It begins as a big, fleecy bundle. Ruth Kandler, 14, and her sisters, Helga, 17, and Petra, 11, are often waiting at the door when their father brings the wool home. He has traveled high into the Austrian Alps to purchase it from shepherds, who have already sheared it from the backs of their flocks, washed it, and carded it to remove burrs and align fibers. Straightening the fibers allows the wool to be spun into yarn.
This time, there is a surprise. Along with the usual white and gray wool from the milk sheep, Brother Kandler has brought back a smaller bale of dark brown wool, the wool of the mountain sheep. The young ladies are excited, because even though the short black fibers are more difficult to spin, they add variety and color when the home-spun yarn is knitted into clothing for school and work.
One of the most prized possessions in the Kandler household is an antique spinning wheel more than 100 years old. There are several others of varying ages to accompany it, enough so that everyone in the family can spin at the same time and still invite one friend to join in.
The spinning itself, once mastered, is not a difficult art. “I learned to do it in three days,” Petra says. Brother Kandler, watching his wife teach his daughters, picked up the technique in just one day and seems to enjoy spinning as much as the rest of the family.
“It’s relaxing just to sit and spin,” Ruth says. “You can talk or just think and still be making something at the same time.” It’s also obvious the daughters enjoy spending a little while now and then practicing the craft with their parents. They smile, laugh, and tell jokes. When Petra’s yarn doesn’t seem to wind quite right, her older sisters help her remedy the problem as Sister Kandler nods her head approvingly.
Electricity is expensive in the small town of Eugendorf where the Kandlers live, so the work is done by the sunlight that filters through the windows and reflects from the walls, setting the room aglow. Helga strums her guitar as the others pump foot pedals up and down and carefully twist the wool through their fingers, guiding it onto spools. Her chord patterns and clear voice seem infinitely more appropriate than a blaring radio or a chatty television set. “We share the real experience of doing things together,” Brother Kandler says. “We don’t have a T.V.” Sometimes friends, like 11-year-old Michele Make who lives nearby, drop over to join in the fun.
Today, because it’s a special occasion (a photographer has come to take their pictures), the entire family has donned costumes typical of their region. Like most Austrians, they wear the traditional clothing from time to time during the year as part of their regular wardrobe. But it is fairly rare to find all of them in costume on the same day. Helga says that having the costumes is practical. “It’s handy, because they never go out of fashion,” she adds. “Teenagers, children, parents—everyone wears them. But we wear other things, too, like dresses and jeans.”
The wool is for making sweaters, gloves, mittens, and stockings. Helga says it’s enjoyable to be able to wear homemade clothing to school. “Most of the other kids are enchanted by it,” she says. “They go home and try to make theirs in the same way.” Sister Kandler, who took up spinning just a few years ago (she learned how from friends), says hand-knit clothing is popular throughout Austria, but buying it in the stores is prohibitively expensive. (It costs about 2,000 shillings, or $150, to buy a handmade sweater in a store. Brother Kandler buys an entire kilo of wool in the mountains for 500 shillings.) The Kandler’s make their yarn from pure, natural wool (it’s not dyed, so the lanolin, which waterproofs the fiber and makes it a good insulator, is preserved). Add to that the fact that the clothing they make serves as a constant reminder of hearth and home, and it becomes nearly priceless.
Helga says the Kandlers have found that their talent has helped them make friends and fellowship Church members in the Salzburg (Austria) Ward, Germany Munich Stake, where they attend church, and elsewhere. During the winter, which is the season when most of the spinning is done, a group of Church families from Germany and Austria (Eugendorf, near Salzburg, is about 30 kilometers from the German border) gathers for instruction and for the pleasure of working together. “Many people return home with a new skill and with a more valuable way to spend their spare time,” Helga says. Sister Kandler also features spinning instruction as part of her Relief Society homemaking lessons, and her daughters help her demonstrate.
The Kandlers have always favored self-sufficiency and consider their spinning wheels and stock of wool part of their two-year supply. “We could still make clothing in an emergency,” Ruth says. “It’s part of our preparedness plan.” The Kandlers also grind their own wheat, and bake their own bread, and have gladly followed President Kimball’s admonition to plant a family garden. Most of the food they eat they grow themselves. “In summer we work in the garden; in winter we spin the wool,” Petra says.
The Kandlers were the first Mormons in Eugendorf. Their close friend, Hermann Martinz, who joined the Church just a year ago, describes the difficulty they encountered: “Brother Kandler was working as a roofer and a plumber. When the townspeople found out he had joined the Church, his employees quit work, and he lost a contract to re-roof the large cathedral in town. But the stake patriarch told him not to worry, that because he was so brave, the Lord would bless him. The town boycotted him—no more jobs in Eugendorf. But now he’s got so much work in neighboring villages and in Salzburg that it doesn’t matter.”
Becoming Mormon also caused temporary setbacks for the children. “I was in a Catholic High school. When they found out we had been baptized, I was not able to return the next year,” Helga explained. Ruth, who had already registered and made a down payment on her school fees, was told she could not attend, and was not given a refund. “But the ward members helped us and made sure we knew we at least had them for friends. They helped my dad in his work. They talked to us about new schools. They showed us they cared,” Helga says. The other villagers didn’t mean to be cruel, the Kandlers explain; they just didn’t understand. “They thought we’d fallen away from God,” Brother Kandler says. “But now, with a little time to get used to us, they can see we’ve actually grown closer to him.”
Soon the family was back on its feet, and the girls were registered in new schools.
Now the Kandlers have moved into a new, large apartment above a store, with a spacious backyard for their garden.
“The Church means everything to me,” Helga says. “I know it is true and that if we obey the commandments, our Father in heaven will take care of us.” She speaks with admiration of her friends who are on missions: “I know they will strengthen the Church in Austria, both while they are working and when they return home.”
Ruth says she is happy to have the close association she enjoys with other young people in the ward. “I feel they are people I can trust, that I don’t have to be anything else but myself to be accepted. The other young people in the branch are our friends. We will often meet them in Salzburg and go to visit the castle, or walk through the gardens, or shop at the street markets.”
By spinning their own yarn, the Kandlers are helping to keep alive a tradition that was common in their country a century ago. At that time, every woman received a spinning wheel as a wedding gift, and everyone wore clothing made at home. “I think learning to spin is very useful,” Petra says. “It is something I will teach my friends and, later, my children, to help them to understand.”
Watching the Kandler family work together, kneel in prayer as a group, and talk about their testimonies of the truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be easy to apply the same statement to their belief about the Church: “It is something very useful. We will teach our friends and help them to understand.”