Trestles, Niddy-Noddys and VAT

At first I didn’t even notice Ruth. The fairly worn looking sixty-something, wore a holey nondescript baggy grey jumper covered with bits of fluff and snips. She busied herself arranging the trestle tables and registration desk and seemed welcoming if a little flustered. In the light of what I saw later that day, she had an incredibly low profile on this fortnightly “self-help” Spinners, Weavers and Felt-making day. It drew enthusiasts from as far away as Skipton, each with their own spinning wheel or portable loom. They came to enjoy the collective working atmosphere, simply to work in each other’s company! Now Ruth was certainly not drawing attention to herself! Her stature was more evident in her expertise, her confidence and her knowledgeable authority.

Ruth invited Caroline, my host and volunteer worker at Ruth’s Wingham Wool Works, to show me around the wholesale shop and cottage industry outhouses.   We stepped into shed after shed, turned corners and crossed the wool scattered yard. I started to feel awe of the stunning way in which Ruth had incorporated everything she loved in life into one distinctive statement. She employed a family of workers including her son whose Rastafarian style locks reminded me of the felt I had just witnessed a woman create that afternoon!

This remote and understated business premises was an Aladdin’s cave of materials and equipment, tools and machinery with names I had never previously encountered. I came away that afternoon with a whole new vocabulary as well as a visual treat of colour and textures. Here I might buy a miniature cotton spinning set such as Ghandi habitually used, a niddy-noddy for looping spun wool into skeins, baskets, carders and artisan yarn. Racks of higgledy-piggledy clothes airers were festooned with loops of yarn, examples of wool recipes for specific colour-ways and their resultant knitted samplers.

In addition there were buttons, hooks, felt hangings and knitted garments, boxed looms and spinning wheels imported from New Zealand and Poland. Ruth had sourced the best suppliers and she also explained that through their online business orders approximately fifty parcels a day were weighed, parcelled, picked up by the Post Office and dispatched internationally. She stroked the carding machine hopper lovingly and explained that the machine had just been re-fitted with new needles. It had a greasy, hair clogged hopper that fed into the lethal teeth of the machine to pump out soft fluffy swathes of floaty, silky hairy or even harsh fibre, each designated for a particular use. These, rolled into thick bands or tops, were then looped, weighed and sold for spinning.

Ruth couldn’t resist joining us on my “tour” and took us into the rainbow shed. Here were tonnes of wools, carded tops rolled onto half-length carpet rolls, row after row after row of singular dyed colours. Another shed housed the natural fleeces and smelled faintly of sheep. The rolled and bagged tops were named after and identified by each original breed. One mixture of wools was aptly named Shetland Humbug by its neutral stripes. Another was Bluefaced Leicester. Each breed produced wool with a characteristic quality and purpose. Ruth understood the art of choosing and combining appropriate colour and tensile strength for the task in hand. Not only this but the ply and tension as a result of the spinning would add further variables to its application! I started to glimpse the depth of Ruth’s genius.

Ruth had also been commissioned to produce adornments and pom-pom accessories for Keaton the fashion designer, had had great fun attending high society fashion shows at one end of the market and rural country wool festivals at the other! She was an internationally travelled competition adjudicator and expert, combined regular textile retreat workshops and gave tuition and advice to pilgrims who came on family holidays or intensives. These were conducted in her garden’s open sheltered workspace or conservatory, British weather permitting! In with the tuition was the provision of holiday cottage accommodation and bed and breakfast! Her husband split his time between the workshop machinery and the horticulture!

I joked about the VAT returns Ruth mentioned she was tackling in the next couple of weeks. I could not have been more surprised that she even claimed to enjoy this exercise too! One of her friends had been asking her when would she retire?

“What would you do when you retire?” Ruth asked in return.

Her friend thought a moment and surmised, “Well I’d probably have a shed in the garden with a spinning wheel and all my crafts arranged around me”. Her voice trailed off as the impact of her words hit home.

“Exactly!” Ruth retorted, “What would I do?” she laughed sarcastically.

She turned to me to tell me how she had started off and been fortunate enough at sixteen to take a very small window of opportunity to study spinning and weaving at college. The course had only run for a couple of years but she had found her “thing” early and built a life around it.

“It’s been thirty-nine years’ work but I loved every minute! And the VAT? That’s all part of life’s rich tapestry!” she laughed.

As Caroline and I drew out of the car park we left Ruth in her garden bringing in the dried guest’s bed-sheets from the washing line and her husband carding a large order for bagging in the rear shed. I was filled with respect and awe at their integrated life. I had found someone who had overcome the enemy of insignificance and ordinariness.

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