A group of ladies sat outside in the fresh spring sunshine spinning wool into yarn. Each wheel had its own charm and one, or sometimes two, treadles. Fluffy fiber transformed into even strands that wound onto their bobbins. They looked serene, relaxed…happy. “I want to do that,” I said. So, when I saw the name and telephone number for Amelia Garripoli, aka The Bellwether, I was ready. She was starting a new beginner spinning class the next week.
My first spinning efforts, like me, were tense. Terror showed up in the thread as it alternated between “not spun enough” and “spun to within an inch of its life.” Here I was with yet another “enjoy the journey” activities, darn it! 10,000 hours, Garripoli says, is what it takes to develop mastery. At my age, let’s see, that calculates to…never mind.
As I practiced spinning, I thought about my writing. I’ll get the obvious out of the way: while spinning yarn, I thought about spinning yarns. Buh dump bump. Cue groans from the audience.
Still, if you can deal with sucky drafts, writer’s block, and working in spite of life’s constant interruptions, then you are qualified to learn to spin. Having taken a few months off from writing, I just traded in messy drafts for messy yarn.
I could have just bought yarn in the store. Knitting should be enough, right? But no, I have to keep going down the rabbit hole. Maybe spinning a cleaned, carded fleece would be enough. But then…
I hadn’t planned to buy a wool fleece, but the bag of rich, deep brown fiber looked too delicious to pass up. It came with a photo of the sheep, for God’s sakes! I had gotten a glimpse of him lounging out in his field. I imagined turning his winter coat into one for me, and I salivated at the thought.
My teacher had given me instruction on fleece washing, but I decided to catch some YouTube videos to brush up. Turns out that there are many ways to wash a fleece, with plenty of adamant opinions about the right way to do it. I watched several and took the common denominators to heart. Namely, don’t turn the darn stuff to felt. This happens when we do “too much.” Too much agitation, too much temperature, too much handling.
I thought of an essay writing class that I took years ago in Houston. During my critique, people praised my work, my skill, my emotional connection…then asked me to revise it in such a way as to remove the circus tent poles that held the whole thing up. When I tried to rewrite it, it disintegrated into one long, boring mess. Too much handling. We writers have to find that balance, and we have to surround ourselves with people who won’t critique our work down to a pile of mush. Fortunately, while I can’t do anything about a felted fleece, I could reconstruct the original essay — which I then got published.
As I carded the fleece, it turned from globby matted fistfuls to smooth, soft hair, lighter in color than I expected, more of a golden tan. Each rolag, or rolled fiber taken from the cards, felt like fragile cotton candy. But would it spin?
I fed the fiber to the wheel, I felt something shift. I’d spun fiber that had already been prepared, but this was different. It was as though starting to read a novel from the beginning instead of jumping in at the middle. I knew it better. I had a relationship with the fleece. My work was still uneven and imperfect, but less so…and as I gently tugged on the fibers to lengthen them, I felt the rhythm of the treadle under my foot, the wheel turning at just the right speed, and the yarn filling the bobbin.
With each turn of the wheel, I felt my love of writing return as I longed to share the experience. I remembered each tender draft of a manuscript, messy and uneven. With yarn, it’s possible to add more or less twist where needed to create even strands. With novels, each draft brings improvements and new insights into the writing process. With time and patience, both the yarn and the writing smooth out.
Spinning is a form of meditation, and I see when my mindfulness disappears. All of a sudden my gorgeous strand of yarn has doubled in width, or the wheel turns in the wrong direction, causing my work to unravel from the bobbin. I stop, take a breath, fix what I can, and then go again, just as I do with my “regular” meditations. Our minds wander. That’s what minds do. All we can do is come back to the present moment.
The same is true for a manuscript. There are places where the writing sings, and then sentences where I say, “Huh?” Even after several drafts, I find places where my mind has checked out of the story and decided to explore other territories while I thought I was writing. The writer’s life requires patience and an ongoing return, return, return to the present.
Even in the end, the thread is never perfect. Yes, I can even it out and fix obvious mistakes, but in the end, homespun thread will never have the technical perfection of storebought. Mine won’t, at least!
Writing is never done and never exactly right. But at the same time, there is the time to let the book go out into the world, warts and all. A book is never perfect, never fully finished. The moment comes when the author must say, “Enough. Enough. This is the best I can do now.”
One day my fleece will be a sweater or a throw, something warm and soft and nurturing to the body. From sheep to sweater, I will know every aspect of this particular fiber. No other fiber will feel or act exactly like this one. It is my first, and it feels like a miracle. I feel the same way when I see one of my books for the first time. For all the imperfections, all the stumbles, all the struggles, there is a book in my hand, a miracle of cover and fonts and page numbers, with a story that only I can tell. From start to finish, it is mine, and perhaps it will fall into the hands of someone who will feel as though she has just donned a warm, soft, nurturing sweater to shield her from winter’s cold.