Sunday, June 5, 2022

Carding and spinning and weaving, oh my.

It's Sunday night, which means I owe y'all a blog post. But I'm tired and my feet hurt, so I'm going to try to keep it short.

The reason I'm tired, etc., is that I've just completed my first weekend as a volunteer with El Rancho de las Golondrinas here in Santa Fe. Yesterday, I sat out in the placita (the little plaza in the part of the museum depicting 17th century life in northern New Mexico) in the shade and learned how to card wool and use a Navajo spindle. I even got my picture in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the local paper -- click here for the article, then click through to the third picture. (There's a typo in the caption, by the way. We were carding the wool, not carting it.)

Carding involves taking the washed, dried, and matted wool fibers that have been shorn from the sheep and combing them to get the tangles (and other junk -- sheep live outdoors, you know) out and to get the fibers to lay straight so that they can be spun. The carding combs sitting next to me on the bench are adult-sized; we also have some smaller combs for the kids. And yes, kids carded wool back in the day -- even toddlers were taught how. After all, it's not like you could have popped down to Target to buy a new shirt; if you wanted one, you had to weave your own. And it's labor intensive work, so everybody had to contribute.

The wool comes off the cards in a little roll. Here it's called a lamb's tail; I've also heard it called a rolag. A spindle is then used to make the rolags into yarn.

There are a bunch of different types of spindles, but the one everybody used in 17th century New Mexico was called a malacate (pronounced mah-lah-CAH-tay). It's also known as a Navajo spindle. Now, just like a lot of other terms, there's some question about whether "Navajo spindle" is politically correct, but I'll link to a video in a minute that was shot in 2020 and features a Navajo woman calling it a Navajo spindle. So there you go. 

Here's what a Navajo spindle looks like:

 Photo shamelessly stolen from

It's a supported spindle -- that is, the tip of the spindle rests on the ground (or in a bowl), so the yarn you're spinning doesn't have to support the weight of the spindle the way it does when you use a drop spindle. It's hard to tell from this photo, but a Navajo spindle is about a yard long, which is two or three times longer than a typical drop spindle. You spin the yarn by rolling the top of the shaft against your thigh. (Video of that Navajo woman demonstrating it is coming up in a sec.) 

I am not proficient either at carding or at spinning on this kind of spindle, so here's that video I've been talking about. First you get to see some Navajo churro sheep, which are the kind we have at Las Golondrinas; then come the demonstrations on carding and spinning. The whole video is about 20 minutes long. She starts carding the wool at about 37 seconds in, then she picks up the spindle at about 9:10 and talks about the technique and what weaving means to the Navajo. If you want to skip over that and just watch her use the spindle, start the video at about 12:26.

So that was yesterday. Today I was in the demonstration loom room, letting guests try their hand at weaving. Of course I didn't get a photo of the demo loom because pockets are anachronistic, so my phone was in my shorts underneath my skirt. But going back to the article in the New Mexican, if you click to the fourth photo, you can see a couple of the other looms we have: the jerga (YEHR-gah) loom takes up a good bit of the front of the photo, and behind the guy in the red shirt you can kind of see the loom used to weave sabanilla (sah-bah-NEE-yah), the cloth that's used for colcha embroidery (which is a whole 'nother craft that I have yet to try).

I was commiserating today with a guest who both knits and weaves that while knitters have a big online home in Ravelry, there's no comparable website for weavers. So I'm happy that I've landed here in New Mexico, where weaving is part of the culture. I met so many experienced weavers this weekend -- more than I ever have in the years since I started learning the craft. I'm happy to keep learning, and to keep sharing what I learn.

And now I think I'll go and put my feet up.


So much for keeping it short...


These moments of fiber-crafty blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. The pandemic's not over, guys -- get vaxxed and boosted!

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