I just spent the better part of an hour winding two balls of yarn. Particularly gratifying in this case because I went to Luang Prabang's Phusi market on my own, completely forgetting to arm myself with a sample of what I needed, and yet ultimately succeeded in buying black yarn. I wandered agog through warrens of clothing and shoes and plastic goods fruitlessly for some time, trying to squint into the tarp-covered distance to discern anything yarn-like or weaving related.
Finally I stopped at a booth carrying elaborate, gilded skirt borders because she had thread, which is close. I gestured at the thread and said that I weave and needed this... big, weave.... Then I showed a photo of Mone warping with the balls of yarn on the floor. She pointed me in the right direction, and I eventually came upon the shelves of yarn. Soon after, Iwas happily winding balls back at the guest house, to the sound of neighboring roosters and the distinctive, musical ringing of the Lao mortar and pestle, wood against clay pounding papayas or chili paste.
Whenever I wind balls of yarn, I can't help drifting into philosophical musing about it. It's one of the things I do differently from most of my weaving/knitting peers in the US (who tend to use a ball winder and swift), but in a similar way to traditional weavers around the world. Weavers spend an awful lot of time winding balls of yarn, especially if we also spin the yarn, and ply from two-stranded balls.
I learned my affinity for global, traditional ball-winding on my first visit to Luang Prabang, when I met my Katu backstrap weaving mentors, Keo and Mone. I'd been hanging out watching Keo weave, and when I started to wind some cotton I bought into balls, she offered to help. When Mone arrived and was able to translate between us, Keo told her "Look, she winds balls like we do." I was surprised and happy to hear it - I'd known that weavers in Ladakh, Arabia, and Peru used balls wound in courses, and that was more or less what I tended to do, but had no idea it would be identified as a recognizable style, especially since I wasn't that good at it.
It seems appropriate that the first time I met another weaving mentor, Laverne, we immediately set to winding balls together. I could see that she was preparing a number of little yarn balls, and I offered to help. As we wound, she pointed out that it is really a learned skill, and one can't count on people knowing how to do it, even if they knit or weave. She advised teaching it as part of a course in spinning or weaving. I see it as a very basic fiber skill, but obviously part of the knowledge necessary to be an independent weaver, not relying on an array of complex tools apart from one's body to manage yarn. There is a technique to starting a yarn ball from scratch - I noticed that even Mone preferred to wind onto a ball already in progress, since starting from the beginning is fiddly.
My favorite ball of yarn, though, has to be the tiny one found at a recently excavated Bronze Age site in the UK known as Must Farm. Seeing this ball of (probably) linen, wound in courses some 3,000 years ago, adds another dimension to the sense of ball winding as part of global textile tradition.