Posted in Knitting
December 8, 2003

Hungarian handspinning

When I was home for Thanksgiving, my mother bought an ungodly hank of acrylic yarn so I could make her a hat. Despite having knitted her a lovely llama hat last Christmas, she wanted — shudder — acrylic this year. Struggling with that awful stuff should be indicative of how much I love her, and will be brought up whenever the contrary is claimed. But I digress…

It’s the night of Thanksgiving, my beloved and I have just eaten our second huge meal of the day. First my parents’ house, then his. I can barely breathe due to temporary stomach expansion into my lung cavity, so I take a break in the living room and continue working on the aforementioned annoying hat.

At some point, his mom and I start to talk about knitting, that she’d made him a yellow sweater when he was 2, but nothing since.. standard mom stuff. But then I find out that back in Hungary, where she’s from, all her sisters used to get together for the village equivalent of bitch-n-stitch, and that they spun flax. This take a while to determine, because although her English is great, she doesn’t really know the words for distaff, retting, heddle, shuttle, Viking combs, handspindle, etc.

She described how the river that ran near their house had a section where everyone took their flax to be retted. When they were retrieving the fiber from the water, the women would run really fast to avoid the leeches that lurked near the shore. Her sister still has the distaff for flax spinning somewhere, and they used handspindles, not wheels. Using some sort of smooth wooden contraption (that sounded like a Viking comb, from her description), they would separate the rough fibers from the fine and sort out the lengths. Rough fibers went to make things like burlap-style bags, while finer fibers were used for clothing, embroidery, etc.

Then, the “ooooh!” moment, in which I discovered her mother was a fabulous weaver and has a big loom. I’ve known T’s mom since I was 15 or 16, and only now do I find this out. She showed me some rugs her mother had woven, and I pleaded for her to get the loom shipped over here if no one was using it.

I think I’m going to have to make a pilgrimage. Her mother sounds hilarious, for one. T once told me about a smartass comment she made to him when he was visiting (right after high school, so about 12 years ago)… to the effect of “I lived through the war, through the Nazis, through the Communists, and this is all I get?” Tell me she wouldn’t be a fun teacher, and tell me that wouldn’t be quite the field trip!

By the way, the painting above is “Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor” by Marianne Stokes (from 1895). Elizabeth’s the saint of lacemakers, among other interesting things (problems with your in-laws, hoboes), so say a little prayer to her the next time your yarnovers aren’t cooperating.

If you want a preview of the roving I dyed when I was home, click here. The image is big because I am having PhotoShop install issues at the moment; I’ll resize it and post photos of the finished yarn as soon as I can. I’m calling it Ohio Autumn Roadside, because that’s exactly what it looks like when it’s spun – lots of golds, oranges and reds with little bits of purple and green. The fiber is Corriedale wool.

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