Publisher’s Notes: OK, I’m going to say it straight out and get this on the table — This is an interview that I am pretty “fan-girl” over. Simply put, featuring Beth Smith , author of The Spinner’s Book of Fleece, here at Spin Artiste is a dream come true for me. If you don’t know much about Beth yet, as you read, you will see why. Beth is a fiberista who simultaneously navigates the ins and outs of farm fresh fleece all the while sporting a sparkly tiara! Read on and enjoy!
Spin Artiste (SA): You have an impressive “fiber” resume. Where did all of this start for you and what was it that drew you to focus your creative work on fiber?
Beth Shearer Smith (BSS): I’ve always been interested in textiles all my life. My grandmother was a pattern maker in a factory and my mom made and designed wedding gowns while I was growing up. I learned to sew when I was very young and also learned to knit, crochet and embroider as a kid. Almost 16 years ago I took up knitting again and soon after that I became curious about where yarn comes from so I started to do some research. Since then I haven’t been able to stop.
SA: What made you decide to make fiber more than a hobby?
BSS: My spinning teacher had decided to sell her business and I had always wanted to own my own business so I jumped right in thinking I would sell some things and teach a few people to spin. Things just grew from there.
SA: When you are teaching or writing, who is the spinner you have in mind?
BSS: There is no one spinner in particular that I think about a lot although there are several spinners I admire. The one that has had the biggest influence on my spinning style is Mabel Ross. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet her before she died in 1995 since that was before I started spinning but she did make my favorite video called Essentials of Handspinning. There is also a book by the same name. Mabel was a math teacher and so her spinning techniques are very precise. I like to follow her example but when I teach those precise methods I use language that is easy to understand and not at all intimidating.
SA: Given your extensive knowledge of different types of wool and the characteristics of each breed, what are your personal favorites and why?
BSS: This is the hardest question. I can easily name my favorite 10. When I try to narrow down to a top 5 it gets harder since things are always moving and shifting depending on my mood and what projects I’m working on. I will say that several of my favorites are the ones that are very versatile and will be whatever I want them to be like Corriedale and Romney. Jacob is always near the top and Cormo is probably my favorite of the very fine wools. I love, love, love, Wensleydale and Teeswater. They are so shiny and drapey and the halo they give is just gorgeous. I’ve been spinning a lot of Columbia lately and it’s so easy to spin and makes such a lofty yarn. Tunis! The red heads. So beautiful. I like Dual coated Shetland a lot because, again, of versatility. Suffolk makes a gorgeous woolen yarn that is so bouncy and resistant to felting. I could go on. It really is hard to narrow it down. It all depends on what I want to make.
SA: Clearly your work was driven by a great curiosity to really go deep into learning about the unique properties of various wools, where is your curiosity taking you now?
BSS: I’ve always loved lace and started knitting lace almost as soon as I picked up the knitting needles again so my spinning went right there soon after I learned how to spin. I’m back at spinning very fine again. I’ve been learning bobbin lace and would love to be able to spin for it. My preferred fiber to spin is wool but I’m not sure that wool is the best choice for bobbin lace but I’m going to give it a go.
SA: Since festival season is upon us, let’s talk a bit about buying raw fleece. What is the biggest mistake people often make when selecting a fleece?
BSS: I think the biggest mistake people make when choosing fiber in any form is only focusing on softness. There are so many other things to consider like staple length, how do they want the fabric to wear, how do they want to process the wool. All of these things should be taken into consideration when deciding what breed to choose and then what attributes the fleece should have.
SA: You’ve been deeply immersed in the fiber/spinning world for a number of years now. What is different now from when you started?
BSS: I think more spinners are aware of a wider range of wools available beyond just Merino and Blue Faced Leicester and Corriedale. Not as many as I’d like but with people like Deb Robson and Clara Parkes yelling about breeds from the roof tops I think we are making good progress.
SA: I know that you own and have owned your fair share of wheels. Take us on a little “tour” of your current collection and do you have anything on your wishlist?
BSS: My current collection is pretty small. Five or six years ago I had 16 different wheels. This helped me to learn about the wheels and be familiar with them so that I could quickly fix any issues during classes. Over the last 3 years or so I have been whittling down the collection to just wheels that I want to use on a regular basis. So I have 2 Schacht Matchlesses, a 30”Schacht Reeves, a Schacht Sidekick that I use for classes I need to fly to, a Norm Hall castle wheel and I’ll be adding a Norm hall Saxony at the end of April. I also have a great wheel that I want to play with more and an Ashford Traditional that needs some love so it isn’t useable right now. I also have a Bosworth charkha that I haven’t touched in a while and Maggie has a Schacht Ladybug that I use sometimes. So I’m down to half of what I had a few years ago.
SA: Are you able to find time to spin and knit for your own pleasure?
BSS: I do find that time and after June of this year I have no more classes scheduled until 2016 so I have big plans for spinning and weaving a skirt for myself to wear to Rhinebeck!
SA: You made a big decision back in the fall of October 2013 to transition out of your retail fiber business, The Spinning Loft. Was that a tough or easy transition for you? Did you miss it?
BSS: I miss the daily conversations with people who are interested in fiber. I miss the opportunity to teach all of the time and to fawn over other people’s projects and success’s. But I am able to focus now on developing classes and working on personal projects and writing a lot.
SA: Tell us about tiaras and your love for them.
BSS: Well, they are sparkly. They are fun to wear. I’m amazed that more of us don’t wear them more often. A tiara really can be good for every day. It reminds your family who is really in charge. Plus if you wear a tiara to Disney everyone addresses you as princess or your highness. Totally worth it.
SA: How would you complete this sentence: People would be surprised to learn that I am fascinated by __________.
BSS: Lobsters and Ska. Lobsters because they are insects and yet I love to eat them. I went to the Lobster museum in Maine because I’m so curious about them. Also, I became most interested in music in the early 80s and first began with New Wave which I still like a lot but I love bands like the Mighty Mighty Bostones and the English Beat. (and Madonna too)
SA: And, finally, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
BSS: Romance novels. I love a good bodice ripper. I love s novel that has no value other than entertainment and can help me to forget I am behind on so many deadlines. Also, acrylic nails painted in crazy ways.
Thank you so much, Beth! You have inspired me in so many ways including rethinking how often I go out WITHOUT wearing a tiara. I know you are working hard on your next book, so we really appreciate your taking the time to chat with us here.
Readers, that’s all from me this week. If you are looking for more fibery goodness to read about, hop on over to Suzy Brown’s post at www.fiberygoodness.com for a great discussion regarding plying!