An Enchanting Hobby

On a sunny day in September, people from across the Finger Lakes Region gathered at the Hemlock Fairgrounds to find things for their hands to do during the short, dark, chilly days to come. Many of these people shared the same obsession: spinning. For two days, spinning wheels whirred at the Finger Lakes Fiber Arts Festival, while devoted handspinners shopped for fiber they could turn into yarn.

The festival, which is 15 years old, is sponsored by the Genesee Valley Handspinners Guild (GVHG). The 24-year-old guild has more than 150 members and continues to grow each year. “We are a young, vibrant group,” said President Caroline Baker-Drake. “Our members range in age from 12 years old to 75 or so.” Members of the GVHG come from Monroe, Ontario, Wyoming and Wayne Counties, and beyond. Sheep, llama and alpaca farmers who attend keep the handspinners stocked with the fiber they crave.

What’s the draw?
Spinning is hardcore do-it-yourself. It takes a long time to spin enough fiber to make the 2 pounds of yarn required for a sweater. But the handspinners I met all described a similar captivation with the hobby, even if they were drawn to it initially for different reasons.

“I’m a very tactile person,” explained Caroline. “I loved knitting, but when I came to the Fiber Arts Festival for the first time, it opened a door for me to a whole new extension of that hobby.”

While spinning is not usually done to make money – the task is so labor intensive that to be paid per hour would be cost-prohibitive – some do spin to save money. “I bought 3 ounces of cashmere and silk fiber for about $30,” noted Tina Turner, the guild’s vice president. “The skeins of lace-weight yarn that I made would have cost me over $100 if I had purchased them ready-made.”

Spinning not only allows a person to make yarn cheaper than he could buy it in the store, it also enables him to create whatever color and texture he wishes. “Spinning can be a new challenge for knitters who want to tap into their creativity by making yarn their own way,” added Ron Tyler, an active member of GVHG.

It’s this opportunity for creativity that Louise Smith, owner of the Sheep and Wool Shop in Marion, likes best. “I love putting the colors and textures together when I spin. I can blend alpaca with llama or silk. There’s a nice challenge of creating something that’s uniquely yours.”

Louise decided to learn to spin after she opened her yarn, fiber and bead store. “When I started my store 22 years ago, I was raising sheep, and I thought it would be really cool to open up a yarn shop even though I didn’t know how to knit or spin,” she told me. “I was either stupid or naïve, but I soon caught up and learned how to do both.”

Louise eventually taught spinning at her store and has created new devotees, such as Debbie Suffoletto of Webster. Debbie, who has been spinning for more than 15 years, views it as a therapeutic hobby. “After working all day, I can block everything out and just spin,” she recalled. “I can smell the scent of the wool, feel the fiber going through my fingers, listen to the whir of the wheel, and see the bobbin filling up.”

This multi-sensory experience has a calming effect on those who do it. “Some people meditate or pray while they’re spinning. One of our members even says he spins to keep his blood pressure down,” added Ron Tyler.

How to start
One of the drawbacks to spinning is that it does require an investment of both time and money. Spinning wheels are not cheap, but if you know where to look or who to ask (namely a GVHG member), you may be able to find a used wheel for a couple hundred dollars. New spinning wheels can be purchased at several regional stores, including these.

• The Sheep and Wool Shop in Marion, 315-926-5765
• Susan’s Spinning Bunny in Danby, 866-504-7236
• The Village Yarn & Fiber Shop in Rochester, 585-586-5470

Spinning wheels come in a variety of styles. The old-fashioned “great wheel” or “walking wheel,” reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, is not commonly used anymore. Many spinning wheels today fold up and have built-in handles to make them easy to carry, and they come with one or two treadles (pedals), depending on your preference. You can choose from wheels with ornately carved spindles to those that are sleek and modern. Spinning wheels can even be made from wheelchairs and PVC pipes.

A drop spindle, which retails for under $10, is a cheaper and more portable alternative to a traditional wheel. A drop spindle looks similar to a children’s toy top, and it spins on the floor as it wraps the newly formed yarn around itself. Some handspinners swear by the drop spindle as an economical way to test out spinning. Others admit they could never quite get the coordination required to spin it and compare the experience to walking while chewing gum.

Once you have a spinning wheel or drop spindle, all you need is the fiber. In addition to the stores listed above, there are plenty of Finger Lakes farms who supply fiber for spinning. Here are just a few.

• Black North Fiber in Clarkson, 585-964-5892
• Fingerlakes Woolen Mill in Genoa, 315-497-1542
• Golden Oak Farm in Honeoye, 585-229-5545
• High Bid Farm in Brockport, 585-637-0656
• Knox Farm Fiber in East Aurora, 716-655-7203
• Mohair by Chris Miller in Rush, 585-334-7373
• Nether Walnut Hill Alpacas in Lyons, 315-483-6443
• Spring Wind Farm and Fiber Studio in Marion, 315-926-5427
• Stoney Elm Alpacas in Walworth, 315-524-9205

The staff at these stores and farms should be able to point you to a spinning instructor, but in case you’re still looking, try contacting one of the following.

• Debbie Santolla in Rochester, 585-442-2989
• Weaving & Fiber Arts Center in Rochester, 585-461-1770

The GVHG is a tremendous resource for new and seasoned handspinners alike. Check out its website at www.gvhg.org. The group meets at the Presbyterian Church in Victor from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month. A word of caution to those who go: you may form an addiction to the art of handspinning and an irresistible urge to buy wool.

Debbie Suffoletto is now drawn to fiber like a magnet, and the colors of the wool soon have her mind racing with ideas of what it could become. “When I see fiber, I want to work with it,” she said. “It calls my fingers.”
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by Kari Anderson-Pink
Kari Anderson Pink lives in Victor with her husband and three children. In addition to writing, she plays the harp, piano and organ professionally and also teaches skin care and makeup artistry. Visit her website at www.redheadharp.webs.com.