I’ve taken to spinning on the deck these fine August mornings, and by spinning I mean spinning wool. I have fifteen pounds of merino I want to spin up to eventually weave into a blanket on the eighteenth century loom I finally resurrected here.
Nothing makes me happier than that loom. It is built like a house (an old house) out of squared timbers, mortise and tenon jointed. Given the age of the loom, the timber used to construct it—something fine-grained like maple—is virgin. The built-in seat is chestnut and the back beam, a massive round piece, is a tree trunk. It is a piece of machinery that was made to weave all the cloth used for a family of that time. None of this fiddly craft stuff. That is what I love about it—its utilitarian integrity. Which brings me back to spinning.
Not many people spin fiber these days, since there’s no need. Our clothes come from the store. But spinning is much more than a long-forgotten, unneeded task; it’s a state of mind. When I first started spinning this merino, I was frustrated because it was different from the wool I was used to. It had a shorter, finer staple (the length of each individual fiber) so my usual long-draw method of spinning didn’t work. I had to re-learn it. My hands had to become comfortable with a different way of doing things and my brain had to tell my hands what to do. Spinning uses both sides of the brain—the left, logical side calculates pressure and drafting angle, while the right feels the twist and intuits the motion. When it all goes properly, the logical structure set up by the left-brain becomes second nature and the intuition of the right brain works unimpeded within it. When that happens a sort of magic occurs. You are in the flow.
Spinning thread, in Greek mythology, is the metaphor for a life. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts the thread to end it—the Three Fates.
When I’m spinning in the flow, I understand that life is nothing more than the doing of it. I try to spin an even thread; I try to smooth out the bumpy parts, hold my breath through the thin parts, correct the thick parts, but the most important part is to let the thread go into the bobbin, otherwise I can’t spin the waiting fibers into new thread. It is twist, try, trust, and let go.
Whether the thread is perfect or not (and it is not) is not the point. The point is to spin, ever mindful of that third Fate with her scissors.
I visited Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire this week. I’ve been to three or so Shaker museums but this one had a distinctly different feel to it. It felt less like a museum and more like a village that was once thriving and is now gone—like a ghost town. Walking through the buildings, two things struck me. One, I no longer had the longing I had previously always felt in a Shaker village—the sort of longing that made me wish I could have lived there in its heyday. And two, I thought about the Shaker credo: “Hands to work, hearts to God” in a different way.
Looking at the rooms furnished with Shaker tables, chairs, baskets and those famous built in cupboards—revered designs that have spawned industries and collections—I finally really understood that it wasn’t—for the Shakers—about the stuff or the efficiency or the order; it was about their faith. Of course I knew that their spirituality was the underpinning of their communities, since I had read it over and over, back when I studied all things Shaker; but at Canterbury, with it’s unglamorous (and I mean that as a compliment) aspect something came to roost that hadn’t been there before. I saw the process behind the object and the belief behind the process.
This is what I understood: While the Shakers lived physically apart from the world in their self-sustaining communities, they didn’t deny the outside world; they interacted with it when it served their purposes–they knew they were a part of the bigger world and so a part of the larger whole. Apart and a part: both separate and part of the whole. The archetypal truth of being.
I am a basket maker and weaver loosely trained in “Shaker” basket making and weaving and this background helped me understand that craft is a manifestation of this belief in and acceptance of apart and a part. The final product may be apart from you; but in the doing of it you have become a part of the larger whole. The doing and the time spent are the worship and the offering, the connection to the whole. That’s why, for the Shakers, whatever they did had to be as perfect as possible, because each moment of time was a moment given to God—whatever you believe God to be.
A moment given to God—love that.
This past Memorial Day weekend, Richie and I visited the Acorn Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While Richie rode his bicycle with friends each day, I loaded Buddy and easel into the car, heading out to paint.
Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Forest’s Skyline Drive, I marveled at the clear gradations of blue in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Mountains are old—three hundred million years old—and they once looked like those young upstarts, the Rockies (only one hundred million years old) before time wore them down to their roots. They fold into one another like a mussed up bedspread and for me they are just as cozy. I’m usually a more wide-open sky kind of person, but these mountains seem to hold one protectively, in an embrace.
On my drive, I visited Humpback Rocks mountain farm, a living history site of a typical mountain farm of the 19th (and probably 20th) century. Nestled into the hollow were the one-room chinked log cabin, the log shed and springhouse, the hopper for lye, the pig pen; each building without decoration or extraneous frill, only the spare necessity. I wondered why it all seemed so right. Instead of looking like poverty of the most meagerly sort; it looked instead whole and undivided.
Then I realized that the spare farm fed the body while the natural beauty of the mountain and the crafts its resources inspired, fed the soul.
I own a book titled “Mountain Homespun” by Frances Louisa Goodrich published in 1931. Goodrich had journeyed into the mountains to find its weavers and spinners. She visited with these people at their mountain farms, much like, I am guessing, the one at Humpback rocks, and wrote down their words. Here’s Aunt Liza, ‘upwards in sixty’ talking about the farm in the mountains where she has lived for over forty years: “…it puts feeling on to a body to see the moonshine falling on yon mountain…I don’t know, either, but what I like it here full as well along about daylight, when I’m up soon of a morning and the sky ferninst is all the color of them roses yonder. Here lately there’s been the prettiest kind of a big star, seems like it sorter hates to go out of sight a sun-up.”
Yes, it was a hard living, and a living in poverty by our standards of economic development, but it was also, I think, a rich living by the bigger standard of satisfaction.
“I’m a rarin’ to draw it in and see how the spots come out. Shucks, ain’t it grand, the things they is to do and to find out about.” Granny Jude on receiving a new pattern to weave, from “Mountain Homespun.”