For two days at the recent Johnny Appleseed Festival, crowds of onlookers lingered, watching the costumed demonstrators. Large kettles of natural dyes simmered over an open fire, while fiber artists operated spinning wheels of various sizes, many pumping the foot pedals with their stocking feet.
Young dads hoisted children to their shoulders for a better view, while moms and grandmas explained that fibers were being dyed and spun into yarns that will eventually be used to make warm gloves, socks, sweaters and scarves.
The festival is just one of many community events at which the 38-member Fort Wayne's Flax and Fleecers Spinning Guild volunteers.
On Nov. 16 and 17, the guild is sponsoring a workshop at the Swinney Homestead with noted textile artist, author and blogger Kate Larson.
“Since the resurgence of interest in knitting, more and more knitters are becoming interested in understanding the structure of yarn and in creating their own yarn for their knitting, crocheting and weaving projects,” explains Betty Barry, past president of the guild.
Although the workshop is for those with a rudimentary knowledge of spinning, monthly guild meetings are open to all who are interested in the art.
“You don't need to be a member to attend meetings,” says Karla Youchler, current president. “You don't even have to spin! We have a couple of regular members who knit, but don't spin ... yet.”
While the spinning wheel traces its history to the 13th century, spinning with simple hand tools dates back several thousand years.
The Flax and Fleecers Guild, an offshoot of local history group Settlers, was founded in 1975 to promote fiber arts; to provide training in natural dyeing, spinning of cotton, silk and flax, and fleece preparation; and to increase awareness of this ancient art form through community involvement and education.
In addition to the Johnny Appleseed Festival, guild members frequently serve as demonstrators at Historic Fort Wayne and are co-sponsors of the annual Salomon Farm Fiber Arts Festival, where they offer hands-on activities for the public.
“We volunteer ... at Forks of the Wabash Festival, Winona Lake Fall Festival, and Berne Heritage Festival,” adds Barry. “People are fascinated by watching spinners create yarn. Even though we are very active and visible, there are always people who have never seen yarn created before.”
Monthly guild meetings provide opportunities for socialization and education.
“(We) have programs on a variety of fiber arts,” says Youchler. “... needle felting, knitted and felted toys, how to spin art yarns and dyeing techniques.”
“The group is a multigenerational, diverse group of both (men and women) whose interest in fiber has brought them together,” explains Barry. “There are a variety of skill levels ... and members share their expertise with each other.”
“Once a person begins spinning, many doors open for other fiber-related activities such as knitting, weaving, crocheting, felting, and dying fibers with natural as well as modern dyes,” she continues.
Hooked on spinning
Barry, who credits her interest in spinning to observing the guild at the Johnny Appleseed Festival in the early 1980s, has extensive training and experience in both spinning and weaving on a rigid heddle loom. After retiring from a career in social work, she opened The Little Shop of Spinning in Fort Wayne ( www.littleshopofspinning.com), where she teaches and sells spinning wheels and fibers.
Yauchler learned to spin on a drop spindle before moving out of state for a decade.
“I spent a winter spinning with a drop spindle and just never stopped doing it,” she recalls. “(It”s) an artistic outlet for me while I am busy raising my two young children.”
Upon her return to Fort Wayne four years ago, she joined the guild and continues to hone her skills, expand her knowledge and draw inspiration from members.
“I do most of my spinning on a Sickenger spinning wheel from Australia,” she says. “I'm currently working on spinning finer yarns, as well as dyeing the fibers before I spin or the yarns after they are spun.”
A satisfying tradition
Although modern technology has replaced traditional hand spinning, hobby, historical and artisan spinners continue to practice the craft for a variety of reasons — the quality and uniqueness of yarn can be controlled, the connection to the past is gratifying, and the practice is calming.
“Many people who knit, crochet, weave or felt are attracted to spinning because of the added versatility and creativity you can achieve when you start from the beginning of the process,” Yauchler says.
“It's a soothing experience, ... one of the most relaxing and meditative things that I do.”