I believe that we need to remember how to make things by hand. I believe this is especially true when we buy what we need at stores and when we depend on machines day and night. My belief applies to all the things humans make without being plugged in: acoustic music, knitting, timber-frame houses, wrought iron, a garden. It doesn’t apply to taking the kids to soccer, going to the movies, riding motorcycles or watching football. These are fine pursuits, but of a different nature.
Perhaps the most unusual thing I do by hand is making my own yarn, using a spinning wheel or a handspindle. Of course it’s easy to buy yarn, and even easier to buy the finished products– a sweater, a blanket, a rope, or a rug.
When I decided to learn to spin 30 years ago, the only way to get a spinning wheel was to order a dozen from New Zealand. A group of us did. When the shipment arrived, each opened a box and gently slid out the nested pieces: wheel, legs, treadle, and flat boards that would hold everything together: tensioners, maidens, footman. First we assembled our wheels. Then we assembled our group, and taught ourselves to spin.
We met weekly. Unlike many gatherings, this wasn’t a committee, a focus group or therapy. We just made yarn, drank tea and chatted. Although I no longer live in that place, the experiences we created are bound into my life the way our Border collie’s fur gets caught into every yarn I spin now.
I don’t spin because I have to. I don’t spin just because of the pleasant, meditative quality of the spinning process itself. Nor do I spin just because of the observable product, although it’s nicer than most store-bought yarn. The most important reasons that I spin are invisible. I spin for the process through which my mind, spirit, and hands shape something life-enhancing that didn’t exist before. I spin for two products: my own ever-increasing ability to transform raw materials, and the sense of connection that I share with other people who make things from scratch.
So many parts of my life have changed since I learned to spin that I have become almost an entirely different person. Yet by simply reaching my arms around my spinning wheel’s wooden frame and lifting it from the ground, I spin continuity.
I’m taking my wheel across town to spend this afternoon in the company of friends. We will make yarn together and separately, neither as a team nor in competition. Even when the topic is religion or politics, on which we don’t agree, we will talk casually, exploring our own and each other’s qualities in the same way that we discover the qualities of the fiber between our hands.
What we will spin is each person’s growing connection to the human power of ingenuity. What we will make is the fabric of community.