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From sheep to scarves and fleece to finished art, the "new" fibre arts warm body and soul

They come in unceremoniously, lugging wooden wheels and bags of fleece and wool, and towel-wrapped casserole dishes. This meeting's host, Pia Skaarer Nielsen, welcomes each arrival with an enthusiastic greeting and smile, and an exhortation to "move the furniture wherever you want to." Before too long, they are seated in hardback chairs and the music  of wheels plays a soothing background to scattered bursts of conversation. This is the bi-weekly meeting of the Potluck Spinners and Weavers, a guild of inspired fibre artists from around Nova Scotia who meet at homes in the Annapolis Valley to ply their craft and enjoy each other's company.

I remember my grandmother DeLong spinning, then knitting socks and sweaters and mittens with the homespun yarn she had created. Sometimes, when her spinning wheel was idle, I would sneak over and give it a turn for myself, just because I could. Spinning has always seemed more than a little bit like magic to me, and sitting in with a group of spinners, many of whom are also weavers or knitters or otherwise caught up in so-called fibre arts, I see no reason to change my opinion.

Yet if it is a type of magic, it is one with an increasingly broad appeal. There's a  renaissance going on with fibre arts of all kinds, from spinning and weaving to dyeing, felting, knitting and crocheting. Specialty shops carrying yarns in a rainbow of colours and varieties are multiplying and thriving. There's a knitting needle shortage in North America, as manufacturers struggle to keep up with the demand, and spinning wheels are being hauled out of attics or purchased new while men and women of all ages are creating wonderful works of art and functionality.

When I ask members of the guild why fibre arts are enjoying this resurgence in popularity, there are as many answers as there are shades of yarn. One woman says that being able to create your own yarn is marvellous. It's meditative to sit and spin… once your hands and feet are busy, your mind can wander.

Says another: "This is a link with all the women of the past who worked their spinning wheels; it was a social time to sit and spin together, spinning stories with the wool, but it was also a necessity, a type of  housework."

Julie Rosvall started out weaving, moved into spinning, and then learned to knit because she had all this wonderful yarn, she says. Together with business partner and shepherd Brenda Gilmour, she operates Gaspereau Valley Fibres, a popular specialty shop in the Annapolis Valley.

"We see three different groups of enthusiasts," she says. "Some are young people whose mothers didn't knit or do any of these things, and they want to learn. Then there are the mothers who thought they wanted to knit or weave when they were in their 20s, but their lives took over with careers and families and they didn't have time-so they are now in their 50s and 60s and finally have time. The third group is made up of those who have been knitting or crocheting forever."

The surging interest is resulting in an exciting momentum throughout the industry. "New fibres are coming on the market all the time, new yarns, exciting tools and patterns…the patterns have been revamped for a younger generation so they're not dated. Those who have been knitting all this time are getting excited again, too, because all this new stuff is happening," Julie says.

Peggy Struve and her husband, Fred, come from Bridgewater to attend the guild meetings. Peggy has her own ideas about why spinning and other fibre arts have become so popular. "My theory is that it's a reaction to technology nowadays. People are losing their hand-eye co-ordination and also their tactile sense, because we spend so much time on the computer. While you can do amazing things on the computer you can't hold it in your hand." She agrees with Julie that new interest is really pushing the industry. "And of course, there's also the satisfaction of making something you can wear, something you've made completely from scratch."

"Yes," chimes in another spinner. "We're not natural people who can just go buy a pair of socks!" She pauses and looks at the winding of yarn growing on her bobbin as she spins, and continues, "My spinning is not perfect, but it suits me. Perfect is what you buy in the stores and it's boring and acrylic in a lot of cases!"

It seems some people get into spinning because-for whatever reason-they have a sheep or two or a dozen. As Pia Skaarer Nielsen says, "there's all this fibre and no one wants to leave it for the composter. So we learn just because we want to, and then it excites us to do so. In Danish, however, there's a lovely expression: 'Necessity taught the naked woman to spin!' Maybe we don't need to spin, but we love to."

How fibre from a sheep, alpaca or other wool-bearing animal can be created into yarn by spinning seems amazing to me. First, the sheep is sheared in late spring or early summer. While some people who have only one or two animals shear their own, here in the Maritimes a PEI shearer by the name of Al Peterson makes the rounds of sheep farms and does the shearing for many of the shepherds. A fleece can weigh between five and 12 pounds, depending on the breed of animal. Merino sheep, for example, have a lot of folds in their skin so you get a heavy fleece.

Creating your own homespun is a process requiring a lot of time and patience. "After shearing you've got this big fleece, rolled up in a bag, and then you've got to wash it, because it's full of twigs and grass and manure and everything the sheep has ever eaten," Pia says wryly.

Before washing, you "skirt" the fleece, removing the dirtiest parts such as the belly wool and any very soiled bits. The remainder is washed in very hot water using a mild soap such as dish detergent-often several times to make sure it's clean-then rinsed thoroughly. Some put their fleeces in the washing machine, especially for the spin cycle. A fleece can lose as much as half its weight from grease, dirt, plant matter and other detritus.

When the fleece is dry, the spinner picks it apart and shakes the dust out of it, after which it is carded, either by hand or machine. Carding separates the fibres and aligns them, so you have what Pia calls "a fluff," which can then be spun or felted and used in limitless ways. Some spinners bring their wool to fellow spinner Ken Cavanagh, in Sheffield Mills, NS, who built his own carding machine (see right), while others send their wool to commercial mills like MacAusland's, in Bloomfield, PEI, to be carded.

Many fibre workers dye their own wools, which is usually done right after washing, while the fleece is still wet. There is burgeoning interest in dyeing using natural plants and minerals, but Julie Rosvall says it's not nearly as "natural" as one might think.

"You're using natural plant material or minerals, etc., but you're using things like iron, copper and aluminum to mordant or make the colour stick, and they are dangerous. And the process is time consuming. With natural dyeing I soak the fibre, then scour it to make sure there are no oils or lanolin, then mordant it by simmering for several hours; then dye it for another couple of hours. [Whereas] I can dye with a commercial weak acid dye and have something dyed within an hour."

Once you've prepared the fleece, it's time to spin it. Despite the fact that there are many different shapes and styles of wheels, they all work the same. Marilyn Rand who lives in Delhaven, NS, is an ardent fibre artist, with a flock of sheep and other wool-bearing animals. She gives an explanation of the spinning process: "All you're doing is twisting the wool," she says. "The first ply is clockwise. Then when plying two strands together, you spin them counterclockwise."

While beginners find their wool can be irregular in texture, with thicker and thinner sections, Marilyn says the more you spin, the more your yarns get smoother-"You actually have to work to put texture back into your spinning!"

Fred Struve sits at his wheel, contentedly spinning, turning his foot pedals with feet clad in hand-knit slippers. He also gives  a good explanation of the process to a  non-spinner watching closely. "Spinning basically is a twofold action. One is you turn the fibre so it becomes solid, and then of course you have to wind it up.

"The easiest way to spin is with a drop spindle. You have the fibre, and you just move the spindle and the motion turns and twists it, and then you unhook it and wind it up. Using a drop spindle is a good way for a beginner to try their hand at spinning."

Inspired by the dexterity of this enthusiastic group, I decide to come back to visit Pia for a lesson in drop spinning. She explains that in many countries, drop spindles are all that women have to spin the wool they need for making clothing for their families or for sale. She recently received a drop spindle that had belonged to a Thai woman, and tells me that women spin all the time in some countries. "You'll see them going to market and spinning as they walk," she says. "So where we're doing this for fun and our own interest, we also remember there are places where spinning is essential."

I learn very quickly how co-ordinated you have to be to get into this art-and there's no doubt in my mind that it is an art. Pia says she can teach anyone to spin, but also says that as adults we think we need to be able to master anything in about 45 seconds. I might master it in 45 years. For the time being, I'll stick to knitting wool socks, although every successive visit to the spinners or to a wool shop tempts me to go a little further.

I draw the line at raising sheep, however. They could be hard on my garden.

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