Sunday, February 10, 2008

February Field Trip--Carding, Spinning, and Weaving

For the last year or so my wife and I have been trying to do at least one field trip each month--just to blast us out of our routines, and to give our kids educational and cultural experiences that they wouldn't otherwise have if we were just to go about our business. I posted on one such field trip back in August, in which we went to our local air museum. The museum was hosting an exhibit of devices designed by Leonardo da Vinci. We have to judge that field trip a great success, considering all the siege engines the Pillowfight Fairy started designing on paper starting immediately thereafter.

But we've had a tough time keeping up the field trip schedule. The last few months of the year are always very busy for us, what with all the birthdays and holidays, with the travel and shopping and parties and on and on... not to mention the funeral for my Grandmother that we did back in January.

But this month we were finally able to get back into the swing of things. Today we visited the Annual Show and Sale of the Sacramento Weavers' and Spinners Guild. Unfortunately we neglected to bring a camera along with us; otherwise this post would be loaded with some very, very beautiful pictures. But here's a brief description of what we saw and did there.

First, when we were in the parking lot approaching the building, someone had a trio of alpacas. (Somehow, every time I hear the word "alpaca", I think it sounds like the name of an Arabic wool-smuggling syndicate: Al-Paca. Hm...) I think we got there at just the right time; the woman with the alpacas was looking like she was about to leave. But she let my little girls come up and pet them. And boy, do they have soft wool. And the animals were friendly and well behaved. At first I mistook them for llamas, but apparently llamas are much larger--and not as friendly. These looked from a distance like slightly overgrown French poodles, except much more sedate.

(That one's for you, Auntie Jean.)

So we went inside and had a look around. There were spinning wheels everywhere--at least nine or ten of them--and most of them were manned by people who were using them to make really, really fine threads. I mean, every time you hear the word "homespun" in reference to clothing, you think of clothes with a lumpy, coarse weave or knit, right? And when you go to buy "homespun" yarn, you shell out a whole lot of money for this lumpy yarn, right? Well, the stuff these older ladies was making (most of them were ladies) was very fine, and extremely even. One woman mentioned that she used to make the coarse lumpy stuff, but then she actually got some experience and skill--and now she can't make that stuff anymore. And the man spinning next to her took first prize at the county fair for his first batch of lumpy homespun yarn he ever made, precisely because it was so lumpy and uneven. Crazy. The moment you get good at it, demand starts to drop off for the stuff you make. Weird world.

There were looms there of every shape and size, and many of these looms were being used. There was one woman there who was making a silk scarf with a very intricate two-tone pattern; there were several scarves and blankets being made of every combination of materials one can imagine; and (my favorite) there was a display of intricately woven Navajo blankets--and a couple of weavers were showing how it was done. Absolutely beautiful.

The girls were of course fascinated by all of this. So I was trying to explain to them what was going on around them, and especially what all these big treadle-powered machines were and how they worked. The girls are of course very cute, and were attracting all sorts of attention from the people working the machines, who were only too happy to explain to the wide-eyed little ones what they were doing. One lady told us how to craft a drop-spindle from a pair of AOL CDs, a grommet, and a quarter-inch wooden dowel; another let the girls turn the crank on her carding machine as she fed bits of lumpy wool in one end; the older grandfatherly-type man who was spinning explained to the Pillowfight Fairy about the sharp spindles that the spinning wheels used to have, like the one Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. ("You remember how Sleeping Beauty was awakened by a kiss from a handsome prince? Well, it's a good thing my spinning wheel doesn't have a spindle. If I pricked a finger, there probably wouldn't be a beautiful princess to kiss me and wake me up.")

There was an entire table filled with woven baskets, some of which were quite intricate. My favorite of the bunch was a very delicate-looking (yet surprisingly solid and sturdy) basket made from raffia and pine needles.

In the back room there was a craft table, and there were lots of kids making bowls, bookmarks, wall hangings, and the like. The Pillowfight Fairy loves crafts of course; so we decided to let her try something. (The Adrenaline Junkie was just beginning to enter a nap-deprived mania, and her three-year-old fingers don't quite have enough coordination to do these sorts of things anyway, so she and Mommy went out to enjoy the grounds about this point.) The Fairy decided to try a small wall hanging. So one of the helpers grabbed her, shoo'ed me away from the table, set the Fairy on her lap, and they started in on it. When I got back, the Fairy had managed to do about this much:

Note that she was using a paper clip as the shuttle, and a fork to tamp the yarn into straight lines. Of course, when she's done with the weaving, we'll snip a few of the anchor strings, and the finished craft will come off the cardboard background in one piece.

The helper told me that the Fairy was really good at this, and caught on very quickly--which neither Mommy nor I find surprising in the least. She's always been good at crafts like these. And every time she's introduced to one of them, she becomes hungry for more. There's a good chance the Fairy will grow up to be one of those people who designs and makes her own period Renaissance outfits.

We all had a good time today. But frighteningly (for me, at any rate), my lovely bride was the one who had the best time today. When my sister-in-law came over yesterday to show off the drop-spindle she used in her just-completed, spinning class, Tonya was intrigued; after today, she's obsessed. She has plans for the room in our house that currently houses our cats, who are--after all--coming up on fourteen years of age. I think she can visualize putting a spinning wheel in that corner, and a loom in that corner, and a cutting table over here with the sewing machine....

And for that matter, I think she's suspiciously eyeing the rich, thick, boldly colored fur of the cats themselves. After all, they are some of the plushest domestic longhairs I've ever seen. We have to give them Lion Clips once a year anyway to keep them from growing kitty dreads; why not make some use of the stuff?

Anyway, this has given us more ideas for future activities, as well. For one thing, there's the upcoming Conference of Northern California Handweavers, May 3 and 4, in Sacramento. This really isn't the kind of place one would take a gaggle of kids under the age of 6, though. But on the other hand, there will be a Spun Fiber and Handcrafted Show at the Sacramento County Fair over Memorial Day weekend. Among other things, there will be a "Sheep to Shawl Contest"--the name of which is enough to make me want to be there to watch.

And the girls will be there with bells on too. After being exposed to the book and movie Charlotte's Web--much of the action of which takes place at a county fair--the Pillowfight Fairy is itching to attend one. Partly that's because she wants to see all the cool stuff, but I think part of that comes from a desire to ride Ferris wheels and carousels and the like. The book and movie made fairs look like a lot of fun.


You know, I think that most of us guys, deep down, are closet survivalists. We enjoy knowing how things work because in the back of our minds, we're fantasizing about the fact that civilization is really fragile, and when the whole thing falls apart, I need to be prepared. While spinning and weaving aren't normally considered mannish things, having been to this kind of show still gooses the survivalist in me. After all, when the big one comes and we have to go to the hills, I now know just a wee little bit more of what I'll need to know to keep my family alive. All I have to do now is figure out how to chase down the wild alpaca, wrassle it to the ground, and shear it; but for the rest of the process, I'm down with that.

And all those treadle-powered machines were cool. Maybe not as cool as trebuchets, but nonetheless pretty close. (And they're a bit more practical on a day-to-day basis, too. You need to replace your clothes more frequently than you need to demolish city walls.)

My lovely wife blogged about her experiences today as well. Her take on it--along with the female side of what could be termed the "survivalist complex", is here.


Wendy Power said...

Not that you want to know this, but there are alpaca ranches up past Placerville, in the Apple Hill area.

I knew how it would be with Tonya and the wool. It's the wool fumes. Powerful they are.

silvermine said...

A friend of mine raises alpacas. Sweet little things. :)

I love the weaving idea, using cardboard, a paperclip, and a plastic fork! That's definately going in the "Mom! I want to do a project RIGHT NOW" box.

Eric Novak said...

Thanks for your submission to the Homeschool Carnival. You can find you post at

Eric Novak