A woman’s work was never done: spinning in medieval art

by Judy Kavanagh

If you were a woman in medieval Europe (between the 5th and 15th centuries CE), you would have had many chores to perform every day such as cooking, cleaning, looking after children – and spinning. You would have needed to produce large quantities of thread from both wool and flax to weave into cloth for clothing, bedding, bags, sails, and countless other items. To get an idea of the amount of spinning required for weaving, a piece of cloth just one yard square and woven at 25 threads per inch required 900 yards of warp thread and another 900 yards of weft.

Now imagine spinning all this thread using a spindle. The spinning wheel first appeared in Europe only during the 13th century and was still very new technology. The spindle, however, is ancient and dates back thousands of years, and it was the spindle that was still the tool of choice for most of the medieval period.

To make enough thread for your needs, you would have spun everywhere and all the time – while walking, riding, gardening, doing errands, and tending your livestock. You would have used a distaff to keep your fibre clean and organized. A distaff is simply a long stick that acts as a third arm. The fibre is tied on at one end and the other end is stuck through your belt behind your waist. When you cradle the distaff shaft in the crook of your elbow, it leaves both hands free to either spin or do other tasks. If you need to stop spinning you can just stick the spindle into the fibre.

Glasgow Museum

We can learn a lot about how and where medieval spinning was done by looking at artwork of the time. The Bustling Housewife, a Swiss tapestry woven between 1470–80, shows the busy housewife spinning with a distaff and spindle with a basket of birds on her back and her baby in a sling while riding a donkey and tending her cow, goats, and pigs.

British Museum

With a distaff tucked in your belt, it’s easy to pause your spinning while you perform another chore like this woman from the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter, who has stopped spinning just long enough to feed her chicks and an enormous hen.

Illuminated manuscripts like the Luttrell Psalter were often decorated with little images in the margins. They are called drolleries and often had nothing to do with the subject of the text. Some are quite imaginative with monsters and mythical creatures, and some show wonderful glimpses of everyday life.

Medieval age spindles were not like the drop spindles most of us use today which have large whorls glued onto the shaft. A medieval spindle typically had a very small, light, removable whorl, usually at the bottom of the shaft, that was made of clay, bone, stone, or lead.

In the past few years, a few modern spinners have rediscovered the advantages of this style of spindle. As a spindle maker, I’ve made medieval-style spindles and learned to spin using a distaff. Because the whorl is compact and light, the spindle spins very fast but not for a very long time, which is perfect for making fine, high-twist yarn suitable for weaving. When a sufficiently large cop has built up on the spindle, you can remove the whorl because the cop itself acts as a whorl. Drafting is done with the hand near the distaff while your other hand flicks the spindle as needed. It’s a surprisingly comfortable position to spin in.

Bibliothèque nationale de France

This method of spinning is demonstrated in this lovely illustration in an illuminated manuscript about famous real and mythical women. The graceful woman in this picture is Pamphile, an ancient Greek woman who was credited by Pliny the Elder with inventing a method of spinning and weaving silk. The book De Mulieribus Claris was written by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), and this copy was translated into French and written out by hand between 1488 and 1496. The printing press was another bit of new technology at this time as it had only begun to be used in Europe in the mid 1400s. Before then all books were laboriously copied out and illustrated by hand.

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Because the spindle whorls of this time were so small and were removed when the cop got big enough, it’s hard to see them at all in many illustrations, but you can see the whorl in this picture of a woman winding spun thread onto her spindle. She has butterflied the thread around her left hand just as I do when I wind the thread onto my spindle. This picture is entitled Husband and Wife as Equals and is from an illustrated manuscript of Le roman de la rose, an allegorical love story started by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and continued by Jean de Meun 40 years later. There are about 320 whole or partial versions of this book in existence, but this one is particularly lavish as it was prepared for French royalty.

Bibliothèque nationale de France

Here’s a beautiful illustration from a copy of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, a history of the Hundred Years War. The woman sits under a tree and has paused her spinning to talk to a young man. She has a distaff and a spindle, and there is an enormous strawberry growing behind them.

Hungarian National Gallery

Spindles often appear in religious art of the time. This is Maria gravida, a Hungarian altar painting from 1410. A pregnant Mary is spinning a very fine linen thread using a spindle while an angel holds her distaff containing flax wrapped in a cloth. Another angel is winding off yarn from a spindle onto a niddy noddy and there’s a skein winder holding blue dyed thread beside her. When the painting was examined under infrared light, it was discovered the artist had painted the baby Jesus in Mary’s belly underneath the paint of her gorgeous blue dress.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

In this 15th-century drawing from Germany, Mary is spinning from a distaff, Joseph is doing woodworking, and the baby Jesus is winding thread off a spindle onto a niddy noddy. Perhaps this was a task often given to children during this time.

British Museum

Distaves often seem to have been turned into weapons in medieval art. In this drollerie from The Smithfield Decretals, Reynard the Fox, a popular trickster in medieval stories, has stolen a women’s goose, and she’s chasing after him with her distaff. The Smithfield Decretals is a collection of medieval canon law and was written out around the year 1300. The illustrations weren’t added until 40 years later, perhaps in an attempt to lighten up what must have been a rather boring book.

The Maastricht Hours is an illuminated manuscript produced in the early14th century in France. In these illustrations from facing pages, a woman has hitched up her skirt and is going after the fox who is running off with her chicken. 

Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

In this drawing in the Rothschild Canticles, a cat (or leopard?) has gotten into trouble trying to steal something from a bowl, and a woman with a distaff is chasing it.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Ishrael van Meckenem produced this engraving called The Angry Wife near the end of the medieval period, around 1500.  All I can say is that the husband must have left the toilet seat up.

Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

This illustration is from a French Arthurian romance created between 1275–1300. A woman with her headdress flying behind her is jousting with an unarmed knight. The woman looks angry and is using her distaff as a spear with the attached spindle flying in the air. Even her horse looks angry.

British Library

Spinners who own cats know what can happen when you spin with a spindle. This illustration from The Maastricht Hours shows a woman spinning using a freestanding distaff. Her tabby cat has pounced on her twirling spindle. Is she rolling her eyes?

Museum Meermanno

We love to get together with our friends and spin and chat, and it must have been the same 600 years ago. These elegant French ladies were painted around 1478 and appear to be spinning a fine linen thread on their spindles. This is from a medieval manuscript of La Cité de Dieu.

British Library

Sardanapalus, the King of Assyria, has dressed up as a woman and is spinning with his ladies. The mostly fictional story of Sardanapalus was told by the Greek historian Diodorus during the first century BCE. According to Diodorus, King Sardanapalus spent his life being lazy and indulging himself. He often dressed in women’s clothing and wore makeup and had both male and female lovers. This book was translated into French around 1480 as Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens.

British Library

Near the end of the medieval era, spinning wheels start to appear in art. They are hand-turned spindle wheels similar to what we call a great wheel or a walking wheel. Here a spinner is interrupted by a man who has draped his arm around her shoulder and is trying to feel her behind. It’s titled An amorous encounter and is from The Smithfield Decretals, c. 1275–1325.

Looking at these spinners from so long ago and spinning using a distaff and medieval-style spindle gives me a deep sense of connection to the lives of medieval women. Any of them could be my 25th great-grandmother, and I often wonder if they found satisfaction in their spinning as I do – feeling the fibre between my fingers, producing an even thread, seeing the cop build up on the spindle, and finally weaving the thread into cloth.

Judy Kavanagh is a spinner and spindle maker living in Ottawa, Canada with her 3 yarn-loving cats. She loves to experiment with making and spinning different kind of spindles. Judy is often found teaching spinning or weaving at the Ottawa Valley Weavers’ and Spinners’ Guild.

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Travelling with spindles

Words by Sissel Ellevseth

“The travelling itself is part of the journey,” my dad always said when my siblings and I started complaining about being bored in the back seat. The 1000-km drive to visit my grandparents in Vesterålen almost took the joy out of the summer vacation for us. Today, I don’t think much of it and rather enjoy spending hours upon hours in the car, my husband driving and myself spinning or knitting in the passenger seat.

I’m not much of a globetrotter. I’m perfectly fine at home with my stash and my tools, and I prefer to drive if I’m going somewhere. Sometimes though, I need to go by plane either for work or holidays. Every time I start to stress, not for the journey itself, but for the possibility of packing too little wool – or worse, for bringing the wrong projects for the trip. I start test packing wool and spindles early. It must be something rather compact because I do not like to drag several pieces of luggage. My travelling spinning project should bring me joy on the journey and not be something I will struggle with. It should be something special. I usually change my mind a couple of times before I go. 

If I’m to pack for standing or walking spindling, I would choose a suspended spindle. I have a couple of already dinged up Bossies that do that duty. I know there are ways to support spindle while walking, but that is still on my list of skills to tackle later. However, for hanging around airports and for spinning on a plane, train, or bus, I prefer supported spindles. I feel I can sit and spin without constantly being watched. When sitting, I relax more with a supported spindle.

The only time I have had issues with spindles and security was in Orlando waiting in line for one of the Disney parks while spinning on a small Jenkins. The security officer in my line might very well have been a spindler herself. She spotted me early and signaled me to put my Turkish spindle away. When it was my turn, she politely told me it could be confiscated by the other security officers and advised me to bring other types to the park. I could not understand how my little Jenkins Aegean spindle could be dangerous, but of course I kept it away for the day. I had other spindles in my backpack, so I was good.

I have not been doing a lot of airplane spindling, but I always choose spindles that look the least like a weapon for vampire dealings. Nevertheless, I stand in line for security, anxious with my heart in my throat, hoping my spindles will go through without notice.  Although I have not yet had any problems with airport security and my spindles, I wanted to be sure and ready for my next trip. I headed to the computer to find out more information. If you look up hand spindle or any other relevant word to spinning on the TSA’s pages, you do not get any hits. Knitting needles are allowed, and some airlines say wood or plastic are preferred over metal, circulars over straights, but no other limitations to sticks in general are mentioned.

There are a lot of different styles of supported spindles, and most of them look like they belong in van Helsing’s tool kit, some more than others. I have successfully brought phangs and small Tibetans on planes without hassle. How would security react if I were to bring a larger, pointier version? If I were to lose one of my precious carved WW spindles, I would be devastated for sure. I thought it best to check with the authorities.

I emailed the TSA, and after a few days they got back to me with an answer that did not exactly make me want to go on a plane trip with any spindle at all. Knitting needles are allowed up to 4 inches, and no tools at all measuring more than 7 inches. That excludes almost all but circular needles and the shorter sock needles. If tools are to be shorter than 7 inches, only my 2-inch Goldings would fly, and of all my supported spindles, only my takli spindle would be allowed, which is ironic since the takli was the one I thought would never be allowed.

What scared me the most in their answer, though, was the final words stating that officers have the discretion to prohibit any item through security if they believe it poses a security threat. And that after I assured the TSA in my email that all spindlers were peaceful and responsible people..

With that answer in mind, I am not sure I will ever bring my supported spindles on a plane again because I wouldn’t want to risk having them confiscated. For all other travelling, though, they are my first choice to sit and have a relaxing trip.

I might, of course, bring something small and replaceable and be sure to have means for it to escape security, if it should be detained and denied travelling with me. A padded envelope with my home address and with postage paid should be possible to have mailed at most airports.

Remember also to pack your precious safely as you do not know when something might fall out of your bag or when a fellow traveler might step on a bag of fiber and spindles. Imagine the horror! I prefer plastic containers for safety, but I also use an extra padded spindle bag that is nice to look at and that gives a fair protection to the spindles inside. I always pack at minimum 2 supported spindles together so they can support each other on the journey. At least that’s my excuse when my husband asks why I need to bring so many spindles on a trip…

Sissel Brun Ellevseth is a self-taught spinner and fiber wizard. Eleven years ago she started her spinning adventure, spinning for lace on a 120g spindle. Sissel lives with her husband and 2 girls in Bodø, north in Norway, where she teaches spindle classes on occasion, and in the daytime she repairs airplanes to pay for her fiber addiction.

Call for Tips

We’d love to get your tips for our Winter issue on Warmth.

If you want to spin the warmest yarn, what fiber/fiber blend would you use? (If you’d like to include what draft and plying you would combine in that fiber, please do!)

Head over to the Tip Jar submission page and send us your tip!

Reader Feature: Chantily Lovelace

Chantily posted on the PLYAway board on Ravelry about the “classes” she was taking at home since PLYAway was canceled, so she’s here to share a little bit about that with you as well as a little more about herself.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started spinning.

I’ve been playing with string for as long as I can remember – making webs in the living room of the mobile home my dad had bought from his brother and tying the front door into my web so Mom had to cut it before Dad could get in when he came home from work. I learned to crochet from my mom who taught me what she learned in evening classes. I learned to knit from a 4-H project manual. Spinning seemed magical when I saw it happen, when a former coworker pulled out a drop spindle. Twelve years ago, I demonstrated weaving on an inkle loom at Shepherd’s Cross Farm outside Claremore, OK, and made an acquaintance who was gracious enough to host me for a weekend and pay for me to spend a day learning to spin on a wheel, an Ashford Kiwi. I bought a drop spindle and got going in 10 minutes (I learned how to start without a leader and took off). I have not stopped since.

Do you have a favorite type of yarn to spin?

My default is somewhere between a thick fingering and a thin DK. I generally prefer a smooth yarn over art yarn. I have been working on intentionality, deciding beforehand what yarn I want using tools that measure for consistency. The latest is attempting to duplicate the weight of a commercial yarn recommended for a particular cardigan, Koronki, that I picked for a MeMadeMay challenge of meeting the criteria of including red, mohair, and a pleat. Fibers I love spinning are BFL and Cormo. Luxury fibers are cashmere and paco-vicuña, not that I get them very often.

What do you like to make with your handspun yarn?

I have no particular garment or accessory I prefer in handspun. When I started spinning I chose to buy fiber over yarn for getting more enjoyment for my money. My first handknit out of handspun was the Adamas shawl out of a thick lace/sock weight yarn from mohair, shetland, and alpaca that I hand blended with combs.

How long have you been reading PLY?

I’m a newer reader of PLY, looking it over after taking my first class at the 2nd PLYAway. I susbcribed and ordered back issues after PLYAway 5 was cancelled. I’ve been reading those since, looking through the issues most relevant to something I’m doing.

What do you look forward to most when you get an issue?

I’ve enjoyed articles written by PLYAway instructors I have taken classes from – as a way to refresh what’s rolling around in my head from class.

Tell us about not being able to have PLYAway and what you did instead.

I was so hoping COVID-19 would not affect (or minimally affect) PLYAway. It’s my one big fiber event. I don’t travel well, so having something this big so close is wonderful beyond words. I can count myself fortunate that the canceling of PLYAway was my only sorrow in the pandemic, but still, I was heartbroken. I get so much new learning to incorporate and work with over the rest of the year, and it’s the one event where I feel energized by being around people because I’m with people who share my favorite thing to do.

When PLYAway week approached, I decided to do “PLYAway At Home”: I wore my T-shirts and plotted out some activities I knew would take at least a day to do and some that would be a challenge. One day was “Learn to Love the Dealgan.” I watched Lois Swales’ “Spin Like You’re Scottish” on YouTube and then ordered a shorter, heavier dealgan to see if it was me or the tool. A heaver tool with a shorter neck worked better; it’s a bit of a wobbly thing.

I spent a day blending a batt on a blending board and making rolags, attempting to come close to replicating a tiny sample of yarn I wanted more of.

I spent time finishing some Cormo wool I had prepped and spun earlier. Hot soak, twacking, and a cool rinse led to blue fluffiness.

I couldn’t pass up experiencing Spin & Nosh (mostly noshing), so bought sheep milk cheeses from The Better Cheddar – shoutout to Green Dirt Farm’s spreadable sheep cheese.

And then, shopping! Live virtual shopping at Spry Whimsy got me 2 Uncharted Waters spindles and Essential Fibers roving.

The Natural Twist was very happy to custom blend big batts, using pictures of spring colors that I sent.

The 100th Sheep had gorgeous colors in Cormo – yes, I’m in love with Cormo.

I also bought pansy-themed yarn from Fairy Tailspun Fibers, blue & white from The Fiber Sprite, the PLYAway color from Essential Fibers, and yarn from Greenwood.

I certainly hope PLYAway can happen next year. In the meantime, I have a whole lotta spinning.

Chantilly Lovelace is the outreach chair for the Fiber Guild of Greater Kansas City.  You can find her as Chantillylace on Ravelry.

If you’d like to participate in an upcoming reader feature, fill out the reader feature form and Karen will contact you.

PLY Autumn 2021 Consistency Mood Board

Consistency is something most spinners strive for in their yarn, but how do you find that spinning sweet spot over short and long spins? Share your secrets to spinning a consistent yarn. Is it in the fiber, in the preparation, in the draft or ply? Can you be consistent in a woolen prep and draft? And if so, how?

Tell us how you learned to be consistent in your dyeing, prepping, spinning.

Do you think consistency is necessary all the time?

We all make mistakes, so what can spinners do to smooth out inconsistent spins, plies, dyes, or preparations?

Dyers! How do you dye pounds of fiber that are a consistent color? Blending? What methods do you use to blend fibers and colors so they are the same from the first ounce to the last?

When you work with fleeces, are there breeds that are more consistent in crimp and lock structure? Are there ways to wash a fleece to help the locks stay in formation? How do you prep a fleece to give the most consistent spin?

What about staying consistent in different yarn structures, singles, cabled, chain, textured? What are your best tips for plying consistently?

Are there tools that help you stay consistent? Measurements that are essential to know you are on track?

What part does your wheel play in staying consistent? Are some styles of wheels better than others?

If you can help answer any of these questions or have a good idea for an article, please let us know! If you’ve got an idea for a fantastic project, let us know that too! Whether it’s your first time proposing an article or your 100th, we want to hear from you!

Submit your ideas here

Proposals of articles and projects are due by Sept 1, 2020. We’ll get back to you in October, and final pieces are due March 1, 2021.

Just Give It a Whirl

Words and Photos by Michele Marshall

“What if…?” might be the most exciting phrase in a maker’s world.

I have dabbled in various forms of fiber, paper, and mixed media arts for most of my adult life. In each creative endeavor, I’ve discovered “what if” often precedes an exciting and fun phase of exploration that extends my knowledge and enjoyment of my craft.

Put simply, I’ve made a lot of ugly stuff!

Okay, put graciously, I’ve made a lot of things that were “less than attractive” and had no purpose whatsoever.

The trick is learning to accept things don’t always work and to reflect on why they didn’t or what was learned in the doing. Then you figure out how to apply those lessons to future explorations or extend what you already know. It’s called playing, except as adults we have forgotten how much fun it is!

I know people who collect and use support spindles, and I had wondered why they felt the need for another spinning tool. Then I encountered cotton. While I can spin it, laboriously, on my wheel, I started to think “What if I tried cotton on a support spindle? Would it be more fun?” Support spindles are relatively inexpensive, so I acquired one (or more) and started with cotton. It went well, and I found cotton took no more time on a support spindle because I traded all that treadling time for drafting time.

But support spindles took me by surprise. I hadn’t really thought about what “supported” spindling really meant. It makes all sorts of “what if” options come alive! The single needn’t be strong, just able to hold together reasonably well.

“What if I try supported spinning?” became a minor fixation for me. I started a collection of things I wanted to try spinning on my support spindles when time and motivation allowed. I collected bits of moss, air plants, pharmaceutical cotton, clean dryer lint, finely shredded paper, steel wool, hand-combing waste, pygmy goat down, cottonwood seeds – and looked forward to a day to play.

One of the first things I considered was some of my materials might not be friendly to my traditional fiber tools. It’s one thing to expose the metal or carbon fiber shaft of a support spindle to something organic but quite another to consider putting those organic materials into, say, your hand cards or drum carder. Fortunately, I have a pair of cat combs I had purchased early in my cotton spinning explorations, both inexpensive and washable or disposable.

Cat combs with faux batts of wool and wool/steel, prior to rolling

I started with some combing waste, mostly because I had a fair amount of it on hand from a recent spin. It was a bit neppy and soft, but also not something I had to worry about ruining. Think of it like the mud in mud pies; if it turns out well, you can always upgrade the ingredients! I decided to try blending it with steel wool. The steel has a longer “staple” length than my wool, so I added it to one card after I finished the blending, removing that batch without any rolling, like a batt. I added a second, wool only, blended “batt” on top and then rolled the two together from the side, rather than the tip, and drafted from the tip end.

“Batts” of wool/steel, John Galen support spindle

I plied the single, creating a sparkly 2-ply yarn that is surprisingly strong. I certainly wouldn’t wear it, but it could make an interesting addition to a tapestry weaving or a needle felting project.

The collection of “what if” items itself taught me a few things, one of which is that sometimes you have to stop and play in the moment. While in Florida, I collected some air plants, thinking their short, flexible stems might be something I could spin. Sadly, I didn’t have a support spindle with me, and by the time I was able to get to my spindles, the plants had dried too much to be of use.

I had no such problems with the moss, which I tried spinning on its own, but it either broke apart with too much twist or refused to take twist at all. By blending the moss with cotton, in the same way I used the steel wool and combing waste, I got a passable single. The moss, however, became bruised in the process and eventually caused the cotton to weaken with dampness. It also made a mess, one I am glad I didn’t have to clean away from the moving parts of a wheel.

Coin tahkli from The Woolery with cotton/moss single

Some things that seem like they might be spinnable simply refuse to be spun on their own. Dryer lint was a disaster. I thought I could spin it just as it was, holding it loosely in my hand and letting my leader work some twist into the fluff.

Several sneezes later, I gave this up. There simply wasn’t any staple length at all to the fluff.

Combining a couple of “What if” ideas, I carded some pharmaceutical cotton, the type they stuff in the top of medicine bottles, with the dryer lint. With this blend, I made an interesting sort of Donegal tweed-like yarn. The lint isn’t terribly strong and tends to shed a bit, but it presents all sorts of interesting ideas about adding it to batts or carding it into singles. I started thinking about collecting “sentimental lint” from washing things like children’s clothes or old flannel shirts and realized I get a consistent beige-colored lint from washing flannel sheets.

The cotton/lint play taught me that not all pharmaceutical cotton is the same. The first bits I played with were very nice, much like the handspinners’ cotton I’ve purchased. The second bits, however, were bluntly cut, full of nepps, and lumpy. But these less-than-nice cotton pieces allowed me to see the fibers in the clumps move apart and into place when it double drafts, something I find particularly difficult to see in smoother preparations.

By now my spinning area was a mess. I had moss, lint, fluff, wool, and steel dust surrounding me. But I couldn’t clean up until I saw what I could do with the cottonwood seeds.

Hipstrings Mistral spindle with cottonwood single

I was encouraged because, unlike dryer lint, the seeds have a staple. It might be only 1/4-inch long, but it is something to work with. On a whim, I tried spinning the seeds from their cloud. And it works! The single is soft and prone to breaking easily, but it’s a single. I started thinking about goose down. Haven’t I read that people used to weave with such things?

And what if I combine desirable seeds, dryer lint, and cotton? I think cosmos seeds might be a good candidate for the experiment. The cotton and dryer lint are biodegradable, and I’m told wool makes good compost, too. What if I use a little square loom and make the base from the cotton/lint/seed single and then do the final weaving with a fine wool single? What if I planted and watered this square? I could mail them to family and friends in their birthday cards.

I have so many more options I want to try, ideas generated through playing with inspiration and materials. Playing opens up our stash, and our minds, to potentially exciting discoveries. It gives us new muscle memory for taking into our default and new spins. And it makes spinning a never-ending rabbit hole of exploration and possibility.

Now, go play in your stash!

Michele Marshall has always been fascinated by people make things and usually has to try it herself if give half a chance. She lives with her husband in the hills of Indiana and can be found on Ravelry as Mingo08.

Winter 2020 ads on sale

Ads are officially on sale for the next issue on Warmth (Winter 2020).

We are dedicated to keeping this magazine content heavy and ad light (ads are only 12–15% of our content). Hopefully you’ve noticed this, and hopefully you’ve noticed the ads. We love our advertisers – without them, we couldn’t bring you this magazine. So if you’ve got a spinning-related business, consider advertising! We’ve got a limited number of spaces available at a variety of sizes/aspects and affordable prices.

Art due September 1, with the issue shipped December 10, 2020.

Check out all the details about ads here.

Introducing PLY’s new graphic designer

Elizabeth Fitzpatrick is the new graphic designer/layout artist for PLY, and we asked her a few questions so we could all get to know her a little better. Her first issue is the Summer 2020 issue on Supported Spindles.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, what fiber craft(s) you do, and how you got started in the fiber world.

My introduction to the fiber world is through my partner of 22 years, Maxine. She learned how to crochet when she was young, but about 15 years ago we were on vacation and walked into a yarn store. Thus began her true fiber journey. I just tag along. She tried to teach me how to knit, which is when I discovered I’m really terrible at counting. So I don’t do any spinning, knitting, or fiber-ing. A few years ago we started our company, knittingbuddha studio. Maxine does the handspun, knitting, and teaching, I do the design. My one foray into fiber was doing the felted sign of a knitting Buddha that hangs in our show booth.

Tell us about your journey in graphic design. What made you get started with it and what is your past experience?

When I was young and living in the NY area, every Sunday one summer, the newspaper featured a Peter Max painting as a full spread. I loved his work. It was fun and colorful, but it also bridged this gap between fine art and commercial art, and that spoke to me. At the same time, John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched a billboard campaign titled “War Is Over.” In our small town of 1,000 people, a “War Is Over” billboard was posted right before the river bridge. It was a small billboard, but I remember staring at it and thinking it was different than any billboard I had ever seen before. Simple black text on a white background. It was a message, it was art, and it was performance. And it was on a billboard! I wanted to do that.

I started my design career in the early 80s, back when being a graphic designer was a hands-on craft involving mechanical layouts, t-squares, drawing boards, proportion wheels, and amberlith overlays. I’ve worked as a designer laying out newspaper ads, designing logos, and creating graphics for K-12 English learning programs and as the artistic director for a non-profit arts organization. Plus, I have 20 years of experience as an art director for several trade magazines, and now PLY!

What was it like when you found out you were going to be the new graphic designer for PLY? How has the experience been so far?

I was a bit blown away to be chosen as the PLY designer. When I applied, I wasn’t originally picked as a finalist. But those who weren’t chosen were given the opportunity to go ahead and submit a mock up. I decided to do it because, at the very least, I could use it as a portfolio piece. I received some great feedback from Jacey, she had me do a couple of other pieces, and then she offered me the job. It was awesome. I celebrated with wine and cake.

The thing about PLY is it’s very much a showcase magazine with big, beautiful pictures and wonderful illustrations. My previous magazine work involved pipelines and construction. There wasn’t much room for interesting design work, so it’s great to work on a magazine with an artistically receptive audience. Like spinning, the joy of designing is in the process. It’s always nice to have the finished product, but it’s the process that makes it worthwhile, and that’s how I felt working on my first issue of PLY.

What do you do with your free time? What else would you like to share about yourself?

I am also a fine artist. I’ve sold some paintings over the years and was active in the Art Car scene for a little while. I’ve painted five cars and a VW bus. A few years ago I received a ukulele as a gift and have worked my way to the ceiling of beginner and the floor of intermediate. I now have a repertoire and play for our four dogs. They don’t seem to ever tire of hearing “Dock of the Bay.” I’ve got a bunch of DIY projects that I continually procrastinate on. I consider our house a big sculpture I will probably never finish. It’s all in the process.

A Study of the Effects of Canis Lupus Familiaris (Dog) Fiber on Achieving Nirvana

words and photos by Brittany Trask

As I walked my 17-year-old Chow Chow Bear, otherwise known as “Chookie,” for what was to be our final time in September 2018, I stood proud and transfixed. I was mesmerized by a piece of fur that had shaken itself loose from Chookie’s cuddly frame, drifting through the twilight like shimmering copper, only to assuredly land on my partially untied tennis shoe. It was during this moment that I began to realize how Chookie’s meaning to me had changed over the years. Her fur had became something to use rather than a place to bury my tearstained face after yet another abusive incident with my parents. I thought about how lovely it would be to simultaneously commemorate Chookie and make the argument that fibers – specifically those of a Chow Chow and Suri Alpaca – and the fiber arts as a whole can save a life and beautify even the darkest of souls.

This is a difficult piece to write, much like anything that is worthwhile, because there’s so much I have experienced both positive and negative. I’ve served as a lightning rod for irrational anger and have allegedly been the reason for my parent’s alcoholism and abusive behaviors; I am a sexual assault survivor, recovered self-mutilator, perennial scapegoat, and recovered anorectic. To Chookie though, I was her human, someone who could always be counted on to appreciate the freshly killed prey she’d set at my feet because I knew it was her way of showing love. She’d accompany me on my runs, sans leash, or sleep on the topmost stair since my bedroom door didn’t have a lock, or climb into bed with me in the winter because heat was only available downstairs where my parents were. In essence, she became my confidant and protector since her arrival as an 8-week-old puppy when I was 11 years old, and she remained thus throughout 3 moves, a graduate school experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and the start of a stable loving relationship with another human being, all the while acting as a better role model to me than those who thought themselves suited to the task.

After a temporary separation caused by college, Chookie and I were reunited under odd circumstances and she found a second-favorite human and home in/with my boyfriend Brad, effortlessly made friends with the cats we’d taken in, which was surprising given the higher-than-average prey drive she’d possessed throughout her life. In the meantime, I began spinning yarn, saving her fur, and preparing to move to North Dakota for graduate school with Chookie and Trillian the kitten in tow. What I didn’t realize was her ability to console and comfort would increase exponentially while I navigated a difficult Master’s degree in English by myself. 

After 2 years of long-distance pep talks and annual visits, Brad asked me to come back to Ohio with Chookie and Trillian, which I accepted because I was growing to really love him and what he brought to my life. I was freer, able to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to be and love myself. Over the next 2 years, as I gave in to the gnawing thought that I should at least try to get the fiber arts business set up that I’d been dreaming of for years, Chookie and her soft fibrous constancy were there for a nuzzle, or a leisurely walk on Gladys St where she was much beloved by the neighborhood for being the elegant, amicable old dog she was, spry frame galloping up and down the street.

All this time, I was spinning the most amazing suri alpaca fiber and becoming friends with the owners to the point where shearing day was my Christmas in May. Spinning fiber from animals you have gotten to know is a very rewarding pastime, but spinning chiengora for not just myself and others (there was a commissioned spin for someone’s Australian Shepherd) takes what is a truly transcendental experience and transforms it into something akin to nirvana or moksha.

When Chookie died on 14 September 2018, I requested the vet shave her so I could spin it. A week had gone by since that transfixing walk, and I didn’t want to honor such a noble member of my family with a glass necklace full of ashes. I wanted to do something meaningful with what I had left but wasn’t sure I would have enough for a huge project, so I have been plain-weaving tiny pieces that combine the fur and fiber of animals no longer with us to give to people who knew Chookie and helped take care of her while we were away. This piece is not just about Chookie or the 2 alpacas, Blaze and Diva, who died, but about all the fiber-producing animals that have warmed our hearts and souls as fiber artists over the years, helped us through trauma and painful moments, inspired us to be our best selves, and showed us that the path to happiness lies in the simple motions of picking up and holding some fiber.

A leisurely stroll can be a beautiful thing, but the addition of a 4-legged companion can make such a venture all the better. Chookie hated the leash when she was younger but came to appreciate it as her vision deteriorated and our walks became an intermittent switching of who was walking whom. One thing’s for sure, Chookie has taught me what Bill Maher firmly believes:

“It just doesn’t matter.”

Enjoy the walk, Chookie!

Brittany Trask resides in Northeast Ohio where she owns and operates The Medicinal Spinner and lives with her boyfriend Brad and 3 kooky cats. She enjoys teaching others about the healing power of the fiber arts, reenacting, writing, and the macabre. Find her on Facebook or at www.themedicinalspinner.com.