The 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat
Shanty Creek Resort
October 7-14, 2007
Spin-Off Autumn Retreat is the annual gathering of Spin-Off magazine. In the Ivy League world of fiber events, this is the MIT. It attracts intelligent, curious, skilled individuals—professional and amateur alike—who care deeply about the fiber arts and long to learn more.
They come from far and wide, across continents and oceans and borders, to spent a week together learning and practicing and sharing and playing—and some have been doing so every single year since the event began.
Although the presence of the word "spin" in the title leads many knitters to cross it off their list, the exceptionally good beginning spinner classes make this an ideal venue for any knitter ready to cross the bridge into the land of making your own yarn.
A SOAR tradition is that all the workshop teachers are not called teachers, they're called mentors—a truly appropriate description for the cadre of people who teach. The first night, the whole group gathered in a big room and each mentor was invited to share a few words about him or herself, and show a few pictures—we saw stunning works as well as dogs, horses, homes, and mountains of tomatoes being canned in the kitchen.
Each mentor was also asked to give us some words of wisdom. A group laugh erupted when Sarah Lamb advised, "Finish things." Meanwhile, Robin Russo quoted Ansel Adams when he said that the most important piece of equipment he owned was the waste-paper basket—the point being, we should try things and see what works for us personally, and not stress over the things that don't.
The first half of SOAR is taken up with three-day workshops. You make your first, second, and third workshop choice when you register, and then throw fate to the wind and know that whatever class you get will be just fine. The classes span three full days, allowing you to dig deep and make amazing discoveries.
The music world has its Madonna and Prince, and the fiberarts world has its share of one-name icons—of which Judith is one. Urban legend is that Judith is such a good teacher that she could sell out a weeklong tutorial on cleaning toilets. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of fiber and history, she has an astounding amount of life experience, but, most important of all, she is a magical storyteller. Having spent three days with her, I can say that I'd be first in line for that toilet-cleaning class.
Judith firmly believes that when we were sitting in cold dark caves looking out at the world and wondering how we'd make it, a sheep poked its nose inside and said, "Come on out! We'll show you what to do." And, for thousands of years, they have done just that.
Over the next three days, we did everything. We followed the Viking ships up the Volga, we watched as Spaniards deposited sheep on every island they passed heading up the California coast to provide food in case of future shipwrecks. We learned that the North Ronaldsay sheep (that grazes on seaweed in the Orkney islands) has an uncanny ability to memorize the tide tables. We learned that Icelanders call Shetland sheep "shipwrecked Norwegians," while Shetlanders call Icelandic sheep "stolen Shetlands." And we learned that raising Karakul sheep can be a challenge. ("I ended up on the ground most of the time," said Judith, "with little hoof prints.")
In this way we went from the Gutefår sheep to breeds with names like Wensleydale, Mouflon, Jacob, Finnish Landrace, and of course, Shetland and Icelandic. At each juncture, we were given large handfuls of fiber to touch, spin, and keep.
But we also learned about spinning wheel maintenance, washing fibers and yarns, how woven pile carpets are made, how you can make your own superwash wool, and, closest to my own heart, what makes a good yarn. It was heaven.
And most exciting of all, some 220 other people were having similar experiences in all the other classrooms. They were learning things like how to spin, how to make hand-dyed roving, how to spin with handspindles, how to prepare fibers, how to handcard and spin woolen yarns, and how to spin for lace.
After our classes all finished on Wednesday afternoon, I went outside to the parking lot and spotted this rainbow—surely an auspicious sign?
Ah, but I haven't even mentioned the best part yet! On Tuesday night, the SOAR gallery opened for viewing. Each year, participants and mentors are invited to submit their works for display in the gallery. Here are just a few examples of the awe-inspiring pieces on display:
I should also commend the SOAR staff for their ingenious transformation of a standard conference room into a gallery. For example, this vessel is sitting on top of an inverted water pitcher!
Gasp! This breathtaking hand-dyed, hand-knit piece by Kathryn Alexander was called What Shoes?
A wet-felted piece by Judy Gilchrist aptly entitled Autumn in New York.
Being an avid angora lover, I was delighted by Janelle Durant's snowflake mittens and hat, knit from a 75% Rambouillet / 25% angora blend.
What a perfect use for leftover handspun! Joan Gentleman used a different heel technique for each of these adorable mini-socks.
Ruth Hollowell's Goddess Mittens, made from her own handspun, hand-dyed wool and silk yarn and using her own pattern. Ruth noted on the information card that she'd been reading Mary Kelly's book, Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe, and was inspired to put her own goddess in the cuff.
Rita Williams' Icarus Shawl was a perfect example of perseverance paying off. She started spinning the fiber on a spindle at the 2005 SOAR, plied the yarn on a wheel at the 2006 SOAR, and finally finished the shawl in time for the 2007 SOAR!
Perhaps the most amazing effect of the SOAR gallery is a sense of combined awe and courage. You look at these stunning items and realize that, with time and patience you, too, could achieve something that beautiful.
On Wednesday night, we all gathered for workshop review. Each class sets up two tables of items demonstrating what they made and learned in their class. The room was so packed that I only made it halfway across before everybody started dismantling the displays for the evening.
The display from Carol Rhoades' class on the arts of handcarding and woolen spinning.
Assorted spindles from Andrea Mielke Schroer's handspindles class—and yes, that is a beaded DVD you see on one of the spindles!
Maggie Casey's Spinning 101 class proudly displayed their first skeins and this note to the world.
Leaving Too Soon
During the drive back to the airport, I finally had some quiet time alone to think about what I'd experienced, everybody I'd met, everything I'd learned. When you go to SOAR, you enter a giant snow globe that is constantly being shaken up. Only after you leave, and the flakes finally settle, can you see how your inner creative landscape has been transformed.
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