It’s a Sunday morning with signs of rain and Marion Wheatland is turning the fur of a golden retriever into yarn with an old wooden spinning wheel.
She’s perched on an outback veranda prop, in front of farmhouse animals. She’s smiling and tapping her foot.
Beside her are two older ladies. The woman on the right is knitting, while Marion and the other lady spin. Their expert fingers are twisting the animal fibers.
It’s the day after the opening of the Royal Melbourne Show. The pavilion is filled with people and farm animals and feel-good music. It smells of popcorn and hay.
Outside, people are flying through the air on ferris wheels and rollercoasters – laughter spills into the sky. On the ground children with sticky fingers hurry by while hundreds of bubbles and a golden dragon and a red marching band float through the crowds.
People rush past Marion and her two companions, who work quietly and stare out over the dozens of families huddled over pigs and chooks. Every so often a passerby stops to ask the ladies questions and watch. At one point a small crowd gathers around, bodies twisting and necks straining to catch a glimpse.
“See what the ladies are doing?” a mother asks her children. “They take this,” she says, pointing to the hairs, “spin it through the wheel and turn it into this.” She picks up a bundle of yarn and the children take turns feeling it with their small hands.
The spinning wheels are the kind you read about in fairytales. And for each of the ladies it is something that provides a feeling of relaxation. “Like sitting in a rocking chair,” Marion says.
Marion remembers the first time she saw a spinning wheel: “When I was little back in Canada we used to go summer holidaying everywhere, we used to just pack the car and drive away and one year we were up in a Canada village and they had the spinning there and it caught my attention.”
She was never a girly type, she confesses: “I climbed trees, played with cars, loved science-y things, spent Saturday afternoons at the ice rink.” She loves history, she says – and seashells, and stamps, and archeology and science fiction.
Mostly, she is drawn to a simpler time: “When everything was less rushed and people took more time to do things. Now everything is me, me, me and I hate it.”
The spinning wheel offers a connection – to history, to the past – “It’s a…” she says before choking up, “It’s a heart connection.” The words come out with a sob – a brief emotional lapse that she quickly regains and laughs off.
When asked her age she replies, “I’m fifty-nine… I only know that because a man asked me a few days ago and I had to work it out.”
“I just don’t keep track,” she laughs.
When asked about folklore she jokes about the strange things people say to her.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, oh where did Sleeping Beauty prick her finger? I said sleeping beauty would have pricked her finger because she didn’t know how to use the wheel.”
She lets out a loud laugh. “Don’t talk to me about Sleeping Beauty, don’t blame your tools.”
“And when people ask if I’m going to spin a yarn, I actually give them a yarn. I tell them about my trip to Antarctica and how I took my spinning wheel to the ice and I spun down there.”
Marion isn’t joking. She pulls out her phone and reveals a picture of her sitting on the ice in front of a hut with a large spinning wheel at her feet and a smile on her face.
Marion’s father, a history teacher, encouraged her to do all sorts of strange and different things with her life. And because she was missing the snow, and because she wanted another connection to history, and because her brother dared her to take her wheel – Marion ended up spinning on the Antarctic ice.
“My trip was so expensive,” she recalls. “And I really had to do something for someone else while I was there, so I rang the Mawson’s Huts Foundation who have that hut that I was sitting in front of… It’s an archeological site and they dig into the snow and the ice and they look at the expeditions from 1900 and so in doing this spinning I knitted a balaclava like Sir Douglas Mawson wears…”
The balaclava was auctioned off at the centenary dinner in Hobart raising $1100 that she donated to the foundation.
Marion genuinely enjoys helping other people. It is a quality that she prides herself on. Though she has been spinning for 26 years, for the past year she has worked only with cat and dog hair. “I’m a custodian of people’s memories this way,” she explains.
As she speaks Marion spins the golden retriever hair through her wheel confidently and easily: “There’s a lady,” she says, “who sent me off 12 kilos of Collie fiber across from Western Australia. She wants a blanket. She’s had four Collie dogs, they’ve all passed away. She’s saved the fiber and she wants me to do a blanket for her – so she’s still with her dogs.”
There are many more stories like this.
Barbara, the lady who is currently sitting next to Marion knitting a beanie, says Marion is a go-getter – a confident woman who has a lot of self-belief in what she’s doing. “She has a positive outlook on life,” Barbara says, “I don’t think there’s much she couldn’t do.”
What else is there to do? Marion thinks for a short while before answering: “Spin in Antarctica again but on the opposite end… There’s a tree in the plaza at the Inca City of Machu Picchu that I want to spin under.”
As Marion stands to say goodbye on the little porch that smells of wood and animals and spring she says “it is me… It is where I belong.”