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.

44 thoughts on “Should Everyone Spin? Another Yarn Manifesto

  1. FABULOUS essay/manifesto/whatever. Just great. I’m going to shut off the computer and spin for a while now. Thanks!

  2. Abby, you’re amazing. I very much want to meet you some day – we would have the most fascinating conversations, much to the dismay of anyone else within earshot.

    My textile passion is the old techniques, the ones that produce amazing products from little or no equipment, as exemplified by Viking-era Scandinavia and pre-contact Andes (and to some extent, southwestern US – have you seen the sprang shirt from Arizona?).

    There’s nothing wrong with big equipment, but what can you make from a couple of skeins of brightly-colored yarn and your two hands? A braid? A band? What if you add a needle? Or two supports to stretch yarn between? (Or one, and your own body, or even two body parts?) Having big equipment makes these processes faster, but often also simplifies the end product. Look at modern linen – we cannot produce linen thread equivalent to that spun by the ancient Egyptians, because the skilled, time-consuming process is just not possible with modern textile machinery. Worse, I don’t think there are any craft spinners who can duplicate that – the skills have been lost (though I’d be very happy to be proven wrong).

    I started down this path before the Internet became the gathering place that it is now, so I learned many of these esoteric skills from books, and not how-to books, but archaeology books. “Okay, this looks like that, now how can I duplicate the structure?” It’s been fascinating to see how the increased communication (and pictures! and video!) has aided this process. Hey! There are still people who have a folk tradition of naalbinding – how does what they do differ from my solutions? Other techniques seem to have died out – I don’t know of any continuous sprang transmission.

    There are also very interesting commonalities among cultures. It’s all based on spinning, of course, and nearly everyone does that. Once you’ve got yarn, then what? There’s a five-loop fingerloop braid that is nearly ubiquitous. Sprang has popped up in several places, apparently independently. The same braid structures are found in Peru and Japan, though they are made with very different equipment (and the Peruvians took them even further, without the limitations imposed by the marudai). Tablet weaving appears in several places, which may or may not be connected, but oddly enough not in South America.

    Your description of the ubiquity of textiles reminds me of an exercise I did when teaching the biodiversity section of a college biology course. I asked the students to keep a list of the _species_ they interacted with over the course of a day. Everyone got the dog and cat level, and some even listed humans as a species. But rarely would a student pick up on the cotton in their clothing, or the wool in their sweater, or the apple she had for breakfast. If people have become so divorced from the raw materials of daily life, is it harder or easier to connect with the next level of sophistication, the production of “stuff” from raw materials?

    Finally (as this has gone on excessively long, I think), I must disagree with you. You said: “a computer is honestly nothing more than a very elaborate cardweaving setup”. No, a card weaving setup is a four-place operation, and as such much more complex than a binary computer!

    Abby, thank you for yet another highly stimulating and thought-provoking post.

  3. wow…. much food for thought. I was already at the food analogy (Why, people ask, do you knit socks???, my answer, why go to macdonalds when I can cook a lovely meal at home) but you took it so much further. wonderful read.

  4. Very interesting post. I remember being quite shocked when I was a new spinner, at how out of touch folks have become now that they are so removed from the fundamental processes. Who could have dreamed that people would assume sheep had to be killed for their wool???? Or some friends children who rejected home churned “cow butter” for “store butter.”

    One thing I have realized is that folks (older folks like our grandparents and great-grandparents) often associate these fundamental skills with poverty. My childrens’ great-grandmother would never have dreamed of canning her own food anymore; they only did that because they were dirt poor! She never did understand why I was always so eager to put up my own harvest.

  5. I love it when you get on your soapbox. If our distant ancestors could see us now, see how few people could spin and weave, know what plants you can and can’t eat, and how to catch and clean and cook a fish, wouldn’t they be amazed that we’re all alive. When the apocalypse comes, I’m finding your cave!

  6. you dislike the phone I don’t E-male.

    We need to write letters to each other. To show the kids writing long hand IS a skill we to save. to walk to mail box not click on the “in” box.
    so people we love will keep making lovely beaded pens. I gave a kid some fleece at work yesterday while he watch me spin. We’ll show them.
    My hubby has gone(for a few days) to bang rocks into nice shapes for rich people and I need to get off this stinking machine and get my brownies out of the oven before they burn.

    P.S. If you are nuts your wasabi soy nuts and I want more. Love the BOLD post. lets get back to work shall we. lots o love denny

  7. I learned to spin this year, and a few weeks ago completed my first ever sweater, which was knit from the first pound of good wool that I bought. I feel powerful every time I wear it – it’s my secret superhero costume.

    Among my geekier friends, I’m well known for being big on disaster preparation, and my usual snarky answer to why I knit (and now, spin) is that when the apocalypse comes, I will be warm and clothed and you will freeze to death.

    That’s actually true, for a given value of true. I first learned to make useful fabric from string as a toddler, and I’m not sure which came first – the need to understand my world and how everything in it is made or the need to competently respond to any eventuality.

    I do a lot of things “in the old way”. I prefer to cook from scratch. I prefer a fire and a thick down comforter oever central heating. I like comfortable layers and sturdy boots more than trendy clothes and stiletto heels. Some of that preference is a matter of comfort, but mostly it is a matter of enjoyment and leisure. It is simply more enjoyable for me to opt for the longer processes – there’s nothing fun about heating a can of soup in the microwave, but cooking up a pot of yummy soup from scratch is as pleasurable in the process as it is in the eating.

    Not to mention that the things I make with my own hands are of much better quality than I can afford to buy on a daily basis. And when the apocalypse comes, I’ll be warm and clothed and fed. And you’ll freeze to death. πŸ™‚

  8. Phenomenal essay! I have always, in the back of my head, thought that I was somehow holding on to information that might be needed someday. It’s the archaeologist in me. I know the struggles of trying to interpret after the fact (ever try to determine cultural and religious significance from a “trash midden” behind a college bar? I did in undergrad, and it was hilarious. We all put our own perceptions first and didn’t read the physical data in front of us. Anywho.)

    Thanks bunches πŸ™‚ I told you – Ohio folk (even the imports) are good people, by virtue of their location alone. πŸ™‚

  9. Very eloquently put! I think that the basic premis of “Should everybody spin?” should apply to all basic skills. I work in the tech industry and I am often thankful that I started with learning the basics of DOS before the computer/human interface became so advanced. It helped me understand the building blocks of the system so I can help other people through their computer issues. I just learned to spin last year and I am so amazed at how much more I understand my knitting and the fibres that affect the fabric creation.

    I often find myself explaining the origins of things to my children so I can impress on them a deeper understanding and that no knowledge, no matter how insignificant should be wasted or lost.

  10. After more thought, here’s the short version:

    People need to know where things come from.

    Knowledge needs to be preserved.

    Static preservation is insufficient.

    And as it happens, I’m teaching a spinning class tonight!

  11. This reminds me of the old conundrum of time travel… If you could go back in time, you’d think there would be so much you could teach them… but really, could you? My Dad thinks he might be able to rig up a simple internal combustion engine. In one of the last Douglas Adams novels, Arthur Dent went either back in time or to some “primitive” planet and all he could teach them was how to make a sandwich (for which he was revered as a god). Of course, I’d have to go so far back in time to be able to teach someone the idea of spinning that I’d probably be killed by a sabre-toothed tiger before I could take 2 steps of of the time machine.

  12. I would not have understood half of what you wrote about if I had not bought a spindle and some top a couple of months ago.

    It was an exciting doorway into the past. After spinning the first few yards of predrafted wool into lumpy singles and knitting it up, I felt I knew how this whole knitting thing got going. And I knew for sure that my family would never freeze to death in the dark as long as I had access to fleece.

    I thought it was perhaps an over-reaction to such a simple thing I had not even mastered, but now I don’t. (thanks!)

    This SOAR thing is very powerful. I’m glad so many talented people went and have been willing to share their thoughts.

  13. “Not only is paper, at its roots, a textile technology, but it’s often made from textile waste.” This statement reminds me of one of my history professors. He explained to us that paper and the increase in use of cotton/woolen (I can’t remember which) undergarments corresponded. Rag men would go around and recycle the material into paper. Something I had never known before.

  14. There are some things I hold dear. One is knowing where your food comes from. There are way too many people who don’t realize the process of milk production never the less -why- something needs to to be done with all the extra calves.

    If we are that separated from our food, we are even more separated from the fiber process and how it relates to their life. It creeps into things many don’t suspect, their cars, their phones, their cubicles, never the less the clothes on their back.

    Back when I was still in high school my pediatrician would make snide comments about me crocheting while waiting in the examination room. The snide comments have not stopped. I still get them from my family. Much in the same way I feel about my sister reading People magazine. There are always things we consider a waste of time that are dear to others.

  15. Since I came home from SOAR, I’ve been wanting to grow up to be some hybrid of Phreadde and Judith. After reading this, I wish too that I could have grown up as You. It’s a wonderful perspective to have.

  16. Please never stop writing.

    The more I spin, the more I regret that my mother did not learn this from her mother and pass it on to me. I have vowed to mend the chain and teach my daughters – they might not want to spin regularly, but ‘pon my soul, they’ll know HOW. And they’ll teach THEIR (eventual) children (or I will).

    You’ve always made me glad that I spin – now you’ve made me aware of how IMPORTANT it is that I spin.

    BTW, Cassie is the one who lured me into the fold – nice to see the swirling eddies of spinners and acquaintances here.

  17. This post is so wonderful – I really want to thank you for it. I cannot wait to go home and bring out my spindle. I can’t articulate what you’ve made me feel with your writing here, but thank you.

  18. Delurking to say Wow! That was an amazing essay, and I now realize that my putting off learning to spin is not merely a matter of failing to acquire an optional hobby. It makes sense in the same way cooking from locally grown organic produce makes sense. Now if only I had someone to teach me… I guess trial and error will suffice just as it has for every other textile skill.

  19. Thanks. I’m sorry, I’m too tired to find the words to say more, so this one will have to do… Thank you, Abby.

  20. We need to understand the simple to comprehend the complex…

    You might like Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs.

  21. Submit it to US!!! lol

    Way over my head in places, but interesting. When people ask me why I spin, I usually say, “Because we don’t have tv.”

    As they go on and on about how horrible that is, and I explain why, I show them how.

    Ironically, I teach more little kids to spin than anyone, and they learn it faster.

    Little kids are often smarter then grownups, they never ask “Why would you do that?” Instead they say, “Can I try”.

    Say yes.

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