Sometimes when writing something down for new fiber artists, I find myself saying “I don’t really remember being a newbie, you’ll need to ask some questions here.” And sometimes I say, “The way I learned things isn’t one which translates well to American teaching situations.” These things are true, but they don’t tell the whole story. I don’t remember being a newbie the way that people are newbies now; I was a child, and that’s different from being an adult newbie, and expectations were different as well. What’s more, I learned many things in a context where praise is very rarely given, and is understated when it is; and where praising newbie efforts the way that we tend to in the US would be seen as insulting.
When I first learned to spin for real, I was five years old and we’d just moved to Chinchero, Peru. Overall, in retrospect, I realize that the community that claimed my family looked at the four of us — my parents, 5-year-old me, my sister not yet 2 — and reacted with shock at our inability to perform basic tasks. Well, to be fair, my mother was clearly useful and could do the things she needed to and only needed occasional orientation to specific tools or tasks, and my sister was a toddler and not yet old enough to be useful. My father and I both clearly needed to be put to work, however. Next thing I knew I’d been assigned to going out pasturing sheep with Sabina, a girl a few years older than me who lived down the street, and I’d had a spindle and some wool put in my hands and it was up to the more experienced girl to teach me that and the rudiments of weaving.
I hated spinning, but weaving was great. What’s more, you could sell your weaving and make some money — tourists would buy it. Also, it was fun. Weaving was just cool. Spinning, bleah! All the other girls around my age could do it and they made it look easy, but it just didn’t work out that way for me.
My first jakima (narrow strip) was all khata (plain weave) the first time I wove it. My selvedges were terrible, I twisted it by not tracking where my weft was, and it looked like a tangled mess in comparison to what the other girls could do. Older girls patiently undid it for me so I could try again and get it right this time. “They’ll call you waylaka for that,” they’d explain. “What’s that?” I asked. It was clear it was bad. In time, as the language barrier vanished, I came to understand that a waylaka was a fake woman. As I write this, googling around finds the Spanish definition “Mujer desalmada, perezosa.” This translates into English as “A woman who is heartless and soulless, lazy and idle.” But there are nuances of connotation that can’t be described so easily. For a woman to be a waylaka was about as horrible a fate as could be pictured; it was among the harshest criticisms that could be leveled against a grown woman, and the threat of growing up to be a waylaka, because as a girl you gave way to waylaka urges, was constant.
Benita across the street, my godfather’s mother, was among the most traditional people in the most traditional ayllu (community) in town. She was determined to see that I would not be a waylaka. In short order, the entire ayllu of Cuper was in on the mission to see to it that the little tow-headed sunburnt girl was not going to be a waylaka. I ran wild all over town — but the whole town had its eye on me and I was hard to miss: the only blonde, the first Gringo kid anyone had seen, and the one who’d get into strange situations by virtue of having missed key lessons of early childhood being born in the United States and all.
Suffice it to say that my first finished piece of weaving was actually woven and re-woven countless times; enough times, over a long enough time span, that by the time it was done, I was conversant in Spanish and Quechua alike (although, since I was 5, I think that was only a few months). Each time I would finish the piece, I’d show it to an older girl or a grown woman, and she’d point out where I had been a waylaka about it, and undo it at least to that point so I could do it right. The same thing happened with my hair; one day I braided my hair for myself, and I was super proud. I ran straight up to the first old lady I saw, and said, “Look! Look! I braided my own hair! Didn’t I do a good job?”
“No,” she replied. “You did a waylaka job. Here, this is how it should be. Do it like this from now on,” and she undid my braids, rebraiding them so tight they’d hold for a week, in about 2 minutes flat — no small feat when you figure she was dealing with a tenderheaded tantrum beast when it came to hair.
This wasn’t criticism per se — this was caring, and ownership and community. It was how the ayllu of Cuper made sure it didn’t raise waylakas. If you cared about someone, you wouldn’t let that happen to her. What’s more, if that woman had told me that I had done a good job, when I had done a childish newbie job, that would have been a hurtful act. I knew — everyone knew — that I’d braided my hair poorly, that I had only just managed something which could be considered a braid. If she’d told me “You did good,” it would have carried with it the message that such work was all that could be expected of me; that I had no further potential; that I wasn’t worth wasting any time on teaching.
If she would have spent a long, long time rebraiding my hair, going slow, making me do it, that would have been condescending, and again, sent the message that I was of little value, due to my clearly sub-par learning skills. Doing it right, at close to normal speed, telling me what to feel for and think about, would give me more time to go off and practice without being a waylaka about it and making someone else drill it into me. The other girls and I could spend our time on that; the grown women were reserved for grownup things, not teaching rudiments. Suggesting that I needed a grown woman to teach me, painstakingly and at length, would have been to single me out from my peers to treat me like a problem.
A Chinchero weaver knows all her patterns, in every variation, in detail. She knows the progression of them, how they break down into smaller pieces and build up into bigger ones and what they relate to in the world at large, and why. She knows the philosophical premises, the world view, the unspoken aesthetics, that go along with them, and she can and she does argue those with her peers, her students, her teachers. She knows it all by heart, without having to think about it. Those intricate patterns? I can write them down, but I don’t need to. That would be a weakness for a waylaka to need. If I had to do that, then how would I ever be able to learn more things quickly? How would I be able to walk into a town where I’ve never been but one person does a kind of weaving I’ve never seen, and expect to tell her I was worth her time to teach? How would I expect to really learn the stuff during the scant hours I might be there with the only person to teach me? How would I expect to teach it to anyone who wasn’t there with me?
Even during the learning process, even in adulthood, even once you were pretty good at it, you could expect to face mockery. They used to talk behind my father’s back as he learned things, saying, “Hey, have you ever thought about what it would be like to have to use your toes to weave? Because come look, that’s what this is like watching!” I remember when I was sitting out weaving my first really big piece at age 13, and the other girls, the grown women, and the old ladies would all pass by, stop and watch for a bit, and then any one of them might say “Hey, you made a mistake,” and point it out. And if I’d look, and make the judgment call to leave it, the whole group would snigger and say, “Waylaka!” There are four such waylaka mistakes in that piece, and any Chinchero weaver can spot them a mile away. I can spot them in other people’s weaving — mostly because I have made every single one myself, and fixed it.
Well, anyway, that first project of mine was someone else’s handspun yarn. It was black and white and a little red yarn for the selvedges. It was probably 2 feet long and contained a grand total of 10 yards of yarn, including heddles. It wasn’t long enough to be used for anything but teaching a child her first weaving stuff. When it was finally deemed good enough, I sold it to a stranger for half a sol, which I spent on lemon hard candy. Sabina warped me a new jakima, longer this time, able to be used as a backstrap for me as I continued to learn to weave. She used her handspun yarn, and this time, it must have come to 12-13 yards total — some of which were the same short bits of yarn that had been used for the heddles on my first piece.
I still struggled with spinning. I had a spindle, and periodic resupply of wool, which I earned by picking and teasing fleece with the other girls. There are certain kinds of burr and vegetable matter that I can’t see anywhere, in any context, and not think about picking out of fleece. I had hundreds of experienced spinners and a peer group of less-experienced spinners, to work on it all with me. My mother, and even my father, could spin — not perhaps quite as effortlessly as the old women in town, but well and evenly. I could spin a few yards of decent yarn, and then I’d get too thin and it would break, and then I’d have to splice new wool on and it would be the same. It would take me forever to get slubs and neps out. By the time I was 6 and a half and we went back to the US for a while, I was able to spin a yarn that was only semi-waylaka; but I was embarrassingly slow. I was, at least, not too bad at picking a fleece and teasing it into a neat roving. Nothing that I had spun was remotely good enough to weave with; perhaps it might have been if I had been able to spin it in any quantity.
I couldn’t spin a good enough yarn to weave with, in sufficient quantity to warrant dyeing, until I was 8 years old. Before then, if I wanted yarn to weave with — and I did — I had to earn it from the grown women and older girls, who’d part with bits of their stashes in exchange for time spent picking a fleece or, later when I was better at it, plying yarn. But then around this time, it became easy to buy acrylic knitting yarn in fingering weight, which, if overplied, could be used for weaving, which you could sell to tourists for money, which you could use to buy more yarn (among other things). A lot of the girls my age turned to using this because of the time savings. I wove extensively with the stuff for several years, products for sale, saving the handspun for not-sale, since it was time spent on the spinning that wasted on the tourists who couldn’t tell the difference anyway, and usually paid for bright colours rather than anything else — they had no sense of the difficulty of one pattern vs. another, no sense of greater value for fine spinning, and there were more and more of them to sell stuff to. The old weavers of Chinchero frowned on this practice of using acrylic yarn, called the girls who did it waylaka, and pointedly stepped up their spinning. But to a yarn-hungry girl who could now acquire a yarn stash in a matter of months rather than years… well. I wasn’t the only one who fell prey to this; far from it. I certainly didn’t come up with the idea.
You see, the reason to spin was to get yarn; and you wanted yarn in order to weave. And you definitely wanted to be a good weaver, because if you were a good weaver and you did good work and a lot of it, you were definitely not a waylaka in at least one major area. No waylaka could commit to the decade or longer that it would take to really master weaving in a town where weaving was a paramount tradition. A Chinchero weaver might be a waylaka when it came to cooking or something but you’d never call her a total waylaka. Nobody from any town would.
By my teens, though decidedly a non-waylaka when it came to weaving, I was viewed as borderline when it came to spinning. Look at all the time I wasted, the old women would say, overplying that stupid lana (what they called the acrylic) when I could have been producing good khaitu (handspun wool weaving yarn). How did I think I would ever weave a poncho for my man when the time came, or my own llijlla? Did I really think I’d just be able to give somebody money for yarn for it, because surely, I wasn’t considering using anything but khaitu for it, was I? Anybody wearing a not-handspun llijlla (manta) or poncho was a walking advertisement for a waylaka. Someday, they said, I’d be sorry I wasn’t a decent enough spinner to really produce khaitu in sufficient quantity to support my weaving desires and eventual adult needs. “You have the skill to do it,” they’d tell me, “it only took you about eight years, but you have the skill to do it — it’s just you’re a waylaka about actually doing it.” Able, in other words, but too lazy.
But I was balancing all those old traditional Chinchero weaving things with being an American teenager, too. And as an American teenager in the 1980s, I knew full well nobody cared about stupid yarn, or weaving, or any of that other stuff they all just thought was dumb. Here I’d put most of my life into learning to be a Chinchero weaver, and like anybody cared. Except they would have cared if that was where I was, instead of in a college town in New York. Except the world was changing in Peru too and the indigenous rural cultures were going away, not that you could grudge anybody that when you also figured it meant electricity and plumbing and refrigeration and antibiotics and people having money to get those things. Might as well be a waylaka now, I sometimes thought, for all the difference it makes that I’m not one. And that went not just for weaving but for all sorts of things I didn’t need to know anymore, that almost nobody needed to know anymore, like the skills it took to live comfortably with no electricity, running water, and so forth. Too bad I’d spent my childhood becoming a non-waylaka, I thought in my teens, instead of learning to play rock guitar or something cool.
But even so, those visceral childhood things never disappear. My pile of unfinished objects as an adult? That exists as a testament to what a waylaka I truly am. Same goes for the unfinished laundry, the disorderly desk, the things I’ve done half-assed. Oh, some of these you can let slide, and no grown woman’ll ever be totally unfailing on all of ’em, but you spur yourself on to do things better by reminding yourself not to be soulless, heartless, lazy, idle; and when such things start to pile up, the hallmarks of the waylaka, they’re an assault on the sense of self-worth I learned as a little girl in a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. Finding a sense of inner balance about where it’s okay to be a little lazy, and where it isn’t, is a central quandary in many people’s lives; for me personally, a huge part of it is wrapped up in textiles.
As a producer of textiles, it took me rather a while to reach a point where I felt like it was okay to use non-handspun yarn; and quite a long time to be able to say, even to myself, “This commercial millspun yarn is spun to waylaka standards in the first place, but it’s actually good for knitting, and that’s okay! Yarn doesn’t have to all be good khaitu.” Viscerally I’m prone to judging yarn — all yarn — just as my early handspun yarn was judged: useful for weaving, or waylaka yarn? And to me, yarn is not a finished product, it’s a material. If it were cooking, I could equate it to being chicken stock — useful for so many reasons, in so many kinds of things; it took work to get it and it could be really, really good, but it’s not the finished product, because that’s the meal I’ll eat that was made with the chicken stock.
When I look at yarn, whether it’s my handspun or a commercial yarn, I think reflexively about what it’s good for: what could I do with it? I don’t always spin for a specific project, sometimes I just spin yarn in fairly generic ways that I’ll find a use for later, or yarn that I think it’ll be neat to spin, or else a fiber begs to be spun in one particular way or another. I spin to get yarn in order to have a stash of yarn that I can use for what I need (or want) to be working on. I need to be able to go to my stash with a need, and there find the material I require. Sometimes that material is a millspun product, sometimes even a very cheap mass-market millspun product. There are things on which I generally won’t squander my good yarn, which typically includes my handspun (because why would I spin yarn that wasn’t good yarn?)… but there are also times when nothing but good yarn will do, and times when even my good commercial yarn can’t measure up to my handspun yarn.
In the past week, I’ve done some things with my handspun yarn that would probably shock a lot of newer handspinners. Here’s a few:
- Learning to use my autoknitter, numerous of the yarns I’d selected for practice purposes were proving annoying, prone to splitting and excess wear under tension as I figured things out, and not holding up well to being knit up by machine, ripped out, and knit again and again. Despite having originally figured on using cheap yarn to practice with, I found that either I was going to end up with a huge pile of totally wasted yarn that was knit up into nonfunctional tubes and socks with problems, surely a waylaka maneuver if there ever was one — or I was going to need to use a yarn I could count on to take a beating, and repair myself as I wished, in the course of getting to something I felt was worth keeping. Just as my first piece of weaving was unwoven time and again, I undo a lot of test stuff that I do to learn new things. The commercial yarn I had handy wasn’t doing it for me. So I dug out a stack of handspun, and finally got results I wanted, using that for practice yarn.
- Gave my son a scrap of handspun to use for the mouth of a snowman
- Made a “yarn prey” decoy for the cat, to distract him from a shelf of works-in-progress in which has of late had an inordinate interest
- Used it as leader for a selection of new bobbins
- Used it to replace a scotch tension brakeband
- Cut an end after a relatively cursory weaving-in, and thrown away the 5-foot-long scrap instead of winding it up to use for waste yarn
I’ve been told by many Americans that I’m an exceptionally good spinner, astoundingly fast, able to do things many spinners simply can’t do and don’t dare aspire to doing. But the thing is I’m not really any of those things; I’m just not a total waylaka. I have the audacity to call myself a Chinchero weaver — and I have that because I know that I’ve got what it takes to walk into any Andean weaving community, and prove that in five minutes or less. I know I have that because it was tested against a lifetime of learning it the real way.
It is that lifetime which gives me the ability to do certain things with apparent ease. I am not a natural; I’m someone who was trained from early childhood in a tradition with exacting standards, by people with tremendous pride in their skill and high expectations for children and students. I can teach the things I know, but I can’t make someone know all the things that I know, quickly. I can write about them and a reader can understand them, but some of these things are things which hands must know, things where it’s not rational and quantifiable comprehension or checking against a reference material. And the way that I was taught to do many things requires a world which is fast disappearing and in which most of us no longer live.