For years I’ve been trying to figure out a simple machine that could spin six strands of the thread together. I’ve bought different kinds of wheels and gears but could never come up with the perfect invention. I consulted with people from NC State school of textiles, a wood worker and anybody with engineering prowess that would listen to me.
I finally came up with a lazy Susan sort of thing that sits on the floor with six cones of thread on it. Each cone sits on a base and peg that holds it in place then there’s a hook that comes off the base and guides the thread off the cone into a central ring. My idea was that someone would spin the lazy susan with their foot at a constant speed while pulling the strands of thread out the top of the central loop. As the six strands of thread are spun together the spinner rolls them onto a core of some kind.
I was rather proud of my invention. It used no electricity, creates a good product and gives another person a job. I set about teaching Jum (my lead seamstress) how it works. I obviously didn’t have all the bugs worked out because centrifugal force kept making the cones of thread slide off the lazy susan, or fall over. Then everything would get tangled up and you had a mess to clean up. Jum is always willing to do what I ask of her, and since I’ve shown her so many amazing things (stuff we take for granted), she trusted that I knew what I was doing. But she soon realized what I was trying to accomplish and then she had to keep herself from laughing while I fiddled with my silly machine.
Why I never thought to ask Jum how she would ply six strands of thread together, I don’t know. She and the other Montagnard women lived in the jungle where they had to spin their own thread, ply it and weave it into cloth all by hand. While I was trying to untangle a mess of would-be embroidery floss Jum just stood and looked at me with one of her special looks. Jum may not speak english very well, but she can say loads with her eyes. I stopped what I was doing and handed her the ends of the six strands of thread.
Jum knotted the strands together, anchored them on a dowel, pulled a length of the threads off the six cones and laid them across her lap. She wet the palm of her left hand slightly to make it tacky then ran her hand down her thigh over the threads. Her tacky palm caught the threads and twisted them together while she pulled the ends of the threads off with her right hand. She rolled the perfectly twisted, finished floss onto the dowel. She looked up at me for confirmation that she had produced the product the way I wanted it. I just sighed. We both laughed; I felt stupid, but she got to be the smart one and that was worth a little humiliation.
As I cleaned up my mechanical mess, Jum set into spinning. Her motions were so fluid and natural; I could see her sitting in her hut in Plei Grak spinning cotton she had grown in her own garden. There was a rhythm to the sway of her body, a syncopation between her hands. There was serenity in her face, comfort and reminiscence in the task. I looked at the sling that she uses to hold her daughter on her back. We had talked about weaving the cloth on a bamboo back-strap loom that her husband made for her. We had talked about dyeing the yarns with indigo that she collected in the jungle. We had talked about growing cotton in the natural clearings in the jungle. She told me how she planted and tended a small field of cotton all year and how the Vietnamese had come and confiscated the whole crop leaving her nothing to make clothes for her children.
It must have been satisfying to have the cotton in your hands. To realize the fruits of your efforts so tangibly, the roll of the fibers under your palm spoke to your body about reaping what was yours, and about warmth and protection for naked children. Spinning meant she’d have a way to carry her next baby, it meant that her husband would have a shirt to keep the sun from burning his back. There is a wisdom in these refugee bodies that all our machinery can’t duplicate. Next time I want to make a new product, the first thing I’ll do is ask Jum how she would do it.