|Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991|
By Phyllis Rossiter
Phyllis Rossiter lives and writes at Gainesville, Missouri. Her newest book, A Living History of the Ozarks, will be published in Spring, 1992, by' Pelican Press. Photo courtesy of Avelene McCaul.
A lifetime passion for "old colonial things" led Avelene McCaul and her husband Jim from Chicago to a two-hundred-year-old slave-built house on a hill above Indian Springs near Potosi, Missouri, in the Eastern Ozarks. "Part of the roof was blue, part of it was red, and part was falling in," Avelene says with a laugh. "It was in terrible shape, but I knew the potential was here." She shows a visitor where "the water bucket stood for a hundred and fifty years," her hand resting reverently on a corner shelf.
The proper restoration and furnishing of a such a venerable home, it seemed to Avelene, demanded the use of authentic rugs and other beautiful textiles. But such products were not available on the modem market.
So her love for "old colonial things" led to Avelene's decision to learn to spin, knit, and weave in order to produce her own authentic textiles. It was not easy. In addition to adapting to a centuries-old home with no modem plumbing, no central heat, and caring for three sons---one still an infant--alone, for much of the time, while Jim phased out his Chicago business, Avelene milked a cow and sold the milk to earn money to buy her first spinning wheel, a solid-cherry reproduction of an antique wheel.
The wheel, although beautiful, was a disappointment. "It looks great," Avelene agrees,"but it doesn't spin well at all." Eventually, after more milk sales, she was able to buy a wheel that also spinned well. "I think our neighbors were sitting back waiting to see how long us 'city folks' could hold out," Avelene says. "But working together, we made it--though things were tough at first." Raised during the depression, Avelene was no stranger to hard work.
Struggling to produce her period textiles, Avelene soon realized she needed clean, good-quality wool suitable for spinning, while virtually all the wool available locally was of very poor quality from sheep raised for mutton. She decided that the rocky hills of her own Indian Springs Farm could support a few sheep to supply her with clean fleeces. And because she wanted handspun yams in shades of gray, beige, black, and brown for her projects, she settled on black sheep. Angora goats have since joined her flock, and Avelene has even spun the hair of their guard dog, a Great Pyrenees.
Ultimately, when she began to dye white wool with the plants growing wild on her own farm, she set a dye kitchen near an old slave cabin and worked over an open fire as had the first occupants of her hill-country farm.
Before long, other handspinners were clamoring for her carefully raised fleeces--and Avelene' s craft became a business. In addition to selling wool and spinning wheels and other tools to spinners, she fulfills the demand for what she calls a "prestige product:" custom-made, entirely handcrafted garments. She also custom-spins yam for other knitters and weavers. When the Indian Springs Woolery outgrew the rambling restored farmhouse and its slave cabin, Avelene and Jim moved the business to nearby Potosi. At their store at 202 E. High Street, the McCauls sponsor spinning workshops and are able to attract other well-known handspinners and teachers to conduct them.
Avelene also enjoys demonstrating spinning to fascinated crowds at Six Flags Over Mid-America and at such special events as the Greentree Festival in Kirkwood, Missouri, and Old Ironworks Days at Maramec Spring Park near St. James.
She especially likes to introduce children to spinning, and remembers the first time she demonstrated her craft for them. "Their little faces kept longer and longer. Finally several of them looked to be on the verge of tears. I stopped the wheel and leaned down to the one nearest me and asked her whatever was the matter. She sniffed a couple of times, then almost sobbed, 'Well, do you have to kill them first?' Of course I hastened to assure her that we only sheared them and described that operation, too. I just never imagined them thinking such a thing, but ever since that experience I'm very careful to point out to children that we don't have to kill the sheep to get the wool."
After almost twenty years, Avelene's obsession with the "old colonial things" for her beloved old house has become a way of life. She admits to being "totally absorbed" in her craft and sharing it with others. Trying to explain why she does it, she settles for: "It's in my blood; I love it."
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