Carrot Sticks and Belleville Homecoming

There are times when the crafter comes across items from the past that others have long-since forgotten. Such items are often re-made into other things, or discarded outright for lack of knowledge.

At the Belleville Homecoming this year, my parents came across one such item.

A group of long sticks, hollow in the center, wrapped in wire to weight them at one end. The tapered sticks had been painted orange, stuffed with green cloth in one end, and sold as “carrot sticks” by a local vendor.

My parents obtained three of these for $4. They did not know what they were, exactly, only that they were certainly not “carrot sticks.”

When they arrived home later that evening, they gave the “carrot sticks” to me and asked if I could identify them, or if they were useful to my fiber hobbies in any way.

As it turns out, the “carrot sticks” are extremely useful tools, and may have played an important part in local Parkersburg history.

The sticks are actually devices called pirns. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and served a single purpose at textile mills and factories across the world: they held tensioned yarn for use in large looms.

Yarn of all kinds was frequently wound onto pirns before being loaded into looms. The yarn would be fished through the center of the hollow pirn, allowing it to be tensioned before it was slipped into a device known as a flying shuttle.

The flying shuttle was then shot across the loom by a motor, leaving a trail of yarn in its wake to be incorporated into the cloth that was being woven.

The person working in the mill, often a woman, would place her mouth to the end of the pirn and suck the yarn end through the pirn, sucking in the germs of all the women who had previously loaded that pirn in the process.

In a time of limited medicine, pirns were often the source of epidemics among mill workers.

The American Viscose plant once located on Rayon Drive in Parkersburg probably used pirns in their looms or in the manufacturing of viscose fiber.

Since the pirns were never marked in any way, there is no way to tell if these three came from the American Viscose plant, or any other fiber plant around the area.

Since the invention of cardboard tubes and better loom shuttle inserts, pirns have gone by the wayside. Every so often, one turns up at a local festival for sale, occasionally painted orange and stuffed with green cloth in the top.

Nowadays, pirns make for handy yarn accessories, and I was thrilled to receive these three from my parents.

Without a flying shuttle, the pirn may seem like a curiosity from the past. A small amount of creativity saw the pirns restored to working order quickly in my weaving and spinning area.

When I am finished spinning a batch of yarn, it has to be taken off of the bobbin it was spun on and combined with other strands of yarn to make the individual yarns strong enough to use in everyday work.

Since I own only three bobbins for my spinning wheel, I have thus far been limited as to what I could do to finish the yarn. Two bobbins were used to hold yarn, while it was plied onto the third.

Now that I have three pirns, however, I essentially have several more bobbins to work with. A few minutes is all it takes to transfer the yarn from the bobbin to the pirn, freeing up the bobbin to be spun again.

Using a simple plastic basket and some chop sticks through the center holes, I can suspend the pirns between the basket sides to be free-spinning, allowing me to draw yarn from the pirn into my spinning wheel, or my current knitting or weaving project, without needing to worry about Mari chasing the ball of yarn around the room.

The pirn can also be converted into a spindle, allowing me to spin yarn wherever I happen to be. The addition of a simple hook on the heavy end will allow me to leave the spinning wheel at home and use this well-balanced piece of history to turn fiber into yarn easily.

The pirns have found a good home with me, and will see use that is not too far off from their original purpose. It just goes to show people that even simple oddities found at local fairs can become useful items again in the hands of someone who understands their potential uses.

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Gretchen Richards-Meunier is a reporter at The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She is a fifth-generation artisan and skilled in multiple art forms.