In this short clip (about 2 minutes), Satish Kumar speaks passionately about the amazing technology that is the human hand and how digital technology is not serving us, but we are instead serving it, so that we have no time to rest, dance, celebrate, or create beauty with out hands.

I love how the interviewer at one point tried to interrupt him but he kept right on talking.

There are few things more satisfying than working with my hands, whether that be planting seeds in the garden, mending clothes, knitting, handwriting a card or letter, fixing broken things, doing bike maintenance, heck even washing dishes (so meditative!). There is a special satisfaction in skill mastery and knowledge.

I believe adults, especially ones in later midlife, tend to shy away from learning new skills. I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “I wish I knew how to…” and when I’ve suggested they take a class to learn they say some variant of “no, I’m too old.” We have spent so much time becoming successful at whatever has gotten us this far, and don’t like to be reminded about how hard learning something new is. Not to mention how bad we are at it when we start out. We are so much more forgiving to children and young people as they learn new skills. We praise the stick figure drawings of the family, the practice pages of unevenly printed letters and words, lopsided braids, buttons and bows.

But when it comes to ourselves as adults learning something new, we are not so kind. We are quick to understand the concept of what we are supposed to do, but when our attempt ends up being far from perfect we are quick to pass harsh judgment and even give up.

I am lucky enough to come from a family big into doing things with their hands. Both my dad and grandpa were the epitome of “handymen.” They could build cars from the frame up. There was nothing they couldn’t figure out how to build or fix. Their garages had tools for everything, and neat rows of jars filled with screws, nails, nuts and bolts. When I was a kid, the less handy neighbors would always come over and ask my dad for help. And Dad and Grandpa were both gardeners (Grandpa was a farmer in his younger days) who could magically make anything grow.

The women in my family were equally as handy. My grandma was always busy putting up garden harvests. My mom made many of my and my sister’s clothes. And then she would give the scraps to my great grandma who turned the leftovers into quilts. My mom was also into the decoupage craze in the 1970s and her creations went fast at school fundraisers. And let’s not get started with macrame. She was so good at it people would commission her to make things for them. Then she decided she wanted to learn how to knit and took a community education class and got pretty good at that too.

I grew up helping Dad and Grandpa in their gardens and garages. Grandma gave me her canning books from the 1940s (apparently the FDA says I am not supposed to use these recipes because they haven’t been tested and approved safe, but no one ever got sick from Grandma’s pickled beets or canned peaches). Great Grandma Sasse and Grandpa taught me how to crochet. Mom taught me how to sew and knit. All of them taught me how wonderful it is to work with my hands and how much fun it is to learn new things and puzzle out how to fix broken things. I have been gifted a sort of fearlessness when it comes to doing handy things I have never done before. So it is that I sewed all our ballroom dance costumes back in the day, and convinced James we could replace a leaking toilet, replace plumbing under the kitchen sink, lay tile, and build a chicken coop from an idea in my head.

Sometimes the gift gets me into trouble. Like when I took a one-hour class on how to fix a bike tire flat, didn’t practice, and then got a flat two months later and couldn’t even remember how to get the wheel off. I had all the tools to fix it with me, but I couldn’t remember what to do with them!

Or the time we bought new fixtures for our bathroom shower, took all the old fixtures out and then learned we needed to have one of the fixtures welded on. We were without a shower for a couple days until we could get a plumber out to finish the job we started.

Lately I’ve been having adventures in weaving and spinning. I have been teaching myself thus far with help from books and YouTube. I am happy with the pin loom weaving for now, but I plan on taking a rigid heddle loom weaving class this summer because that is something one needs a teacher for.

And the spinning, I can make yarn using the “park” method but couldn’t figure out how to actually do it dropping the spindle. Finally I know how!

The Weaver’s Guild moved from their not very accessible location in St Paul to a highly accessible location in Minneapolis. Heck, my daily bike commute route passes only a block away from them. About a month and a half ago I signed up for a beginner drop spindle class, which tool place yesterday.

The class was three hours and there were eight of us, seven women and one man. Two had prior experience, one on a drop spindle so long ago she’d forgotten how to do it, and the other regularly spins on a wheel but wanted to learn the drop spindle for its portability. This woman sat right next to me and within half an hour she’d gotten the hang of the drop spindle, was standing up and making beautiful thread. I sat and watched her with my mouth agape. I told her I wanted be like her one day.

It turns out spinning is less about the spindle and more about the drafting of the fibers. That is where the skill is, not in the dropping of the spindle. I wanted to be standing up with my spindle twirling by the end of class like the woman next to me, but that didn’t happen. I did manage to get to the point where if I pre-drafted out a bit of fiber I could let the spindle hang and spin between my knees while I fed the fiber into the spin until I ran out of pre-drafted bit and had to catch the spindle between my knees while I drafted out some more.

My main challenge, according to the teacher, is the death grip I seem to believe I need to have on the unspun fiber. And she is right. It is impossible to draft fiber when I have a death grip on it. Relax, the teacher told me, this is supposed to be fun! And it is, I just need to learn how to relax more, and once I do that, I am certain I will be able to stand up and let the spindle spin.

In class I also learned how to ply yarn and when and why I might want to do it (it depends on the fiber and what you want to do with the finished yarn). I also learned the difference between combed and carded fiber and got to bring home some of both to work with. And, of course, I learned a bit about different breeds of sheep.

small hank of hand spun white and gray Jacob sheep wool on a table next to unspun white and gray Jacob sheep wool
Finished spun hank and unspun roving

The teacher is a shepherd and runs A Woolen Forest Farm about an hour outside the Twin Cities. She raises small flocks of Jacob and Leicester Longwool, both heritage breeds. We got to spin the Jacob wool, and wow, is it gorgeous. The sheep are two colors—white and gray. They can be sheared so the colors are kept separate, or the colors can be blended. The wool we had was blended and makes a pretty heathered yarn. The fiber length is long, and the wool is soft enough to be against skin.

We also got some Corriedale, a carded ounce and a combed ounce, to practice with. Corriedale fibers are short, and therefore more challenging. I stuck with the Jacob during class because I wanted to focus on figuring out drafting technique rather than trying different fibers. But I got to take the Corriedale home so I can give it a “spin” when I am ready to try it.

There are so many different kinds of spindles. The teacher brought top whorl and bottom whorl to class for us to try and said that part of learning to spin is figuring out what kind of spindle you prefer. She said it was like in Harry Potter in the wand shop, and imagined how wonderful it would be to have a drop spindle shop like that full of spindles waiting to choose the right spinner. Since I own a top whorl spindle, I chose to try a bottom whorl and liked it very much. We didn’t talk much about spindle size and weight, but I got an inkling about how and why it is important.

The teacher brought a friend with her to help out, and the friend was very nice and patient with me when I was winding my yarn off the spindle onto a niddy noddy and didn’t understand what she meant when she said I needed to tie string through the hank in a figure eight to help keep it from tangling. The friend likes to spin on Turkish spindles and had brought a couple with her. I didn’t get to try one, but I ogled them because when you wrap the yarn correctly around the four arms while you are spinning, you can take the arms off the spindle and the yarn is already wound into a ball, no need to wind it off into a ball for plying or onto a niddy noddy to make a hank for finishing. Cool!

We talked briefly about how to finish our spun yarn and it’s easier than I expected it to be. Get the hank wet, then stretch it out, take one end in hand and slap the free end down hard on a flat surface. Do this a couple times, then work your way around the hank until you’ve slapped the whole thing. Then hang it up to dry. The slapping evens out the spinning and sets the twist.

So this afternoon I got my little hank wet, put on my coat (it was only 34F outside), and slapped my yarn on the deck railing. It was a very satisfying process, and it did indeed even out the spin in the yarn and took out most of the kinks. Now I just need to keep practicing the spinning, and eventually decide what I am going to make from the yarn.

I mentioned to some cycling friends that I took a spin class and every one of them said, what?! you don’t ride your bike enough so you had to take a spin class too? They were relieved when I explained it wasn’t that kind of spinning.

What is something you have recently learned or in the process of learning to do with your hands? Is there something you don’t know how to do that you want to learn?

  • Book: Babel by R. F. Kuang. I am not very far but I am enjoying it very much.
  • Article: Questioning the centrality of work with André Gorz. A really interesting article about the thinker André Gorz and his critique of work—it is an invention and has crept into all the nooks and crannies of our lives.
  • Article: Chomsky: A Stronger NATO Is the Last Thing We Need as Russia-Ukraine War Turns 1. “It is becoming increasingly obvious that this is now a U.S./NATO-Russia war, Noam Chomsky argues.”
  • Article: A Basic Premise of Animal Conservation Looks Shakier Than Ever. The article asks, “Are we trying to save animals in the wrong places?” Humans who study animals and their habitat are discovering that what we thought were preferred habitats might not actually be. In many cases, humans have driven animals out of the areas they prefer before we even began studying them, and we’ve made assumptions like sperm whales prefer deeper oceans and don’t like to come near shore. When in reality they do like to come near shore but human whalers and habitat destruction have driven them out into deep ocean.
Listening and Watching
  • Nothing new or especially interesting lately

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10 thoughts on “Spin Class

  1. Love love love. I also come from a handy, DIY family, and it is second nature to me to try and figure out how to fix just about anything. I read something yesterday that I appreciated. “Anything is knowable by anyone.” And, I have to say, anyone can fix anything with the help of YouTube! I love YouTube for that reason. But on to spinning — my best friend was into fiber arts for awhile and has a lovely spinning wheel. I think it’s fascinating; have never tried it, but I see the appeal. I love doing anything with my hands. I sometimes think I missed my calling — should have done something more hands-on with my life… but I have plenty of opportunity to be hands-on at home! Spin on!!

    1. I know you are a very handy person, and you dad too! I love that quote. I think it is true, even though there are some things that come easier to some people than others, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I’ve used YouTube to help me fix things on my bike many times. So useful! Spinning wheels are so pretty. Part of me really wants one and part of me says I should be happy with the portable spindle and focus on getting really good with it. We’ll see which part wins! I think the same sometimes about missing my calling. I should have been a farmer or homesteader or something 🙂

  2. Nature and working with our hands, there’s something that feels necessary about both no matter what it is. It is sad that people get stopped by fear in trying new things, perhaps it’s something they’ve imagined doing for a long time and are afraid of disappointment when it doesn’t come easily. And maybe it’s the reaction of other people to what they’re doing. Or the imagined reaction. The spinning looks like a lot of fun! Good to know you’re enjoying the Kuang, it’s a book I’ve been thinking about picking up. I hope spring is beginning to peep out over your way!

    1. I agree completely with everything you said Julé! Spinning is great fun. Eventually I want to learn more about different fibers and how to make natural dyes from things I grow in the garden. So many things to learn! Oh yes, Kuang is excellent. I suspect you will like it very much. Spring is taking its time. Sigh.

  3. When I interviewed my mom for school and had her rate me on “commitment to learning,” she gave me a 9 out of 10. She said I don’t learn things just because, like “macrame or photography.” Now, I try to think about how “take a class” near me typically means a college class, which costs about $1,000 per credit hour. There are likely community classes around, though. You’ve inspired me to look! I have enjoyed the paint your own pottery store a few times, which feels both fun and low risk. The pottery is already made, and you glaze it.

    1. There’s education and then there is learning new things. Not that they can’t be the same, but they are typically different. One for a purpose or end goal and the other, like your mom says, just because. Depending on what you want to try there are all sorts of different ways to learn. Community education is one, places like the weaver’s guild where I went is another. There are folks in my city who offer foraging classes, classes on mending and sewing, even how to ride a bike. We have an REI here that offers all sorts of classes from mountain biking to kayaking to hiking. I have a friend who took up pottery a few years ago and she has gotten really good at it. Painting an already made pot is a start. You never know where that might lead!

  4. Haha, when I saw Spin Class I thought the same. Great post Stefanie. Mr Gums is handyman extraordinaire. Everyone in the family is in awe of him, including, most recently, our daughter’s new partner. Not having grown up with a handy father (though he was a good gardener), I was astonished at the things Mr Gums would do. At first I was anxious when he started “improving” things like a bought sound system by drilling a hole in the back. What??!! Who does that? He does, and he was right. I can’t begin to describe the big projects, let alone the small ones he has taken on (and no he’s not a tradesman, he was a software engineer.)

    My Dad’s parents, like my Dad, were normally handy (ie could do the basic things), but my Mum’s parents were very handy. Nan could cook anything and would try new dishes, sew, crochet, whatever was needed (including men’s tailoring, and making my Mum’s wedding dress which I also wore). Grandpa made so much beautiful “bespoke” furniture, pieces of which I still have but may have to let go as we downsize. This is pretty heartbreaking, actually.

    Mr Gums’ mother could turn her hand to a lot too – including taking up decoupage and macrame – and loved learning new skills. She reupholstered some dining chairs that we will be able to keep. His father though was not handy at all.

    So me? No, I don’t LOVE doing things with my hands. I did some crocheting in my childhood, and I did patchwork for a couple of decades which I enjoyed. I like cooking t a degree, and gardening to a degree. I do mend my clothes, though. I get great pleasure out of extending their lives – darning holes, resewing seams, re-fixing buttons – but I don’t do things like my Nan did like turning collars, swapping sleeves around, turning bath towels into bathmats, etc.

    I do try to keep learning new things, though, and currently it’s Tai Chi. It’s pretty hard – but good for the body and brain. And, I’m very happy to be a builder’s labourer for Mr Gums!

    1. Thank WG! I love Mr Gums and I have never even met him! Your grandpa’s furniture sounds amazing. I hope you don’t have to let go of any of the pieces. If you do though, I hope they find a home where they will be loved. My sister is like you, she doesn’t love doing things with her hands though there are things she will do if she needs to. Oh Tai Chi! I would like to learn that one day. I hope you are enjoying it!

  5. Wow, you’ve got a great attitude about trying new things. You’re inspiring me to give knitting a try. I’ve been wanting to learn but haven’t really given myself a chance. A class is impractical with my schedule but I bet I could learn from YouTube. We should all be willing to try and fail and try again at things!

    1. Oh Laila, knitting is great! And once you learn the basics you can pretty much do anything since all stitches are based on knit and purl. If you lived nearby I’d come over and give you a lesson. 🙂

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