When I was asked to teach cotton spinning in the UK, I was thrilled as I knew it was a “dyed in the wool” wool spinning country.  Since I had taught in New Zealand the year before and had such a wonderful response from the New Zealand spinners, I was anxious to spread the word that “cotton was easy to spin” to another predominately protein fiber spinning country.  

To my delight, the two guilds that had asked me to teach, were in the northern part of England.  This was the area I wanted to visit most in the whole of UK.  My daughter-in-law Heather offered to come with me and help organize transportation and carry my heavy bags.  So we flew into Manchester, England on March 5th where Heather had organized a two day tour of many interesting places.  The most interesting one for me was the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester that housed a section on the cotton textile industry.  However the John Ryland’s Library that opened in 1900 was breathtaking. It was built in Victorian Gothic style.  It is one of the most spectacular libraries in the world.  Beyond the massive architecture and the huge stain glass windows, the library’s collection includes magnificent manuscripts and some examples of the earliest books ever printed. 

We could have spent many more days in Manchester but I had to get to Lancaster to teach a two day cotton spinning class to Lancs & Lakes Guild.   We stayed with Ali and Mark Ongley who were such wonderful hosts and made us feel right at home.  Like many of the people in the area, their yard and gardens are very important to them.  Ali is both a spinner and a weaver.  She played an important role in reproducing the samples of fabric in the Kendal Pattern Book of 1769.  Lancs & Lakes took on this project as part of their 50th Anniversary celebration.  This was and is a big challenge as there were 498 textile samples.  The samples are of linsey-woolsey cloth.  All the samples have been analyzed and woven by 18 of the guild members.  The book is now completed except for a few more pages of text.  The result is spectacular with a wonderful array of fabric and the experience gained by reproducing some quite out-of-the-ordinary woven patterns for which no instructions were available.  

There were 14 in my cotton spinning workshop at Lancs & Lakes. The first day they made it clear to me that they did not believe they could spin cotton.  Many were there because Ali “told them to come” or just out of curiosity.   However, to their amazement, within just an hour and a half, most of them were spinning a viable cotton thread.   It was such a thrill to see so many surprised but smiling faces.  One lady said, “I cannot believe who I am, as I was sure, I could never spin cotton”!  The workshop and cotton lecture was such a success that several of them came Monday evening to hear my cotton lecture for the second time. 

UK Sheep

We hated to leave Lancaster, and our wonderful hosts Ali and Mark, but we needed a couple days to see some other parts of Northern England.  Heather was brave enough to drive (on the wrong side of the road) so we rented a car. First we headed for the Lake District that we heard was relaxing and very beautiful.  Of which, both were true.  We stayed in The Gables Guest House in Ambleside.  The town was a quaint tourist town with lots of neat shops and wonderful restaurants.  What will linger with me the longest is walking in a field with black sheep grazing and viewing the ruins of an ancient Roman Fort. 

After two relaxing days we drove to York and stayed at a B&B called 23 St. Mary’s that had tiny steep stairs and we were on the third floor.  Good thing we were both in good shape but poor Heather carried the bags which nearly did her in!   York is such an ancient town with the huge York Minster.  They started building it for King Edmund about 627AD and they continued building for centuries and today they continue to replace stones for maintenance. We were able to attend a singing service in the York Minster the first evening we were there.  A tour of the York by a volunteer tour guide was the highlight of our York trip.  Walking on the wall, the Roman’s build around the city, gave you chills to think how long that wall has been there and how many lives were lost defending the city from those walls. 

It was time to go back to teaching and so we headed for Leeds.  We were so fortunate to be the guests of Jeni Pollard.  She has a lovely modern home just outside of Leeds where Heather and I each had our own room and private bath. Again we could not have asked for a better host. 

UK Loom

The Bradford Guild holds their meetings in a museum which gives a special touch to our ancient skills.  Here I gave my lecture on Cotton From Plant to Fabric in the morning and taught them how to spin on the takli spindle in the afternoon.  The next day 8 of the Bradford Guild members came to Jeni’s home and I gave a one day cotton workshop using the spinning wheel. 

Pete and Carol Leonard had arranged the Bradford workshop and we were invited to their home for tea. They live in Hebden Bridge which reminded me so much of Bisbee, Arizona where I lived for several years.  It sits in a valley and was a busy textile town until the industry closed and the artists moved into the quaint houses and revitalized the town.  Pete and Carol live in one of the quaint houses backed up to the mountain-side.  Big fireplace, small rooms with narrow steep staircases: a feeling of coziness with handcrafted items on every shelf and in each corner.  A place that is a museum in itself.  Pete took us out to the local pub for dinner where we had traditional English dishes and a beer!

Donegal Spinning Wheel

Here too in Hebden Bridge we stayed in a lovely B&B for two nights.  It sat on top of the hillside, up a narrow single lane dirt road and was build in the mid 1500’ds.  What a treat it was to be given a tour through their home and wonder how such huge timbers were placed in the building.  Much less carved by hand from local trees with no power equipment or saw mills.   Our hostess there was also a spinner and had several very unusual wheels.  One was a Donegal made in Ireland.   

Time had come to go back to Manchester to catch our flight home.  Pete and Carol were kind enough to lead the way to the main highway.  Thank goodness they did, as we took narrow roads up and down, round sharp corners, through little villages and in the pouring rain.  In each of the towns with the narrow 2 lane roads, people park alongside the road so if a car is coming the other way, you have to stop behind the park car until the oncoming car passes and then you can pull out and continue on your way.  Finally coming to highway M60 which lead directly into Manchester, we then parted and Heather and I safely arrived at the rental car office in Manchester.  To our relief we were able to turn in the car with no dents or scraps! 

The whole trip was fantastic and having an opportunity to meet so many UK people and see how they live was wonderful.  Living in a young country like America, it fascinates us seeing buildings or ruins that were built before Christ or shortly after.  Amazing how the stone walls built centuries ago still stand and people live in house built in the 1500’s.  For me, having an opportunity to show the UK spinners that cotton is easy to spin was a thrill of a lifetime! Thanks to all that helped me have a great vacation and wonderful workshops. 

Attached is an e-mail I got from one of the students a couple weeks after I returned which I thinks tells you what they thought of cotton spinning:

Dear Joan,
You will be home and, I hope recovered, from your trip to the UK. It was most enjoyable to meet you and your daughter in law on our home turf! ...I am a lot later than I would have wished to say a big THANK YOU for your class for our group in The Lakes.

 You really stirred up something you know! We have all been spinning cotton like mad, in fact Scottie (who sat next to me) has used up all her supply! I have some left but we are meeting up at one of our houses in early May to have a dyeing session. We all purchased different colours of dye so it will be interesting to see what colours we manage to come up with. I have not yet seen anything made from our spun efforts but I’m sure something will emerge before long.

Not only have we been spinning but we have been gardening too! My cotton seeds have burst through and I have 4 healthy seedlings. When I went to the guild meeting yesterday others were saying the same thing so I think we are well on our way to a home grown T shirt!!
Thank you so much for your help and enthusiasm – I certainly didn’t imagine that so many confirmed wool spinners could have taken to cotton they way they have! Well done! I also have to eat my words to you about hating cotton spinning!

 Many thanks once again and I do hope our paths cross again somewhere in the world.

 With very best wishes,    Jane Wadsworth


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