Pulling on an ancient thread: woman passes on art of spinning

Sheep Farm

PEABODY—Octogenarian Marilyn Jones is passing on the ancient art of spinning.

Jones, who raises a small flock of Tunis sheep, is teaching a small group of women how to turn freshly shorn fleece into a workable, useful textile.

You can spin anything with fur. You can spin the fuzzies from the dryer or milkweed floss, if you wanted to,” Jones said.

She began her small spinning class “because of COVID. I don’t go visit people, and I love to visit with people,” she said.

Jones has dug deep into her decades of materials, archives and knowledge to pass on the craft.

You can use an apple and a pencil if you’re so inclined,” she said, describing a hand-held drop spindle. “World-wide, more people spin this way than any other because you don’t need much. I have a spinning wheel that was made locally; the man was the only genius I’ve ever known,” she said.

Jones specializes spinning in raw, unwashed fleece.

I like the feel of the lanolin on my hands,” she said.

A group of half-a-dozen area women expressed interest in learning the art of spinning, and Jones, who has a history of hosting sheep enthusiasts, picked up teaching once more.

Over the years, we’ve had thousands of people stop here. You can have all kinds of hobbies, and this is one I happen to enjoy,” she said.

Today, Jones has a pile of freshly shorn wool in the corner of her living room, ready to be washed, carded and spun by hands new to the work. She also has a stash of natural dyes, ready to be pulled out and used. Jones imbues the culture of woolwork, teaching old spinning songs as the women work.

Her small flock of six Tunis sheep is expanding—all ewes and all but one pregnant. One ewe has already dropped bright red twins, typical of Tunis lambs. Known for their docile nature, Tunis sheep are dual-purpose, producing both wool and quality meat. She keeps a handful of Nubian milk goats on the farm as well, to nurse any rejected lambs.

Jones keeps her small mixed flock fed, grazing in a small pasture but also buying hay from her grandson, who lives nearby.

I like to watch them; they’re company,” she said.

Her other company includes a dozen or so chickens and guineas and flocks of songbirds she feeds outside her picture window.

The Jones farm was once renowned for its black sheep, at one point home to one of the largest all-black herds in the country. Jones and her husband, Gary, moved to Kansas after they attended Oklahoma State University. Jones has always loved animals and farm life and aspired to be a veterinarian, “but women weren’t allowed then,” she said.

The couple arrived in Peabody in 1961 and have been at home since, growing their farm, flocks and family.

Jones said a chance meeting of an older Russian immigrant at the Hillsboro Craft Fair kicked off her passion for spinning, teaching a handful of local women the art.

She wanted wool; we hunted for spinning wheels that would work, and one thing leads to another,” Jones said.

Jones and her husband would host young people from around the country and around the world at their farm. Visitors would stay for up to a week, learning how to care for the animals, harvest fleece and turn the fiber into finished products.

We would fix a meal during the week; a lot had never eaten lamb. We’d have lamb. They’d have to go dig potatoes and cook the lamb. By the end of the week, most could come up with a belt or something simple,” she said.

Jones laughed and said, “One or two never could get the hang of it, and a few really were whizzes and making great things, especially if they can knit, which I cannot,” a point she finds ironic.

Jones said she has always been an aspiring pioneer-woman and uses only natural dyes, from onion skins for yellow, black walnuts and blue indigo. In the summer months, Jones hunts for flowers to extract dyes.

Dying is not very precise. If I’m going to throw onion skins in a pot, I might get the same color, I might not. On the other hand, it’s the little imperfections that make it really pretty,” she said.

Embracing the imperfect is the beginning of being a good spinner.

It just takes persistence and the desire to learn this kind of thing,” she said.

Jones said passing on the tradition of spinning and creating beautiful textiles from nothing but a pile of animal hair and some plant clippings is a relief.

Let’s do something so we’re not thinking about how horrible the world is at the moment,” she said.