It began with a gift, this twisting of raw, clean fleece into heirloom yarn. Years ago, when Maggie Howe learned to knit, a friend and fiber artist gave her a box of handspun yarn. "The tag said, ‘This is from Marley’ and it had a picture of the ram," Howe says. "I love that it was from her sheep." Taking a step back in the process, learning to spin yarn, was a natural progression for Howe. "Natural fibers and handspun yarns have a character of their own," she continues. "They make anything you make, beautiful and interesting."
Now, using fiber from their flock of two angora bunnies and network of central Iowa fiber farmers, Howe and John Gibney spin heirloom yarns by the yard. Their artisan skeins are treasures even before they’re knit.
From Farm to Fiber "We purchase wool, llama, alpaca and angora fibers from farmers in Central Iowa," Maggie says. "It helps pay for the animals’ keep, and I like that." Howe and Gibney wash freshly sheared fiber in an old zinc wash machine, using gentle dish soap to dissolve the oils and wash away the grime. Then it’s carded, or combed, dyed and rolled into a "bump."
"I do a lot with natural dye. I enjoy the process of using the barks, the weeds, the flowers all around us," Howe says. She uses wildflowers such as pokeberry, golden rod, black eye Susan and Queen Anne’s lace to create vibrant colors and combinations. "And I like to add interesting fibers, feathers or milk weed," Howe says, noting that milkweed must be spun with patience. "It spins beautifully, looks like silk because it has that beautiful sheen."
"I learned to spin on a drop spindle," Howe says. "It’s an old method of working with very little technology." But mostly, Howe and Gibney spin on one of four modern spinning wheels. They’re smaller than those in spinning books of yore, and more easily transported. And they take a fraction of the space. Functionally, though, they are the same as the grand wheels of earlier centuries. Still treadle powered.
"It’s like playing an instrument," Howe says of spinning. "You learn to do several things at one time."
The couple teaches spinning one step at a time, too. The first step is pedaling the treadle, keeping the wheel spinning in one direction. Next is learning to run yarn onto the spindle evenly. Finally, with a ball of soft fleece in one hand and the other poised for drafting, it is time to spin for real.
Don’t expect immediate artistry. "I kept my first yarn," Howe says. "It is horrible. I hold it up and say ‘Look at my first try.’ Because if I can go forward from there, anybody can."
Paying it forward Howe and Gibney demonstrate and teach spinning at local and regional events. It’s their way of paying it forward, of sharing the ancient art. Their yarn is available at Prairieland Herbs, just outside of Woodward; 515/438-4268; prairielandherbs.com.