An Education in Wool with Norman Kennedy

Norman Kennedy's sly humor and strong opinions make his lessons as fun as they are educational.

At first, Norman Kennedy wasn't keen to create a workshop video. Despite some apprehension about his stamina—he was approaching eighty at the time—he changed his mind because of the teachers who had been so generous as to share their knowledge with him. How could he refuse to do the same and pass along their teachings to other spinners?

Norman learned his craft from spinners from across three continents in a variety of languages. Watching first and asking questions second, he encountered traditional spinners using extraordinary handspindles and weathered wheels; fleeces oiled with machine grease and extraordinarily fine Shetland wool; antebellum cotton cards and antique flax brakes.

This naturally dyed handspun overshot coverlet is a particular source of pride for Norman.

Winding our way along the dirt road to Norman's home and weaving barn, the video crew and I had no idea what delights were in store for us. In From Wool to Waulking: Spinning Wool and Creative Cloth, you will find some of my favorite Kennedy moments:

  • Carding wool, the cards' teeth scraping together as he coaxes two or more rolls (rolags) from a single dressing
  • Dressing a traditional distaff and spinning from it using a hand-held Balkan-style spindle
  • Pacing back and forth at a Great Wheel, drafting an arm's length of wool
  • Spinning a yarn of nearly imperceptible fineness
  • Completing the weaving of a full-size pair of wedding blankets and enthusiastically pulling the fabric from the loom
  • Rummaging in an opaque indigo vat for inky skeins of naturally dyed wool

After the waulking, Norman relaxes as his blankets hang to dry.

By far the most special experience, though, was the waulking. To finish the pair of blankets he had woven, Norman gathered a group of friends who were experienced waulkers. He wetted the blankets with soap and water, lifted the sopping bundle onto a 15-foot table, and instructed them in the traditional fulling technique. As they pounded and passed each section, Norman sang traditional songs.

You see, although we know Norman for his spinning and weaving mastery, he has a whole separate realm of talents. He received National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships for both his textile and musical contributions, and he sang at the famous Newport Folk Festival. Singing songs in Gaelic, English, and several other languages as he led the waulkers, Norman gave a performance like no other.

You really have to see it.

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