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NCTC instructor keeps historic art of spinning alive

Aliza Novacek-Olson, spinning yarn from fiber raised on her farm, works barehanded to keep the yarn consistent. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Aliza Novacek-Olson took off her shoes before she started spinning yarn on the wooden wheel in front of her near the common room fireplace at Northland Community and Technical College. As she pulled white strands of raw wool from the basket beside her, she explained she needed to be able to feel the wheel working and spinning.

“It’s kind of like me walking in the footsteps of women in the past, experiencing and feeling what they must have gone through, except I have it nice,” she said, laughing. “I have running water.”

Novacek-Olson is a Social Science Department faculty member at NCTC and has been spinning regularly for about nine years, showing her craft at workshops, fairs and other events in the area and as far away as Ontario.

“It’s like meditation,” she said.

Aliza Novacek-Olson, an instructor at NCTC, uses an antique family spinning wheel to make yarn. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)Novacek-Olson said the idea of spinning fibers into thinner, more manageable strands to create fabric for clothing is a concept that is several thousand years old. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, spinning wheels became well-known in the Middle Ages when it replaced hand-spinning with a weighted stick.

A Saxony wheel, like the Swedish one Novacek-Olson used last month at NCTC, was introduced in Europe in the 16th century.

Novacek-Olson said she likes thinking about how her older wheels have seen so much history and in some ways gave women political power when they otherwise had none, such as during the Revolutionary War.

“They couldn’t have a say verbally like the men, but they certainly could not buy from Britain,” she said. “They made their own.”

The process

Novacek-Olson credited her grandmother’s seemingly constant crocheting with sparking her interest in fiber arts, and years later when she noticed her mother-inlaw had a spinning wheel, she decided to learn how to use it.

Alpacas after shearing. Photo courtesy of Aliza Novacek-OlsonWhile some people buy the fibers they use, Novacek-Olson uses wool from her own alpacas, angora rabbits and one llama to make the yarn that she then crochets into socks, scarves and hats.

She pulled colorful twisted braids of yarn out of a basket, slightly thinner than typical commercial yarn, and held it in her hands to explain that it took a long time to get to that state.

Novacek-Olson begins by harvesting wool or hair from the animals and washes it carefully several times. Sometimes she colors it with natural dyes and then combs it, blends the fibers from different animals and pulls it into manageable pieces.

“From there, you spin a couple of different bobbins, then I put those bobbins together and spin them in reverse order,” she said. “That’s how you get your twist and that’s how you get to play with different colors.”

Novacek-Olson said she has found a community of women who buy, sell and trade fibers and yarns. She often trades with a friend for sheep wool, as she personally doesn’t raise any.

The animals are a part of the process for Novacek-Olson, who said she takes great joy in watching her beloved animals graze on her farm between Roseau and Warroad, Minn., and wearing the slippers or mittens that come from them.

“For me, it’s more than just making something — it’s the process that I enjoy,” she said.

Her nieces also have caught the bug to crochet, knit, spin and attend an annual yarn party every year at Christmastime.

“To see the talent these little girls have … it’s just that they’re becoming quite accomplished, and they’re only 10 (years old),” Novacek-Olson said.

The community

Novacek-Olson grew to realize spinning is quite popular among groups in Minnesota and North Dakota. She was doing a demonstration at the Chautauqua festival in Devils Lake when Mary Ellen Kirking approached her.

Kirking said she has been interested in art her entire life and purchased a spinning wheel having no idea how to spin until after meeting Novacek-Olson, who helped her one afternoon at the Sertoma Park Japanese Gardens.

Angora rabbits. (Photo courtesy of Aliza Novacek-Olson)“Really, when you look at a spinning wheel it’s like, ‘Oh good lord,’ ” Kirking said, laughing. “I had no idea where to start.”

Sonja Hoie first took an interest in fiber arts in college and was one of the first women who helped Novacek-Olson start spinning. She now lives in southern Iowa and has her sheep as a part of the hobby.

“I think knitting has exploded among younger people, maybe not so much the spinning, but I’m seeing younger people join guilds and become interested, where as I think about 10 years ago, it maybe wasn’t the case,” Hoie said.

Hoie said the historical aspect of doing what her foremothers did is very rewarding, while Kirking is more interested in the physical fibers she’s using and finding artistic ways to express herself.

While the warm hats and headbands Novacek-Olson creates look as well-made as anything sold in a department store, she has no plans to sell her crafts and does it simply because she enjoys it.

“You just find people that want to learn and go do it,” she said. “Do you want to learn?”

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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