• Four ounces of Jacob wool roving from Catawampus Farm in Central Maine, resting on a kitchen scale. This wool will be a 4-ounce 2-ply DK weight skein of yarn, so before I start, I section the roving into two 2-ounce sections. I will spin the 2-ounce sections into singles, and then twist those singles together to create a plied yarn. This particular wool is some of my favorite to spin. It’s soft, yet creates a strong yarn, and the black and white spotting of the sheep’s wool creates a beautifully variegated finished yarn.
    My mother used to raise Dorset sheep, which are not at all known for their wool. Still, because of her, I know how much work, effort and care can be involved in the husbandry of animals. There are ice cold nights and mornings, there are fence breakouts, hours of joy – sometimes heartbreak – during lambing. It fills my heart with joy to know that the wool I’m holding and turning into something I will knit and wear on my body, came from animals raised in a small herd in Maine.
    It doesn’t hurt that the fiber is quite easy to spin. This roving was the wool I first learned to spin; I was using a rented spinning wheel from Port Fiber, before I could afford to buy my own wheel. Spinning wheels – unfortunately – are not cheap (mine cost upwards of $400), and I had to save a long time before I could afford to purchase one for myself. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • Much of my assembly experience comes from hammering wooden pegs into particle board coffee tables from a Swedish furniture megastore, so I was nervous trying to put together a fully functional spinning wheel. The wheel that was within my price range came completely in pieces, and the wood was unfinished. I stained and varnished each piece, and those pieces came together into this machine, which I use every day. My wheel is a Ashford Kiwi 2 spinning wheel. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • A closer look of the drafting process. My right hand controls the amount of twist entering the fiber, as I pull the draw back with my left hand. I’m spinning this yarn with a long draw method. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • This was the first garment I ever made with my hand-spun yarn. It’s a pullover sweater pattern named Lesley, by Maine-based designer Hannah Fettig. At the risk of sounding dramatic about a sweater, taking wool roving to yarn, and then yarn to garment, was one of the most satisfying experiences of my lifetime. Since then I haven’t tackled another hand-spun sweater, but I’ve made several scarves and mittens from wool that I spun myself. Next on my to-do list is to learn more about processing raw wool fleece and wool roving preparation. Sheep naturally produce a type of oil called lanolin, and when a sheep is sheared, much of the lanolin must be removed by washing before the spinning can start. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • This photo is an exaggerated illustration of how I pre-draft roving, which adds a bit of space in between the individual fibers. I’m spinning this into a 2-ply DK (double-knitting or light-worsted) weight skein, and I want to avoid spinning a dense, heavy yarn with this fiber. Separating the fiber slightly allows me to create loftier yarn, with a bit of air in the twist. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • Three skeins of 2-ply worsted weight American Romney yarn, dyed with indigo. The wool’s natural color is a medium grey. I dye the yarn myself after I spin it.
    The cost per skein varies, depending on the type of wool and the way I’m spinning the yarn, but most of the roving I work with costs between $2 and $4 an ounce. I buy it directly from individual farmers, New England farmers whenever possible.
    Spinning my own yarn is not inherently cheaper than buying a commercially prepared yarn, and in some cases, it can be more expensive. Many non-knitters are surprised at the cost of yarn. It’s not uncommon for the total cost of one sweater to reach $75 to $100, which far exceeds the budget many people set aside for a single piece of clothing.
    In college – and admittedly occasionally still – I was a glutton for quick, cheap fashion. I shopped nearly exclusively at big box stores known for churning out trendy items at low prices. Those clothes rarely lasted a full year before falling apart, which did not seem to matter because I could buy the same cheap clothing again at the same low prices. Now, I try to factor in how long I believe the sweater will last with the cost of my materials. A $75 sweater that lasts 10 years is a pretty solid investment. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • After overcoming initial trial and error when I was learning to spin, now when I’m at the wheel, I finally feel like I understand the mindful meditation some find in yoga. There’s a part of my brain which becomes quiet as the thrum of my feet beat like a metronome and the fiber passes through my fingers. I’m able to fixate on the evenness and texture of the singles as they spool onto my bobbin, and my mind has little else to think about, other than what I’m doing right in this moment. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer
  • This is me, wearing my hand-spun yarn sweater from the Maine-based knitwear designer, Hannah Fettig. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

My mother always wanted a spinning wheel. She dreamed of finding the perfect one at an antique store or a flea market, a wheel worn with age and nicked from years of use, like those in the etchings from a Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale book. Mom was more interested in their beauty than their function, but her desire lodged itself somewhere, dormant, in my mind.

At age 19, I learned to knit, and then the thought of spinning wheels reignited into an obsession. Unlike my mom, I wasn’t obsessed with the idea of owning the physical object. Instead I was fascinated by the possibility of taking raw wool to yarn. It was the kind of obsession that existed only on YouTube and Instagram, where I lived vicariously watching others spin. Spinning struck me as an activity to be passed down through generations, my great-grandmother teaching my grandmother, my grandmother teaching my mother, my mother teaching me, and so on. I didn’t believe it was a skill I could pick up simply through self-determination.

So I continued knitting, and continued enviously watching as others turned clouds of wool rope, which I now know is called “top” or “roving,” depending on its preparation, into skeins of wonderful, textured yarn.

Then, a year and a half ago, I moved to Maine from the Midwest, and I discovered an incredible number of experts and resources on wool. Seeing brick-and-mortar stores dedicated to selling spinning supplies somehow made spinning more tangible. On a whim one afternoon after a shift at the Portland Press Herald, where I work as a photographer, I went into Portland’s PortFiber. Twenty minutes later, I left with a rented spinning wheel.

I completely fell in love. Admittedly, the love was not instantaneous. My first bobbins of yarn were horribly dense and lumpy – totally unusable. I identified first as a knitter, second as a spinner, and so it was difficult to accept that as I learned, I was making yarn I’d never want to knit with. Eventually, though, I came to enjoy the physical act of spinning as much as the final product.

I’ve been spinning for a year now, and I still classify myself as a novice. One of the most attractive components of spinning yarn is how vast and wide the craft is, although the end product, yarn, seems deceptively simple. For instance, Gotland sheep grow curly, silky locks, which make for a wonderfully drape-y yarn; Icelandic sheep produce a double-coated fleece perfectly suited for hearty, warm sweaters; and Merino sheep make a soft-to-the-neck fiber, bearable to even the most wool-sensitive of people. These breeds only scratch the surface of wool, and there is all sorts of animal fiber outside of sheep, not to mention plant fibers like cotton and flax.

The complexity of spinning keeps me interested, but what drives me to return to the wheel day after day is its meditative quality. I’ve never been able to find inner peace in a yoga class and had resigned myself to thinking my mind would constantly hum. When I spin, that part of my brain becomes quiet as the thrum of my feet beats like a metronome on my spinning wheel’s treadle and the fiber passes through my fingers. I’m able to focus on the evenness and texture of the fiber as it spools onto my bobbin, and my mind has little else to think about other than what I’m doing right in that moment. Nothing else I’ve ever done that’s so simple has provided such mental clarity.

At work, when I’m shooting photos, I’m intensely aware of my surroundings and visually vigilant. I thrive under these conditions, but that ever-alert mentality can be difficult to translate into home life. Knitting and spinning have both immeasurably assisted my ability to enjoy my free time, however I am spending it.

Spinning yarn is undeniably time-intensive. But I like that about it – it combats my natural inclination for instant gratification. Last July, I knit a sweater out of yarn I’d spun myself. Between spinning and knitting, the total hours spent clocked somewhere around 20. I can sympathize with a person who is severely skeptical of investing 20 hours into just one garment. But here’s what I’d say to that person: The sweater is something I will enjoy for my entire lifetime.

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