By Nancy Ferguson
After several decades of resting in the corner of my living room--and basically serving as a decoration--my spinning wheel is back in use. I am again picking through sheep fleece, washing the wool, carding, and spinning it.
I had forgotten how satisfying it is to transform wool into a yarn that can be used for knitting or weaving. I read recently that when we work with fibers from plants and animals, they connect us to the stories of the people who grew and used these fibers before us.
Primitive, nomadic people--the first campers--used the plants and animals around them to provide food, clothing, and shelter. There were no Walmarts or Targets at which to purchase all the jeans, food, and entertainment they could afford. The resources were limited to what they found in nature.
At camp--where we try to connect campers to the natural world--we introduce them to the many uses of natural fibers as an effective way to achieve this goal. Feeling wool as it comes off the sheep, gathering berries, and watching as the yarn turns yellow, or weaving pine needles into a basket engages their senses. As campers create something from natural fibers, they can be absorbed in the pleasure of simple living.
Spinning is the practice of twisting together fibers to create a yarn or string, which can be used for knitting, crocheting, or weaving. No one is sure exactly when spinning began, but remnants of woven fabric date to 5000 B.C. Humans depended upon various hand methods for spinning until the invention of the Spinning Jenny in the mid-nineteenth century led to developing factories to spin fibers.
Introduce campers to spinning by making wool or other animal fibers available to use with a drop spindle. Spinning activities provide hand-eye coordination, the experience of working with natural fibers, and the campers’ pleasure of creating something of their own.
Use the time to help kids connect with the lives and stories of the colonists and pioneers who settled this country (many of whom raised sheep, which the women sheared and spun to keep their families warm).
Teach campers how to make a drop spindle from a rock and string, or from a wooden dowel. Step-by-step instructions can be found in such books as Spinning the Old Way and Spin It.
A variety of drop spindles can be purchased online. Both raw wool and roving (prepared fibers) also can be purchased online or locally. If you use raw wool, campers also have the opportunity to prepare the fibers for spinning by washing and carding them. The advantage of roving is that it is ready to use.
Consider inviting a local hand-spinner or sheep farmer to visit camp. A hand-spinner can show campers how a spinning wheel works and how to prepare fibers, which may raise the level of interest. A sheep farmer, meanwhile, can explain how sheep are cared for and sheared.
Of course, the best experience would be to give campers an opportunity to see real sheep. Christian and Jewish camps can use this as an occasion to discuss biblical images of sheep and shepherds.
To create colors in the yarn, ancient people discovered ways to extract dye from plants, bugs, and shells. For centuries, these natural dyes were used to create reds, blues, yellows, and oranges.
Plants on your camp site will yield colors for natural dyeing projects. Such common items as marigolds and onion skins, as well as native plants, can be used. The Handbook of Natural Dyes and The Craft of Natural Dyeing can help identify the plants you can use, as well as provide instructions for the dyeing process.
When harvesting plants for dyeing, remind campers not to pull up the plants, and to leave behind six for every one they pick. You will need an enamel pot, access to water, and a stove, such as an electric hot plate or camp stove.
If campers have spun yarn from white wool, then use that for the dyeing process. However, if you decide to use natural dyeing, you can use purchased yarn. To make the process as close to natural as possible, choose a wool yarn rather than an acrylic or polyester one. It will take the dye better.
Follow instructions from a book or the Internet for the plant you are using. Dyeing processes are distinct for different types of plants. You will need to add a mordant, such as alum. This will help the dye bond with the fibers. Invite someone who is familiar with the plants in the area and has experience with natural dyeing.
Weaving is the process of interlocking fibers or yarns to make a garment, cloth, or basket. Campers can engage in a variety of projects large and small to develop skills in the craft. It is a natural for camps, since weaving uses grasses, the yarns you have spun, and other easy-to-obtain craft items.
All weaving is based on two types of threads or fibers--the warp and the weft. The warp is placed on the loom first, and then the weft is interwoven by going over and under the warp. This basic movement is the heart of all weaving. Looms can be simple or complex, and are used as a framework to weave the yarns or fibers.
There are numerous books on the various types of weaving, and ideas for crafts are plentiful. Here are a few simple activities:
• Paper weaving --Cut construction paper into 1-inch strips. Use one color for the warp and another for the weft. Have campers lay down the warp strips (they can staple the strips inside a frame to hold them), and then weave the other strips over and under the warp.
• Potholders --This project has been a standard for years. You will need a square loom and cloth loops--all available at craft stores. Help kids follow the directions to create a colorful potholder.
• Friendship bracelet --This is another longtime favorite, although not often thought of as a weaving activity. Use embroidery floss, leather lacing, or yarn for the bracelets. If campers have spun and/or dyed yarn, have them use it for their friendship bracelets.
• Mandela or dream catcher --This is a weaving coming from Native American traditions. The warp is stretched across hoops of metal, wood, or grape vine at multiple places around the circle. Then the weft is woven in and out. Objects from nature can be worked into the woven fibers. This is another way campers can use yarn they have spun and/or dyed.
A whole group can make a weaving by hanging two broom handles, branches, or ½-inch dowel. After the members have hung one of the supports from a tree or on a wall, they can hold the second branch or stick 3 feet below while other campers add the warp. When the loom is finished, campers can add the weft and other items from nature. This is a fun activity to do in the woods because kids have easy access to natural items.
If you have used synthetic yarns, be sure to take the weaving down at the end of camp because unlike wool and other natural fibers, synthetic yarns will not return to the earth or be useful to birds.
Basket making is another form of weaving. A variety of plant fibers--pine needles, grasses, and reeds-- have been used over the centuries for baskets, based on what was available. Check out the Internet, craft stores, and libraries for directions and kits. Invite a basket maker from the area to visit camp and show campers how people living near you made and used baskets.
This article is not intended to present all the information you need to introduce spinning, natural dyeing, and weaving into your camp program. However, it is intended to stimulate your interest and suggest places to begin.
Whenever we help campers touch and use natural resources, we help them understand more about their connection to the earth and to the people who have gone before them.
Nancy Ferguson is a church-camp professional living on the eastern shore of Virginia near Chincoteague Island. She is the author of nine books and a frequent workshop leader at camp conferences. Her most recent book, S’more Time with God (Judson Press, 2011), is a collection of devotions for camps.