A PIECE OF WOOL yarn is actually many pieces of fiber that have been twisted and pulled, lengthened and strengthened into one cohesive unit. Spinning was traditionally a woman's job, so much so that the name of a spinning accessory, the distaff, now refers to women in general.
Although the spinning wheel is associated with American pioneer life, it is a relatively recent invention. Before the spinning wheel, when ancient Egyptians and Greeks spun their exquisite diaphanous fabrics, women used drop spindles, deceptively simple tools requiring expert coordination: The drop spindle is a tapered rod with a notch at the top and a circular whorl or disc attached close to its lower tip. The raw fiber is attached to a starter yarn that is tied to the spindle notch and wound down round the whorl. Drawing out fibers between thumb and fingers of one hand, the spinner twists the spindle with the other hand, allowing it to drop toward the floor as it stretches and spins the fibers into one continuous strand. If the spinner isn't careful and quick, the spindle can reverse itself, unwinding the fiber and ruining the spinner's day.
Compared to that, a spinning wheel is high-tech. A foot-operated pedal turns the wheel, which spins the spindle and winds the fiber; the spinner can use both hands to feed the fiber, allowing more control. The drawbacks: Wheels, unlike drop spindles, are not portable, and they can be expensive.
Piecemakers Country Store in Costa Mesa regularly offers beginning and advanced classes in spinning. The Folk Art Festival at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, in Exposition Park, scheduled for June 4 this year, will feature several spinners demonstrating the craft and offering informal instruction. County fairs are excellent places to see spinning first-hand. The Orange County Fair in Orange, July 12-23, plans a demonstration of angora-rabbit-hair spinning, among others. The Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, Sept. 14-Oct. 1, will feature a spinning competition and several demonstrations near the wool display in the Agricultural Pavilion.