Left in Andover: Warp, weft and spinning a life

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when I viewed “dropping out” as a viable career option, I wrestled with what version of the Age of Aquarius would be right for me.

I toyed with creating my own clothes, the goal being to make myself independent of the exploitation of factory workers and the agricultural-industrial complex. This entailed experimenting with spinning, dyeing, weaving and sewing.

With my Ashford spinning wheel, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1970.

Of these, spinning was the process that most spoke to me. Busying myself with a drop spindle, I could make good use of hours spent by the side of the road hitchhiking and evenings hanging out with friends. I even ordered my own Ashford spinning wheel from New Zealand. For all the difference it ultimately made, I might just as well have taken up woodworking and tried to build my own.

But, within my circle of poets, apple pickers, homesteaders and craftswomen, the very act of spinning was imbued with Gandhian overtones, a defiant declaration of independence from a larger society seemingly gone mad waging war in Vietnam and chasing money.

When I was in 10th grade, my father purchased two full size looms and set them up in our living room. Although my older sister wove professionally for a brief time, I had little patience or gift for it, instead becoming adept at hustling her to warp my loom for me. As for my mother, she steered clear of all craft projects. Drained from farm chores, cooking, raising children and sometimes working 9 to 5, she preferred to spend her free time sitting in the sun or playing music.

Borsodi School of Living, Suffern, N.Y. ,1944. While my young dad, right, relaxes with a book, a fellow student weaves.

My father, who did indulge in some weaving here and there, derived his inspiration from committed weaver Lila Templin in the early 1940s. Lila and her husband, Dr. Ralph Templin, became Dad’s surrogate parents when he took up residence at their Borsodi-inspired School of Living.

The mission of this influential farm school, founded in 1936 on 4 acres in Suffern, N.Y., had been to provide refuge and teach agrarian and crafts skills to ordinary city dwellers during the Great Depression.

Dr. Ralph Borsodi never advocated using these skills of self-sufficiency as a means of cash support or to bypass the job market, but rather to enhance physical and economic health and independence. Nevertheless, he jump-started a wider movement toward self-sufficiency, galvanizing such luminaries as Scott and Helen Nearing to move to the country, J.I. Rodale to found Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine and the Keenes to inaugurate Walnut Acres, the original natural foods mail-order business.

At the loom in my cabin in Vermont, around 1974.

This back-to-the-land movement of a generation before mine spread  to Vermont. Urban folks suffering in soup lines, limited by wartime ration cards, salivated to reports of “The richest poor folks we had ever seen.”

Cash-poor even in the best of times, much of Vermont’s rural population remained relatively unaffected by the Great Depression. Reportedly, larders were kept full by hunting, fishing, raising livestock and tilling the soil — or possibly this was a mirage. (see Vermont as a Way of Life by Dona Brown). But the press led to one of the first modern-era waves of outsiders moving to Vermont, determined to reap the benefits, real and imagined, of country life.

I could have cared less about all this history as I suffered through sixth grade in 1962, waiting in vain for a fairy godmother to bestow upon me a pleated maroon skirt and pink round collared blouse like the other girls wore. Finally, I took home economics in junior high and learned to sew my own shifts, those simple A-line dresses made popular by Twiggy in the mid-1960s. I finally fit in with the other girls.

The prized vest made from scratch.

During my hippie ’70s years, I deployed my sewing skills in the opposite direction — so as not to fit in. I restricted myself to sewing by hand. But what else could a poor girl — who experimented in living sans electricity as a protest against nuclear power plants — do.

I reduced my wardrobe to mostly jeans and T-shirts. My own children, growing up in the 1990s, expressed disbelief when I could not supply them with Hair worthy hippie ensembles requisite for Halloweens in Chester. But truly I never owned any.

Through all this, I did manage to spin, dye, weave and hand-sew exactly one complete garment for myself. I am quite proud of my purple toned wool vest, but I fear it did nothing much to change the world, except to give me a deep appreciation of those artists, craftspeople and devoted homemakers who do pursue the fiber arts as a discipline.

Potting became my sole DIY crafts passion. I aspired to create dishware to enhance the beauty and joy of everyday life. To this day, my favorite pots are the ones that have been used the most.

While I am truly grateful to live in a time and place when my gender does not restrict my choice of occupations, I am nonetheless reminded daily of the burden of traditional women’s work.

The Middletown artifact and dream spinner.

This is because one whole corner of my bedroom is occupied by a giant antique walking spinning wheel. I acquired it a few years ago at a tag sale around the corner. Extracted from the deepest attic recess of the oldest surviving farmhouse in my Middletown settlement, this hyper-local artifact of female material culture deserved to remain in the neighborhood. In all probability it was used to spin wool from sheep that once grazed meadows visible through my window.

Though I have no intention of reactivating it, I guess I am stuck with it forever, the last thing I see each night as I turn out the light. It greets me again each morning. As a talisman, though, it seems to come with benefits. G.H. Miller in 10,000 Dreams Interpreted writes: “To dream that you are spinning means that you will engage in some enterprise which will be all you could wish.”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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