Meeting Irene

I spent the past weekend in Malmö in southern Sweden. The goal of the journey was meeting Irene Waggener, author, knitter and independent researcher.

”I will be in Copenhagen in August”, said Irene a few weeks ago. She is currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. ”Do you know any yarn shops there?” ”No, I don’t”, said I, “but I can take the train down from Stockholm and we can meet in Malmö!”. ”Yay”!! said both of us. And so we met.

On the train to Malmö to meet Irene Waggener, I read her book Keepers of the sheep.

Irene Waggener is the author of the beautiful book Keepers of the sheep – knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and beyond. You can read my review of the book here. I have admired her work for a few years now. Two years ago I knit a pair of High Atlas pants, sirwal, that used to be traditional in the the Moroccan High Atlas and that she interprets in the book. They were typically knit by male shepherds from yarn spindle spun by their wives and worn for sheepherding and snow shoveling in the cold season. I use mine for going down to the lake for my daily bath when the air temperature goes below -6 °C.

Meeting pants

I met Irene and her husband Josh in the castle garden in Malmö. Both of us had brought our sirwal pants for them to meet too. Hers knit by spindle spun Moroccan yarn, mine knit with my spindle spun Swedish Gestrike wool yarn.

Our sirwal pants finally meet! Mine to the left, Irene’s to the right. Photo by Josh Waggener.

The pants look very similar, but there are also differences. I spun and knit mine tighter to fight off the cold of the Swedish winter. The white wool in her pants is somewhat reddish from the High Atlas soil. My black stripes are fading towards the hips. I knit them from the first and second fleece from the same sheep, Gunvor, and her black spots had faded with age. Both of our pants have traces of the pastures where the sheep have grazed. While the wools come from quite different lines of sheep, both the fleeces are strong and sturdy with both soft undercoat, long and strong outercoat and quirky kemp.

Spindles, spindles, spindles!

Irene also brought spindles – one floor supported High Atlas spindle, izdi, one floor supported Middle Atlas spindle, maghzal, and one suspended Armenian spindle, ilik. The Armenian spindle was a gift to me, a precious one. I brought hand carded batts from Swedish Gestrike sheep to try the spindles with. In my Instagram highlights you can see me spin with all three spindles.

High Atlas izdi

The High Atlas spindle is the one the yarn for the pants would have been spun with (and that the yarn in Irene’s pants was spun with). The spinner sits on the ground or floor. The spindle rests on the floor and sometimes in a bowl and is flicked with the fingers of the spinning hand. Irene had published Instagram videos with Moroccan spinners spinning on these spindles back when she lived in the area, and I had saved all of them. On the train to Malmö I studied them to be able to spin on the izdi with some amount of grace and dignity.

The High Atlas spindle is simple – a wooden shaft and, in this case, a whorl cut out from a car tyre. This type of spindle is traditionally spun with hand carded batts. The spinner inserts the twist into the whole length of the batt before making the draft. I love spinning this way, feeling the yarn do its magic as I move my hands in different directions, aligning the fibers softly in the twist with a draw that reaches between my outstretched arms. The High Atlas spindle typically spins fine high twist sock yarns and bulky low twist rug yarns.

Out of the three spindles I got to try, this was my favorite. The spindle was very simple in its execution and in the requirements to use it, yet it is operated with an advanced technique. In Irene’s videos there is also one showing a very special plying technique. The spinner pushes the spindle tip with a flat spinning hand outwards against the arm of the fiber hand. I didn’t have time to try it, though. The technique reminds me of the plying technique used for Andean pushka spindles.

Middle Atlas maghzal

The Middle Atlas spindle was hand carved from one piece of wood, with a belly instead of a whorl. It is supported on the ground, and rolled with a flat hand against the outer thigh of the spinner, who sits on the floor or ground. I believe this type of spindle was primarily used for bulkier yarns for rugs.

The Middle Atlas spindle is rolled against the thigh when the spinner is sitting on the floor or ground. Photo by Irene Waggener.

The wool for the Middle Atlas spindle would have been carded into rolags. I had only my batts with me, so the yarn I spun was a bit on the fine side, but it worked.

Armenian ilik

The Armenian top whorl spindle is also very simple in its construction. A long shaft and a whorl that looks a little like a door knob. This one is very sweet in its wonkiness and with its worm holes.

The Armenian spindle is spun suspended and the twist inserted by rolling the shaft against the thigh of the standing or sitting spinner. This spindle is used for different types of yarn for both weaving and knitting.

Traditional spindles

I have one antique French in-hand spindle, one antique Turkish cross-arm spindle, two Andean suspended pushkas and one Peruvian suspended chaj-chaj spindle. These are traditional in different parts of the world, and still used in traditional textile communities. All the other spindles I have are modern, western made hobby spindles, some of them very luxurious. The traditional spindles were made with simple means and for production spinning, some of these very well worn, wonky and with little worm holes.

Don’t get me wrong – I love all my modern spindles. Holding the traditional spindles is something completely different, though, in the extra layer they add. Smooth in my hand, with the shaft echoing the skilled hands that had once flicked it. I felt so grateful to Irene for bringing them and to the spinners who had flicked them before me. My hands are there now too, together with theirs, in the magic of spinning.

Unfinished conversations

And we talked, the three of us. With ease and dedication we talked bout spinning, writing, knitting. World politics, pandemics and spiked bike tyres. About everything and anything. I loved every second of it.

And we talked. Photo by Josh Waggener.

Suddenly, the magic was broken and I had to go back to the train station. There was still so much more I wanted to talk about. If it hadn’t been for a working day coming up I would gladly have postponed my train ride back home. The three and a half hours we spent together were over way too soon. But we will continue the conversation the next time we meet.

On the train back home

On the train back home I did my best to process our time together, all the things we talked about, everything I learned from both Irene and Josh, all the laughter, and spending time in the beautiful castle garden. As I browsed through all the photos and videos they both were so kind to take with my camera, my heart tingled. It was a wonder that we did get to meet – Irene living in Armenia and me not flying don’t give the best odds for meeting. But we did, and I will cherish our day together. I’m so glad I came and that we managed to synch our calendars. Thank you for everything, Irene! I hope to see you again soon. My pants send their love to yours.

Happy spinning!

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