Waldorf News

Spinning Straw Into Gold: The Healing Potential of Handwork

Girl with spindle and distaff

by Lory Widmer Hess

In the 1960s, spinning yarn by hand was a historical remnant, an activity that was seen as belonging in a museum. Today, handspinning is enjoying a surge in popularity, with new books, courses, and websites offering instruction and inspiration for an art that modern machinery would seem to have rendered obsolete. Why?

Spinners may be seeking the tactile pleasure of working with fiber; the satisfaction of learning a useful skill; the ability to create “custom” yarn for knitting projects; the meditative “flow” that comes with successful spinning. Certainly I was looking for all of these experiences when I decided to take a one-year, monthly course in spinning, plant-dyeing, and knitting a fleece “From Sheep to Shawl” at the Fiber Craft Studio in Chestnut Ridge, New York. And I found them—but I also learned more about the profoundly healing nature of handwork, with spinning as an archetypal example, than I ever expected.

To start with, there are the amazing qualities of sheep’s wool, which is so common (and sometimes abused) that we seldom think about it. On our first weekend in January we were confronted with a whole, unwashed sheep’s fleece laid out on the floor, to observe and experience the wool in its raw form.

Taking a handful, we could see the gentle but strong wave pattern from the cut end of each lock to the tip. We took a single strand and stretched it out, feeling how incredibly elastic it was, then ran our fingers along it in one direction and then the other—one way slick and smooth, the other resisting our touch. This is due to tiny “scales” that point in one direction along each strand of wool, helping to shed water and keep the sheep dry. When the fibers are twisted together, though, these scales lock together to create a strong and resilient strand, that is at the same time soft, stretchy, and malleable, and capable of being extended indefinitely.

This twisting, which evolved into spinning, is one of the most ancient crafts known to humankind, with a history stretching back at least 10,000 years. First, people must have twisted wool (and other fibers) with their fingers, and then started using simple tools: a forked twig, for example, can be stuck into a handful of wool and rolled along the thigh, creating a strand that may be elongated by drawing out the raw fibers and letting the twist travel along until it needs to gather more energy through another twist of the twig.

When we tried this simple movement out, and it worked, it was a moment of connection: people had been doing this for thousands of years, and we could too! Our hands were literally touching the point of transformation: from fiber to yarn, from nature to civilization, from chaos to order. The appeal of spinning was no longer a mystery.

Eventually things became a little more complicated: a weight was added to the stick, and it started to sometimes spin suspended in the air rather than supported on the leg or floor. When we tried this method with a homemade drop spindle, a new level of frustration was reached; and using the spinning wheel (a surprisingly late development in history) added the complexities of a mechanism to struggle with. But with patient trial and error, and always paying attention to the magic zone where the twist took over, our hands started to find their way, to teach and renew us.

As the months went by, the stories of transformation started to emerge. We were eighteen women, of diverse ages and backgrounds, mothers, teachers, caregivers, gardeners, artists. One spoke of how many people she knew who were having trouble sleeping, their thoughts spinning out of control—and how the activity of spinning paradoxically helped to focus thoughts, bringing calm. Another noted that she had observed the affinity of wool for itself, how bits of wool fleece would cling to each other and even to a knitted sweater, demonstrating on the material level a higher principle of warmth and love. A kindergarten teacher told of how a very fearful six-year-old boy in her class, who usually had his hands completely cramped up, opened them up in the tub where she was washing wool and stayed there for a very long (for him) twenty minutes.

While working with our hands, some of us recalled moments when the gift of handwork had been taken away from us. Several of us had gone through times when an arthritic or other disability had forced us to relearn how to use these incredible tools. For one, this had happened just before she entered college, and she had had to take a whole year off from academics to do handwork. She now realized how significant it was that she had been forced to use her hands before taking a new step into “brain” development.

For me, there was a time in high school when my right hand, my writing hand (at a time when I handwrote nearly all of my schoolwork), was temporarily disabled by frostbite. It was a fearful experience of having my link to the intellectual world—where I felt at home and comfortable—suddenly cut off, and feeling the weakness and helplessness of my underdeveloped side. Was this at the root of my wish, twenty-five years later, to find balance through an ancient handcraft?

The connection between hand and mind is not an accident or a fanciful invention, but a very real phenomenon, grounded in the whole human organism. The two hands are related to the two hemispheres of the brain, and working with both hands to transform physical matter is a constant activity of bridging the two halves, creating healthy connections between them. Technical movements, such as typing, are an intellectual construct that don’t have the same effect. One of our course participants remarked that through spinning she could start to “feel the brain” in a new way, having mostly done clerical work with her hands in the past.

In a lecture given to a conference of Waldorf handwork teachers sponsored by the Fiber Craft Studio in April, Dr. Gerald Karnow gave some keys to this process, out of the insights of Rudolf Steiner. As well as being a physician and co-worker at the Fellowship Community, Dr. Karnow teaches woodwork in the Otto Specht School, a program for special-needs children based at the Fellowship. He finds that the handwork lessons, which today are almost only found in Waldorf schools, have the potential to be the most powerful in any school, much more so than the intellectual work.

To indicate why, Dr. Karnow drew a picture (which Steiner also drew in his initial lectures to teachers in the first Waldorf school) of the human being as a being of head, chest, and limbs. The head is round, enclosed, hard, the most “bodily” part of the body. The chest may be drawn as a crescent, more open to the surroundings, more subject to rhythmical processes and to soul experiences. Only part of the chest “sphere” is visible; the rest is free. And the limbs, the legs, arms and hands? They are drawn as mere “sticks” penetrating into us, small visible segments of an enormous invisible cosmic sphere. So our limbs belong to the most spiritual part of us—the part where we are least awake, but also most full of potential for creation. They are our connection to the future. “Whether we are not bound by the past, able to create in the present, depends on the flexibility we are able to achieve by working with the limbs,” Dr. Karnow said.

It’s even a question of nourishment, of food for the healthy growth of the child. Contrary to our usual assumptions, Rudolf Steiner says that we take in substance through our senses and our breathing, while the food we ingest provides forces that work together with this substance to build our body. Dr. Karnow suggested that this idea can seem a little less strange when we consider that plants grow primarily by means of what is given through air (carbon dioxide) and light. It is well known that infants deprived of the fundamental sense experience of touch will actually die; and if we are attentive, we can all experience the nourishing quality of loving touch. So nourishment through differentiated sense activities—like those provided by a varied, progressive handwork curriculum—is of the greatest value for the growing child.

And physical and mental nourishment are again connected. One of Rudolf Steiner’s most fundamental pedagogical insights was that our mental capacities are a metamorphosis of those forces that brought about the formation and growth of our body. When these forces come to a stage of completion, they are liberated, set free for learning. This is a gradual process, and the accompaniment of intellectual learning by appropriate bodily activity helps to support and balance it. “Skill learning is the basis for all learning,” as Dr. Karnow put it.

With these thoughts in mind, we may question the one-sided emphasis of most modern schooling on intellectual development, which is literally starving the senses that are nourished through handwork, and actually reducing, not enhancing, our mental capacities. We can understand why as adults we may feel drawn to activities—like spinning—that from the head’s point of view are useless and obsolete. In them we find something that, however undervalued in today’s world, is of untold worth for our lives and our future.

When my spinning classmate who is a kindergarten teacher began bringing her wheel to school, she also started telling the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the miller’s daughter is tasked with spinning straw into gold. One day while she was spinning on the playground, a boy—one who had been unresponsive to all previous stories—grabbed a handful of straw, ran up, and thrust it at her, saying “Here!”

What did she do? She spun the straw, and to the children it indeed appeared as shining and precious as gold.

For information on public handwork classes and Waldorf handwork teacher training at the Fiber Craft Studio, visit www.fibercraftstudio.org or call 845-425-2891.

Lory Widmer Hess is a eurythmist, writer, and editor, as well as a longtime knitter and beginning spinner. She lives in Chestnut Ridge, New York, with her family.

This article was originally published in LILIPOH, Issue 62, Vol 16, Winter 2010–lilipoh.com