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Elementary School Handspinning Demonstration

This last week I was involved in book week at my daughter's school. The theme was "Weaving a Story" and I was thrilled to be asked to come "Spin a Yarn" for all the students in the school (somewhere between 500 - 600 students, I think.) I was given total control over my presentation and it had to be something that would be interesting to all children from Kindergarten through 5th Grade. I decided that the theme of my presentation would be to represent what it was like in "the old days" when people were more involved in cloth making. I wanted to throw in a yarn spinning demo, the evolution of spinning equipment, and have lots of touchy-feely stuff so, I brought just about everything I own (except combs and looms <g>) over to the school, along with samples of lots of different fibers and decided just to wing it. I didn't want to tie myself down to any program because I wasn't sure which way to go with the disparity in ages. I just let it happen as it did. Well, I think what happened over those three days was magic - the kids loved every minute and the teachers seemed to love it too, and I had a wonderful time and learned a great deal! I would like to share my presentation here - I need to record it somewhere, and I hope that it will give others who are doing these demos some ideas for their own presentations.

NOTE: I don't have a bibliography for my information - it is all stuff I've picked up through the years. If anyone notices something that was incorrect, I would appreciate it greatly if you would e-mail meand let me know!

First, we didn't know what to expect, so we set up 20 minutes per class with a 10 minute break between presentations. I saw each classroom separately. While doing the classes separately was great, 20 minutes was way too short - I was into it and usually kept talking right through my break and the kids didn't want to leave even after the next class was there and pushing them out! This was true of all grade levels. I would plan at least 30 minutes per presentation. I could have easily made it last up to an hour for most of the grades. I learned that it would have been better at 30-40 minutes per presentation.

I started the demo by handing out tufts of "Bud". Bud is a corriedale that was proudly exhibited by an 11 year old 4-H'er at Fiberfest a couple of years ago. Stefie and I bought his 12 lb fleece and split it. I'd gotten as far as washing it and I dyed a pound with yellow food coloring for a guild meeting that I subsequently missed <g>. So I had a pound of yellow Bud that I didn't really know what to do with - this seemed like the perfect use for it. Bud had been drum carded (most of it) and I had lots of batts of fluffy corrie. I tore strips off the batts and gave them to the end child on each row and explained how to hold both ends of the strip and pull out a tuft of fibers from one end. As I handed the roving strips around, I told them about the sheep, Bud, and his 11 year old owner, and how the wool was yellow because I simmered it with food coloring and vinegar and salt. I found myself having to warn them not to scrunch the fibers up into a ball - this seemed to be their natural response<gg>. It was nice to have the sheep's name to give the kids - they also liked knowing a child raised the sheep.

Next, I asked them, "How often in the day do you think about your clothes?" We decided that at most it was once, in the morning when they had to decide (or ask) what to wear for the day. I told them that not that long ago people had to think much more about the clothes that they wore - because they had to make them. I then asked if anyone's mom sewed. I said, when they sewed they went to the store and bought material and a pattern and cut it all out and sewed it together (or I let them explain this to me, in the older grades). I then said - what if you had to make the material first? They were all doing a huge weaving in art class to commemorate book week, so they knew a little about weaving. I asked them what they used to weave? "Yarn!" they said. "Well, what if you had to make the yarn too? That is what I'm here to show you." I said. At this point I showed them how to finger twist their tuft of Bud into a thread. They all seemed to be able to do it well, no matter the age.

As they were doing this - it took a minute or two to do an inch or two, I asked them if they knew how many feet of yarn were in an average adult's pair of blue jeans? "No." "Well, there is about a mile of yarn in a pair of blue jeans", I said. (I made up this number - I figured I was going to be fairly accurate about the time required to spin the yarn and the number didn't matter. However, I've since done the math and I come up with *3* miles!)I then pointed out if they had to make all that yarn by twisting it with their fingers they would probably have to go naked for a whole year! This brought gasps and giggles, and if I didn't have their attention with Bud, I had it now <g>. "You can see," I pointed out, "how it was important to people to find a faster way of making yarn." Then we talked about the hooked stick and, finally drop spindles. When I picked up a Lollipop and spun a good three feet of yarn in about 30 seconds they all went "Oooooo!" <gg>. I showed them a top-whorl drop spindle, a bottom whorl drop spindle, a tahkli spindle and a Navajo spindle and demonstrated, briefly, how each one was used. I said that blue jeans would take a lot less time to make, maybe a month or two, now that we have a good tool. I explained that the spindle was the only spinning tool used until sometime between 500- 1000 AD, when the first spinning wheel was invented in India. I then used the tahkli to demonstrate how the first spinning wheel probably worked (I based my description on the charkha wheel - which I do have, but didn't bring because of the sharpness of the spindles). I explained that, during a number of great wars called the Crusades, the Europeans travelled to India and saw these spinning wheels and thought they were a great idea and brought some of them home with them. I then showed them the Schacht I had with me. I tol d them that the earlier wheels all had sharp spindles - these are the kind of wheels Sleeping Beauty is said to have pricked her finger on. I explained how a Great or Walking Wheel worked and that the first spinning wheels had many designs - I didn't get into Saxony and castle wheels though.

Next, I told them there once was a very famous painter, who also was a very curious person and, were he alive today, I think he would be an engineer because he looked at things very carefully to see how they worked and sometimes he thought of ways they could work better. I also said he invented many things that were way before their time, like helicopters. I said I would give them some clues as to who he was but they had to guess his name. I then told them that he was most famous for his painting, Mona Lisa. If they needed another clue I told them he had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named after him <g>. I explained that Leonardo Da Vinci had drawings and thought up the treadle, which made those who used Walking Wheels very happy because they could finally sit down for a while and work! They also benefitted from having both hands free to draft and spin. I told them that he also invented the bobbin and flyer. I told them that Mr. DaVinci didn't make these inventions though, he just drew them and a man in Germany was the first one to make a spinning wheel with the flyer and bobbin and treadle. Everybody thought it was such a good idea that it quickly caught on. I estimated that this all occurred in the very early 1500s. I then demonstrated spinning on a wheel - I got the wheel going and did a quick supported long draw so they could see how quickly a good amount of yarn could be drafted and made, and I slowed the wheel so they could see it wind up on the bobbin - more "Ooooo's" <gg>. At this point, I felt confident that we could spin and weave the cloth for our blue jeans and sew them in just a few days, at most a week. They were all quite relieved at this <g>. This part of the presentation was the same for all the grade levels, even the little guys.

The next part of the presentation was about the fibers we spin. I had lots of samples of fibers and yarn. First we talked about animal fibers. I asked them what kinds of animals did they think we used for spinning? I first passed around some fleece in the grease (they liked that name). I told them how a sheep is sheared and about the lanolin in the grease, and I made them promise to wash their hands before lunch! I then showed them clean fleece and how it is hand carded before we spin it. I also demonstrated, quickly, the drum carder. I passed around some llama fleece, and some variegated mohair yarn, dyed with all the different flavors of Kool-Aid (they liked that too) and I named the flavors. They all smelled it <g>. I passed around some angora yarn and a mystery ball of yarn that they had to examine and guess what the fiber was at the end of the presentation. Then I passed around a picture of a musk ox. I told them that the quiviut that comes from the ugly musk ox is the warmest, softest and most expensive fiber, and that it goes to prove that looks aren't everything! I had them hold a bit of quiviut on their hand and to feel how fast their hand warmed up ("Ooooo"). I told them how the Inuit people follow the beasts around in the spring, collecting the wool off of bushes and rocks as the animals shed it.

I then presented vegetable fibers (I figured cellulose was over their heads). I showed them cotton yarn and linen fibers. I had them feel their blue jeans for the cotton, too. I told them how linen was retted, etc. and said perhaps that is why it is so expensive to buy today. I told them it lasts a very long time, though, and we talked about some of the clothing we see in the museums.

"Last," I said, "there is one kind of fiber that people have fought and died over many years ago, and it isn't animal or vegetable. What was it?" After a few guesses I said it was.....Bug Juice!! Euwwwww! Then I pulled out a silk cap and we talked a bit about silk worms and silk caps and reeling silk. I passed the cap around <gg>, and they all liked that!

If we had time, I then talked about how the yarn I spun wouldn't be very easy to use yet. I showed them a kinky singles and then plyed it on a Lollie using two Lollies full of singles. "Now," I said, "we need to arrange the yarn in some way so it won't tangle until we are ready to use it." I took out a Niddy Noddy, a ball winder and a small reel. I showed them how each tool is used and I sang "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" when I showed them the reel and explained what the song meant. They were very impressed to learn that! We then talked about the origins of the word spinster, webber, webster, tow the line, and any other spinning/weaving words that happened to pop into my head.

Next was question-and-answer time, and I let them guess what the mystery ball was. Only about five children in the school guessed it. It was Samoyed. They guessed everything from elephant to mouse <g>. Many of them guessed wolf - I thought that was curious!

I have been getting a steady stream of thank you letters since my presentation. Some of them are touching and some are just too charming! I thought I'd share some: (I've only heard from 2nd Graders, so far)

Dear Mrs. Fayer...

Thank you for teaching me how to make yarn I find it instring. P.S. speshaley the bug juis Sincerely, Pat

Thank you for teaching me how to spin wool. I had fun doing it. For some rezen the (dryer) lint would not wrok. I hope you will have a good day! From Jessica (a spinner!)

I like how you did use the string and I would see all the things you do. Sincerely, Tyler

Can you teach us to Make yarn. I like you Makeing yarn. I injoyed Makeing spinning and When I Grow up I want To Be Just Like you. Sincerely, Danny (a spinner!)

Thank you for the Sheep skin and thank you for letting us touch the stuff. Sincerely, Jessica

Thank you for coming to our school. It is really nice for you to stay here a little while. Sincerely Mickey

Thank you for the yellow stuff. Joey

Thank you for teaching my about thread. I learn a lot about thread. I like to wear blue jeans (anonymous, but paid attention)

Thank you for teaching me how to spin yarn. I really liked the llama skin. At home I ask my mom if I can have a piece of cotten. I already have three feet that equals up to a yard. From J.B. (a spinner!)

Thank you for helping us make yarn and showing us that cool silky stuff. From Cherie (a fiberaholic!)

© copyright by Carol Cassidy-Fayer, November 21, 1998, all rights reserved. You may print out this document and use it for yourself, but you may not reproduce this document by any other means or use it for any other purpose without the written permission of the author.

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