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Spinning Memories and Wool

Very so often, here in the suburbs of Maryland, I grow nostalgic for our farm in Kentucky and so I pull out my bags of shorn wool. I reach down and pull out clumps of Naomi, whose fine, crimped wool spins like silk and brings to mind the dainty, regal sheep she was.

On that cold February evening when her minute triplets were born, I could only gaze incredulously at their identical sweet faces. Gathering all three into my arms I began to imagine the quantities of fine wool they might one day produce.

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Naomi was not able to nurse all three, so we quickly adopted Christina, the smallest, and made her our special bottle lamb. Like an eager puppy, she soon was following us everywhere around the farm. Two years later our third daughter became the first child in town to be named after a beloved sheep.

Or perhaps I take out a handful of Brownie, a chocolate-brown sheep, who delighted me with her dark, dense wool. It made a nice contrast in the only blanket I've ever knitted.

The bags of wool are a tangible tie to a way of life we've left behind for now and to the sheep who faithfully lambed each winter and were sheared each May by Roger, our Australian friend.

With his small team of young Australian shearers, Roger transformed our farm into a boisterous party one afternoon each spring. Bleating lambs and whirring motors would blend. One by one, delighted sheep, freed from their winter blankets and the grasp of muscular men, would leap out the barn door to cavort in lightness through the greening field.

Growing up in south Florida did not prepare me for the life of a shepherd or spinner. I saw my first sheep when I was 19 years old and living in Spain. I would watch with delight the large flocks of Spanish sheep led by tenacious shepherds, black berets upon their heads, canes in hand. From that moment I was enchanted with the fluffy bulkiness of these timid creatures and longed to feel their wooly softness in my arms.

In Florida we never wore wool, nor did I ever knit. But nevertheless my father-in-law, a talented woodworker, made me a spinning wheel out of black walnut and bought me a small plastic bag of wool. "How," I asked him with bewilderment, "will I ever learn to use it?"

But after reading how-to manuals and watching experienced spinners at country fairs and museum demonstrations, I gradually learned to coordinate the turn of the wheel with the grasp of the thumb and middle finger. Slowly, with many bunched-up lumps and broken strands I began to spin these fibers into yarn.

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Like most country occupations, there is a process that must be followed in its proper order. Before spinning comes the carding, which is like combing tangled hair. And even before that comes the washing, never to be done in a machine. I found this out when a felted mass of wool emerged the first time I attempted it.

A long soak in a bathtub full of tepid water and gentle soap removes the accumulated grime, manure, and grasses. An unsuspecting baby-sitter walked into our bathroom one day and almost fainted when she spotted a soupy tub full of sludge that was my latest fleece.

Fresh-washed wool is still fragrant with the odor of barns and open fields and at last is ready to be carded.

My two metal-bristled brushes were eventually replaced by a hand-cranked drum carder from Canada, which cut the time in half. It also delighted scores of children who, while visiting my daughters over the years, have begged me to teach them how.

There is an elemental satisfaction, far beyond the need to produce a product, in the touch of coarse, tangled clumps of sheep hair transformed into flat rectangles of carded, ready-to-spin wool.

After a while my hands are softened by rich lanolin in the wool. The growing number of rectangles is like a bounteous crop that I have patiently brought to harvest.

The table beneath the carder fills with dried fragments of old meadow grass and hay that our sheep fed upon. Our farm, so far away in time and miles, is brought vividly into the present. I can almost hear the baa-ing of the sheep.

I move into the living room. Sitting at my spinning wheel, I gently press my foot on the pedal and the wheel begins to turn. Between my fingers, Naomi's wool stretches luxuriously into a twisted strand. One by one, I add two-inch-wide lengths of carded wool to the last strand spun. As they catch, each one joining to the last, they become an unbroken length of yarn.

I still have bags of wool down in the basement waiting for future days of spinning. I plan to make them last until the day when we can once more move to the country and adopt, if not an entire flock, at least one or two of my fleecy favorites to keep me in wool.

Meanwhile, as the bobbin fills, I am soothed by the peaceful rhythm of the turning wheel and thoughts of my gentle, generous old friends.

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