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OBHS On Wool: Then And Now

Who’s Wearing My Wool? was the theme of an afternoon spent revisiting Colonial America under the dappled shade of the treed lawn of the Oyster Bay Historical Society. The June 29th afternoon featured demonstrations of wool as it was spun into yarn as done over the centuries, as well as the newest in fiber, along with lessons in finger knitting. It is a great way to get a sense of what happens in the age old craft of making fabric out of yarn.

Iris O’Donnell, 15, from Conner Prairie History Park (CPHP) in Fishers, Indiana, demonstrated the process of taking wool straight from sheep, and, after washing it, carding it, and spinning it into yarn. Iris was wearing a replica of an 1836 dress that she sewed by hand. She showed her expertise as a museum re-enacter as she taught the guests several dancing games. Conner Prairie History Park recreates life in the 17th and 18th centuries in America, “similar to what the Old Bethpage Village Restoration does here on Long Island,” said her uncle, Thomas Ross, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site superintendent.

The afternoon was a gift to the people of Oyster Bay from Superintendent Ross and his niece Iris O’Donnell. Iris was here on a visit to Oyster Bay for a summer vacation and the Ross’ brought her to the OBHS to demonstrate her skills as an interpreter. Iris started volunteering at the CPHP when she was 10 years old. That she is a good student of history was evident.

At the CPHP, based around the historic William Conner House, through first-person, in-character narratives, costumed staff recreate life in 19th-century Indiana, engaging visitors in common activities of the 1800s. The first dress Iris wore there was hanging up as an exhibit at the OBHS. She explained she has taken on the life story of Jenny Curtis, born in 1836. Her mother married the young blacksmith apprenticed to her father. Jenny has a younger sister Ellie and two brothers, Thomas and Edward. “I talk about daily life in the home of the blacksmith’s family.

“We cook on a spider pan over the fire. We improvise as we talk to visitors. Sometimes people ask ‘What is a TV?’ and we respond with ‘What is a TV?’ The important thing is to stay in character,” she advised.

Colonial Entertainment

Iris organized a chicken dance for the group. She began by telling everyone to hold out their hands and spin around in a circle to make sure each had enough space in which to “play.” She said, “When Riley claps start to spin. When she claps twice, stop and go down and flap your arms and cluck like a chicken. When you fall down you are out.”

Helping Iris, and in Colonial costume, was Riley Iles whose mother, Jennifer Iles is the gym teacher at TR Elementary School. Friends of the Ross family, Tom Ross said, “We know her from Christ Church as well. She is there with our kids, they are the same ages.”

Nicole Menchise, OBHS librarian and archivist dressed in a red skirt borrowed from (her second employer) Raynham Hall Museum’s collection of historic costumes, was the first to fall. She laughed as she had another event to attend and the timing was right for her to leave.

“I don’t hear any chicken clucking,” said Iris, as the dance continued. “Spin faster, cluck, cluck,” and she fell herself, laughing. Soon they were down to four contestants and then three.

That was when she declared each a winner of a ribbon that was tied around their wrist with a bow.

Today’s Wool

Patty McSkane of the Knitted Pearl, 80 South Street, Oyster Bay, donated the ribbons. She was teaching children (and adults) how to knit. Her married name, McSkane, is reminiscent of the word skein, the name for a quantity of wool. Patty said, “When I took the McSkane name I didn’t even know how to knit. My mother’s mother knits. She is one of those who knit without a pattern!”

Jacqueline Blocklyn, a knitter herself said, Patty’s shop The Knitted Pearl is “The foremost location for fine specialty yarns. She has the good stuff”

“Being here Oyster Bay is exactly what I wanted. This is a wonderful area for knitting and crocheting. I’m obsessed with fibre,” said Patty of her store and her passion.

You really have to see it to believe it. The store is an oasis of creativity with yarns, books, displays, a sitting room and a room with a curved table for several people to work at together. Just heavenly.

She taught finger knitting at the fair, and had children making hand headbands and bracelets.

“Don’t tell anyone I gave you that wool,” she said to Cameron Ross who attached a dollar bill to a long strand of yarn. “You’ve dropped a dollar bill underneath your chair,” he called out to this writer. It was easy to bite on the old saw that got a big laugh from the crowd.

Kerry Bellisario Ross and her sister Christine Bellisario O’Donnell helped some of the children dress in Colonial play clothes. Jasmine Ramos, Valerie Nicole Cotto and Marilyn Ramos enjoyed being decked out in Colonial garb.

Cameron Ross discovered the swift, a wooden gadget designed to hold a skein of wool as the knitter turns it into a ball for knitting. Patty said she no longer uses the method of pulling the wool out of the center of the ball. “You can’t believe the hours I’ve spent taking the knots out of the yarn,” she said. Instead she just lets the ball spin as she takes the yarn off from the outside. In her shop she has ceramic bells that you can cover your ball with to keep it in place as it unravels.

Seated in a tent, she had a table out with finished projects including a crocheted giant green lizard that Jasmine Ramos wore as a stole for a photograph.

The afternoon ended with a patriotic parade. Iris and Riley gave the children red, white and blue bunting, flags and noise makers and they started off around the Koenig Center marching around several times and making a lot of noise worthy of the Fourth of July.

The afternoon included a bake sale; kids games and crafts; and bluegrass music. For more information call 922-5032. New members receive an OBHS cookbook with the recipes of the great items they serve at their receptions.