The Spinner's Lineage

  One of Judith's most prized spindle whorls is a large, flat one made of a whale's spine.

I once interviewed a felter who moonlighted as a substitute teacher. She worked in a somewhat rural area, but she still had to help her students make the modern leap: that the clothes on their backs came from the sheep and cotton in the fields. They were amazed.

As a spinner, I generally feel more connected than that; when I pull a little chaff out of a processed fleece I think that the ewe must have been eating a snack a bit close to her neighbor, and the history of the cotton plant still amazes me. But how often do I really think about how we got here?

Think of it: Small lead or clay whorl spindles, handmade with rudimentary tools, yet decorated for form as well as function. Sheep and goats that bore so little resemblance to our modern breeds that we wonder how it would have been possible to keep warm with their fiber. Figuring out how to coax fiber from the stalks of nearby plants. Somehow, generation by generation and one tiny innovation after another, we changed our environment and taught ourselves skills to create the plants, animals, and spinners we have today.


This doll is from very old fabric indeed, with cochineal-dyed yarn for her features and a sprang shawl.

Learning from a Master

Someone who thinks about these things all the time is Judith MacKenzie. Growing up in Western Canada, she began to spin in her teens and learned from the Coast Salish spinners. She practiced thigh spinning from women who couldn’t imagine slowing down to spin on a drop spindle. She now works to preserve the textile traditions of the Macaw and Quileute people in Western Washington.

In the Wool Heritage Collection, Judith leads us through her personal stash of spindles from around the world and throughout the ages, explaining how the methods of spinning would have varied and been reflected in the tools. She uncovers the history of how we went from the first wild sheep in the Middle East to the carefully bred wool producers who cover the world today. And she explores our relationship to our Stone Age companions, primitive breed sheep, and discusses how to spin their fleece.

I can’t imagine a better companion for a few hours of history lessons than Judith. I hope you enjoy these treasures.


imageplaceholderAnne Merrow
Editor, Spin-Off

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