When I moved to Washington DC in 1978 I had just graduated from college with a degree in design. I had worked as a life drawing model through those college years, so when I needed to find work in a new city that is what I turned to while I searched for my “career”. That was how I found and fell in love with the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
Wandering the 76,000 sq. ft. building that housed a warren of various sized and shaped artist studios in a barely renovated building that was originally an armaments factory during WWII, I got my first real taste of how professional artists could work in the “real world”. During the mid to late 80’s I was studying tapestry weaving with Cindy Lowther, who had a studio in the factory. One day, during a stroll through the first floor, I passed a small studio and through the glass windows saw a woman sitting at a spinning wheel and was immediately transfixed. She herself was a vision. Long straight pre-maturely white hair, clothed in a black drapey tunic and skirt, her body moving rhythmically with the enormous wheel at her side, piles of colorful wool were becoming yarn. I paused, watched, walked past and then turned around and went in.
The artist was Katherine Cobey. I asked her if she would teach me to spin and how much she would charge. The truth was that I couldn’t afford anything, but I asked anyway, thinking I would save up the money. In the end she said she would teach me if I would do some work for her. I was to card several pounds of burgundy colored wool into batts. She got out her carder and showed me how to do it. I went home with her carder and bags of dyed wool.
As I produced her batts of wool to spin, my lessons began. She taught me to spin on a Navajo spindle. We sat cross legged on the floor as I struggled with the spindle, learning to coordinate both my hands in ways I’d never experienced before. I won’t lie. It was frustrating. What looked so simple (like riding a bicycle) was an exercise in patience (how many skinned knees would it take before I can ride around the block?). But, like riding a bicycle, one day my hands just did it and I could feel all the pieces come together. Soon after I saved up for a spinning wheel. It was a Louet basic model but it did the job. I learned by trial and error to use the wheel and began spinning in earnest. It wasn’t long before spinning became my calming center.
Spinning fiber is one of the oldest continuous activities of the human experience. For thousands of years, primarily women turned whatever natural resources were available into cords, ropes and yarn. Sitting with the spindle or the wheel connected me to that long ancestry. It’s a quiet thing, spinning. It’s a rhythm. It’s a sound just above silence. It’s the feel of the amorphous cloud of wool becoming the smooth continuous strand that winds onto the spindle. It became my meditation space, my calm in the midst of the chaos, and even my safe space. I would carefully disassemble my wheel and bring it with me on camping trips, to the beach, to hotel rooms and friends houses. I would take it outside and spin while watching the sunset or watching the children play in the yard.
Today I own 4 spinning wheels, several Navajo spindles and an array of drop spindles. I recently acquired the huge Rio wheel that I originally saw Katherine Cobey spinning on. But when I travel I now just toss a drop spindle and a bag of wool into my backpack instead of having to bring my entire wheel. I love being able to take it out and like magic, for 2 minutes or for several hours, I have my quiet space… my center.