I’ve been in Ontario for five years. And for four of those years, I knew about the Ontario Handspinning Seminar (OHS), an annual conference of handspinning enthusiasts, but I was never able to go. Either I was working and couldn’t take the time off, or I was in school (and definitely couldn’t take the time off), or couldn’t afford the travel costs.
This year, finally–finally!–the OHS was in my neck of the woods. The GTA. And I have plenty of free time right now. And transportation. And with grad school and everything else going on, I completely forgot about the seminar until about two weeks after the deadline for registration.
One beseeching email later and I was sending in my registration fee along with a sign-up for a workshop on hemp spinning. I’ve never spun hemp or any other bast fibres before, and the opportunity to take class on it was something I couldn’t pass up. Before I actually showed up on Friday evening, the workshop was my primary reason for attending OHS, but I got so much more out of this conference than I could have imagined.
Saturday morning began with a nice, get-to-know-you activity where we were divided into groups assigned different classic books, in accordance with this year’s theme of “Spinning Tales.” Our goal was to create yarn inspired by that book in an hour. Fibre, embellishments like binding thread and sequins, and descriptive passages from the books were all prepared for us ahead of time. I ended up in the Peter Pan group, and was inspired by a few lines about (poor) Wendy, having been relegated to laundry duty in Neverland: “There was an enormous fireplace which was in almost any part of the room where you cared to light it, and across this Wendy stretched strings, made of fibre, from which she suspended her washing.” I spun several different colours of wool to represent items of clothing, each separated by a length of sewing thread, then plied it all with sisal twine:
It is, perhaps, the ugliest yarn I’ve ever spun. Overtwisted and completely useless. It was a lot of fun to do something creative within a short period of time; I heard several people around me murmuring the likes of “I like when people tell me what to spin, I’m not creative” and yet they came up with some beautiful and in fact very creative pieces.
We then split up for the workshop sessions. Mine was taught by Diny Warren, a long-time fibre artist who has spent considerable time researching hemp and other bast fibres (for you science-y types, bast fibres = phloem).
She’d been involved in a pilot project to assess the feasibility of growing hemp in Ontario, and brought us samples of everything from coarse Ontario-grown hemp (limited edition stuff; the project team concluded that obstacles regarding environmental concerns in processing were too great) to fine Italian-processed hemp to ramie to flax. She even brought us a bit of bast, as opposed to rayonized, bamboo.
She quickly dismissed a few of my previously held notions about hemp and other bast fibres, such as: 1) they are hard to spin (actually, no), and 2) they are wonderfully eco-friendly (yes in the growing phase, but the processing can be very toxic). I was really surprised at how easy and enjoyable they were to spin. Unlike wool, bast fibres have no scales and no crimp and therefore no elasticity, but I had no problem spinning a strong yarn as long as I had enough twist. It was helpful to have Diny there to give feedback (Leslie, add more twist) and encouragement. Trying a new fibre can be surprisingly intimidating, perhaps because spinners tend to be stingy types who are afraid of “wasting” anything. It helps to have someone put the fibre in your hands and say, “Here, spin this.”
So I successfully got my feet wet in the world of bast fibres. Diny also read us Rumpelstiltskin and brought hemp brownies (seriously). I also was very impressed when I had a last-minute wheel malfunction (OF COURSE) and no fewer than three conference organizers came to my rescue.
I had originally planned to just attend the Saturday workshop, but I came back on Sunday because I had a few items entered into the competition. The feedback and comments on my entries were in line with what I was expecting, and very constructive. I had decided to push myself, technique-wise, and all my yarns represented new skills, such as supported spinning, wider-diameter yarns, and embroidery. My embroidered piece (inspired by Charles Bukowski’s poem “Bluebird”) also won the Advanced Non-Wearables category, so I was pretty pleased about that:
The skill and artistry in the display and competition items were stunning. I was surprised at how many pieces were entered in the “Just for Fun” category rather than being up for judging. They would have soundly, and deservedly, kicked my ass:
Also on Sunday was a lecture by Reed Needles, a wheelwright/watchmaker/harness-maker/many-other-things who talked about antique wheels. He had a great sense of humour and shared several enlightening facts, especially about Canadian Production Wheels (which he called the John Deere balers of spinning, given their rather utilitarian design and purpose). He demoed a lathe, which immediately made me want one–because sawdust would look great strewn around my apartment in downtown Toronto, and brought us all handmade orifice hooks. Reed, you sure do know how to please a crowd full of people with a weird hobby.
In the photo above, you can see why raising your hand at a spinning conference doesn’t necessarily mean you have a question (drafting joke).
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about the OHS. Everyone was friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful to a first-time attendee like me. I learned a lot and was inspired to check out the spinning and weaving guild in Toronto. Unfortunately next year’s seminar is the same weekend as my Wellesley reunion, but there’s always 2015…