a simple sign marks the entrance to SOAR

The 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat
Shanty Creek Resort
Bellaire, Michigan
October 7-14, 2007

Putting on any event is a lot of work. Doing it successfully for 25 years in a row, that's downright extraordinary. But last week, Interweave marked just such an achievement when its 25th annual Spin-Off Autumn Retreat took place at the tip of the Michigan peninsula. I attended the first half of the weeklong event and have some pictures and stories to share.

Spin-Off Autumn Retreat is the annual gathering of Spin-Off magazine. In the Ivy League world of fiber events, this is the MIT. It attracts intelligent, curious, skilled individuals—professional and amateur alike—who care deeply about the fiber arts and long to learn more.

They come from far and wide, across continents and oceans and borders, to spent a week together learning and practicing and sharing and playing—and some have been doing so every single year since the event began.

Although the presence of the word "spin" in the title leads many knitters to cross it off their list, the exceptionally good beginning spinner classes make this an ideal venue for any knitter ready to cross the bridge into the land of making your own yarn.

The Setting

some extraordinary clouds spotted on the drive between buildings
This year's SOAR took place at a ski and golf resort on the northwestern tip of the Michigan peninsula. For most folks, getting there took commitment (the nearest major airport was nearly four hours away, and even the smaller regional airport in Traverse City was an hour's shuttle drive away), but it made the moment of arrival that much more special.

the bus between buildings
The resort informed Interweave just weeks before the event that the major renovations were underway and as a result, the event would have to split between two venues. Those of us lodging in one building and taking classes in another made the daily commute either by car or by shuttle bus. I missed that cozy sense of community and convenience, but I knew Interweave was not to blame.

Getting Started
A SOAR tradition is that all the workshop teachers are not called teachers, they're called mentors—a truly appropriate description for the cadre of people who teach. The first night, the whole group gathered in a big room and each mentor was invited to share a few words about him or herself, and show a few pictures—we saw stunning works as well as dogs, horses, homes, and mountains of tomatoes being canned in the kitchen.

Each mentor was also asked to give us some words of wisdom. A group laugh erupted when Sarah Lamb advised, "Finish things." Meanwhile, Robin Russo quoted Ansel Adams when he said that the most important piece of equipment he owned was the waste-paper basket—the point being, we should try things and see what works for us personally, and not stress over the things that don't.

The Workshops
The first half of SOAR is taken up with three-day workshops. You make your first, second, and third workshop choice when you register, and then throw fate to the wind and know that whatever class you get will be just fine. The classes span three full days, allowing you to dig deep and make amazing discoveries.

Judith MacKenzie McCuin at the wheel
I managed to snag a spot in Judith MacKenzie McCuin's workshop about primitive-breed sheep. These hearty, pre-bronze-age animals have fascinating double-coated fleeces that provided us with everything from sails to shawls for thousands of years.

The music world has its Madonna and Prince, and the fiberarts world has its share of one-name icons—of which Judith is one. Urban legend is that Judith is such a good teacher that she could sell out a weeklong tutorial on cleaning toilets. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of fiber and history, she has an astounding amount of life experience, but, most important of all, she is a magical storyteller. Having spent three days with her, I can say that I'd be first in line for that toilet-cleaning class.

Judith firmly believes that when we were sitting in cold dark caves looking out at the world and wondering how we'd make it, a sheep poked its nose inside and said, "Come on out! We'll show you what to do." And, for thousands of years, they have done just that.

Over the next three days, we did everything. We followed the Viking ships up the Volga, we watched as Spaniards deposited sheep on every island they passed heading up the California coast to provide food in case of future shipwrecks. We learned that the North Ronaldsay sheep (that grazes on seaweed in the Orkney islands) has an uncanny ability to memorize the tide tables. We learned that Icelanders call Shetland sheep "shipwrecked Norwegians," while Shetlanders call Icelandic sheep "stolen Shetlands." And we learned that raising Karakul sheep can be a challenge. ("I ended up on the ground most of the time," said Judith, "with little hoof prints.")

Judith shows us a fleece
At each juncture, Judith brought out a new fleece and spread it out on the ground, and we all gathered around like hungry ducklings. "This one is a Swaledale," she'd say. "Here's a beautiful Leicester Longwool fleece."

In this way we went from the Gutefår sheep to breeds with names like Wensleydale, Mouflon, Jacob, Finnish Landrace, and of course, Shetland and Icelandic. At each juncture, we were given large handfuls of fiber to touch, spin, and keep.

Judith does her magic trick with a lock of Shetland fleece
At one point Judith literally pulled a fiber rabbit out of a hat. She took a lock of Shetland fleece and swiftly separated not one, not two, not even three, but five distinct fiber types from that lock. It was so amazing that we asked her to do it again (you can see the first batch of fibers on her other leg).

But we also learned about spinning wheel maintenance, washing fibers and yarns, how woven pile carpets are made, how you can make your own superwash wool, and, closest to my own heart, what makes a good yarn. It was heaven.

And most exciting of all, some 220 other people were having similar experiences in all the other classrooms. They were learning things like how to spin, how to make hand-dyed roving, how to spin with handspindles, how to prepare fibers, how to handcard and spin woolen yarns, and how to spin for lace.

A rainbow over SOAR

After our classes all finished on Wednesday afternoon, I went outside to the parking lot and spotted this rainbow—surely an auspicious sign?

The Gallery
Ah, but I haven't even mentioned the best part yet! On Tuesday night, the SOAR gallery opened for viewing. Each year, participants and mentors are invited to submit their works for display in the gallery. Here are just a few examples of the awe-inspiring pieces on display:

Sarah Lamb's Flaming Peacocks shawl
Sarah Lamb's Flaming Peacocks shawl. The photo doesn't do the flickering colors of this shawl any justice, but believe me, it was amazing.

One of Sharon Costello's amazing felted vessels
A felted vessel by Sharon Costello.

I should also commend the SOAR staff for their ingenious transformation of a standard conference room into a gallery. For example, this vessel is sitting on top of an inverted water pitcher!

Kathryn Alexander's sock

Gasp! This breathtaking hand-dyed, hand-knit piece by Kathryn Alexander was called What Shoes?

a wet-felted piece by Judy Gilchrist

A wet-felted piece by Judy Gilchrist aptly entitled Autumn in New York.

wonderfully warm and fuzzy hat and mitten set

Being an avid angora lover, I was delighted by Janelle Durant's snowflake mittens and hat, knit from a 75% Rambouillet / 25% angora blend.

Joan Gentleman's suite of mini socks

What a perfect use for leftover handspun! Joan Gentleman used a different heel technique for each of these adorable mini-socks.

Ruth Hollowell's mittens

Ruth Hollowell's Goddess Mittens, made from her own handspun, hand-dyed wool and silk yarn and using her own pattern. Ruth noted on the information card that she'd been reading Mary Kelly's book, Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe, and was inspired to put her own goddess in the cuff.

A 22-year-old bag by Abby Franquemont
There was no missing Abby Franquemont's bag, which she wove in 1985 on an Andean backstrap loom from her own spindle-spun yarn. It's impressive to see how well this bag has fared over 22 years of heavy use.

A shawl that took three years to complete

Rita Williams' Icarus Shawl was a perfect example of perseverance paying off. She started spinning the fiber on a spindle at the 2005 SOAR, plied the yarn on a wheel at the 2006 SOAR, and finally finished the shawl in time for the 2007 SOAR!

Charlene Abrams' splendid sweater
And finally, the garment that really tempted me to commit theft was Charlene Abrams' Copper Triangles Sweater. It's made from "mostly" 50% cashmere and 50% silk three-ply handspun yarn. The other fibers, she explained, were from other luxury fibers that she dyed in a Deb Menz color workshop to match. She knitted the triangles in the bottom band first, then worked the body up, and the sleeves down.

Perhaps the most amazing effect of the SOAR gallery is a sense of combined awe and courage. You look at these stunning items and realize that, with time and patience you, too, could achieve something that beautiful.

Workshop Review
On Wednesday night, we all gathered for workshop review. Each class sets up two tables of items demonstrating what they made and learned in their class. The room was so packed that I only made it halfway across before everybody started dismantling the displays for the evening.

Carol Rhoades carding class

The display from Carol Rhoades' class on the arts of handcarding and woolen spinning.

Andrea Mielke Schroer's handspindles class

Assorted spindles from Andrea Mielke Schroer's handspindles class—and yes, that is a beaded DVD you see on one of the spindles!

the happy words of new spinners

Maggie Casey's Spinning 101 class proudly displayed their first skeins and this note to the world.

getting goofy
When people put skeins on their heads and pose for the cameras, that's generally the signal that the gallery review is coming to a close—which it did just after this picture of Rudy Amman's Spinning 201 class was taken.

Leaving Too Soon

one side of the market
Walking back to my room after the workshop review on Wednesday night, I passed this magical sight: the open door to the SOAR market, all set up and ready to open the following morning.

the long road home
But alas, life sometimes has its own other demands and by 6am the next day I was here, starting my long journey home.

During the drive back to the airport, I finally had some quiet time alone to think about what I'd experienced, everybody I'd met, everything I'd learned. When you go to SOAR, you enter a giant snow globe that is constantly being shaken up. Only after you leave, and the flakes finally settle, can you see how your inner creative landscape has been transformed.

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