I thigk I’be got a code.

I thigk I’be got a code. By doze is all shtuffed up add by eyes are watery. I bite haffta retreat to duh reclider add take duh day off. Udderwize I’ll be steezig all ober your batt club batts. Ugh.

(Translation: I think I’ve got a cold. My nose is all stuffed up and my eyes are watery. I might have to retreat to the recliner and take the day off. Otherwise I’ll be sneezing all over your batt club batts. Ugh.) If that happens, those’ll hit mail Monday.

Just at the moment, I don’t even have a mindless project for such an eventuality. That means I’ll start one, which if I don’t finish while under the influence of Theraflu, will lose all appeal to me when I’m in the pink again. Maybe a hat. I remember, last year, thinking I needed a new hat in the winter, and I don’t think I made one. And I have to do the final cable ply on the cable yarn for Chad’s hat to replace the one I made him years ago, and the manchild probably has a bigger head now too. I should just go make hats all day.

Somehow, I have four real deadlines in the next two weeks, plus batt club to finish and get out the door; I really don’t feel like having a cold. Sometimes self-employment really stinks. When I grow up, I’m hiring an apprentice. Or something.

What’s On My Wheel Today? and a Question. Well, two.

Our drought has finally ended, giving way to record rainfall. However, they say it’s probably too late to save the trees that have been so confused this year, starting with an ice storm, then an early thaw, then a late freeze, then a dry spring, then an outright drought.

But this was a beautiful fall day.

Just look: the grass is green, it’s raining and wet everywhere, and those trees are all turning colours normally. I could have just stood on the porch staring for ages.

SOAR, it turns out, left its mark on all of us.

Cosmetic really, I swear. We’ll get the old girl fixed up in short order. The poor thing. I believe she was garrotted by the seat belt when I braked hard on the drive home, because she had the wound upon arrival, but not when loading up the truck.

And she’s spinning fine.

I’m having a finer spinning binge right now, which I think may well be Margaret Stove’s fault. I took her 3-hour retreat session at SOAR, and it was truly spectacular. Loyal readers of this blog will know I’ve always had a tendency to spin fine yarn. However, I’ve never been able to get quite as consistently fine with a wheel as I can with a spindle, and I produce fine yarns much faster with a spindle than a wheel (which is partly, I suspect, because I really like fine, high-twist yarn). Margaret Stove, on the other hand, produces insanely fine yarn using a wheel, and it’s less extreme in twist. One might think that the last thing I needed was a class on spinning fine yarn. That’s exactly why I signed up for it. Well, that and the fact that Margaret doesn’t teach in the US very often — I think the last time she was here was ten years ago. Always take a rare opportunity to learn from a master. Always.

Anyway, her methods are different enough from my old routines that they’re work, but they are also comfortable production methods, easy to settle into and work for a while to learn new habits. And satisfying. And right now my problem is not having enough truly fabulous fiber. I obviously need some of the 16 micron raw merino Margaret brought to her classes, raw, to teach us to wash and spin carefully from the lock.

Speaking of washing, Margaret’s washing method is actually very fast. Okay, I mean, it’s not going to get you a spotlessly washed merino fleece in minutes. But it is completely unintrusive and sustainable as a washing method for superfine fleece that you’re going to spin into froghair — 20 minutes of lock washing would definitely produce a day’s worth of spinning.

Anyway, the mill fibers I’m spinning are very nice; they just aren’t that nice. So that should tell you how nice the stuff Margaret brought was.

So what is that on my wheel? Oh right. It’s a Chasing Rainbows merino/cashmere.

and

…it’s coming out pretty fine. But the itty bitty neps and the commercial prep are not All That They Could Be. Also, look! Evidence that I need to just go buy a macro lens.

I’m also — because I have to take breaks — spinning this not-so-fine yarn:

“Not so fine” is of course a matter of contrast with the merino/cashmere. This is 50/50 merino/angora, which was someone’s door prize at SOAR. All I remember about it, really, is Jeannine saying “Is this something you can use?” and me saying that I do sometimes spin angora, and then it was in my bag. It’s very nice merino/angora. I split it in half and it’ll be something lace. I think. I finished this bobbin from half of it, and I’m deciding if I’ll do the other half on another bobbin and ply, or else spin something else and ply it with it. Right now I’m leaning towards just spinning the other half on another bobbin — I never do anything with That Much Angora, and since this is fine and firm, it won’t shed much.

In both cases, I’m working on learning Margaret Stove’s worsted join, and eventually I’ll have some good one-handed photos of that for you. You know, as soon as I come up with a good way to take one-handed worsted photos. There are several tricky elements to that. I now realize exactly why it is that my father taught me to take pictures at an early age, and why he pressed me into service as a hand model for many techniques as well.

I got a great question from Carrie, who asks two questions, and gets good answers in the comments as well, go check out what Maggie says. Carrie asks:

So I have two questions: can you park and draft on a wheel? I have always been told that’s the easiest step to start with on a spindle but it seems like it would be handy, but a PITA, on a wheel.

I love park and draft. You can park and draft with anything! The basic premise remains the same no matter what equipment you’re using. What you’re doing is using your spun yarn as a twist battery (or that’s how I think of it). Just keep the twist from moving into the fiber supply, and build up a bunch of it. Like Maggie says, pinch off the twist, treadle for a while, and when you have enough twist built up, stop treadling, let the flyer come to rest, and there you go — you can draft at your leisure.

Park and draft is great, because you can really get a sense of the fact that twist moves independent of whatever you’re using to generate it. The fact that twist is its own entity is what makes a lot of drafting techniques work! If you were to break them down and not think about what’s going on generating twist, several popular drafting methods are variants on park and draft. The parking is just not obvious. Worsted techniques, where no twist is allowed in the drafting zone, do involve the buildup of twist in the already spun yarn, followed by you allowing it into the drafted fiber. All you’ve done is shift the timing a bit and speed the process up. Some woolen techniques, like double drafting, also use the same principle: you let twist pile up in the thin parts of an initial draw, then move that (plus some more twist that’s coming in) out into the slubby parts as you do your second drafting run. You can also use the park and draft principle when splicing a broken yarn, whether on a wheel or spindle, or long after the fact.

I’m sure someone has more park and draft thoughts — let’s hear ’em!

Second, (in several parts), how early do you start kids learning to spin? And can you (okay, can I) teach them without being an expert myself?

I say let ’em start as soon as they can sit up and grab stuff. Walking and talking are not required. But just like anything that kids learn, the way they learn as infants isn’t always obvious learning to grownups. They model observed behaviour, and they experiment, and they go from trying and not being able to do, to suddenly doing as if they had been born doing whatever it was. Give your baby a tuft of fiber. Expect it to get slobbered on, and trashed… but keep doing it. It’s just like teaching them to hold a cup or use a spoon. You don’t really teach it; you model it, and they do it.

This is why Chinchero elders were so worried about me at age 5, when I couldn’t spin at all. To them, I looked like a 5-year-old who had never touched a fork and was only capable of shoving food in my mouth with my hands.

Don’t expect a little kid to sit down, focus, and produce something. But if you would give a kid a spoon, a crayon, a book with Velcro flaps and buttons and zippers to play with, consider also giving them trash fiber to fiddle with, a stick to wrap it around, yarn to play with, and eventually a cheap spindle. Yes, these things will suffer the consequences of toddler use. But it’s real learning.

I tell folks I can’t remember a time before I could do at least some yarn stuff. That’s true. What I don’t often tell people is that I can remember being very, very little (like 15 months, based on when my parents say specific things I remember happened). Even before our family moved to Peru, my parents and my extended family gave me yarn and fiber to play with, and were doing stuff with it while I was around. Really little kids will learn more than you think, but mostly through play and copying adult (and big kid) behaviour. One of the things they can learn, if we aren’t careful, is that there are things they can’t do because they’re adult things. While there are some things we want to have be in that category, others we don’t.

That was probably earlier than you expected me to say, wasn’t it?

Let’s talk a bit about older kids, say, preschool age to early grade school. You can do all the stuff you’d do with a really little kid, but they’ll also be ready for more. For them, a great thing to do is teach them to ply first, using a spindle. This gets the mechanics of holding onto yarn while a dangling thing twirls, into their physical knowledge base. You can have them play with a spindle with some already spun yarn on it, learn to get yarn onto it, learn to secure it, learn to take it off, and learn to wind balls of yarn. With a wheel, you can teach them to treadle. Let them have at a wheel with nothing on it, and work on treadling and keeping things going one way, then going the other, and then stopping at will and changing direction (this isn’t a bad exercise for grownups to do either). With their fiber, show them how to draft it using only hands, and put twist in using only hands. Show them how it moves apart, and twist grabs it. Don’t worry about what the results are. Just let them play with the mechanics of it all. Here, incidentally, is a great use for that practice of predrafting to spinning thickness — teaching a toddler to spin! Give them fiber they can just add twist to, then teach them how you made it like that, then let them go.

They’ll likely surprise you. You really don’t need to be able to do any more than that to teach someone — anyone — the basics of spinning. Especially if they’re kids! Kids will tend to be just that awed by the magic of it.

Now, if they’re older — say getting on towards puberty — then they’ll need to want to learn it, or there will be nothing whatsoever that you can do to teach them. At that point, you have to teach them like you’d teach grownups, but expect less impulse control and possibly greater frustration.

Here’s the really hard part for a lot of people teaching kids to spin: they might be better at it than you are, really fast. Be prepared.

There’s definitely more to say about teaching kids to spin, but I’ll leave it for a separate post for now. I’ll also be having a further question roundup soon — so if you were thinking of asking something, ask!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this little bit of fiber pr0n:

I had to pull that out of my secret stash today, and I’m just not sure I can put it back. It’s also making it hard for me to finish the rest of my workday, by gum. Some of you can tell at a glance what it is, I’m sure. As for the rest of you, I rather suspect we’ll be discussing it tomorrow. With more pictures.

Eek! Mama O Knits Too Much Tagged Me With 8 Very Random Things!

Heather from CraftLit tagged me with “8 Very Random Things.”

Here’s the deal: Once tagged, you must link to the person who tagged you. Then post the rules before your list, and list 8 random things about yourself. At the end of the post, you must tag and link to 8 other people, visit their sites, and leave a comment letting them know they’ve been tagged.

I’d better get my butt in gear and move on this before everybody’s been tagged.

1. I absolutely hate mushrooms. They genuinely make me barf, I hate them so much. They are slimy in texture and taste of rotting death. I’ve forced myself to eat them a few times but honestly, I’d rather eat head cheese, tripe, lutefisk, brains, eyeballs, durian, fish paste, and boogers. I might even rather eat natto; although, it’s kind of fermented, rotted fungus, so I don’t know. In all honesty, in my life, I have eaten more natto than mushrooms.

2. I’m a Red Sox fan from a long line of Red Sox fans, and I come by it honestly (and long ago) via deeply planted Boston roots.

3. I still think of myself as blonde, because I was so blonde as a child.

4. My absolute favourite storyline is the Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court premise. I will read, and have strong opinions about, any story which remotely fits that description. I have probably read a jillion variants (or books/stories that I classify as such). While it’s not the most inventive of plotlines at this point in time, I seriously think it provides a perfect backdrop for telling all kinds of other stories, and I believe the “science fiction subgenre,” as Wikipedia puts it, actually holds many important insights into our Jungian collective unconscious. Seriously. I do.

5. I own a pink shirt, and I wore it last week. Out of the house, even. Now you all know.

6. It’s official: my son’s feet are now larger than mine. In real life.

7. Absolutely none of my scars have cool stories behind them, no matter how hard I try to jazz them up. The best story goes “That’s from when I was frying bacon in the electric frying pan, and it started to fall off the counter so I grabbed it and put it back.” I can punch it up a little by explaining that I was eight, trying to make breakfast on Mother’s Day, standing on a chair when I shouldn’t have been, and probably would have been burnt far worse if I hadn’t caught the thing, but geeze. Totally unexciting. Meanwhile, my sister? She has great stories about her wounds, and they involve things like being the only person to ever survive falling off the cursed wall, and how people still ask if she’s alive and can’t believe she’s dodged fate like that. And you know what the worst part is? I am now so olde and boring, I hope I don’t even have to get any new scars, much less ones with epic stories.

8. I still haven’t gotten around to buying myself a 2007 calendar, and the one hanging over my desk is displaying December 2006.

Now, for my part, where I tag people… hrmmm. Okay, I’ll start with Ellen, The Redhead, Dave Daniels, Beth, Teyani, Elizabeth, Hope, and Wheat. Woo!

Drafting, Predrafting, Prep, and Control

In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that a lot of the online discussions about getting started with spinning your own yarn include advice like “You really need to predraft your fiber in order to be able to spin it well,” and “If you aren’t getting fabulous yarn immediately, predraft more! Attenuate your fiber to the thickness you want your yarn to be, then put the twist in.”

What surprises me is not that this advice is given, but rather that it seems to be turning into a conventional wisdom about what a new spinner must do, and then it’s passed on as such, and it gains more and more ground and in some cases, talking with newer spinners, I have been shocked to discover they honestly did not know that this was not a requirement.

So, okay, caveats first:

  • Like the perl geeks say, There’s More Than One Way To Do It. The same techniques, tactics, and approaches don’t work the same for every spinner, every fiber, every prep, or every goal.
  • This is my personal take on the subject. Yours may differ; other expert spinners may disagree with both of us.
  • Everything I say is exactly what I believe 100% of the time without fail, except for when I don’t — because, as the wonderful Maggie Casey says, “It depends.” There is always a case that calls for the opposite of whatever I’ve just asserted. Let’s grant that, and move along.

With that out of the way, let’s define some terms for the purpose of this discussion.

  1. Drafting is, in essence, managing the process by which you introduce twist to fiber. This sounds really simple — but if we were talking about cooking, it would be the process of introducing heat to food. If you have ever cooked anything, you know this is actually a much more involved process than it sounds like from so simple a definition. In cooking, you can get completely different results from putting the exact same food in a hot pan instead of a cold pan; similar things are true for drafting when you spin. Drafting is the heart and soul of spinning yarn, as well as the pure mechanics.
  2. Preparation, or prep, is what must be done to fiber in order to draft it. If you were cooking, consider: you could take a potato and put it straight into an open flame, leave it there, then pull it out later ready to eat. But that’s only one kind of cooked potato, and there are many others. You won’t get french fries, potato chips, potatoes au gratin, mashed potatoes, or latkes that way. You have to do prep, such as slicing, peeling, pre-cooking, and so on, to even stand a chance of being able to get the results you want.

Okay, so here it is, baldfaced and simply stated: I don’t believe in “predrafting.” You know, except for when I do, as previously stated in the caveats. What we’re calling predrafting now is typically the practice of taking your fiber and getting it into a thinned-down state where, if you simply introduce twist, the result is yarn. I consider this to be nothing more than one type of prep work — not an essential step to spinning, but rather, simply one possible prep option. That being the case, I don’t like to think of new spinners believing it is a requirement in order to spin yarn.

In fact, no preparation at all is required to spin yarn (from wool, at any rate). I could walk up to a sheep in a field, pull off a few tufts of fleece, and without doing anything else to that fiber, turn it into yarn. Really nice yarn, even, and I could do it in production mode and churn out a fair bit of it faster than you might think. I could do nothing more than that, and clothe my family forever. Heck, probably your family too, and probably also make all kinds of tools from the yarn. And if those were the only goals we had for turning wool into yarn, we’d never do any kind of prep at all.

However, we want more from our yarn. We want lots of different kinds of yarn, suited to lots of purposes. We want lofty, soft yarn, and dense long-wearing yarn, and bumpy funky yarn, and smooth sewing thread, and yarn that’s for keeping us warm, and yarn that’s for walking on or building buildings or making sails for ships or being weapons and tools… so how do we get to the point of being able to have all those things?

We all know, in theory at least, that you can have a wool yarn for almost any purpose imaginable. We have all (well, all of us who are likely to be reading this, at any rate) handled wool yarn that was coarse and scratchy and ropy, and handled wool yarn that was delicate, soft, and airy. If we’re weavers and knitters and crocheters and familiar with the yarn shop, we’ve learned there are kinds of wool, and some are softer than others, while others are stronger, and still others are shiny, and “wool” isn’t a simple catch-all.

But what we don’t know, until we start to become spinners, is that there’s another entire world to the question. We don’t know, at first, that we could take merino wool — which everyone knows to be soft and fine — and turn the exact same fiber into gossamer, rope, all-purpose yarn, yarn for socks, yarn for shawls, yarn for sweaters, yarn for rugs. That cognitive leap hasn’t happened for us yet. But it will (and then, we’ll likely never recover and the world of yarn will be forever changed for us).

As soon as that leap is made, the question that arises is obvious: How? How do we take the same fiber and make it so many different things? And the answer is, we do it the same way we take that aforementioned potato and make it into so many different meals. We use different processes, and follow different combinations of steps in different ways.

You can’t take a raw potato, and smash it with a fork, then add in some milk and butter, and mix it all up, and have mashed potatoes. You have to boil the potatoes first in order to mash them. If you took a potato, and chopped it into cubes, then threw it in a deep fryer, what you pulled out would not be potato chips (crisps, for those of you on the other side of the pond). But if you sliced that potato so thin you could see through your wafers, and placed those wafers in the deep fryer, then what?

This is because, as the olde farte spinners are wont to say, prep matters. Not only does it matter if the prep is done well, but it matters how it’s done and what kind of prep it is. When you do prep work, you’re doing it with an eye towards what you’re going to make. When you pick up that potato and decide if you’re going to peel it or not, that decision is made based on many factors — like what you’re going to cook, and if you like peels in it, for example. Chances are that you have tools which are specially made to help you with different prep tasks in getting that potato ready to cook. You have knives well suited to slicing, chopping, peeling. You may have a special peeler. You may have a food processor. You might have learned a variety of different tricks for getting it prepped just how you want it for the purposes you intend today. You know all this stuff already.

But if you’re a new spinner with some new fiber, then chances are you don’t. What you have in your hands would be the equivalent, most likely, of a new frying pan and some diced, peeled potatoes and a small single-use pouch of vegetable oil. It came, if you were lucky, with a sheet of paper that said “Turn on stove. Place pan on heat. Use contents of vegetable oil pouch. Add potatoes. Stir until ready.”

Following these steps will, in fact, produce cooked potatoes. One kind of cooked potatoes. You will be able to eat them. Assuming, of course, that you figured out that “use contents of vegetable oil pouch” meant “open it and pour it in the pan” and so on, but that’s a separate whole thing. But, well, once you have those cooked potatoes, are they what you had in mind? Are they what you hoped? Are they like cooked potatoes that you’ve had in the past? What if all you got was a mass of potato matter, burnt in some places, uncooked in others, which you had no desire to eat at all and which bore only a surface resemblance to any potato-based meal you’d ever seen?

Luckily for you, in steps The Intarweb(tm) with the answer! You should, says the ‘net lore now, make sure the oil is hot, and preseason your potatoes. You must use salt and pepper. Doing this, people say, they’ve gotten home fries! Delicious home fries! So you follow the instructions, and now you, too, have home fries.

Thing is, this has essentially no bearing whatsoever on how to get mashed potatoes. Everything you’ve just learned as a requirement for “cooking potatoes” is aimed at cooking one single potato dish, in one single way, from one single kit. Nothing about that is bad; home fries are delicious and tasty and being able to cook them is wonderful. And you do learn things from cooking up that home fries kit which build your cooking skills at large, and make you better able to fry things in general, and not just potatoes. You just haven’t touched on boiling, on leaving peels on if you like, on making julienned fries, or countless other things about the possible cooking of potatoes; and while frying is one valid means of cooking up potatoes, it is only one — and it’s not necessarily the easiest start for all cooks.

Another problem is, of course, that once you’ve added salt and pepper, you can’t take them out. This, then, is where we turn back to the fiber, and talk about taking your fiber and attenuating it out to spinning thickness, then adding twist. Once you’ve done that, you can’t undo it, just like you can’t un-cut your potatoes. In other words, once you’ve done your prep, that prep can’t be undone. You can only do further prep. Each additional step you take during prep then limits what you can do with the fiber. Certain kinds of prep are absolutely essential to getting certain results, and don’t work well at all for others. Each prep style needs to be mated with a spinning style in order to achieve yarn, and these work together to produce a whole end result.

This is where dancing comes in. When you learn to dance, you learn to do moves. Perhaps you learn them standing in a formal ballet class, one hand on a barre, with a metronome keeping time; perhaps you learn them hanging out with some pals blasting loud music that your parents hate; but it’s moves that you learn. And then you learn to combine them, string them together, move from one to the next. You learn to make them flow with music. You build a repertoire of moves, ways to use them, combinations, and things that eventually, your body can execute without real conscious control. This has been referred to by many as kinaesthesia — a key component to muscle memory.

It’s important to our discussion here because, unlike cooking potatoes, spinning yarn absolutely requires the development of muscle memory to achieve real control and real success. Like learning a dance move, you’ll practice it and practice it, perhaps staring in a mirror to see if it looks how it should, perhaps comparing your physical movements to static pictures on a piece of paper, analyzing your results in some frustration, and persevering… until suddenly, maybe just once, maybe just for a second or two, bam — the muscle memory hits. It could be fleeting, then gone again, and you strive to get it back, simultaneously elated that you really felt it, and frustrated that, having felt it, now you aren’t feeling it.

A spinner needs this sense, needs this physical knowledge. Is it possible to make yarn without it? Yes. Is it possible to really own that process, really make it work for you, without it? I believe it isn’t. On paper, dancing is nothing more than executing motions set to music. In practice, though, it’s more; and to really be good at it, you have to feel it — whether you’re dancing in “The Nutcracker” or going clubbing and thinking how sweet it would be to lose yourself in the tunes for a few.

I think what a beginning spinner should be shooting for isn’t the yarn you’ll produce right off the bat. The yarn is secondary, really — I know that sounds crazy, but trust me on this. What the beginning spinner should be shooting for is the moment when you know you’re really dancing, really on beat, something larger than you is working through you and you could go forever just like you are right now. You’re looking for the moment in learning to ride a bike when, suddenly, it all came together and you knew you weren’t going to fall over, and you could just go and go and go. It’s the time you swung a bat at a baseball and you saw it hit and felt it through your whole body and the ball went flying and everybody was hollering “Run! Run!” It’s buttoning your winter coat in the dark one frigid morning. It’s reaching in your pocket and being able to tell what’s car keys and what’s change. It’s not having to look at your fingers while you type, knowing where the buttons are on your game controller. It’s all the same thing, but you have to learn it, physically, for each of those things. No amount of rational comprehension will ever substitute for feeling it.

This is part of why small children learn to spin easily. Children are still in the throes of developing their kinesthetic sense of the world in which they live and how they can interact with it. They can’t tie their shoes, they can’t eat with utensils, they can’t make buttons work, they fumble with things, they try and fail — and that, too, provides them with a useful tool for learning to spin: readiness to deal with frustration. Kids are really up to speed on the whole idea that understanding how something should work doesn’t mean that they can just do it. It’s part of their daily reality. But for adults and older children, we’re adept at negotiating our life skills and learning new physical things comes very hard. We want it to be the case that comprehension, and following steps, produces the results we desire. We expect it to do so, because most of the time, it does.

As adults, too, we become goal-oriented more than process-oriented. We know we’re spinning to get yarn; therefore getting yarn is the goal. So anything that gets us there is good. And, well, that’s true. But it’s limiting in the long run, because eventually we’ll build up a repertoire of quick-and-dirty moves that we can perform by rote, but never by feel. We’ll be able to stand in ballet class meticulously moving from first to second to third to fourth position, executing perfect pliès at every one, but we won’t be able to fly through an entire routine on stage as if something else were moving us. We’ll go out clubbing and we’ll be that chick who just looks like she’s trying too hard, instead of being that other chick who’s laughing and dancing and doesn’t even know anybody is watching her.

Bringing it back to the potatoes (my mother would be so proud), yes, it’s possible to learn tips and tricks and follow directions and get great food. It’s like cooking from a recipe. There absolutely is a time and a place for it. But the best cooks, the cooks who really own it and shine, are the ones who can take or leave the recipe; the cooks who understand the recipe and yet can depart from it at will, the ones who can look in the pantry, pull out four things, and improvise a brilliant dinner. They’re the ones for whom it’s not just a science and a technology but also something you do while you’re singing, humming, tapping your feet; the ones who have a rhythm to their potato-dicing and can smell when it’s all coming together just right.

When I’m teaching people to spin, that’s what I’m trying to help them become: spinners who can bring to bear all of the technical, scientific, and methodical stuff with the totally intangible sounds-like-a-hippie-fridge-magnet-slogan kind of stuff, to be able to dance through the process and emerge with exactly the desired yarn. I want them to feel it, but also be able to analyze it and reason it through. I want them to know there’s always more. I want them to be able to problem-solve and perform epic feats of spinnerly daring. I want them to risk, and fail, and learn from that; to set their sights high, take the long shot, and end up right on target. I want them to have the confidence to say “I can bake apple pie even without the nutmeg this recipe calls for,” and the savvy to say “This oven clearly runs hot, and I have to change my plans in order to get the pie I want.” I want them to be able to say, “Okay, the stir-fry kit was good, but next time I’m chopping my own veggies,” and get their dinners just how they want them.

So, you’re wondering (if you haven’t forgotten entirely where we were going), what does this have to do with that “you must predraft to spinning thickness” conventional wisdom?

The simple answer is, I hate it. I don’t want to see new spinners believe it’s required. I don’t want them to depend on it as a method. I think it’s crippling. Do I think it’s cheating? No. It’s one way, and a valid way, to get one kind of results. But I think it’s limiting. I think it robs a new spinner of key formative time early in the process, time that’s some of your best opportunity to develop the muscle memory you need to really control what you do, and to love your results, rather than just liking them.

I think it appeals to us because we want to get yarn, and get yarn now. It works for that. For certain kinds of yarn, it has a place. For certain preparations, you do want to do the final prep yourself, immediately before spinning, say by pulling a roving or fluffing it up or tightening a puni or rolag or breaking it into pieces or all sorts of things. And you can learn a lot about fiber and how it moves by going through those process, and by attenuating fiber down very small without adding twist. It is a useful learning exercise at times, and it is a valuable tool to have in your toolbox at others. But what it isn’t is a requirement or an absolute; and as I say, I find it to be a hindrance to the acquisition of other spinning skills, which while they’re slower coming in some respects, make everything that comes after that much easier.

So then, what advice would I offer new spinners to counter “you need to predraft?” Ah, I’m glad you asked that question!

  • Don’t worry about how your yarn looks. Really, don’t even think about it. Think about how it feels to spin. If you do this, then sooner than you think, that yarn you weren’t thinking about is going to look and feel far better than the yarn you made when you said “Abby’s totally full of it” and predrafted to spinning thickness anyway. In fact, I encourage you to do that.
  • It’s not a waste of time or fiber if you don’t get the yarn you hope for right away. It’s not — it’s an investment in skills acquisition. You are studying; time spent studying, and resources spent on study materials, are not wasted. Plus, later you’ll have them for benchmarks.
  • Do what you’d do if you were predrafting to spinning thickness… except, then add twist with your fingers. You can watch how twist takes the fiber, very closely. You can feel it in slow motion. You can just play with it.
  • Park and draft. When you spin, you aren’t using a tool to turn a material into a product. You’re not using a spindle (or wheel) to make wool (or other fiber) into yarn. I know, I know — this sounds completely bogus, and this next part sounds like a cheesy bumper sticker, but here goes: visualize yourself controlling twist. Twist is a force of nature, and you are its boss. It wants to eat your fiber. Are you going to let it? Eventually. But you’re going to feed it in a controlled way, because you are the boss of it (or you will be) and you know what’s best. Right now, all you’re doing is wrestling with it, sparring with it, learning its moves. Park and draft is a fabulous way to do that, and the building blocks of skills you’ll use forever as a spinner.
  • Relax. Laugh, let it go. It’s all good.
  • Remember: it is hard. Like anything else with so physical a component, people who are good at it make it look easy. I mean, Michael Jordan makes basketball look easy, but that doesn’t make it easy for mere mortals. You wouldn’t expect to walk onto a basketball court and do what he does; don’t expect to pick up a spindle, or sit at a wheel, and do what master spinners do. And forgive yourself when you don’t.
  • Take breaks. You’re learning a physical thing; you have to give your muscles a chance to have things gel. This won’t happen overnight.
  • Praise yourself. Lots of people around you aren’t going to have any idea what you’re doing. They aren’t going to have any helpful feedback. They’re possibly even going to be downright weird about it. Ignore them. You are doing a difficult, amazing thing. It will come.
  • Don’t assume that what worked for someone else will work for you. Sometimes what’s easy for one person is impossible for another. Don’t be afraid to try different things.
  • There is no One True Way. As a spinner, you must find your own way. In this case, you really are a special snowflake! Ask lots of people; disagree, argue, form opinions, state them, test them, try new things, and be willing to learn new ones too. In the long run you’ll have a style that’s all your own that’s made up of things you built yourself and things you learned here, there, and everywhere. Take advice from people who disagree with each other.
  • Everyone has something to teach you.You can learn The Answer To Everything You’ve Been Wondering, That One Perfect Truth, from someone who has never spun before, and in fact, you just put a spindle in his hands. Be ready and willing to learn it!

And so, gentle reader, we come to the end of “Why Spinning Yarn Is Like Cooking Potatoes… and Dancing.” I hope you’ve enjoyed the diatribe! Remember, everything in it is 100% guaranteed to be my firm and unflinching opinion (predrafting stinks!), except of course for when I totally disagree and think you absolutely must predraft. In sum, know how to do it — but don’t depend on it. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s cool — try something else, as there’s lots of other stuff to try. And if you’re a brand new spinner, don’t let anybody tell you “this is how you have to do it.” There’s no such thing!

Interesting…

So, yesterday’s Yarn Manifesto (if you’re just joining me, then you don’t know yet that I’m prone to those; if you’ve known me a while, you’re mentally patting me on the shoulder and murmuring “We know how you are, Abby, it’s okay”) has generated all kinds of comments and emails. Tons! Just tons! And you know… a few of you have said, “Why don’t you submit that to a magazine?”

I have to be honest here, and say that it would never have occurred to me to do something like that with such a rant. Seriously, is there a magazine you guys have been hiding from me called something like “Fiber Obsessed Nut Job Journal” or “Ranter’s Review” or “Manifesto Quarterly?” Because, you see, I’ve come to accept that I have a Problem. It’s this: if I’m presented with a textile topic, I can’t. shut. up. It is completely pathological. I’m sure there’s a name for the condition, but if I were going to go look for it I’d have to stop talking about fibery stuff for long enough to do that, and that’s just not going to happen.

I blame my parents. It is so totally all their fault. Let me see if I can explain it.

My mother sent me a package recently. Now, I don’t know what most people’s packages from their mothers look like, but this one was not at all atypical for what I get from mine. It contained a bunch of things she’d picked up on her last trip to Peru. I took pictures.

That was on top. Oooh, a costal! I mean, yeah, the tag says “potato sack,” but that’s just what a costal is. It’s a really nice costal though, and it’s new.

You know, I’m not sure when I last had a new costal. Usually they’re old. They’re handspun llama, and they wear like steel. Maybe better than steel. Nominally, yes, a costal is a potato sack, and it does indeed get used for storage and transportation of potatoes. And everything else. And to throw on the muddy ground outside to sit on when it’s nasty. And as padding for stuff. You use them nonstop. Fifty years old, a costal might have a patch on it or a rewoven spot, but that probably happened due to a story like “then the packs came off the llama and fell about a kilometer straight down, I wish I hadn’t tried using that gringo rope” or something. Anyway, the costal is purely a functional item. Just indestructible. This is a really nice one. I’ll have this one forever, no matter what I do with it.

Hey, wait… what’s this?

Yeah, what IS that?

That’s not the usual side seam on a costal. Done with a needle I bet. Huh. Hrmmmm. I’ll have to look more closely in a second here, this is just the thing on top.

Look, it’s a pillow cover (I love these, they’re a fabulous CTTC product), but this one is obviously special. Why? Andean warp painting. Rare, thought to have died out. But in 2005, Nilda had found an old guy who did it in another sort of out-of-the-way Cusco area weaving town, and their community had joined CTTC and I’d heard we’d be seeing their textiles shortly. So here one was, for certain.


Click for Big, as Marcy says…

If you’re Sara, definitely click for big and look at the pattern band on the right. I just asserted to Sara authoritatively that you almost never see things worked in non-pairs-based ways, and the supplementary pattern on the right there is a non-pairs-based variant, so do they always do this in that town, or what? Hrmmmm.

Then I got to the note that was stuck into the box:

Yes folks, you see, I come from a world in which the hastily-scribbled notes from my mother are on a postcard for Andean Textile Arts (a US not-for-profit sponsoring preservation of textile techniques in the Andes with organizations such as the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco) and say things like “cf. Paracas mantles.”

There were other things in the box too. For example, there was a chess set, in a lacquered wooden box with no latch, where the painted ceramic pieces were Incas vs. Spaniards — a classic Peruvian tourist item, but what the different sides are represented as varies. The set with which my father taught me to play chess was such a set, but from the 1960s, and the pieces were Moche-styled figurines, where the sides were “bronze” vs. “copper.”

Then there were these.

“Ed socks,” my better half said, immediately. “Definitely Ed socks. Your father liked doing things for the structural and technical aspects, and you can see it in the heels and toes.” He’s right — my guess would be that there was some thought process going on here involving the number of double-pointed needles that was ideal for which heel type, and that the socks were largely improvised using the “applying lace patterns to objects” section of the Susanna Lewis lace knitting book.

I don’t know how that happened, but I will fix it. So I got all maudlin about the apparent Ed socks for a bit, and then as I thought about the hole, it occurred to me — didn’t my mother promise me I could try to talk her out of an heirloom darning egg? She must be holding it hostage for me to get along with the Shaker great wheel.

And, you know, my better half knows full well what a really well-turned heel looks like. His mom used to make socks all the time; magically, insanely fast. One Christmas she made something like 11 Christmas stockings starting on the 21st and in time to hang up for Christmas eve. Not knitting during the day, just using her spare time in evenings.

So this is my life. It is full of fiber and textiles. My whole world is and has always been. I don’t know any other way to be. And everybody in it, well, they’re all used to me spewing my Yarn Manifesto du Jour. I’m always raving like that. So there’s a part of me that reads someone saying “you should submit that for publication” and just… reacts in shock. What? It’s a total rant; it’s not a piece of principled, helpful, worthwhile writing that I did to help people learn something — that kind of thing might well be worth publishing. This, this is dinner table conversation. This is how I can’t shut up, or as my son once put it, “That’s just my mom. Don’t talk to her unless you like boring yarn and stuff.”

So to hear from some of you that you liked that — hey, that you read it — is somewhat unexpected. I just don’t think of that sort of stuff as anything other than ranty blogfodder, mailing list discussion, that kind of thing. Definitely not article material. But maybe I’m wrong.

More to the point and dealing with interesting stuff, though, the new CTTC textiles are stunning, and Sayaj (the new community) has only been with CTTC for about 2 years. If they’re like other communities, by 5 years they’ll be doing really incredible stuff, and more people will be doing it — and lore thought lost will have been learned by many, and thus return from the brink of extinction. And you have to realize that these are mostly things that folks stopped seeing much value in for a long time, which is why everyone stopped doing them. So, I’ll ask you to think about this one: is there a textile tradition practiced by someone you know, that you’ve never thought useful, interesting, or worthwhile? If so, what is it? Let me know.

Edited to add: So it’s not that I can’t envision writing and publishing — that’s not so hard to imagine. What does strike me funny is, “What, you mean the rants? Seriously?” The technical articles and carefully written considered content, sure. Yarn manifestoes? That’s another story. It just would never have occurred to me that anybody would want to read that sort of thing.

Should Everyone Spin? Another Yarn Manifesto

I returned from the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, overloaded and fatigued with mind racing. Recovering, thinking over the prior week’s events, I sat with my cup of strong coffee catching up on blogs, and one of the things I found was Cassie asking the question, “Should everyone spin?”

You know, I never thought to consider that, till 2 days ago when Cassie posed the question. Really.

In Chinchero when I was little, the assumption was that of course everyone should spin; you know, at least be able to spin, even if ultimately they didn’t end up doing much of it. Being totally unable would have been like Americans would perceive being unable to read. You know that it happens to some people, and it seems a horrible fate, a crippling one, something that could well be a dirty secret.

However, times changed, and times changed fast. This fact sank in for me in earnest a couple of years ago, when I was back in Peru, and the younger sister of one of the girls I grew up with asked me if her parents and older siblings were pulling her leg about stuff, or what. “Like what?” I asked her.

“Oh, you know, like how long did it take to go to Cusco?” she asked.

“Oh, man,” I replied, “It was kind of a big deal. In those days, the road wasn’t paved and in the rainy season it was especially bad, but if things were good and you got on the right truck before the sun was up, you could be there in the late morning and have time to do what you needed to before the trucks left to go back. I’d say you could get 4 or 5 hours in Cusco then, if you needed more you had to stay overnight and of course back then that was very hard to do for indigenous folks… you know, my little sister doesn’t remember all of that either, I guess.”

And she doesn’t; between 1977 and 1980, Chinchero saw the equivalent of somewhere between 50 and 75 years of change in most of the rest of the world. Maybe more. Bam, out of the blue, paved roads, electricity, toilets, cars, plastic, television, mass produced stuff, medicine, the telenovela, the fashion magazine, the goods and services you could only get with money and not with stuff for trade. The world changed, and one reflection of that change was people saying not “Should everyone spin?” but “Hey, we don’t need to do that anymore.” 30 years ago, there were no grownups in Chinchero that had never touched a spindle, anymore than there are grownups in the US who have never seen the written word. But now there are, and that started to happen with the kids who were just a little bit younger than me.

So for me, and my generation there, the question was never “should everyone spin?” but rather, were there enough numbers of kids not doing it, and enough parents who figured that was okay, that they might possibly be able to entertain the notion of actually not spinning? The question was, were we all wrong, who had till then so firmly believed that of course everyone should spin? We all believed, at the core of our identities, that you must spin. You could get away with being marginally able to cook or farm more readily than you could get away with simply not spinning at all. Reading, math, purely optional luxuries. Spinning? A basic life skill.

I, of course, knew this not to be the case in the United States; but as is the tendency for most children of field anthropologists (there are a few of us) I chalked it up to a simple cultural difference like questions of manners or perceptions of prettiness. It wasn’t until much later in life that I started to think about Bigger Picture Implications.

Last week at SOAR in Judith McKenzie McCuin’s workshop, at one point she asked — as an aside to the class — “What’s the first question you always get asked about this, anyway?” And the responses were split, pretty much right down the middle, between “What are you doing?” and “Why would you do that?” The first is easy, and the latter… not so easy. For the longest time, the only answer I had was “Why would you not?” Being asked why I’d spin was not unlike being asked why I’d cook. You need to eat, right? So, cooking is how you get food. Thus, you understand spinning — it’s how you get yarn.

But then I realized everyone didn’t figure they needed yarn. This one really took work for me to wrap my brain around. Of course everyone needs yarn! Plus you need what’s made from it, and everything that comes from the making of it. I felt like I was having conversations where, if I just swapped food for yarn, they’d go like this:

Them: What are you doing?

Abby: Oh, I’m cooking food, from raw ingredients. See, these materials here, if I use the right steps, turn into my lunch.

Them: Why would you do that?

Abby: Well, I like eating.

Them: Why don’t you just buy food? You know they have restaurants, right?

Abby: This way I get what I really want and really need.

Them: My grandmother used to cook, or so I’m told, but then now that we can just go to McDonald’s none of us have bothered for a long time. Now I wouldn’t even know where to begin doing it, whew!

One time I had such a conversation, with someone who I knew was a competition shooter who loaded his own carefully crafted ammunition so it would all be uniform, pristine, exactly how he wanted it. “Why do you load your own ammo?” I asked him. “Well, you can’t BUY my ammo,” he responded, instantly. That level of “why” was obvious to him, but the whole “making yarn” thing didn’t make visceral sense — even though he was deeply involved in a sport which is dying out, threatened by people not understanding it. We kept talking. And then something in my brain snapped.

“Look,” I said, “Do you want to live in a cave, wearing skins, unable to keep fire going, banging rocks together to enable you to hunt and gather and be dead by age 20 or so? Because this — this right here in my hands — this is why you don’t. Without this, that is all you can do. Without this, there is no civilization, there is no technology, there is no history, there’s no agriculture, there’s no animal husbandry, there’s no permanent settlements, the whole of human history JUST DID NOT HAPPEN. Without what I’m doing right now, making yarn, there is no life as we know it.”

He thought I was nuts. And you know, a lot of people think I’m nuts.

Okay, okay. There have been cultures without textile technology, and there are a few still existing in the world today. But let’s be honest about them: they’re extremely low-tech cultures. They depend on chance in the world around them. They hunt, gather, find shelter, move on. That’s not bad — but it’s also not a life most of us would choose anymore. Given comfortable permanent settlements, clothing, secure crops and livestock, literacy, construction, science, and medicine, most of us would absolutely not choose to go live naked in a cave with no matches or tools.

But when we give up our textile heritage — much of which exists in skills — we’re making exactly that choice for all the future of all the world. We’re saying that now that we have bootstrapped ourselves to a certain point, we no longer need to know what’s at the base of it all. It’s like saying that now that we can buy canned chicken broth, nobody needs to be able to make chicken broth; now that we have automatic transmissions, nobody needs to know how gears work. Now that we have audiobooks, nobody needs to read per se. Now that there are big industrial farms, nobody needs to know how to grow a tomato. Now that we have velcro, nobody needs to understand buttons, zippers or laces. Leave it to the hobbyists.

If you press people, folks will usually say “Okay, someone has to know that stuff. I guess. You know, just in case. But we have a lot of it written down so it’s not really at risk.”

But here’s the thing. All of those other technologies? They all depend on the textile ones. They depend on them like we depend on the air we breathe. We sure can’t see it, but if it was gone, we’d be in deep trouble, really fast — before we even were sure what happened. That’s what would happen if we lost the things that have happened because of textiles and fiber. It’s not just our clothes, our furnishings, our homes. It’s our bridges, our highways, our buildings, our machines, our lore, our literacy, our daring. And if you’re a fiber-obsessed textile nut job (I know you are, but what am I?) then you see these things everywhere.

However, if you are not a fiber-obsessed textile nut job, you might not notice these things at all. Okay, and even if you are, you might gloss right over them from time to time. But start looking. Start really looking. First, start textile-spotting. Start right now. What are you sitting on? I’ve give it a better than 50/50 chance of being a textile, no matter who you are or where you’re sitting. Drive somewhere. Hey, have you ever seen what a tire looks like in cross-section? Textile. How about looked under the hood at your plug wires and cables and stuff? Go ahead, look — textiles. On the way there, look at the telephone and electric wires. Take it on faith that they contain textiles, but then let’s move to the next level here. Ask yourself: how did they put them up? You’ve seen spools of cable in various places. You’ve noticed how that’s related to spinning, or buying thread, or various things. There’s lots of stuff on spools. Spools have been around forever. There have always been spools, right?

No. Once upon a time, the spool did not exist. So people devised it. Now, ask yourself… why? To solve what problem?

The answer is, a textile problem. A yarn management issue.

And with that devised, with that premise in existence, what else could you do with it? Thank you, yarn dorks dead and gone; if somebody hadn’t devised a system to control and contain vast lengths of continuous flexible material, we couldn’t have worldwide telecommunications and electricity and all of that sort of thing.

That’s just one example, a totally random one. But things that have revolutionized the world have textile revolutions at their cores, at their hearts, as their prerequisites and dependencies. Consider the block and tackle: a textile technology, one that is for textiles and uses textiles (because ropes are textiles). The block and tackle is, “Hey, check out what I can make this yarn do, you’re not gonna believe this, all I do is run it around some wheels… works every time!”

Or consider the modern lifestyle. We live in a world where we buy our goods, and they’re manufactured a long way away from where we live, and we can buy them finished and ready to put to use. In order to do this, we go to work at jobs — outside of our homes, typically — and earn money, which we trade for these goods. Most of what we use, we did not produce, and we often live in settings where we couldn’t even if we knew how to. Most of what we use, we’ve never seen being made. If we have, we’ve likely seen a part being made, but not an object start to finish. Few things are made that way anymore — the assembly line, mass production, distributed manufacturing environments, and complex distribution networks are all essential to the modern, industrialized way of life. And these are all premises that arose all over the world, often independently, to solve textile problems.

It’s what makes a Sheep To Shawl work. It wasn’t invented sometime in the past 150 years by a guy with a factory; he put these ideas to work for him. It didn’t happen first with the guilds of Europe. It didn’t happen first in Rome. It wasn’t a purely Egyptian invention, nor Byzantine, nor Pre-Columbian. These premises were everywhere with textile technologies, assumed, taken for granted, refined, repurposed, expanded upon. Empires have been born, swaddled in cloth, spread across seas with sails of fabric, died and been laid to rest in textile bindings that we don’t even think about at all.

We talk about the printing press and literacy. Hey guys, it needed paper. Lots and lots of paper. Not only is paper, at its roots, a textile technology, but it’s often made from textile waste. So even leaving aside the question of any mechanical developments that came from the textile world, the materials required in order to spread literacy and have the printing press matter at all depended on textiles. Or hey, computers; a computer is honestly nothing more than a very elaborate cardweaving setup. I mean, VERY elaborate; but that’s all it is, at the heart of it.

So here I am going off down fiber-obsessed textile nut job avenues to try to explain that, yeah, really, if it weren’t for spinning, we might as well all just go live in a cave pounding rocks together. Not that there aren’t days when that sounds terribly appealing, and not that significant value hasn’t derived from banging rocks together. I mean, I even like banging rocks together. And there is a useful point here that deals with it: how many flint knappers do you know? Have you ever used a knapped knife?

I have met one flint knapper, and I have used a stone knife a few times. Wow, they’re good knives! Extremely functional things. And flint knapping, man, that’s hard. But yet we know that most people used to be able to generally do it to some extent. Now nobody can, and the people who do have a difficult job trying to figure out how this worked, how that could be done… and in many cases, there is nobody alive anywhere in the world who could show them, because we let the skill die.

It’s gone. No amount of writing about it, guessing about it, studying specific things about the artifacts, can tell us exactly how a skilled hand grasped something, how quick it moved, how tight it held, if there was a sound you’d be shooting for that would let you know you were on track… the lore is lost, and can’t be retrieved (though perhaps painstakingly and with time it could be rediscovered and rebuilt).

Any lore is at risk in this way, even that which we have committed to a jillion backups and offsite recovery locations and so on. But the lore of hands, the lore of physical knowledge, the lore of the assumed skills and needs that pushed us to develop civilization to better meet those needs — that lore is the most at risk of all. Why? Because we now accept, for the most part, that everyone should read, everyone should be computer literate, everyone should know math, and we expect that, no matter what, the ubiquity of those skills will see us through pretty much anything. And because those skills are so everpresent, that could be true: in the event of an unscheduled apocalypse, we probably won’t lose all the readers, at this point.

But we could lose all the spinners, and it’s the spinners who hold the lore in their hands, not even in their minds, of how and even, at a subconscious level in many cases, why. And if we lost all the spinners, or even most of them, we’d lose the root of all textiles, and that’s the root of life as we know it.

So for me, the answer to the question of “Should everyone spin?” is a vehement “Yes.” It’s the same yes I’d answer to whether everyone should know how to not get burnt by fire, chew their food, keep wounds clean, not defecate in the potable water supply, and know which part of the blade is sharp. For extra credit, I’ll add “read, write, and perform simple arithmetic” to that list. These are the things from which civilization is made. These are the things which, if enough people don’t learn, will be lost and cause a new dark age.

Every new spinner of whatever skill level, whatever interest, whatever goals, whatever degree of commitment — even if they never touch a spindle again after I force them to — brings me a tiny hint of relief. The lore is that much safer. There’s that much less risk of my children or grandchildren or, hey, my sibling suddenly waking up one morning to find it’s all gone, all of civilization, and we can’t get it back, because everybody kept saying “Well, nobody really needs to do that anymore, I buy all my clothes and yarn is just for knitting, which is just a hobby, and you can get that stuff at Michael’s.”

For me the big challenge is in toning down my answer, finding ways to take it one step at a time. Because, I mean, should everyone spin? My gut, unfiltered response is: My god, yes! And yes, I mean you! And you! And everyone you know or are likely to ever know! Go, now, before it’s too late and the apocalypse comes and all is lost, and SPIN! Don’t take chances with Life As We Know It! You don’t know how? I’ll show you. Yes, now! There’s no time to lose! Don’t you realize the fate of the world depends on this? Bring me more would-be spinners, quick before it’s too late! Don’t make me tell you what has already been lost, you’ll cry! By the way, let’s do this now, I also heard there’s a guy who lives in a desert hidden under the deepest sea, in a world you can only get to through a magic mirror, and he knows a cool spinning trick nobody else does, and we have got to hit the road and go learn that, right now, because the world depends on it! Whaddaya mean, “should everyone spin?” What’s next, “should everybody breathe?”

Yeah. It’s hard to not answer like that. It’s hard to put it in terms of “I really think it can bring you lots of new enjoyment of things you already like” and “Oh, just give it a try, see if you like it” and “It doesn’t have to be hugely expensive to start,” and so on.

And the realist in me knows that everybody won’t, and everybody can’t, and everybody doesn’t want to. As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to be okay with that. Most of the time. I find it, emotionally, confusing and I don’t get it, but then my sister (blessed with a green thumb) doesn’t get how it is I can’t keep the spider plant from dying, and why it just saddens me when she tries to find me a plant I can keep, because I know full well that to bring a plant into my home is to condemn it to death one way or another. Agriculture is totally important too, just like textiles, and I stink at it. So I can accept other people not having a textile thing. Rationally.

But it’s still only very recently that I have actually realized that most people think of spinning as, well, optional. I mean, is cooking really optional? I mean the most rudimentary level, like even if all we mean is “heat stuff in microwave?” Are reading and writing optional? Everybody doesn’t need to be a grand chef or write a brilliant novel, but… outright optional? Seems so strange.

A little more about SOAR…

I really had every expectation of blogging from the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat (SOAR). “It’s a resort,” I figured, “there’ll be net and plenty of time and it just won’t be a big huge deal.” I couldn’t have been more wrong, and the fact that I could have gone with such expectations is a clear indicator that I went into it as a SOAR novice. But, I’ll tell you, now that I sit down to attempt to write about the experience, I wish I could have kept a journal. It would have gone something like this:

Day 0

Dear Diary,

Drove all day and found the very secluded Shanty Creek by the skin of my teeth, just before sign-in was supposed to end. My room wasn’t ready and a nice lady at the sign-in table said I should go talk to Phreadde and wait with the other people whose rooms weren’t ready yet. I was a little nervous, because though I knew there were folks coming who I knew from mailing lists and so on, there wasn’t really anybody I really knew knew, though I was aware there’d be folks around who were friends with my parents. Which, well, you never know how that’ll go.

My room was finally ready just before dinner (which was a giant buffet). I threw my stuff in the room as fast as I could, learned I had a roommate (some chick named Denny something), and ran back to the buffet to eat something before the welcome program. I had had a note at sign-in from Amy Clarke Moore, the editor of Spin-Off, filling me in a little on the scheduled items I needed to know about as a scholarship winner, and I’d just heard from Amy (who I had met once before) that she had to leave due to a death in her family.

At the welcome program, all the SOAR mentors were introduced, and there were logistics discussed, and scholarship recipients were introduced as well (I’d been warned). I had meant to just sit in the back and observe so I’d know the score, but it didn’t end up working that way; I blame the aforementioned Phreadde.

I was very relieved, after putting names to faces and so on, to discover that my roommate also considered coffee a priority, and had brought strong coffee with her. There was a several-hours long blur of meeting people I’d only known online, or only heard talked about, and now it’s time to pass out so I can be up at 7 AM for Judith McKenzie McCuin’s class on Primitive Breeds. I don’t really think I’m interested in the subject of primitive breeds and in some respects talking about breeds in general can get boring, but everyone keeps telling me I really need to take a class from Judith and I would really like to meet her. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Day 1

Dear Diary,

Okay, so breakfast was a whirlwind, the coffee was weak, the stuff Denny brought is much much better but there’s no time to make it, and I did get my stuff to class and get set up in time. Why did I forget my hand cards and combs? Ah well. Loaned someone the Victoria; glad I brought extra wheels.

By lunchtime, I realized I was completely wrong about not being interested in primitive breeds of sheep. In fact it’s been a lifelong fascination of mine, an obsession really. I just didn’t really realize it because some knowledge of sheep breeds has sort of always been there for me and I never stopped to think about the whys and wherefores of breed development as it relates to culture, ancient history, and the development of civilization. I mean of course I’ve thought about textile technology in that context, but never about the sheep breeds and what that would tell you also about how civilization spread and…

By dinnertime, I said this to my roommate, who told me that a friend of hers had said “I would take a class on boiling water from Judith — and I’d learn something amazing that I never knew was related to it all.” I wonder if she teaches about boiling water? Maybe she should. What’s more, it was really nice to handle raw fleece with nothing but my hands, again. Also I wonder where one might see one of these artificial knees for thigh-spinning from that Bronze Age dig. I have to come up with something like that, I totally want to try the thigh-spinning thing that makes a good 2-ply yarn with a down, then up. I bet you could do a lot with it really fast. Damn, I forgot to ask where the spun yarn is stored that way and if you can walk around doing it.

After dinner, the evening talk was also Judith, and on the same subject as the workshop I was taking… but far from redundant. After the talk, I met a bunch more people, all of whom are awesome, and then somehow accidentally ended up spinning some cotton, and I even enjoyed it! Must sleep, more class in the morning.

Day 2

Day 2? Really? Whoah. I’d swear I’ve been here a month. So it’s really interesting that all these so-called primitive breeds are multiple-coated. It was really clever of Judith to bring commercial, mill-prepped variants of the same fibers, and not let us spin those till after handling the multiple-coated fleeces totally by hand. You know, much as I’m glad there’s a ton of prepped fiber available nowadays, you do miss things if you don’t do your prep, and geeze is it nice to be working with fleeces that were vetted by someone who really knows how to pick them. And the stunning black on this one Shetland fleece, and the three fabulous coats… I want more.

Seriously, the Shetland really impressed me a lot. I think if I were going to just have one kind of sheep, these guys would probably do the trick. The outer coat is probably almost as good for rope as real llama is, and oh! The teacher totally didn’t think I was nutty when I said that, and didn’t go off on a thing about how llama can be soft and fine. I mean, I know it can, but then what do you use for rope?

I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Crap, did I miss dinner? Not yet? Oh, tonight is the official scholarship dinner? I gotta hurry then, oooh, and get my things for the gallery. Fooey, I forgot to write down that these are all handspun objects I use all the time and there’s a theme and… oh well. I wonder what other people brought to show.

Denny says she has some other friends from Canada coming tomorrow and we have to show them our stupid yarn tricks. More on that later.


And then there’d be a gap; a blur. Nothing but the groggy morning of getting ready to leave. I could tell you what I learned, what I saw, who I met, conversations that were started that I know will take forever to finish; I could piece together the sequence of events from various clues. But I have no idea what order to put them in, where to start, how to make sense of it in a principled manner. So here it is, disjointed instead.


I met Clara from Knitter’s Review, and totally dared to take her picture while she had her hands full of comb. You would not believe the carnage she and Theresa left at their feet in class…

And they had BIG cups of coffee, and I did not. I have no clue where they got it.

Oh, so this is the famous Judith:

She’s taking a brief detour here, having just had us spin a marled yarn from three colours of mill-prepped Shetland top, and then gone for some commercial merino top to demonstrate drafting across the top with fibers that everybody knows, and give folks a few things to practice with respect to that drafting style.

Oh, I guess this is the other view…

but, I’m afraid I spent a lot more time watching hands than anything else, so those stand out for me.

I tried to take pictures, but then they’re a blur…

I love the faces in this shot. Not just because I loved meeting folks, but because everybody’s facial expressions are anything but neutral.

Above, in the foreground, Phreadde is undoubtedly stating an opinion about Denny’s hand card solution. In the midground, Janel may look understated about the flair and zazz she exhibits with her use of a popular Andean plying technique, which she uses to better advantage than most of the Andeans I know… if not all. She brings style and attitude with her beautifully.

I won’t even name names for who all is engaged in ritualistic sock worship here. But just look how gracefully Janel handles it.

And then in the background, Jenni is doing her usual subtle quiet thing, spinning yarn so fine that I think it’s absurdly fine, on her WooLee Winder-equipped Ashford Joy. Beth is right next to her, spinning away. I really wish I had more good pictures of Beth, because she was constantly… okay, here’s the thing. Beth was, without a doubt, the most egregious user of the line “Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on,” at SOAR this year. With an absolutely deadly twinkle in her eye as she downplayed the magnitude of her absurdely nupp-ridden lace shawl, then walked around acting like she thought people might not think she was cool enough to be there. C’mon Beth, you should know that anybody who owns a fiber shop is everybody’s BFF for life in the crowds we run with. But that’s all it is. Certainly none of us like you just because, you know, we like you. In fact, I never liked you. “Just a few nupps,” my… uh… sainted Aunt. Some people.

The one back there in the chair with the glint in her eye and smothered grin? That’s Sara. Unlike Beth, who I never liked at all, I used to like Sara, right up until she gave her “official SOAR mentor advice for the week,” which was “Finish things.”

Ouch.

The fact that I went to SOAR this year is really traceable to one email which I received from Sara early this year. It said simply, “I’m going to give you some advice, which may be rude and is certainly not solicited. Go to SOAR. Go this year. Figure it out.” I’m not sure that Sara takes “no” for an answer. She has that certain thing, I’m not sure how it works, which does mean she can get away with saying stuff like “Finish things,” and not simply be pelted with rotting fruit and driven out of a room full of people who are intimate with the work in progress. Even worse, I rather suspect I’ll finish a few things because she told me to. She can just make you do stuff. Stephanie said “I swear I might have learned something just from standing near Sara Lamb.” Here she is doing so:

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s Sara. If it’s not Sara, someone stole her jacket. It’s hard not to rip Sara’s garments off and run off with them, not only because they’re beautiful garments, but because they’re interesting from a technical standpoint. I did not steal any of Sara’s clothing. This time.

And hey, Steph’s shirt isn’t so bad either. “You know, if you get it, anyway,” she said. To which I say, “For great justice!” or maybe “You have no chance to survive. Make a stitch.” I mean, maybe you had to be there, in that geek past life… editing config files that said things like

# Are all your base belong to us?
$takeOffEveryZig = 1;

but… well, anyway. So there’s Steph learning something from Sara Lamb. Of course, whatever it was, I imagine she forgot it surviving the cheap swill…

…though she did good resisting Denny’s railroading for a while. I did less well.

I feel it only fair to say that at this point, this was after we’d talked about it earlier in the week, Denny had gotten me to demonstrate the classic Chinchero girl trick of plying off a terrace or balcony, and I’d come totally clean with her about the risks involved. I mean, I was pretty confident; I took my share of grief from the yarn breaking or the half hitches slipping, and the spindle going a long way down some ruins. But she still could have totally gotten her eye poked out. Low tech entertainment can still be high risk. 4 out of 5 handspinners surely agree this is a dumbass maneuver. I formally deny all responsibility for the teeth-catch maneuver.

I heard tell that Denny in fact credits Judith McKenzie McCuin (or J-Mac as some were calling her) for providing the insights which caused her to realize she needed to rip her sweater. At first as Denny was explaining this, none of us had any clue where this was going.

You can identify a SOAR attendee here easily actually — black shirt, covered in fluff and fuzz, the thousand-yard stare is measured with skeins of yarn, and somebody just said “Now put your hands like this,” and they’re doing it.

See? Obviously some of us were too tractable.

Steph almost paid for it with her neck a few times. Julia was only one of many people to nearly take her out in the Great Ripping Relay of 2007.

It was that dramatic. And admire that snarl that’s being repaired, too, by the way. I’ll leave that story to the yarn’s owner.

This is Jeannine. I could learn a lot from Jeannine and I hope to. As a member of a panel discussion, she commented “They didn’t give me a microphone, but that’s because I don’t need it.” She had no trouble making herself heard… but yet, managed to be understated somehow. That’s a skillset I simply don’t comprehend. But anytime you’d turn around, there was Jeannine or the evidence of her presence at SOAR. Many people were wearing these little sheep pins, for instance. “Jeannine, a few years ago,” someone explained. In the spinner’s gallery, she brought old-fashioned project documentation to a tiny little bowl that you almost couldn’t see, that you might have missed at first pass, that was a project fraught with vicious puns in fiber form. She wore garments made from nothing but samples from past SOARs. She brought us a handspun, handwoven ribbon…

…filled with words of wisdom, which I didn’t write down and wish I had, the one of which stuck with me the most was:

When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.

And that right there is why I do this yarn stuff. Some of it can only be passed hand to hand. No writing about it, no lasting objects, can save things if people don’t learn the hand to hand part… and no research later can bring those back. Don’t let those libraries burn with the lore unlearned.

See how long that is? It’s twice that long.

There is still tons more to say. TONS! But there is a start.

I survived SOAR!

Yesterday morning, while frantically attempting to locate coffee, figure out if I knew where all my spinning wheels were, what I was shoving in the truck when, and what time I’d manage to hit the road, I ran into Stephanie, who I think had probably had more coffee than me at that moment — I had just discovered that the only coffee that was left was decaf, which as we all know, is not in fact coffee at all. “I’m surprised SOAR doesn’t have a death rate!” she said, and several responses occurred to me. Slowly, though, given the aforementioned lack of adequate coffee. The first was “Are we sure it doesn’t? Did you check?” and the second was, “Man, I wish you hadn’t said that right before everyone starts driving home.” I might have actually even said one of those things, but I can’t be sure. I probably just whimpered something about coffee.

But, in any case, here I am at home now, not having become a major SOAR casualty. I say “major” because the sad truth is I’m a wreck. A mere husk of a human being. I’ve been trying to post a simple “I made it home!” post for the past 4 hours, and this is as far as I’ve gotten.

So, how was it? Well, it was, wow. The kind of event where you’re sitting in a chair spinning, and someone walks past you, and you say “Did you know you have a swatch stuck to your butt?” and she says “Yeah, it’s on purpose,” and the 12 people who overhear the conversation don’t so much as blink. The kind of event where you’re eating dinner with someone you just met who, in turn, mentions someone you haven’t met, and someone else at the table says “Which one is she?” and the first person says “The one with the real Orenburg,” and half the people at the table leap to their feet and say “Where is she? I gotta see that!”

And, you know. By “see” they mean “fondle.”

Or you could also describe it as the kind of scene where the drunks are nigh coming to blows, not about whose sports team is superior, but about whose worsted is more worsted… and when it comes to blows, it involves whipping out spindles and proving it. It’s the kind of place where everybody is covered in fuzz and fluff and you see people walking around wearing garments you’re pretty sure you saw on the cover of a magazine a few years ago… no, not garments made from the pattern, the garment from the photo. Where “Did you make that?” is arguably a stupid question, where you’re walking around spinning and people stop you not to ask what you’re doing, but rather, where did you get that spindle, and do they have more? How much was it? What? You’re kidding, he should raise his prices! It’s the kind of place where you see something priced for $250 an ounce and you think, “My god, what a steal!”

There’s a ton to say, and at some point when I am slightly more coherent, and the photos have been sorted, I’ll say it. But for now, I’ll leave it at “I’m back, I survived, and you guys should totally all go, even though it causes positively surreal fatigue and will probably leave you looking at your very full inbox and thinking of it like procesing a Shetland fleece with nothing but your hands.” For those of you waiting on replies, the inbox has been skirted and I’m separating the locks meticulously as we speak. Many, many, many thanks to my better half, who engaged in many epic and heroic feats over the past week. He’s the greatest ever.

Pagoda Shawl

The long-awaited Pagoda Shawl is finally done!

Let’s recap the story.

At some point early this year, Pippi gifted me with some fiber in her Pagoda colourway. And of course, that prompts me to say, “Check out what Shannon did with that fiber also!” Here’s how mine spun up:

I spent a while pondering what to do with the yarn, which I liked quite a bit, and ultimately decided to do a triangular shawl of some sort. I’ve done tons and tons of triangles where I start at the bottom point and go up (well, I’ve done a few). This time I thought I’d see about a top-down one. Since I planned to improvise, I decided to go top-down, center-out, as well, essentially creating a mitered corner at the centerline of the triangle, improvising pattern sections as I went. Here’s the in-progress shot…

…showing my big dilemma: I realized I would run short of the yarn I’d spun before bringing one section of pattern to a visual conclusion. I looked around for anything I had on hand in the same fiber that would be similar in colour, and that wool looked like it would do it… but spun up, it just plain didn’t work:

So, I decided that I’d just dye some of the same fiber yellow and go with “punch up the contrast and make it looke like it was intentional.”

Now, if you look in that in progress photo, you probably can’t see the problem, so let me try to explain. I structured the shawl top-down and center-out, so the stripes of colour from the long colour repeats would be downward-pointing chevrons going around that mitered corner. But from a structural standpoint the colour didn’t matter to the knitting, and the lace pattern sections were also structured as chevrons which, as I was knitting, would come together in a point.

Except that the final one wasn’t going to come together in a point before I ran out of yarn. Vis this photo from the blocking process:

See the yellow-tipped triangle? That’s the pattern element which had to complete or I was going to hate this shawl.

Now, while I was working this shawl — since I completely lack any semblance of project monogamy — I decided to start Foggy, Foggy Dew, and incorporate some of my thoughts from Pagoda into it. So Pagoda also became a prototype for how I wanted to do some things in FFD.

One such thing is beads, which are regrettably very hard to see in any of these pictures, and arguably too small relative to the yarn in the shawl, and thus too subtle to photograph. Not bad in person though.

So right now you’re probably thinking — and rightfully — “Geeze, Abby, please take some less awful pictures and show the whole thing and don’t just give us the heinous blocking-on-a-giant-blue-towel shots!” And I hear you. I really do. But first…

This is a huge blue towel, probably 6 feet long. Were I a functioning domestic type I’d remember if it was a “bath blanket” or “bath sheet” or what. Huge! Anytime I’m blocking something like this, I crave some sort of 3-meter-square gridded thing I cant stick pins into, like one of those self-healing mats for rotary cutters but big enough to block on. And it would really need to be like 3 meters square. But since I don’t have one… well. I half-ass the blocking. I pinned out the top edge straight, the centerline straight at various points on the way, and then just eyeballed and roughed in the points.

I’d done a very loose crochet cast off, placing beads at what would become the blocked points on the edges. This made certain aspects of blocking very simple, and it was an absolute requirement that I do this and get it blocked before completing the FFD shawl, so I can have my final beaded cast-off decisions made in time (which is to say, by about tomorrow night).

Okay, okay, so the better photos! Once it was dry — and I had to work to keep the cats away, because Kaylee kept trying to take pins out with her teeth and Paimei wanted to roll up in the towel — I took it out to the deck where I wish it were nice and green and pretty like it would be if not for drought.

My better half was there watching as I spread it out and got set up. “You should move the dead flower,” he said. “I might,” I told him.

“I definitely would,” he said.

Yes, that dead flower.

It’s not dead. It’s just resting.

But seriously folks, that’s a geranium. Now, I’ve seen geraniums thrive in the dry season in the Andes. I’ve seen them thrive in California summer. Even I, black thumb though I have always possessed (to the chagrin of my plant-growing parents and sibling and grandparents and cousins and everyone), usually can’t kill a geranium. And okay, I guess this one isn’t quite dead, but all the same, I think it shows just how bad our weather has been.

That was July.

But anyway, even though I decided to leave the dead flower in at least one photo, specifically so I could blog about the weather thus, I did take a few other Pagoda shawl pics.

Now, one interesting thing to note about this — and it’ll be true for FFD also — is that while it seems, patternwise, as if it’s a pair of right triangles, with two 90-degree angles at the top center, it’s really not. This is because of a certain fudge factor with increases at the edges. The angles are slightly obtuse as a result. However, I wanted it to still look like the center was in square, and the chevrons were in square at a 45-degree angle to those, so… blocking! And the fudge factor in blocking came into play at the pointy edges, which aren’t exactly evenly spaced.

I tried to make it look as right as possible right by the point, though.

If I had it to do over again, I think I’d use larger beads. At least at the edges, if nothing else.

I do like how it came out…

and I wish I had a big enough window to take a backlit picture and show the stitch pattern more clearly.

I’m disappointed in the candlelight pattern section, which is the chevron I was trying to bring to a close. I love the pattern, but it doesn’t really work right in this context, I feel.

The catspaws and smiling diamonds came out great, though, and all in all, I really like the yellow border with beads only there.

But yeah… next time, larger beads with this size yarn.

I’ll be taking it to SOAR to put in the gallery, so maybe I can nab a few photos there.