spinning by the fire

Report from the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat
Pocono Manor Golf Resort and Spa
Pocono Manor, Pennsylvania
October 3-10, 2004

Now in its 22nd year, the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat is a gem for serious fiber lovers who want to spend a week improving their skills and connecting with like-minded people.

Sponsored by Spin-Off magazine, the weeklong event draws some 200 attendees from as far away as Hawaii, British Columbia, Germany, and England.

Every year, SOAR changes locations to give as many people as possible a chance to attend. Last year's retreat was in Michigan, and the 2005 retreat will be in Utah.

Because of its spinning and weaving focus, the event is often overlooked by knitters, which can be a mistake. I attended for the first time this year and am pleased to offer this report.

The Setting
the main lodge

This year's SOAR took place at the Pocono Manor Golf Resort and Spa, an enormous relic of a resort that was first opened in 1902 and occupies 3,500 acres in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
time for a nap, anyone?

The main lodge had a plush, old-fashioned feel complete with enormous fieldstone fireplace. Everywhere you looked, cozy chairs invited knitters and spinners to relax with their fibers.
The Workshops
The first half of SOAR is dedicated to three-day intensive workshops. On Thursday, there is a break for the Spinners' Market. Some attendees leave at this point, and others arrive as the retreat portion of the event—with several half-day retreat sessions—begins.

Both the workshops and retreat sessions are taught by "mentors," most of whom are Interweave authors. Workshop assignments are made on a lottery basis after registration for the event closes. This means there's no guarantee you'll get your first or even second choice for a class. Retreat sessions during the second half of the week are less formal, with registration on site Thursday afternoon.

Skill levels range from rank beginner to seasoned expert, with most of us falling somewhere in the middle.

My Class
Robin surveys the messI chose a class on fiber preparation taught by Robin Russo. The way I see it, you can never know enough about fiber, and I was very excited to be in this class.

Our enormous sunny room was packed with tables of equipment when we arrived. After each attendee set up her wheel (I use "her" because the class was all women), our room became quickly cluttered with fiber toys.

in the beginning, there were bags of fiber
We were presented with a whole table of fibers from various animals, both in natural and dyed states. They were loosely categorized as fine, medium, and coarse wools.

Over the next three days, Robin walked us through several techniques for turning these fibers into spinnable material. By spinning up each of our prepared fibers, were also learned how the fiber preparation technique directly impacts the wear and look of a finished garment.

playing with the drum carders

After brief experimentation with hand carders, Robin set us loose on the drum carders. These tools turn stray clumps of straight-from-the-sheep fibers into a cohesive jumble of beautifully blended "batts" of fiber that can be felted or spun into yarn.

a collection of hand combs
On the second day, we learned why Robin brought a first aid kit to the class: combs! These brutal-looking devices are used to align fibers in a single and uniform direction, as well as remove any fibers of a dissimilar length.

While drum cards give you marvelous jumbles of fiber, combs give you the aligned and uniform "top" that spins into a smoother, firmer, and more durable yarn. These sharp tools are useful but lethal—even our instructor Robin pricked herself while demonstrating them.

more fun with drum cardersWe each filled a notebook with sample upon sample of spun fiber. Besides various sheep breeds, we also experimented with angora, silk, mohair, and a most exquisite tidbit of qiviut.

We were then set free to combine various types of fibers and colors into so-called exotic batts. Here is one of my exotic batts in unspun, spun, and swatched form.

The class atmosphere progressed from congenial to familial, with a steady flow of laughter and conversation as we worked our fibers. By the end of the three days, we were all exhausted but excited to return home and test out our new knowledge.

The Workshop Review
On Wednesday night, each class created a display of what they had accomplished during their workshop. Several of the retreat sessions were encapsulated versions of the three-day workshops, so this was a helpful way to determine if you really wanted to register for that retreat session or not.

The atmosphere in the room was highly festive. Here are some of my favorite tables.

our table

My Fiber Preparation class, of course!

cotton spinning

Cotton Spinning 101


Getting goofy at the Never Enough Color dye workshop table. The workshop was taught by Deb Menz, who discovered the hard way that you must specify a functioning sink when you ask for one in your workshop room. She carried all the water to the room by hand.


Exotic Fibers. These lucky students got to spend three days learning how to select, prepare, and spin silks, cashmeres, qiviut, and camel, as well as cottons and ramie.

spinning a flock of sheep

Spinning a Flock of Sheep. They spun samples of natural-colored wool roving from more than a dozen breeds.

rug hooking

Rug-hooking for Handspinners. One student had transposed an image of her dog onto a rug canvas.

Vivian Hoxbro
Shadow Knitting with Vivian Hoxbro. Several of the swatches had to be tilted from side to side for the shadow pattern to become visible—something that isn't easy to demonstrate in a photograph.

felted masks and vessels

Felt Vessels and Masks: Exploring Images and Forms. Stunning!

Silk Fusion

Creating Silk Fusion Fabric. You can see an example of the teacher's work in the SOAR Gallery pictures below.

SOAR Gallery
The Gallery

As if being around all these talented people wasn't inspiring enough, everybody was invited to submit a finished item to the SOAR gallery. Here are just a few shots of what it contained this year.

a shawl

silk fusion fabric

An example of silk fusion fabric by SOAR mentor Rain Crow Klepper.

new recruits

The night the gallery opened, we were visited by two members of the Army Corps of Engineers, which happened to be meeting in the same building as one of the workshops. Here Spin-Off editor Amy Clarke-Moore shows them how to spin with drop spindles. As they walked away, I saw them give each other high-five hand slaps and proudly exclaim, "Man, we made yarn!"

Spinners' Market
an overview of the market room

Thursday is the crossover day when some workshop attendees (including myself) leave while new people arrive for the weekend retreat sessions. I did stay long enough to hit the Spinners' Market, where 29 vendors had the rapt attention of more than 200 eager fiber devotees.

The Vendors

rovingsThe Rolling Stones of the Spinners' Market is Rovings, a small Canadian business that specializes in imported Polwarth fleece from New Zealand. Polwarth is a plush and extremely fine fiber not otherwise easily available in the United States.

In past years, the line at Rovings has all but obscured access to other vendors, so this year Rovings was put in a separate room down a long dark hallway.

I hear this is the only show Rovings needs to do each year. I did my part by purchasing a beautiful charcoal-colored Polwarth fleece, so I could test my newly acquired fiber preparation techniques.


Bonkers Handmade Originals specializes in hand-dyed spinning fibers and yarns.

The Silkworker

The Silkworker rarely puts in appearances at the East Coast shows, so I was delighted to see her here. As the name implies, she specializes in hand-painted silk fiber and roving for spinning. Her colors are outstanding.


Woodchuck Products is a perennial favorite at SOAR. Spinners appreciate his innovative niddy noddy and drop spindle designs, while weavers swear by his shuttles and bobbins. My only wish is that Rod made knitting needles. Call 505-737-9608 for a brochure.

Luxury Fibers

Anne Tullett Luxury Fibers had tantalizing natural-colored blends of fine fibers such as Tussah silk, angora, alpaca, and cashmere. Email luxuryfibers@yahoo.com for details.

Elemental Effects

Elemental Affects had some beautiful, soft natural-colored Shetland yarns.

Copper Moth

One of my favorite sources of naturally dyed fibers is Copper Moth, which had many new colors for the market.

Gemini Fibers

Canadian vendor Gemini Fibres brought beautiful spindles and spinning accessories.

the dining roombreakfast, anyone?

What event wrap-up would be complete without a description of the food? Mealtime at SOAR was overwhelming. We were always sitting at different tables, which meant a new crew of people every time you sat down.

Food was abundant, with full breakfast and lunch buffets and a sit-down dinner every day, not to mention the overflowing desert table at both lunch and dinner. Nap time, anyone?

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