The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 18, 2008


Carlisle spinner practices an ancient art

Kerri Piette tests the 19th-century spinning wheel at Heald House and finds that it's still in excellent shape. At her left is the Historical Society's melodeon, originally from the First Religious Society. (Photo by Dave Ives)
Immediately upon entering her post-and-beam home on Patch Meadow Lane, one can see that Kerri Piette appreciates the work of a craftsman. Bull's-eye windows in her front door were hand-blown by a friend. The sink and tiles were crafted by a California potter. A blacksmith friend forged the door hardware and fireplace tools, and a stonemason from Bedford built the fireplace.

Piette herself is an artisan, having practiced the craft of old-fashioned spinning for more than 20 years. In addition, she is an accomplished knitter and is experienced in using natural dyes, many of which she derives from plant material found in Carlisle. After demonstrating various spinning methods last fall at the Carlisle Historical Society's open house, Kerri shared her background in this somewhat unusual craft.

A family of knitters

Piette's family has long been interested in textiles. She was raised in New Jersey where her father worked for the fabric company MilliCare and often brought home samples of new materials. Her mother, an experienced knitter and seamstress, sewed the family's clothes and her grandmother made braided and hooked rugs, sewed clothes for her family, knit mittens and hats for her grandchildren and was skilled at tatting, or lacemaking. Asked if her mother taught her to knit, Piette responded quickly, "My mom didn't teach me. I'm left-handed and she said she wouldn't even try! I learned when I was about 30 from my next-door neighbor in Los Angeles. Isn't it ironic that I learned to knit in L.A. where the temperature is rarely lower than 60 degrees?"

Learning to spin

Piette sorts through some of her brightly colored yarns, some of which she dyed using roadside weeds. (Photo by Dave Ives)
"In terms of spinning, I don't remember how I got started," laughs Piette. "I was living in Redondo Beach, California. It was 1990 and my son Jarrett had just been born. I used to knit quite a bit and the local yarn shop was offering a one-day spinning class — so I signed up." Although she enjoyed the class, life with a newborn kept her busy and she found little time to spin.

The following year, she and her husband, Kevin, moved to Massachusetts. "Years earlier my best friend had brought me skiing at the lantern loop at Great Brook," she recalls. "I loved Carlisle and when we came back to live in Massachusetts, we decided to look only here. As luck would have it we became neighbors to the park." New to the area and home with a young baby, she soon found herself bored. "So, I ordered a spinning wheel. It was one of those Lucy and Ethel things. There is really only one easy model that most everyone gets. So I ordered an Ashford from New Zealand and spent some time teaching myself to spin."

Piette noted that a spinner can become proficient fairly quickly. "Lots of times the yarn spun by a new spinner will be lumpy — you know, the kind that is really expensive in the yarn shops," she points out. "Then an experienced spinner will try to make the trendy lumpy yarn, and they can't reproduce the unevenness anymore. It's like riding a bike. It seems hard at first, but once you learn it, you forget what it was like when you didn't know how."

When her children were young, Piette made hats, gloves, mittens and sweaters for them from hand-spun yarn, most of it dyed by hand. "I have always had wool in my closet that needs to be spun. It's a nice winter thing that keeps you warm while you're doing it. I can get at least one full bobbin spun during one evening of watching TV." (Two bobbins = 1 skein = approx. 75-100 grams of yarn.)

Spinning guild

Piette spins wool on one of the small wheels that share her home. (Photo by Dave Ives)

Piette improved her craft and learned about the history of spinning and dyeing through extensive reading (she has a library of many out-of-print books) and attending classes, meetings and workshops at local spinning and textile guilds. In 1991 she stumbled on her first Boston Area Spinners and Dyers (BASD) meeting. Founded in 1970, BASD has had a number of members from Carlisle over the years. "Spinning was really popular in the 1970s," says Piette. "The Concord group became very active, and it was a great place to meet new people and to take classes." (The group now meets in Sudbury.) "There is a core group that is always there in Sudbury. It keeps you connected and excited about spinning."

Soon after moving to Carlisle, Piette attended her first biennial Northeast Regional Hand Spinners Guild three-day workshop in Enfield, New Hampshire. "It is a wonderful way to get together with other people who are interested in the craft. After dinner everyone brings their [spinning] wheel into the living room and spins together." Piette has traveled to this workshop several times, often accompanied by her neighbor, Cindy Craft.

Other workshops in the area bring together spinners and other textile enthusiasts. Piette describes a recent festival in Portland, Maine, where the Maine Artists Co-operative, together with the city of Portland, built a fiber moose and yurt in the center of the city. According to Piette, the festival "brought textiles to the forefront. The work was beautiful. It passed the level of a craft into an art." At the "Sheep to Shawl" competition in New Hampshire Piette noticed a "whole new crowd of young Gen-Xers who are getting involved in spinning and textile arts.


Piette willingly shares her knowledge. At the Historical Society's program at Heald House, Piette demonstrated several spinning techniques using both bobbins and spinning wheels, and allowed members of the audience to try their hand at it.

She also displayed a variety of yarns that she had dyed. She consulted several books for "recipes" for natural dyes, most of which are made from roadside weeds such as goldenrod, bracken fern, lily-of-the-valley, pokeweed and sumac.

Later, on a tour of the household tools room at Heald House, she admired the old wooden spinning wheel and the textile tools. "I love the old wooden tools, usually made by someone close to the user," she says. "Some are odd but have specific purposes. Sometimes you can run across an old one that is ornately carved or has dates and initials in it. I try to imagine the love and care that went into making it. It does blow my mind to think how we take textiles for granted now. Imagine, at one time all the thread for ships' sails had to be spun, as well as blankets and clothing."

Piette also takes part in the annual North Andover Historical Society's Harvest Fair. Together with spinners Linda Lane of Hamilton, and Florence Feldman Wood of Andover, Piette demonstrates a variety of spinning techniques. "It's a wonderful opportunity to get together with Linda and Florence," she notes. "The spinning world is a very tight community. In the 1970s the local guild spun the silk for Florence's wedding dress. We had a 25th anniversary gathering and she displayed the dress."

Spinning today

Over the years Piette has collected six or seven spinning wheels, mostly antiques.. "I like to save them from being turned into lamps," she explains. She no longer spins and knits on a regular basis since, "kids don't want hand made stuff anymore. I wish I did more. Now what I do is more for myself — a small thing like a scarf or mittens — things that don't take too much time and that I'll use every day." She still goes to the BASD meetings and sometimes she and Craft will go to a sheep or wool fair in New Hampshire or western Massachusetts.

These days Piette's time is filled with more modern activities. Her three sons Jarrett, 17, Colin, 13 and Graeme, 10, keep her busy. She is a realtor in Westford and a deputy election warden for the town of Carlisle. For relaxation, she tries to "play the piano, though I haven't played much since working. I also take a Spanish course over and over at adult ed. Someday maybe I'll be able to speak the language!"

But long winter evenings might find her working on the wool supplies in her closet, practicing the ancient art of spinning while watching 21st-century television — a very Carlisle kind of pastime.

2008 The Carlisle Mosquito