Sometimes I envy spinners who have a textile heritage. Their mothers taught them how to spin, they spin on their grandmother’s spinning wheel, they learned because everybody did it, that kind of heritage. I have no textile heritage. In this post I will reflect over where our spinning genes come from.
I have no spinners in my family. My mother used to sew a lot when I grew up and I inherited that from her, but I know of no one in the family who has had any kind of interest in spinning. My mother may have taught me how to knit (because that is what you did in the -80’s), but I wouldn’t call her a knitter.
Somepeople are fortunate enough to have a well defined textile heritage. They can point out a person in their life who taught them how to spin or who has in some other way been important to them when they learned how to spin. I have no inherited tools with a personal history, no treasured family textiles, no tales to tell of old hands showing the motions.
Some cultures have a strong textile heritage. Perhaps especially cultures where sheep are an important part of the agriculture and the landscape. With the sheep comes crafting that becomes an important part of people’s cultural and personal history. Textile crafting is a natural part of the culture and anyone who doesn’t craft is the odd person.
Shetland textile heritage
In 2015 I visited Shetland with my wool traveling club for Shetland wool week. Sheep are everywhere in Shetland. I think there are about 10 times more sheep than two-legged inhabitants. The treeless landscape is shaped by the sheep and the infrastructure needs to accommodate for sheep and pastures. Shetland looks like a sheep planet with tiny villages scattered in the landscape for people visiting.
It was of course a wonderful week that none of us will ever forget. But the one thing that made the biggest impression on me was the textile heritage. Every Shetlander knows their textile heritage. And I do mean everyone. Their mothers and grandmothers have knitted when walking and shepherding and whenever their hands were not occupied with something else. Because they had to. Knitted items were sold and used as an important means for trading.
Every Shetlander knows what a hap stretcher, jumper board or a knitting belt is. There is a beautiful flora of special knitting terminology with influences from the Norse language and Scots. Hentilagets=Tufts of wool found in the pastures. Sprettin=ripping back (Sprätta in Swedish means ripping up a sewn seam). Makkin=knitting.
The textile heritage is tightly woven into everyone’s cultural and personal history. Since oil happened in Shetland, women haven’t needed to knit to provide for their families anymore, but the heritage is still very strong.
Navajo spinning and weaving
After having read a review of the book Spider woman’s children in the latest issue of Spin-off magazine, I knew I needed to buy the book. I ordered it, and when it arrived it proved to be a beautiful book that warmly told the stories of Navajo women (and a few men) who spin yarn from the Churro sheep.
The wool is spun on Navajo spindles and the yarn is used to weave traditional Navajo tapestry rugs. The tradition is passed down from mother to daughter (or son), as are the textile tools and specific patterns or styles. It is a strong matriarchal culture with a true and genuine respect for the craft and the crafter. Many Navajo have spent a lot of time at trading posts where they have sold their rugs. The rugs are well sought after today and sell for thousands of dollars on auctions.
Master Artist workshop: Navajo weaving
Spinning, knitting and weaving in the Andes
This week I bought the video Andean spinning from Interweave. It features the talented Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz in a gentle conversation with Linda Ligon. Nilda shows how the women of the Andes spin sheep’s wool, alpaca and llama on bottom whorl spindles, pushkas. They spin constantly, and usually very thin yarn for weaving. Hands are never idle and there is always some textile crafting going on. The women spin, ply, dye and weave together and create a textile treasure to take great pride in. Men spin bulkier yarn and often in llama wool for weaving potato sacks. Imagine that, storing your potatoes in handspun, hand woven llama sacks. What a potato feast!
Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz tells Linda Ligon about Andean spinning. Short clip from the downloadable video Andean spinning.
They spin the wool on simple hand-carved and very lightweight bottom whorl spindles. Just a stick and a whorl. No hook, you just secure the yarn with a couple of half-hitches and you are good to go. They don’t prepare the wool with any tools other than your hands. They just separate the fibers with their hands and turn them into clouds that they drafts from.
Another video that shows Andean spinning from unprocessed wool.
The process is mesmerizing and my heart was singing when I watched the video. The simplest of tools make the most beautiful, yet sturdy and useful textiles. I instantly felt a need for a pushka spindle. Even as we speak, two pushkas are on the way to me. I intend to get myself a fleece that I can tease and draft directly from without tools. I don’t know what breed they use, but since the Spanish brought the sheep, chances are that there is at least some amount of merino in today’s sheep grazing the Andean slopes. I’m thinking some Jämtland wool or Norwegian crossbred, NKS, will do the trick.
Abby Franquemont who grew up in the Andes as a daughter of anthropologists learned the technique from an early age (but shockingly late in the eyes of the locals). She is currently back in Cusco, Peru, and sends daily sweets in the shape of videos from her visit. It makes me want to go to Peru right now and spin with them. Anyone know of a decent train line from Europe to South America?
A Swedish textile community
There are places in Sweden with a cultural textile heritage. The county of Dalarna for example is a region where twined knitting has been the dominant textile technique for centuries. Women were knitting whenever their hands were free to knit. Idle hands were a sin. Many people in this region today can show a treasured vadmal jacket with twined knitted sleeves, safely stored in the attic. And they treasure it.
Future textile heritage
My children don’t know how to spin and they don’t share my passion for textiles. But they do have a passive knowledge of spinning and wool. They can tell the difference between a Texel sheep and a Finewool sheep. Probably Rya and Gotland too. They know the names of quite a few of the spindle types I have and they enjoy the sound of the spinning wheel. How many city kids have this knowledge today? Every time I see a sign of this passive knowledge my heart smiles. I know that I have passed a treasured knowledge to them, even if they don’t share my passion.
Recently I got a new supported spindle and bowl. The bowl had a metal piece underneath to fit a magnet so that the bowl doesn’t slide off my lap when I spin. The other day I went to the hardware store to get a strong magnet. I had brought the bowl to check if the magnet would be strong enough. When I waited in line I imagined what I would answer if the sales person would ask what the bowl was used for. I imagined answering “the line is too long for me to tell you what the bowl is used for”. I was a bit disappointed when he didn’t ask me. Not even after testing the function with my handspun hat between the magnet and the bowl! But he did get me a decent magnet.
In a culture with a strong textile heritage this situation wouldn’t have occurred. The hardware store would have exposed the magnets in the shop with a sign saying “Get your spindle bowl magnets for safe commuter spinning here!”. Wouldn’t that be something?
I wouldn’t say that Stockholm has a textile heritage, at least not one that I know of. I don’t often see textile crafting in Stockholm. Whenever I see a person trying to untangle their earphones on the metro my heart jumps because I instantly think they are knitting. But they are not. The irony of this is that they wouldn’t have had to untangle their earphones in the first place had they only had the knowledge to knit them in!
The few times I don’t get around by bike I spin or knit on the metro. First and foremost because I want to, but also to make textile crafting visible. I want people to know that spinning exist. I want people to reflect over what it is that I do, perhaps dig out threads of memories of knitting grandmothers, weaving aunts or just old hands showing how it’s done. Some people are brave enough to ask me what I’m doing, or just seek eye contact and smile. Once I was standing in the metro, nalbinding away. A man in his 60’s was watching what I was doing. After a while he smiled at me and asked “Isn’t that that nalbinding?” I was so shocked I nearly forgot to get off at the next stop. Never have I experienced anyone outside the textile community recognizing nalbinding, let alone a man.
I treasure moments like these. They give me hope that I can be a part of passing at least a passive knowledge of textile tradition on.
Most of my you who follow me on my blog and YouTube channel are spinners. A few just appreciate the serenity of my videos and another group is fascinated by the textile techniques without an intention of crafting themselves. Recently one of my videos was spread in a non-spinning context. In one week the amount of viewers grew from 600 to 21000 (!) and is now up in around 36000 views. Spinners are my target group, but seeing so many other people appreciating my textile heritage makes my toes dance of joy.
Making my own history
I may not have a textile heritage. But I have made my own. The positive side of not having a textile heritage is that I don’t have a given thread to follow. I’m not expected to follow a pre-destined tradition. I make my own thread and my own discoveries based on my curiosity and love for the craft. That is a heritage I am proud of.
What is your textile heritage?
The featured image I chose for this post is a Flemish tapestry weave made by my sister-in-law’s grandmother Birgit. Birgit was a weaver and left tons of hand woven pieces when she passed away. My sister-in-law does have a textile heritage is by her grandmother and mother, but she is not a textile crafter herself. When she was sorting out her grandmother Birgit’s belongings she thought of me and gave me a whole bag with beautiful handwoven kitchen towels and a few tapestry weaves. This way I can say that I have adopted my sister-in-law’s textile heritage.
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