When Rita sold her big house last fall and moved into an apartment she had a lot of work to do shrinking not just a house full of furniture but everything else she and her husband had packed into the house during the past thirty or forty years. Rita never threw anything away, so that when she came to the attic she visited one of her many past occupations, one which Judy and I shared.
Judy and Rita were both experts at sewing and other handcrafts and I had a particular interest in olden times and how my grandmothers had lived lives that were, at least on the surface, so different from mine. We must, this one year have been together at the state fair, but I don’t remember now whether it was at handicraft exhibits or somewhere around sheep that we began to watch a local sheep farmer, Betty Russ, effortlessly spinning wool she fed into the wheel with both hands as she pumped the wheel around with her feet. We hung around her for a long time, asking questions and at some point we decided to take lessons from her.
Betty dressed up in a 19th century style of house dress, full skirt, long, cotton, put her hair up in a bun, and in general gave off the air of another time and place. We gathered in a room of her house specifically set aside for spinning and weaving and there was some mysterious aura in the place that made us really want to be just like her. The times did favor feelings like that. Back to the earthers found cheap dwellings all around Otsego county (and I think probably all around the whole United States) where the discovery was being made that we had hands for a purpose more relevant than the typewriter and the steering wheel. We wanted to share. Before the first session was over we had ordered our new spinning wheels from New Zealand and were well on our way toward performing at craft fairs, mall sales and elementary school historical sessions. More plainly we envisioned ourselves a commercial success making money, as we expressed it, hand over fist. And thus began a few years of living halfway into the 19th century. Judy and Rita both had a scholarly bent that led them deeper into a study of raising sheep, as well as the various skills needed to produce a sweater or an afghan, and all the things in between.
We invested in dresses like Betty’; we put up our hair. We developed a welcoming way with children that won their hearts and we taught them quickly the rudiments of spinning. My own family by this time was a bit tired of my obsession. After all, I haven’t mentioned the hours we spent combing the woods and fields for dye stuffs, or the huge on on the stove bubbling with lilacs and vinegar. I think. I find it strange right now to imagine that something so meaningful to me at the time has now faded, at least a lot of it into foggy generalities. Priscilla is still capable of expressing my carelessness in spinning wool fibers into the atmosphere at our house, thus inflaming her allergy to wool.
But Rita and Judy were scholars. They wanted to know everything there was to know, so when I would come home at noon from my job in the special education room at Greater Plains School, I changed into my jeans, and met my friends for another tour of the countryside, petting more sheep, looking for fleeces to buy, looking for a substitute for cochineal red. And I have to say I felt pretty satisfied with myself. For one thing we did make a little money selling yarn and hats and mittens that we knit for the sales. It is only now at my advanced age that I see what a false idea we had engendered in ourselves, or that I had in mine. Billy remembers an afternoon when I came in from the Fair at Riverside School and cracked open a Budweiser beer. The irony is only apparent to me now. And no one will be surprised to learn that it was our willingness to buzz around the whole county learning what it was like to be an Old Fashioned girl while making use of every modern convenience available to us.
I am very much in doubt at this point that any of the steps I have taken to learn “what it used to be like” have revealed much of the truth of that other time, and I am sure that none of my other attempts are very successful The gardens are filled with hybrids right from the start; nobody would think of using a lawnmower to make that kind of old-fashioned discovery, and as for paint, it all has lead in it.
I really think I’ll abandon all such attempts from now on and get my info from books that somebody else wrote.