Next to the sheep pavilion Monday, a group of women were laughing together, trading stories about their grandchildren. Around them sheep were being sheared and led to the exhibition arena, “baa-ing” all the way, but the women didn’t pay much attention to them.
They were busy spinning.
For centuries, sheep’s wool has been sheared, washed, carded and spun into yarn, then woven, sewed, knitted, crocheted or tatted into clothing. The group — most of whom are members of the Osage Spinners Guild — were spending their last day at the fair working on projects and speaking about how exactly wool goes from the sheep to the closet.
“A lot of people have forgotten that cloth has to come from somewhere,” said Dee Wolfe, president of the guild. “They don’t think about how their shirts or towels or blankets came to be, they think ‘Oh, I just go to Walmart and buy them.’ Part of the guild’s mission is to inform and get spinning back out into the public eye.”
The group was using not only sheep’s wool, but also mohair and alpaca wool for their various projects on Monday. Most of the women said they took classes to learn how to spin; Wolfe said she bought a spinning wheel out of sheer necessity.
“I was raising sheep and suddenly had all this wool I didn’t know what to do with, so I started spinning and fell in love with it. You could definitely call us fiber addicts,” she added with a laugh.
The process of turning raw wool into usable yarn or thread is involved and time-consuming, said guild member Dori Semler, of Deepwater.
“First, the wool goes away by half,” Semler said. “Fleeces that are 10 to 13 pounds, you’ll probably only get five to seven pounds of wool. Then you have to wash it. I use simple dish soap, but that takes a lot of time and patience.”
After a thorough washing, the wool is carded to stretch the fibers in the same direction and then the wool is ready for spinning or to be made into felt or weaving. Dyes can also be added to the wool; the guild prefers to use natural substances such as onion skins, ragweed or herbs, because it’s better for the wool to keep things organic.
“Keeping everything as natural as possible is better for the sheep, meaning they produce better wool,” Wolfe said. “You can feel a difference if you use high acidic dyes and, really, this process has been done over hundreds and hundreds of years, we don’t need to mess with it too much.”
Aside from getting together monthly, the guild also participates in reenactments at Missouri Town 1855 and other festivals around the state, dressing in period clothing and giving demonstrations on spinning and weaving. Semler is also involved in Civil War reenactments and said her grandchildren have all helped the spinning cause.
“My grandson, he used to say, ‘Grammy, why don’t you just buy socks at the store?’ Now he’s noticing when I pull the thread wrong,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll get him on a wheel yet.”
Robin Poese, of Chilhowee, said she brings her drop spindle — a precursor to the spinning wheel — wherever she goes.
“I was taking my grandson to the doctor’s office and I pulled it out because we had quite a bit of a wait,” she said. “Well, when the doctor finally showed we had to have a 10-minute discussion on spinning first. It’s funny because spinning seems like such a niche thing, and it is, until you get into it and start meeting all these people who spend their time doing it.”
While it may be a bit of a lost art, most of the guild members learned to spin in classes or from family members. They encourage people to try a class.
“You’ll get hooked easily,” Wolfe warned.
“It’s interesting the things you learn,” she added. “For example, when you think of wool, most people think of winter clothing. But really, wool is great for summertime too; it absorbs moisture and keeps you dry. In the winter it’s that same moisture that insulates and keeps you warm.”
Just then a cellphone rang. As Poese answered it, she continues to use her drop spindle to thread yarn, half an eye on the wool.
“Seventeenth century meets 21st,” Wolfe joked. “That’s what we do.”