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Teaching at USC Archaeology

Spindle whorls from USC Archaeology

Last fall, word spread through the LA fiber arts grapevine that a professor at USC was looking for people to come in and teach her students to spin on a drop spindle. As an alumni (and a spinner), I jumped at the opportunity and arranged for myself and two other teachers, Ercil Howard and Debbie Coyle, to head to campus with all our drop spindles and combs, cards, and plenty of different types of fiber for the class.

The course we were crashing is a freshman seminar in the Archaeology department called “Human Survival: Learning from the Past” and during the semester the students learn some ancient skills such as making fire, forming bricks, and preparing food with only stone tools. It was our mission to teach the eighteen students how to spin.

We arrived early and had the opportunity to check out USC’s growing collection of antiquities, including a number of spindle whorls (pictured above)!

We broke the class of eighteen students into smaller groups for hands-on instruction. Everyone was very attentive and learned quickly how to handle the fiber and the drop spindle and were soon spinning merrily away!

We had just two hours, so during the first hour we focused on getting everyone spinning, and in the second hour we were also able to cover carding and combing fiber, show many different types of fibers, and demonstrate some of the different types of spindles used around the world. Almost all the students got to try combing or carding, and many continued spinning for the whole two hour class!

During the second class session, we came back and brought Bjo Trimble with us, and the students learned about dyeing and weaving on a warp-weighted loom or an inkle loom. Again, with just two hours on the clock, time was of the essence, so we split the class in two and had one group tackle dyeing first, while the other group tried out weaving.

We used cochineal, onion skins, and indigo so the students could also experiment with overdyeing to achieve more colors than just red, yellow, and blue.

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During the dye session, we showed samples of various sources for dyes – roots, leaves, flowers, bugs – and spoke about how the different mordants and modifiers can affect the results too.

For the weaving, we were lucky to borrow a ‘portable’ warp weighted loom and get it set up in time for everyone to try weaving. Ercil was in charge of that loom, while Debbie demonstrated the inkle loom and had samples of different types of inkle and card weaving.

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The classes are all completely hands-on, so everyone got to try carding, spinning, weaving, and dyeing for just a small taste of all the effort that went into making fabric in the pre-Industrial world. You can read the students’ point of view on their class blog, the Hunter Blatherer.

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