In Homer's "The Odyssey," Penelope weaves and unweaves the same tapestry every day for 20 years in an effort to stave off suitors until her husband, Odysseus, returns to her. In contrast, weavers say they come to Old Town's Springwater Fiber Workshop to take their minds off the dramas of daily life.
"It's a very soothing thing to do," said executive director Jane Butler who, curiously, does just about every kind of fiber art except weaving. "It doesn't matter how bad the weather is or what's going on with the economy. People come in here and they want their yarn. People's jobs are so stressful, they want something different to do at home."
To walk into the Springwater shop on North Fairfax Street is to pass into an oasis of calm. On a recent snowy Saturday, weavers sat leaning over their looms, quietly working the foot pedals with shoeless feet. Shoppers browsed the front of the store, picking up yarns and fleece, leafing through magazines and quietly talking with staff.
The shop is a mecca for those interested in the fiber arts -- weaving, spinning, knitting, crocheting and rug hooking -- as well as color theory and dyeing techniques. Springwater, which is both a store and a school, is a nonprofit operation staffed by devoted part-timers and sponsored, in part, by the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The shop also demonstrate the art at local schools and festivals.
On this day, there are two classes meeting, one slightly more advanced than the other. The sock-footed weavers are doing four-shaft weaving on four harness looms. They have set up their looms -- a process that can take as long as 40 hours -- with multiple spools of yarn in many colors, each tied on in a particular order to produce the desired color pattern in the finished product.
They are weaving scarves, tapestries and table runners in rich umber and deep purples. Their stillness is palpable, the motions of the looms hypnotic.
"I love to do this. I could get lost in this," said Martha Graham, 45, of Alexandria. "The world gets really small and goes away. But you get this beautiful thing."
Graham, an anthropologist at the National Park Service, is working on a wide table runner. She has been studying at Springwater for about a year, the culmination of 20 years of looking for the right time and place to take up the craft. She is drawn as much by the precision of the process as she is by the beauty of the end result.
"I'm completely uncraftsy, unartistic," Graham said. "But this is fun because there is a technical aspect to it that doesn't need that."
Ginny Pankow of Springfield is 24 inches into what will be a 90-inch table runner. This is her third class at Springwater and she, too, has been waiting a long time to get into weaving. She was finally motivated by need.
Pankow, 63, said she wanted some table runners but couldn't find any she liked so she decided to make one. It will take her about six hours to weave her runner -- a fraction of her set-up time. But she doesn't mind. "It's very soothing, especially when things are going well," she said.
Weaving requires a set of skills completely different from those Pankow, an oceanographer by training, uses in her job as a project manager at the Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources Navigation Data Center.
"You learn a lot of patience," she said, needle in hand. "You get a lot of confidence. Part of weaving is having tangled threads and some problems" and working them out.
In a classroom at the back of the shop, two students are working on rigid heddle looms making beginner samplers. They are in the sixth week of a nine-week weaving course, their first. Their looms are hand operated and produce results more slowly than the four-shaft looms used by the more experienced weavers.
Instructor Linda Hurt has been spinning and weaving since she was a child and remembers clearly the day her grandfather's spinning wheel was put up for auction along with his Wisconsin farm. No one bought the wheel and it was thrown away. The memory still lingers, fueling her lifelong interest in spinning.
"I think I may have been a spinner in another life," mused Hurt, 54, of Alexandria.
Hurt has an Angora rabbit at home from which she takes fur and spins it into fiber. For the past several years, she has entered the Sheep to Shawl competition at the Sheep and Wool Festival in Howard County. In the competition, teams of four have three hours to shear a sheep's wool, spin it and weave it into a shawl. The competition is fierce, she said.
"We're not going to try to win," Hurt said of her team, which is in it strictly for the fun and the experience -- they are not anticipating a victory. "We're just going to enter."
Hurt's students have come from all walks of life: doctors, physicists, archaeologists, chemists, housewives and lawyers. "I think it has something to do with the relaxation," she said, explaining the craft's appeal. "It's meditative." Hurt works with computers when not at Springwater.
The center has seen an upsurge in interest since the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Butler attributes this to people's desire to create something tangible in a safe place, where the pace of life is slow and relaxed.
"Some of us don't want everything to be instantaneous," she said. "We want our computers to be instantaneous, but not everything else."
For more information on Springwater, at 808 N. Fairfax Dr. in Alexandria, call 703-549-3634 or visit the Web site at www.springwaterfiber.org.