s really one of those things I feel is best seen and shown, rather than talked about. Kat’s clicked with the Karaoke, and it was shrieks of glee and huge grins all around. “I’ll spin what she’s spinning,” Greg said.
I’m itching to hear, over time, what ends up sticking from the sock yarn class, and what people took home. I had a blast deciding what range of yarns we were going to spin, with what techniques, and choosing the fibers. A HUGE thank you to Louet North America for supplying me with the positively luscious fibers for both of these classes. I’m particularly partial to the dark BFL. And the merino. Plus, well, there’s the Northern Lights pencil roving for the spindle class. And, you know, that Karaoke is growing on me. And that white BFL isn’t bad either. But, no, seriously, that dark BFL is particularly nice, and I’m definitely going to have to get some of that for my personal stash. It’s definitely the nicest coloured BFL top I’ve had in years.
But anyway, I’ll be interested to see who spins what. I’ll bet on Kat spinning up some fabulous woolens from that Karaoke, the fiber that let her really get her long draw going. If Jillian has enough beer, maybe she’ll do a bouncy merino. And I’m definitely going to spin some of that BFL, and beg Marilyn for her Faroese slipper pattern.
I expected to be coming home mostly empty-handed. Such was not to be the case! Not by a long shot.
The good news is, Beth can score me almonds. And several wonderful folks brought me almonds. Indeed, Marilyn blames me for gaining 5 pounds since she learned about them (but then, since I had SO many almonds, she kept hers and took them home, so how upset can she be?)
I’d just like to hop quickly to this photo from the end of the whole event. See, there’s Ellen, not moved too far from the Wall of Fleece, and Jerry looks amused, while Beth (crowned by a skein, of course) is on the phone, probably frantically calling in a desperate plea for MORE FLEECE!
Okay, actually she’s talking to Denny. I can’t show pictures of everything Denny sent because a) Flickr’s being incredibly slow right now and b) I already ate the chocolate. Plus the manchild got his Bionicle, which it turns out, IS the right one, and it’s from this year’s collection, and was not one that he already had. And I’m sure Chad will find a really good use for luxurious, spectacular salt that he totally recognized for what it was. And I’ll wear this:
and embrace my inner pink. For you, Denny. Just don’t tell everyone.
Supposing you can get Flickr to do its job, you can see all the photos here:
and I’m sure, when you see just exactly how trashed Beth’s place is after the gig, you’ll agree there’s yet another reason I look like Keith Richards.
Sunday morning, incidentally, I lost my voice entirely. It’s actually back for the most part, as of yesterday. It appears that, in the wake of pushing myself to make the gig, I… got an ear infection. That would be why this writeup has been so long in coming; lucky for me, I didn’t have to make any more gigs just then, or I might have gone out like Charley Patton, wringin’ wet with sweat from the bandstand and coughing like mad till I drop on the spot.