Spinners enjoy peaceful companionship while turning fleece into yarn

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In a cozy timber- and brick-lined space within a rambling historic building, members of the Loyalhannon Spinners Guild find camaraderie and a rhythm that runs counter to the punishing pace of contemporary life.

The group, which was founded in 2001, has more than 20 members who socialize while they turn fleece into yarn, said Sandra Truckner, who gets her wool right from the source.

She and her husband, William, are owners of Twin Springs Farm in Avonmore, where they raise, shear and sell the fleece of Shetland sheep.

The guild meets from noon to 4 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month in the Saint Vincent Archabbey Gristmill, which has operated on the grounds of Saint Vincent College in Unity since 1854. New members and visitors are welcome.

The Shetland sheep were the entry point to spinning for Ms. Truckner, who is self-taught with some help from her husband, a weaver of rag rugs in historical patterns. The couple, whose ages she gives as "retired," purchased the farm in 1975 and at one time also raised cattle.

Guild members spin a variety of wool, dependent upon what they plan to make with it. Ms. Truckner has worked a little with alpaca and llama fleece recently, but she favors Shetland, she said, because the sheep are tied to the history of the U.S. "You can eat sheep, you use their fleece. What a renewable resource."

She doesn't spin a lot, she said, and doesn't make anything out of the yarn she does spin. Mostly, she and her husband do demonstrations, as do several other guild members, at such venues as the Compass Inn Museum in Laughlintown and at Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Fayette County.

"My claim to fame is having been a cofounder of the group and getting it going and keeping it going. I really enjoy the spinning and getting together with other women who do. I like to think of myself more as a shepherd now than a spinner. I raise the wool."

Guild member Deborah Hart, also a weaver, has spun so much of that Shetland wool that she's embarking on an heirloom project. "Right now I'm warping my loom for a rug," she said, to stretch the length of the 20-foot-long hallway in her circa 1860 farm house. The yarn, all natural colors, varies by sheep and is mostly white, dark chocolate and grays.

Ms. Hart, a Latrobe resident and a nurse at UPMC East in Monroeville, grew up with her great-grandmother Deborah's spinning wheel in the living room. As a child, she asked how it worked, but her mother didn't know. A dozen years ago, she saw Ms. Truckner demonstrate spinning at the Ligonier Highland Games, an annual event at Idlewild Park, and joined the guild when it formed. Ms. Truckner taught her to spin. Now she owns three spinning wheels, including the 1834 family treasure.

Greensburg resident Lorraine Hoffman began as a knitter and thought "that's not for me" when she saw friends spinning. And then one of those friends purchased a double treadle wheel and offered to sell Ms. Hoffman her single treadle for a good price. "A spinning wheel can cost $500 to $600. This was less than half," said Ms. Hoffman, who now owns two wheels, one a gift from her husband.

Ms. Hoffman, 67, had learned to knit in high school, then drifted to other interests. She retired eight years ago from the Norwin School District, where she taught for 34 years, most recently at Hillcrest Intermediate School. Seven years ago, she returned to knitting and five years ago started spinning.

She returned to Hillcrest a couple of years ago during its annual arts day to demonstrate spinning, and two of the students who raised their hands to try it were boys. "I'd told them that men used to be the spinners and that's how they made their living until the industrial revolution. And then women took over," Ms. Hoffman said.

Like any craft skill, becoming an accomplished spinner takes a lot of practice, Ms. Hoffman said. "You're using your hands and feet at the same time, and you have to achieve coordination of the two. Then it comes together sort of like an 'aha' moment."

Other guild members come from Pittsburgh, Apollo, Scottdale, Mount Pleasant and Connellsville.

"It's a very diverse crowd, including teachers, mental health and pharmacy professionals, and one member who teaches belly dancing and raises bees," Ms. Hart said. Men usually come in through family memberships.

"One thing we love to do is make socks," Ms. Hoffman said. "People ask why do you bother to make socks? You can buy a pair for $4." Her gleeful answer is, "They're fun!" And, judging from what guild members were wearing at the January meeting, one of a kind. The Mannings Handweaving School & Supply Center in East Berlin, near Gettysburg, carries clear plastic boots so makers may show off their wares, Ms. Hart said.

Other than demonstrations, guild members participate in activities such as sheep to shawl competitions at events including the annual Waynesburg Sheep and Fiber Festival at the Greene County Fairgrounds. Participants race against the clock to turn a pile of fleece into a completed shawl, often within two hours.

"It makes it smooth when everyone knows what they're doing," Ms. Hart said.

When the guild team came in first at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg a couple of years ago, the members auctioned the shawl for more than $1,000 and donated the money to breast cancer research in memory of a member who had died of the disease.

Reflecting the opinion of many of the members, Ms. Hoffman said the guild is "such a lovely, quiet, peaceful thing. The people you meet are so nice. It slows down your pace and just kind of takes you back."

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Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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