I know the basics. Treadle. Hanks of wool. Fly wheel. But how the fleece that was on a sheep (or alpaca or rabbit) hours ago becomes thread, this is a magic I have yet to understand. But I want to understand it. I have for a long time; spinning wool has an allure for me that I just don’t quite understand. Now, today, I want to learn even more.
This morning as I was writing about Malvina, the spinner here on the farm two hundred years ago, I found myself trying to put my body in the position she would have held for hours as she added hank of wool to thread over and over again, day after day. I wanted to feel the sensations she felt, let the ache of stillness settle into my hips, hear the whir of her fly wheel as she spun. I imagined instead.
I have this image of you, Malvina, spinning in front of a fireplace, the sandstone floor cold beneath your feet. You are near the dining room, where all the foot traffic is, and you simply sit and spin . . . your foot tapping the treadle rhythmically . . . maybe you sing softly as you work. I see the wool in balls, the basket beside you made by your friend. You take up a new ball and twist it into the strand in your hand, making sure itâ€™s solidly knotted to the old, and then you pick up your tap and your song again. For hours, all day, spinning until your hands ache, but loving it. There is comfort in the motion, and too, you see everything.
I wonder if you saw the Generalâ€™s children sneak sweets from the kitchen, Hannahâ€™s eye seeing but turning away. Did you watch Ms. Louisa try to comfort little Cary when he feel on stone and scraped his knee; was she good at mothering children that were not her own? When Berthier and the other men talked quietly in the corners about what they had seen on their trips north, when they talked of freedom and the railroad, did you silence them with a glance or a whispered â€œsh,â€ or did you listen, letting your dreams spin out into the thread that would, soon, cloth you with promise?
I do not spin, Malvina, but I often dream of it. Maybe this is where my dreams of you come from. I see myself by a fire spinning out the stories that go on around me, losing myself in the rhythm of the treadle, the whir of the fly wheel lulling out all noise. Is there comfort in spinning, Malvina?
In your hands held the comfort of all your kin and even those who were not your kind, the people who required that you sit and spin as your labor, your livelihood depending on it because with Moses â€œturned out,â€ you knew that the General was not above sending someone away. Why did he get sent away Malvina? What did he do? Did you miss him? Or was he sent away because of something he did to you? Did you come to the house one time too many with a bruise on your cheek, unable to duck your head quickly enough from Ms. Louisaâ€™s eye? If so, maybe you donâ€™t miss him. Maybe, instead, the whir of the wheel fills you up enough.
I think I will ask a friend to teach me to spin. So I can find more of Malvina, and maybe more of myself. That’s why we write, isn’t it? To find more. To spin tales – theirs and still ours.
Other Portraits of the Enslaved People on this Farm
Writing the Face of Primus, Slave Foreman
Learning the Name of Keziah, Slave Cook
Pleasant – A Gardener, A Non-Professor, A Writer’s Kindred
All I Know of Lucy Nicholas: Timelines and One Sentence