Spin-In, from 9:30 a.m. to noon the second Monday of each month at Green Spring Farm Park off Rte. 236 in Alexandria. Call 941-6066 for more information.
If you're feeling nostalgic about the "good ole days," consider the walking wheel. Standing about 5 feet tall, this spinning wheel got its name from the way its works. First, the spinner gives the wheel a good whack to get it going; then, holding the wool, the spinner walks up to the wheel and backs away, sometimes walking as much as 30 or 40 miles a day to spin the wool, experts say.
Of course, the wool had first been "carded," or combed out, a task that usually was left to children in early days. For every hour's spinning, it is estimated, someone spent eight hours carding.
Just as you're offering up a small prayer of thanksgiving for modern technology, consider Corinne Hope, a 20th-century spinner whose idea of a good time begins with a pile of unspun wool.
Hope is one of the principal organizers of a group of local spinners, which for the past two years has been rediscovering time-honored methods of spinning. fOnce a month at Green Spring Farm Park, you can usually find Hope and her cohorts at a "spin-in."
The spin-in is open to anyone and usually attracts experienced spinners, carders, dyers and lookers-on. The purpose of the monthly meeting, according to Hope, is to "help each other solve problems, do some spinning -- and gossip."
The experience and knowledge of the spinners combines to make the group something of a local encyclopedia of spinning, which area spinners quickly have discovered. Newcomers, for instance, ofen bring old spinning wheels to the group for advice. "We look them over and tell them what's missing, and how it works," says Sally Francis, a dyer who collects spinning wheels.
Some regulars, like Frankye Jo Hartsook, leave their wheels at home. "I don't like to lug it around. Besides, I love to card," says Hartsook as she pulls out two vicious-looking paddles.
The paddle-like contraptions are carders, studded with mean little combs. On top of the combs, Hartsook lays thin clumps of unwashed lambs' wool. The reason unwashed wool is used is soon made clear by Hartsook. "We card it 'in the grease,'" Hartsook says, "because the lanolin in unwashed sheeps' wool makes it easier to work."
In colonial days, children would card wool in front of a fire, which heated the lanolin in the wool and made their work go faster.
As Hartsook combs the wool, bits of dirt fall out and the fibers are aligned in one direction. This leaves a soft roll, or "roving" which is ready to spin.
"The first spinning was probably done between the fingers," Hope says, "but women have been using a 'drop spindle' for thousands of years. Parts of drop spindles were found in Egyptian tombs, and the cloth that wrapped the mummies was made of threads spun so fine (that) there were 500 threads to the inch."
The drop spindle is still popular among nomadic peoples. Hope says, because it is portable -- some versions can even be worked while the spinner is walking.
About 1400 A.D., Hope says, someone attached a spindle to a wheel and the spinning wheel has been with us ever since. Hope, in fact, thinks the spinning wheel has been around longer than that. "I have a theory that the wheel was invented for spinning," she says. "I can't prove it, but I believe it."
Spinning wheels, which range from simple wooden ones to elaborate, hand-carved affairs, have created a language unique to the art.
The stick between the treadle and the wheel is the "footman." The part containing the spindle, bobbin and tension adjuster is the "mother of all." And primitive spinning that results in fat blobs and frail threads is called "slubbing," an effect prized by those who want the homespun look.
The language of spinners has even been transformed into folk songs, such as "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Once the wool is spun it is transferred from the bobbin to a "niddy noddy" or a clock-like "weasel" to form skeins. The "weasel" can be set to hold a certain number of yards, and when the completed length, or skein, is ready, it "pops" off the "weasel."
When the yarn has been "popped," it is ready for washing and dying Many spinners use natural dyes such as onion skins for yellow, walnut hulls for brown or a lichen called rock tripe for magenta.
Once the yarn is dyed, it can be used for weaving, knitting or crocheting, and some spinners go the whole way from sheep to shawl.
"Some of these women make beautiful tailored suits, doing everything from buying the fleece to hunting up the nuts for the dye and weaving the wool," Francis said.
Such suits may take two years from start to finish, but are expected to last a lifetime. No one at the spinning group, however, saw this as a practical answer to inflation. Instead, they saw another -- possibly more useful -- benefit.
"Spinning is good therapy," said Hope. "It relaxes you and makes you patient."