Learning to Spin Wool (without saying bad words)

Irish Mother and ballad singer son c. 1890. Image used with permission. Restoring Your Past.

On a sunny Saturday in late winter, Fall Creek Falls State Park (est. 1944) out on the Cumberland Plateau hosted the first of what is to be a series of heritage craft workshops at the park’s Nature Center. Kicking off the series was a beginning wool spinning class with 50 year spinning guru Sherry Watkins of Frostglen Farms.

Sherry, who happens to have been an international physicists in her former life (I know right!), along with her husband Bill, are the proud stewards of a herd of 80 alpacas on their 27 acre farm in Loudon, Tennessee. Sherry has been a shepherdess for nearly 30 years and fiber artist for nearly half a century!

The brilliant Sherry showing us how to ply yarn

Sherry and her husband Bill (also a physicist by the way) are long time demonstrators at the park’s Mountaineer Folk Festival (which began in 1978!) The Folk Art Project is the brainchild of park ranger Matt, who after meeting Sherry and Bill at the festival in 2019, took an interest in learning to spin. The two struck up a conversation and the rest is history.

I arrived at the Nature Center and was welcomed by the very friendly Ranger Matt and Sherry, and was offered up some simmering hot cocoa with fresh whipped cream. Sherry made a batch of homemade oatmeal cookies and there was also an assortment of herbal teas.

At 9:00am, three other ladies and myself sat down to our wheels and Sherry taught us all the parts of the wheel. The Maiden, the Whorl, the Fly, the Mother of All…. these where all names that rolled off the tongue and set in the mind images of flying things, imaginary contraptions, and fantastical intrigue.

The ladybug wheel

And then we peddled. And peddled. And chatted. And peddled some more. This is when Sherry in the midst of chatting about alpacas casually interjected she had an advanced degree in theoretical physics and was the only female physicist to graduate that year from UT Knoxville. I almost choked on my hot cocoa.

It was then that the ladies around me began offering up their experiences. Being the firsts in their field. Experiences with inequality in pay. About accomplishments being dismissed because of gender. Being offered positions far below their talents and skills. About having to train men who ultimately advanced beyond them. All this while peddling a spinning wheel- or doing something which is still to this day considered “woman’s work.”

We peddled for A LONG TIME. And I know why. Right before lunch, it was time to try our hand at spinning fiber. After a quick demonstration, Sherry handed us a lovely ball of fluff and set us off to our business. And this is when it got complicated. And when I say complicated… I mean REALLY CRAZY DIFFICULT!

Essentially spinning fiber into yarn is a very simple concept. You take clean fiber that had been arranged in the same direction and twist it together. Sounds simple right? Ha! Ha! No.

Cleaned and picked alpaca wool ready be run through the drum carder to align the fibers for spinning

In order to spin fiber into yarn (or thread), one must operate the spinning wheel with your feet. In our case, we were using double treadle machines so it was like peddling a bike. After creating a leader, we began feeding our line with supply with one hand while the other hand held tension on the strands of fiber rapidly disappearing into the orifice hole while the wheel turned, and I peddled, and the fiber twisted into yarn. Or in my case, into teeny, tiny, little knots.

I made lots of knots. And tiny threads. And lumps of untwisted fiber. And blobs. And curls. Everything BUT yarn. I resisted the urge to say bad words because there were visitors moving in and out of the visitors center observing. And it is not polite to use such kind of language amongst ladies. But it was HARD and my brain declared this was the Mother of All multitasking and was so relived when it heard Sherry say, “Let’s go to lunch!”

And so we did.

My “parked” yarn

Ranger Matt came with us to the lunch bar at the village but he kept his polite distance. During the morning workshop, he set up his wheel adjacent to us but further into the visitors center. At lunch, he also kept his respectful distance and I wondered if it was because he was “working” or if he was following the age old Southern cultural tradition of not interjecting oneself into a group of womenfolk.

Ultimately, as all Southerns do, the ladies discovered over lunch they had common acquaintances. This is a peculiarity to the South- everyone knows someone who knows someone we know. Therefore, we are all connected and have a common thread. This is most prominent in small towns as also it establishes where one stands in the social hierarchy. And of course, there is always talk of “the world today,” sharing experiences, and wisdom for the future.

Year round park resident
Our view just outside the Nature Center’s window

After lunch, it was full on spinning for the rest of the day as we were set with the task of making yarn. Feeling refreshed after a break and connected with my fellow novice spinners, I determined under no circumstances was I going to give up on learning to spin wool! Thus, I set my mind to making it happen. NO. MATTER. WHAT!

SEVEN HOURS LATER I had a finished product. Or at least what I declared finished. I set a goal of spinning my entire batch of fluff but by 5:00pm conceded that 85% spun would suffice. Sherry held it up in front of me as a proud grandmother would show off images of her grandchildren, excitedly announcing “You have yarn!” It felt like a real accomplishment.

My yarn is nothing close to ideal. Even after lunch and the remaining hours of practice, my yarn still had knots and tiny threads. It had lumps of untwisted fiber. And blobs. And curls. I would not say it got easier, but I will say it did get more familiar.

To me, the best part is the yarn has the demarcation of time. It is symbolic of experience and is a reminder of what it feels like to learn something completely new. The earliest yarn is thin and tight and curled and knotted. The after lunch yarn is thick but relatively uniform. The late afternoon yarn is lofty and significantly less twisted. And the end of my yarn is exactly as was in the beginning- a loosely hand rolled strand of fiber just waiting to be picked up once again.

Afterthought: Ranger Matt did come and join us toward the end of the day. His spinning in the lobby of the Nature Center allowed him to interpret this age old heritage craft for visitors so we could focus on nothing but learning. Sherry is not only a spinning guru (and all around fascinating person) but the ideal teacher for this craft as she is patient, encouraging, and empowering. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to learn from her in one of the most beautiful natural settings in Mid-Eastern Tennessee. And I am honored to have had the opportunity to hear the stories of the ladies who took the class with me.

It was a lovely day to be on the plateau!

For more information about the Mountaineer Folk Art Project or the Mountaineer Folk Festival, please visit the Friends of Fall Creek Fall’s Facebook page. To learn more about Sherry and Bill Watkins and all their critters, please visit their farm website. To learn more about Fall Creek Falls State Park, check out their facebook page.

And finally, for more about the history of turning fiber to yarn, check out this fascinating article from the Library of Congress.

CalicoBall is a grassroots effort to document, preserve, and present rural Americas diverse historical traditions. CalicoBall is an educational extension of Maggie May Clothing. All rights reserved.

About Susan

My interest in historical costume began at a very early age. I knew by age 5 I wanted to be a designer. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to turn my passion into a full time business. You can find my costumes onstage in NYC, on the big screen, and in museums around the globe.