Why Spin Traditional Yarns?

In this day and age and in this western Europeanized culture, when spinning isn’t exactly something that is done out of necessity; when we have developed machines to do our spinning for us, is the effort to spin nice plain “traditional” yarns really just a sort of backwards timewasting (not taking into account the funness factor)? And the time and effort of handspinning would be better directed toward novelty/art type yarns of a sort that aren’t practical for various reasons to produce in an automated process?

Thanks to Geekling for the question.

This is the central question that I have struggled with for a great deal of my life, having grown up a weaver and spinner and in part, outside of the modern industrialized world. Many times in my life I have asked myself what, if anything, it means that I’ve achieved the skill levels that I have in the textile arts — and what value do these skills have in the modern world?

Certainly these skills are not valuable because without them, I would go unclothed (or clad in skins) — as would have been the case before industry and mass production. Unlike cooking — an archaic skill with modern interpretations and adaptations which most people roundly agree remains useful — textile production is no longer in any way essential to our daily lives. While most people will, at some point in their lives, have reason to be intensely grateful that they can cook, or negatively affected by inability to do so, most people in the modern world can cruise through their entire lives without ever having to produce a textile object of any type.

So what value is there? I think there are several factors at play, for me personally, narrowing the focus solely to spinning traditional-style yarns, which is a small subset of the textile techniques I personally consider extremely important. I’m also leaving out “fun” as your question says to do.

First, although it is possible to buy many kinds of yarn which are commercially produced (and cloth, and clothing) at a lower cost than the time invested to produce the same thing would be worth at even minimum wage, the truth is that the ability to produce your own goods exactly to your specifications allows you a much broader range of options than if you are forced to select from pre-fab goods. This could be compared to saying, in a world where you can buy chicken soup in a can, why would anyone bother making it from scratch? The answer is that the chicken soup from scratch is very likely just a superior product to that in a can, or made from a recipe that is unique and not found on the mass market. Clearly, for many people, that’s not a sufficient reason to bother with all the hassle involved in making homemade chicken soup, or baking your own bread, or whatever. But for others, there is something that makes it unquestionably worthwhile to have, say, great-grandma’s chicken soup just the way you want it.

The development of machines to make textiles is truly one of the most pivotal revolutions in history. Truly, it changed the world utterly, and unlike many other technological revolutions, did such a good job that it rendered itself all but invisible. But essential to the actual adoption of technological, mass-produced goods is the willingness of individuals to accept a lesser product than what can be custom-produced. We accept clothing that comes close to fitting, but that doesn’t fit us as well as something made expressly for each individual. We accept fabric that doesn’t wear as long, because it will be trivial to replace. We accept yarn that isn’t really as good or quite exactly what we want, because we can have it NOW, and we don’t have to learn to produce it.

Another factor is that there is value in the preservation of knowledge. All knowledge. Even apart from the fact that mastery of traditional techniques can allow for greater control and range of options in producing things that aren’t practical to mass-produce or make by mechanized means, there is historical value in making sure that things of the past are not lost from the world. As many people will agree that there is value in studying, say, hieroglyphics, or researching construction methods used in ancient Rome, so too there is value in researching, understanding, and preserving textile technologies. I would argue that it is all the more essential that these be learned by active practitioners, as there is far more to truly skilled textile production than can be simply written down, or than can be gleaned from examining old objects, old tools, and so forth. What’s more, because textiles are so commonplace in our lives that we don’t even think about them most of the time, I would contend that textile technologies are at far greater risk of becoming lore that is truly lost — a loss that impoverishes the entire world. Assuming, of course, that you believe as I do that there’s value in history.

I also personally believe that there’s value in really understanding things — that understanding the principles, premises, and so forth allow you to really maximize what you’re able to get out of technology, even. For example, I believe that if you drive a car, you’ll be a better driver for knowing how to drive stick, how gears work, when to use what kind of gear, and so forth — even if you drive an automatic transmission. And understanding how brakes work, what they do when they’re working well and what they do when they aren’t operating at peak efficiency, not only makes you safer and happier about driving, but lets you identify when it’s time to perform maintenance — even if you just pay someone else to do the maintenance. And you’re better off having a sense of whether or not a brake job is a big, hairy deal or a minor thing — you will be less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by an unethical repair person, for example. So too with producing textiles: knowing how to do it, what the materials are, and so forth, can make you a better judge of value when you do go to buy mass-produced items. Or handmade items, at that.

The final value factor for me is a little harder to nail down. That value is that it is worth developing skill to create even that which can be done by a machine. Machines are, at their root, devices contrived to do that which humans can do, thus liberating humans to do other things; or devices to simplify and aid in the objectives that humans wish to achieve. The relationship between humans and machines is a theme that runs throughout all of our daily lives, and has throughout history and across every culture of which I have any knowledge whatsoever. In thinking about that… I really like this quote:

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
~Elbert Hubbard, The Roycroft Dictionary and Book of Epigrams, 1923

There are countless stories, tales, fictions and realities of the struggle of man vs. machine. In producing more traditional handspun yarns, where similar goods are produced by machines, am I some sort of textile John Henry? Well, perhaps. But time and again we see that there is some intrinsic desire that humans have to do the work ourselves, for reasons which are perhaps primal and hard to quantify. I am called to by forces I can’t fully verbalize, that exhort me to engage in textile production and to preserve the lore of doing so. Others are called to by forces which say, “Make music, even though machines can do that,” or “Write stories, even though people watch TV more than they read these days.” It is a part of the human condition — and answering those calls has a real value, even though it is very hard to put into words.

Originally posted in livejournal.com “Spinning Fiber” community, 2005