Traditional hand spinner Jessica Mason
“Take to spinning to find peace of mind. The music of the wheel will be as balm to our soul.” - Ghandi.
Through her practical work, hand spinner Jessica Mason explores how we, as human beings, can better obtain a sense of ‘slowness’ in our lives by practising hand crafts. We sat down with Jessie to learn more about the health and wellbeing benefits of engaging with natural materials in more traditional ways.
Who or what inspired you to get involved in spinning yarn? Tell us a little bit about your personal journey and what lead you to start spinning.
I have a background in Sculpture and spent four years studying at Chelsea College of Art & Design before taking on a studio in Brixton. The first year out of my degree I admit I felt creatively pretty stuck and it wasn’t until I began practising the art of hand spinning for an hour a day each morning that conceptually, things started to flow for me again.
It was actually my grandmother who first taught me the basics of hand-spinning when she gave me her wheel which she used to use for colour sampling. She studied weave design at Central and opened up her own design studio in Fulham called Weaveplan in the 70’s. She was made a member of the RDI for her career in design, so I was very fortunate to have her as my first teacher.
It’s also very special to share together in a skill that that we can connect over generationally. She thinks it’s totally incredible that so many people my age are still keen to learn the slow techniques involved in processing fibre straight from the source and I personally want to help keep this hand-held knowledge alive by giving it a younger voice.
More recently, my hand spinning practise has taken me across Europe and over to Asia, where I’ve continued to learn from some master spinners and skill-sharing with natural dyers, perfecting the slow techniques needed to process natural fibres.
You describe the process as meditative. What is it about the act of spinning yarn that is so absorbing?
Personally, spinning has always provided a safe space for me to mentally cleanse, freeing me up from the stress of daily life, helping generate more space for pure creative expression. I have discovered that those I teach also find it physically meditative as it is an action that cultivates body-connectivity. This is because it is reliant on rhythm and sensitivity of touch; something which in the western cultures we sorely lack but our bodies still require.
In my own research I’ve also started considering its relativity to breathwork + heartbeats and exactly how, as a production process, it heavily relies on a full engagement of the senses. It separates your mind from your hands and I think when you desire to learn to spin it’s a wish that comes straight from your heart and is an inner signal that a sense of calm is needed.
The concept of holding peace in your hands is perhaps a romantic idea but something which is tangibly possible when you take ownership over the creative potential of slowing down your lifestyle.
Personally, spinning has always provided a safe space for me to mentally cleanse, freeing me up from the stress of daily life, helping generate more space for pure creative expression.
Spinning is an act of endurance and physical sensitivity. We don’t use our hands in the same way as we used to, is the nature of touch changing?
Yes – Touch really is changing! I read an article in the guardian the other week which stated that the touch “nerve fibre is responsible for so many aspects of our wellbeing across our lifespan…it is essentially the missing particle that glues everything social together”. Spinning used to a be a really social activity that the whole community would get involved in, but also as a solo activity it helps reconnect us back to our own bodies, our human physicality and limitations. And touching fibre is fair more engaging for the senses than the screen of your phone!
Acquiring textiles in this way is a very slow approach, how do you find people respond to this traditional technique?
The very act itself is remarkable as it requires you to trust that the fibres will catch and hold and so is as much about refining a skill as it is about overcoming risk. I aim to try to help facilitate this within a safe learning environment when I teach, as it’s a process that demands a huge amount of patience and confidence.
It is also something that needs to become embodied, so it can take a few weeks before your hands soak up the technique and confidence is gained. As it is the staple size and length of the fibre which determine the correct body position and how much lightness of touch is needed in the fingertips! So in fact, it is the materials that dictate the limitations which one then needs to try to listen and tune into.
And why do you feel this is a valuable tradition to both maintain and pass on to future generations?
One of the main reason I felt drawn to teaching was because I wanted to engage younger generations with slow-craft techniques. To make people stop and think about how their clothes have been made, the time required and to uphold the benefits of supporting more ethical textiles companies rather than allowing transient fashion trends to dictate trade.
I first realised this when I moved back to Devon after living in London and started re-connecting with local resources and farming communities. I became aware of the huge areas of divide in rural and urban cultures, mind-sets and activities and felt inspired to encourage my contemporaries to look more within the UK for their suppliers.
I’ve since come to think that the ability to turn your hand to a skill is something that we should at least try not to lose. I, for one, feel so privileged to be able to use my hands to create something fully from scratch. It gives me a deep level of confidence and assurance in my own abilities that is almost impossible to attain anywhere else.
To make people stop and think about how their clothes have been made, the time required and to uphold the benefits of supporting more ethical textiles companies
Can you tell us a bit about your spinning wheel? It’s beautiful to look at, but I’d love to know more about how it works
My first wheel, the one from my granny, was made in Cranbrook, Kent and was a gift from my great-grandparents on her 21st birthday. It has no makers mark but it a traditional upright wheel.
Ultimately, the spindle and spinning wheel – though low in tech – are both machines. I actually built a spinning wheel from re-claimed materials while on an arts residency in Poland last summer. It was a very ambitious project and I teamed up with a cyclist who had constructed his own bike earlier that year. It took us five days and it kept breaking but it was so informative to take time to really consider how to make each component work.
Is there a particular fleece you like to use and where do you source your raw materials from?
I love getting to know all fibres – each one has a different language. Sometimes I make a choice of what to use by feeling the texture of a fibre and wanting to work with it. Although, it can also simply depend on the level of concentration required and where my mind is at that day. For instance, If I need something consistent, which I don’t have to think too much about then I’ll go for something traditionally easy to spin, like Jacob or Shetland. Whereas, If I need a challenge then I might go for banana silk which is a bit more slippery and I need to hold it over the fold or have a longer draw to spin it. This is due to the staple size and length of the fibre which determine my body position and the lightness of touch needed in the fingertips. It is down to the properties of the fibre in use to dictate the strength of twist or the amount tension required which in-turn shapes the final product.
I actually get given a lot of fleeces but also source direct from farms such as Fernhill Farm, and Peter Hunt who used to be the beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey but who now has a small flock of his own Jacob sheep.
You are currently working alongside Threads of Life on their Java Wool Project in Indonesia, could you tell us a little bit more about this project and how your involvement with their Master Dyers came about?
In October 2017, I was lucky enough to be an artist-in-residence at Threads of Life, in Bali. I worked alongside their team of Master Dyers, at the Umajati Dye Studio outside of Ubud, to help establish the beginnings of what will hopefully become their Java Wool Project. I helped their core team of Master dyers become familiar with the slow techniques involved in attaining yarn from raw sheep’s fleece from farming communities on Java.
Threads of life is a heritage textile non-profit whose focus is to support over 100 weaving co-operatives across the 22 Indonesian islands. They slowly build relations with materials and communities of makers through mastering dyeing and weaving techniques in their own studio before trading. I actually came across them first through Instagram! Pung of the co-founders had only discovered the wool in January and I messaged in April and it just turned out to be one of those ‘perfect timing moments’ in life, which was pretty great.
What is your hope for the future of traditional skills in Indonesia?
Over the past few years, Jessica has been invited to work alongside organisations such as Creative Reactions Bristol, Project Pico, BTQ, SpaceX Gallery, PSU, London Craft Week, Bezalel London and The Palace Arts Festival amongst others.
Wool could really impact the textile industry there and also spinning could re-introduce innovation back to farm level. To re-establish a project that enables hand spinning to remain part of daily village life, and to encourage the farmers not compost to the wool but to see it as a product of value would be the first step. However, it’s a slow process as it involves changing mind-sets and increasing shearing awareness so that product is faster to spin.