The Story of A Shawl, A Friendship and A Spinning Guild

Two decades after Dot Stein died at age 77, I’ve come to realize that I owe her a lot. The story of our friendship began in September of 1982. 

Beth Kaulback, a neighbor, a friend and a spinning student of mine, insisted that I attend a Paula Simmons’ spinning workshop at Stoweflake Inn, in Stowe, Vermont, only about 30 minutes North of where we live. I didn’t see any need to take a class in spinning, as I had been spinning on my own for 9 years. Beth said “You have to attend, it’s taught by Paula Simmons, you know she’s famous, and when will someone like her ever come this way again?” I really had no interest, but Beth’s insistence was beginning to make me curious if there would be any spinners in our region that would show up, because I had been wanting to start a spinning guild, but I couldn’t find enough spinners. I also wanted to see what she would have to say about spinning that I didn’t already know from spinning for almost a decade. So I went. 

I proudly carried under one arm my French Provincial Flax Wheel Reproduction that my husband, Fred, had lovingly made for me in 1974. In the other arm I carried a basket of wool to spin, and my lunch. It was an all-day affair. I entered a huge, carpeted, well-lighted room at Stoweflake Inn. I was aghast to see about 30 spinners! Where did they come from? It shows how if someone is famous, people come ‘out of the woodwork’ to see them and work with them. Here they all were, eager to learn from Paula Simmons. In the huge circle of chairs, a white-haired woman with a round beaming face and welcoming smile said, “Come sit here beside me!” as she patted the chair beside her. I was thrilled to see such a happy face in this room full of strangers. I sat beside her and that began the friendship that lasted all the years until her death in 1998. 

As we waited for the class to get rolling, I found out that she lived in the Burlington, VT area and had been spinning for awhile. I told her that I had been trying to start a spinning guild for months and I couldn’t find enough spinners. I said “I guess that there are plenty of spinners, but I have just not found them!” Dot said “I’ll come to your place every week and I’ll encourage you to do what’s needed to get a guild going.” I said that that would be nice, but I didn’t believe that she would really come at all. You know how people say things and never follow-up? Well, Dot was different, she kept her word! She did come weekly and she did encourage me to make calls. I think she gave me a name or two, and with her help, I did get a guild going within a month of our class with Paula Simmons. 

October of 1982 was our first meeting where Werner and Erika vonTrapp, Rachel Jacobs, Dot and Ben Stein and I, sat in a circle, spinning at our spinning wheels. Cora Bruce was another very early member. As we spun, we sang folk songs led by Ben Stein who knew Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, and had worked with them in conjunction with folk/dance camps. Ben Stein used to teach and call Scottish Country Dancing. We each made suggestions for names for the guild. My husband, Fred, came into the living room from cutting our winter’s wood. He saw us spinning, heard our wheels whirring, and heard our voices singing. He knew we were trying to pick a name for the guild. He said “Singing Spindles”!

I loved that name and exclaimed “That’s it! I love it.” Erika vonTrapp very clearly said that she liked “The Valley Friendly Spinners”, not “The Friendly Valley Spinners”. So we voted in favor of Erika’s choice. The name that Fred said needed a ‘home’, and I wanted/needed to start my own spinning business, so I chose “Singing Spindle Spinnery” to name my business at the very same moment that we officially named our new spinning guild. Both the guild and my business have been going continuously for 35 years. 

Dot was a most important part of the guild. She attended most, if not all our meetings. She welcomed us to her home and she was a generous resource to me and to our members. She often shared materials or projects or ideas. Often I went to her home to visit her. I remember the tunafish cans on the steps to her kitchen as she always fed her cats well. She brought me spring flowering bulbs and garlic bulbills, sometimes in tunafish cans. She always brought bagels to share with me, my children and the guild members, and she came all the way from Burlington. 

One of the most touching gifts from Dot was that she offered to hand-crochet a shawl for me, incorporating the yarn that I spun (using hand-painted rainbow roving that I bought from Ruth, a talented dyer in Warner, NH), and white yarn that my dad spun for me. Dot even added a light brown yarn that she hand-spun to make the fringe on both ends. She did a very nice job. I entered it (representing all of us) in a contest at The Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Jct., VT, and it won a red ribbon. I took both the shawl and the red ribbon to my dad’s house as soon as I got it back. He was extremely happy. It was like I gave him the greatest gift. For two years my dad spun a lot of yarn, and knitted quite about forty hats which I sold as part of my business. 

Dot died while sitting in her chair beside Ben in their living room, in 1998. Afterwards, her husband Ben, and daughter, Jennifer invited me to come to the family home on North Street in Burlington to buy anything that interested me from the estate.
I bought looms, spinning wheels, assorted spinning equipment, Dot’s hand-spun yarns, fiber for spinning, fabrics, even spools of thread. One of the last objects that Jennifer uncovered and offered me, was a cloth shopping bag with one of Dot’s unfinished projects in it. Immediately I could see that Dot knitted it using her own handspun yarns. I could see that the yarn was a silk/wool blend. It was a very uninteresting denim color and it was still on the knitting needles. Later I wondered if she was knitting on it just before she died? It was all still on extremely long nylon circular knitting needles. It wasn’t until I was back home that I tried to open the project up all the way.

I needed to finish knitting it to be able to see what it was! I knitted one or two or three more rows and then I carefully bound off the hundreds and hundreds of stitches. Then I opened it up and saw that it was one of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Pie-R-Square shawls that is 360 degrees round and amazing! It can be folded in half to make a very light, warm shawl. I have been wearing it and sharing it with many people on multiple occasions for almost 20 years. I have laid it over my mother’s knees when we take her for rides in the car and her bare, thin legs are exposed to the winter air. I’ve wrapped it around me and my friend Suzy Spencer when we went to an outdoor concert and it got very cold. I shared it with Anna Church when she and her mom, Emily, and I hiked up to Werner vonTrapp’s chapel behind the lodge in Stowe, after a Valley Friendly Spinners’ Guild meeting at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. Werner’s sister, Rosmarie has been a very dedicated member of our guild for many, many years. She has kindly and generously invited us to the Lodge on numerous occasions. I remember that I’ve worn Dot’s shawl, doubled-up, in a surprise snowstorm when I had no coat and I was amazed how warm and protective it was. As the snow built up on it, I just gave it a sturdy shake and the snow was gone and I placed the shawl again on my shoulders and I was fine and warm, again.