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Teaching Kids About Fibers And Spinning

Spinners share their experiences about how best to expose children to wool, wheels, and beyond

Collected Wisdom from the Ashford-Spinners List


From: (Lynne)

I love doing gigs with kiddies, of any age. Have had 'em from 5-6 yrs old up to teenagers. I haven't tried teaching drop spindle, though at the last 4-H demo I did, several of them learned right off the bat on my wheel. And at an AgFair today at an elementary school, kids just started twisting together the "fuzz" (literally! "staple" length approx. 1/4"!!) given them by the lamb shearer they saw just before coming to my demo as they sat and watched and listened to my schpeel. I couldn't believe several of them had over a foot of yarn of this stuff just sitting and twisting. I was impressed.

As far as "what works and what doesn't" -- I've found with just about ANYTHING and kids, if I love what I'm doing -- love doing it and love telling about it -- they'll pick up on that and "get into it", too. And kids can "do" just about anything they set their minds to -- unlike most adults who have picked up an "I can't" attitude somewhere along the way. So lots of genuinely felt and expressed enthusiasm and a little instruction (i.e. show and tell) goes a long way. Have fun! That's the bottom line. Kids will, too, given half a chance.

From: (Faye)

I have been doing demos for about 10 years for kids from 3 years old through high school and have devised a routine that I use. I combine spinning and weaving in my demos. I start by reading The Goat in the Rug to the kids. It runs through the whole process and is funny for the kids to keep their interest.

I then talk about fibers in the same order as the book. I have fiber samples from a variety of sources...i.e. angora, alpaca. silk cocoons, etc. and let them handle the samples as they guess what animals, plants or insects produce fiber. After explaining carding, each child learns to spin a small piece on their leg. Then I show drop spindles and then the wheel. I then go on to dyeing and weaving.

Any hands-on the kids do will greatly increase the time of the demo. Some kids really want to be able to do what you are showing and won't let it drop while you go on, so you can spend a fair amount of time showing individuals. When this happens, you sometimes lose control so be careful. Since I move a lot there always seems to be MANY people who want demos... even in the rural area I live in.

I have fun with the demos...(and I have had over a 100 kids in the room for the demo) When I twist a piece of roving on my leg (with no tools) I play like a magic trick..look no glue on my fingers and nothing up my sleeves. I show how strong it becomes after spinning. Then I show them how to fold it in half so it twists back on itself and won't unwind... then they have something to take home. I send around dirty wool for the kids to touch and smell. Boys really love that especially if you mention some of the things that can be in it...

I have a lightweight 4 harness floor loom that I also take to class and let each kid have a turn weaving on at the end of class. During this time I ask the teacher to provide something to keep the kids busy while I am with individual kids. Under 3rd grade, I sit at the loom and handle the treadles while two kids,one on each side, pass the shuttle and beat. Older kids can handle the treadles with a bit of help. Because of this part of the demo, time can really vary depending on the number of students. I like to have at least an hour and a half for a normal size group. Sometimes I will let teachers bring extra kids in for everything but the hands on weaving. Then the other kids go back to class and I have only thirty or less to have weave.

I would suggest you try out your demo with a small group of kids at home before you head to school if you have never done it before. Remember that they have many misunderstandings about it all and may ask some wild questions... There is so much new going on the first time you see these kids, that if they get to touch things, I don't think you need much hands on or if you do, groups are a great idea. Be sure to have fun because if you don't, it isn't worth doing.

From: cpy at druding (Susan)

I once went to do a spinning demo series for my son's class when he was in about 5-6th grade. Two teachers thought it was so wonderful that when I showed up they had their joined classes facing me with about 65 kids!

If you get to actual drop spindle spinning, put them in teams of 2, 3 or 4. They can really help each other and one can keep the spindle turning while one spins and a 3rd "critiques". The kids catch on so much faster than adults that it really goes nicely. You can make spindles out of clay and chopsticks.

For a first visit they are usually pretty content to watch it all; it's only if they get you back again that they'll want hands-on.

Take along a variety of fibers. They love to sniff the sheep in the raw wool and make faces and go "Ughhhh!".

From: (Sally)

One thing I do with school groups that seems to make a hit and sends kids home with a piece of yarn is give each one of them a small bit of roving, about 3" for each child, then have them attenuate it and then spin it on their leg. They are told to pinch one end and then roll the rest down their leg, pinch, move the partly spun yarn back up their leg and roll down again. Did you ever sit and "spin" grass in the summertime when you were young? If so, you will have an idea of what I'm saying.

I then explain that they need to put the two ends together and let the rest "unspin" against itself. Some kids get this better than others, but it is a small thing that they can get a look at and see that spinning is a simple process.

I hope this makes sense. It's hard to explain in words, and so easy to show. One of the best things we do is showing children how spinning works.

I have found that if asked to participate, the teachers are as enthusiastic as the children and love to help out where they can. Be sure to ask before you bring animals into the classroom. It always adds a dimension to your demonstration, but some teachers don't want to have the animals as part of the demonstration.

I have a wonderful rapport worked out with the local elementary school. One of the neighbors has a log cabin that is about a 1/2 mile walk down through the woods and sits close to a creek bank. Very picturesque and isolated. The first graders all get a trip to the log cabin in the fall. We dress in period costume; Ann does the "settler's wife" and shows and tells about all the things that relate to everyday living, and I do spinning and knitting and tell about the animals.

In the spring, I bring in whatever little baby animals I have to show the first graders. I bring along plastic tarps and have a 10 or 12 foot piece of 2x4 welded wire I bend in a circle to contain the animals. This helps to keep the baby lambs/goats from being mauled, but allows the children to get close enough to touch. The teachers can count on the demonstrations, and the kids look forward to it. It is especially fun when some little kid tells me that his older sibling told him that the "spinning lady" was really neat (or Cool, as it is these days).

From: (Rita)

My first ever demo for the 5th graders - little did I realize what 2 hours with 78 ten-and eleven-year-olds would be like - whew! The first thing I did was recruit 4 friends to come with me - two spinners and two non-spinners. I pretty much took anything I thought might end up being useful, a luxury which worked because of all the helpers for carrying stuff. The "props" I took along included:

- 2 spinning wheels, lazy kates, niddy noddies, basket of handspun skeins, flick carder and hand cards

- my stuffed animals dressed in various knitted garments

- the book Unraveling Fibers (ages 8-12)

- about 3 dozen drop spindles made from the remnants of an old tinker toys set plus some cup hooks

- baggies containing raw wool, silk cocoons, caps,and fiber, angora, dog hair, llama, camel, mohair, etc.

- Fairy Tale Spinning poster with a picture of a great wheel with a quill (from a Spin Off ad) for Sleeping Beauty, and a handful of straw (begged from a vendor at MD) with some spun gold mylar flash interspersed for Rumpelstilskin.

- What Else Can We Spin poster adorned with cotton boll, ginned cotton, colored cotton and cotton yarn, down through silk, alpaca, dog and cat hair, buffalo, horse mane, whatever I had or could borrow, the raw substance and then spun up and also swatched where possible.

- How to Add Color to Fiber poster showing packets of a few natural dyes (madder, osage, cochineal) some wool dyed with sagebrush and mulberry, then into yarn dyed with Kool Aid (and a packet included), copper (some pennies taped on), food coloring, and finally some colorful synthetically dyed roving.

- two cardboard looms made as per instructions in the current issue of Spin-Off in the article about making pouches out of odds and ends of handspun, warped and a few rows started on each

- a packet for each child which included 2 brochures about sheep and wool from the Sheep Industry, handouts defining terms and illustrating the parts of a spinning wheel, a lock of fleece, a 6" length of roving, and a yard of colored yarn for the loom.

The length of the list was only exceeded by the depth of my terror! But it all worked out okay. Because we saw the kids in 3 groups they each had a drop spindle to work with when that portion rolled around. Holly and Deb spun while I talked and Peggy and Judy passed things around/out. We related it to the pioneers (they are studying the Oregon Trail) and how hard people had to work to have clothes in those days. We took out the fleece and roving, set the kids on the floor, and had them pre-draft (or try to), catch a bit of roving and roll the spindles up their legs. Results varied. :-) I showed how to make rolags, how to use the flick carder, how to test for plying. Somewhere in there (it was different for each session) the posters were trotted out, pictures from the book were shown, the weaving was introduced.

Then we went completely free form and the children tried their hand at what interested them most. Many continued on their spindles while waiting a turn at one of the wheels. The non-spinners helped with the weaving. I was usually helping with the hand carders. At some point we pulled off a layer of dyed silk bell and saw how far we could stretch it out around the room; when it broke the children could take their pieces and spin that. The teacher had as much trouble as some of the kids, and was very good-natured about it, and quite proud of her progress by the third session. She seemed thrilled that it was really driven home to the kids how hard our ancestors had to work for things we take so much for granted.

So that was pretty much it, rather disorganized but I think a good time was had by all. Some of the kids really did nice jobs, both on the spindles and on the wheels. For the wheels we had one child draft and one treadle which worked out nicely. I left the posters, book, looms, a few spindles, and extra yarn and roving with the teacher until the unit is completed. We were invited on the spot to return next year, and several days later my son came home with a thank you note and a certificate awarding me 200 acres of prime Oregon farmland, so it looks like my wagon made it through!

From: (Mary)

I had a lot of fun with some girl guides and silk caps, showing how strong silk is. You can gather about 6 young kids around a reasonably thick layer of silk cap and have them all pull in different directions It makes for a great fun game to let off steam in the middle of the demo, and seems to be safe if you have a soft area where they can stagger about with it and fall down. I then made a hole in the middle of the cap, let them stretch it for a while longer then spun it.

From: (Arlene)

Another idea is to make a drop spindle out of an apple and a pencil. They really enjoy seeing things they use everyday turned into something to spin with. I usually poke the hole in the apple before the demonstration. Most of the kids remember things like that.

From: (Janet)

I sometimes volunteer at our "Old Fort Western". I have a lot of 5 to 10 year olds. I sit them down to the wheel and give them a piece of roving. I instruct them to stretch it a bit and show them how. Then I have them lay their piece over the all ready spun piece. They treadle and soon have 5 or 6 inches of their own yarn. I cut it and ply it against itself. I knot it and they have a bit of plied yarn, dreadlock or whatever. All I do is keep the wheel going in the right direction. They are so very proud.

P.S. When I say a lot of kids, one time last month I had 90 in one morning, and they ALL had their own piece of hand spun.


I did a little demonstration for preschoolers for storytime at our little community library last spring using Charlie Needs a Cloak. I took in a whole unwashed fleece, some washed locks, cards, drop spindles, jars of natural dyes, skeins of dyed yarn, a weaving in progress on a frame loom, and some items I had knitted. I didn't take my spinning wheel because I also had my 4-year-old and 2-year-old grandchildren in tow and wanted to haul in everything in one trip.

First I explained the words shepherd, cloak, shear, and crook (I couldn't help it - I'm a retired elementary school teacher). Then I told the kids to watch for the little mouse on each page. I used the story later with eight kinder classes and they all loved watching for that mouse. I also asked them to look at the sheep's expressions as her fleece is transformed throughout the story. Then, as I read each page I held up and passed around the corresponding examples. It helps to have parents help pass stuff around and to have several examples for each page.

I also found that while older kids like to smell the unwashed fleece and comment in increasingly loud voices how smelly it is, some of the little ones don't want to get anywhere near it. That's ok. At the end I gave each child a lock of some Lincoln I happened to have. It took about a half hour and the kids just loved it. I followed up next storytime with Sheep in a Shop and another beautiful picture book (the title escapes me) about a little girl who thinks she's found a lost lamb. Hope this helps. Have fun!

From: (Nancy)

Another book which is good for that is Pelle's New Suit. It covers step by step the making of a new suit from raising the sheep to taking the wool and then the yarn to various relatives to complete the process.

I usually read the story, demonstrate what the wheel is doing - simple explanation to fit the age group, and then let them stand next to me individually. They draw the fiber out (with help) while I treadle. Haven't had one yet that didn't want to try this. Lots of fun.

From: (Kenneth)

I am a Kindergarten teacher. My children are not pre-schoolers, but are 4, 5 and 6 years old. At my school, a Catholic School in Manhattan, we combine the pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten class. My classes are always small, usually only about 14-16 children. I have been teaching since 1966. The one great bonding force from generation to generation of my classes has been fiber arts.

I begin early each year explaining where our clothes come from, then tell where wool comes from and we talk about sheep. I show them how I spin wool on a drop spindle and spin for several days during story time. Soon they have mastered the visual-brain skills of spinning and I give them some fleece. They instinctively spin it by twisting it between their fingers. I have lots of small drop spindles (30 years of teaching gave me plenty of time to accumulate them) and soon the kids are spinning their own yarn. Most all learn very quickly and the early learners help the slower ones.

I progress on to finger crochet then crochet with hooks and by the end of the year have some weaving on an inkle loom and others knitting. Remember they are only 4-6 years old.

The adults who were once my Kindergartners still talk about this unique experience in their early years. Some have become fiber enthusiasts and some of their parents and members of the faculty have also picked up on this.

From: (Molly)

I've done a few, and the kids tend to be absolutely fascinated. Recommend a few points:

1) take a few handfuls of "demo" wool (junk) to pass around so they can feel it.

2) if you can, take a few good-sized drop spindles they can try. You'd be surprised. They can often do pretty good.

3) Don't let them paw anything you intend to spin and use. Excessive kid pawing is really hard on the fiber....

From: (Cheryl)

For "sheep day" at my daughter's school, I had 2-1/2 hours to visit with all 3 first-grade classrooms. I carried along my Ashford wheel, a basket of washed, natural color fleece, a raw cotton boll, a drum-carded batt for each class' actual spinning, hand cards, a few various balls/skeins of finished yarns (Angora, dyed and natural wools), a small handspun/knitted item, a handspun/woven item, and my Ashford Charkha (to show a different spinning wheel version, and to point out the spindle in relation to the "Sleeping Beauty" story).

The teachers all had a small section of the classroom with carpet on the floor, where their class of almost 30 children would congregate around the teacher's large rocking chair for the reading of the day. As the students were accustomed to sitting and listening here, I was able to squeeze in the "teacher's spot" with my wheel, basket, and tote bag to talk with them. I began by handing out a lock or two of clean, washed wool (we had sheared out on the playground earlier that morning, and encouraged each child to feel the grease wool for comparison). We talked about where a few of the animal and vegetable fibers came from (it was fun to point out to tee-shirt-wearing kids, that their shirt was once a plant...enter the raw cotton boll!).

While talking through the steps to prepare the wool for spinning, have them each hand-tease their bit of wool. Now is a good time to demonstrate the hand-carding tools. (The drum-carder stayed home , but I employed its batts for the actual spinning.) Do a short wheel-spinning demo while explaining how the different parts of the wheel function . The children can each mimic this where they sit, by hand-twisting a bit of their own hand-teased fleece. Have them come up to the wheel, one at a time, for a turn helping spin a length of yarn for the entire class. Use your drum-carded fibers here. (The teacher can divide the yarn from your bobbin at the end of the demo amongst them for take-home after you've gone on to next class.) Each can choose to do the "hand part" (drafting) or "foot part" (treadling), while you actively take the unchosen role in spinning on your wheel (most seemed to prefer treadling, so you'll get lots of rapid-fire treadling while you draft and spin!).

After all have had a turn, unwind their class' yarn to leave with them. Be sure to pass around some tactile or colorful yarns and finished items. The charkha was great for showing where Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger (perhaps you have a distaff with a "point" that may suffice as well). You can tailor this to your particular areas of interest in spinning. Kool-Aid dyeing might be a consideration (have any of you tired this as a "solar-dye" project, somehow away from stoves?). Large, easy to see books (for a crowd) with pictures of fiber animals, looms, dyed wools, etc. may augment your talk. And you can always have the teacher incorporate several children's stories either in preparation to, or as a follow-up from your time spent in the classroom. Titles include Charlie Needs a Cloak by Tomie de Paola; The Goat in the Rug by Martin L. Blood; Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles; Pelle's New Suit.....? (help me out here, spinners!); The Mitten by Jan Brett, and traditional Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin stories.

From: (Melissa)

Heard a method to maybe try with children if you want to give them something to do. A small potato and a pencil will make a drop spindle and the cost in minimal. I heard this from a woman who teaches this way in 4-H. She said the kids really get a kick out of this.

From: (Donna)]

When doing spinning demos at school I have used the book Charlie Needs a Cloak by Tomie de Paola (available through Scholastic Books). It comes in regular size and the Big Book format which I have. The story takes a shepherd boy through the steps of spinning and weaving a cloak for himself and has a glossary of terms at the end. It is well done, and the little sheep in the illustrations are cute.

From: (Elizabeth)

I use to teach third grade, now am fifth grade. I taught my third graders to spin wool on drop spindles every year. I never attempted to teach cotton as I found it too difficult. I will teach my fifth graders this year. I will add cotton due to our study of the Civil War.

From: (BJ)

I have given several demonstrations at my kids' school and have had somewhat of a success rate as they all want to take stuff home with them! I have found that if you pair two kids up it works quite well. I do not use a drop spindle, but rather a 'hooked stick' as in a bent coat hanger. Lee Raven shows how to make a 'hooked stick' in Hands on Spinning, page 12. All it really is is a 12" length of coat hanger bent to resemble a cup hook on one end.

I have one child hold the wool supply (drafter) and the other will be inserting the twist (twister). Have the 'twister' stay put, while the 'drafter' backs up while feeding the draft. This results in enough yarn to two ply it back on itself to give the kids enough to take home and they usually remember you the next year! I do demonstrate the drafting for them so they can see what to do. If the kids are old enough, 8-10, they will get it really quick.

I like the idea of having them incorporate it into a weaving project, but you would have to have them do more than a couple of yards. This could be a day-long presentation. I know my spinning association is giving grants for spinners that do this as part of the school curriculum. Wish I had the time! I think it's great to do these demonstrations; it is the future that we are saving!

From: (Mary)

On the subject of demonstrating to lower elementary grades, I start by asking how many people in the classroom are wearing something made of fibers that have been spun, then knitted or woven into fabric. The ones wearing sweaters always raise their hands and gets the session rolling as I point out chances are they're all wearing spun and woven fibers.

I take a copy of Charlie Needs A Cloak by Tomie de Paola for the teacher to read while I spin on the Traditional. I explain the rudimentary steps of finger and thigh spinning, of winding onto a stick, then progress to the drop spindle and get on with the wheel.

I hand out locks of washed white wool to play with, and have a fiber notebook I set out, which is a 3-ring binder with cardstock pages. Each page has a picture of the fiber source, a lock of raw fiber, washed, carded, spun, then a sample of knitted, woven or crocheted fabric from the fiber. I printed large block letter labels for each step.

Now that my daughter is middle school aged I haven't visited the grade schools in a couple years, but you all are making me think of it again.

From: (Andrea)

About the safety of allowing children to work with raw fleece:

In terms of tetanus, tetanus spores are found in dust and dirt and farm yard mess in every part of the world. Allowing children to play with raw fleece is no different from allowing them to help in the garden, as far as tetanus is concerned. Most children are vaccinated, and all routine childhood vaccine schedules include tetanus.

It is more of a problem for adults. No one requires them to be, or reminds them to get vaccinated. Tetanus vaccine should be boosted (renewed) every ten years, and sooner if you have a serious laceration.

If parents have chosen not to vaccinate a child, then that child is at risk of getting tetanus and maybe put at risk playing with raw fleece, or in the garden, among other things. If anyone wants more info, feel free to contact me.

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