Art Yarn, Novelty Yarn, Spinning With No Purpose In Mind, and Emotional Yarn

From time to time, people ask me this:

Is it true that you hate art yarn, and process spinning?

Categorically not.

What I’ve said is that I don’t personally use a lot of novelty yarn, and consequently do not produce it. One of the things I’m trying to get at with a lot of discussion of this subject is that by and large, I think most spinners tend to produce yarn that is what they are interested in using. In this day and age, one thing that tends to draw people to spinning is the ability to produce something that you can’t simply buy. What that product is, specifically, will vary, as will the reasons you can’t just buy it. Often, once folks have tried their hand at spinning, they find it’s just as addictive as whatever yarn use initially caused them to give it a whirl.

Not all my spinning, by any means, is spinning for a purpose; but I do often answer questions about how to do it. I spin plenty of yarn just to spin it, with no greater sense of direction than “This fiber would make a delightful laceweight yarn,” or “This would be a really fun single with flashes of silk, for a felted project of some kind maybe,” or “I think I’ll try this way of using colour that isn’t what I usually do.”

Let me liken this to music. I enjoy music tremendously, both listening to it and playing it, and sometimes talking about it as well. I harbor no illusions whatsoever that I’m a brilliant musician, that I’m worthy of gigging or recording or winning a Grammy or anything like that; but I absolutely do like to go sit on the front porch with my guitar (well, not in this weather) and play and sing, and I enjoy when that can be shared with other people as well, listening, singing, playing, however. And in order to be able to do that, I have to have at least minimal competence. I need to be able to tune my guitar; I need to physically be able to execute the hand movements that result in playing a song; I need to know how the song goes, at least to some extent. Learning the changes of a 12-bar blues progression didn’t make me unable to have fun or jam or play the guitar — it freed me up to be able to do things with it that provided a huge range of new challenges that are substantially more enjoyable, not just for me but for anybody in earshot.

Yes, sometimes I sit down just to aimlessly play my guitar. Sometimes I’m actively practicing or learning a new song; sometimes I’m playing a requested tune for my son; it varies. But across the board, the acquisition of skill and knowledge enhances each of those experiences for me. So that being the case, I think it’s hard for me to relate to people who do not enjoy learning new things or who seem not to want to progress in their abilities. For me, something like playing music, or spinning yarn, is not really a passive activity. It’s not like watching a movie, or listening to the radio — it’s something in which I’m an active participant at the very least.

So, do I ever sit down to just spin the fiber however it tells me to? Absolutely, and I do pay attention to the fiber. Sometimes, I’ll think “This is going to be a thick yarn, and fuzzy” and it turns out when I get started that, no, it’s just not working right that way, and I have to rethink it and spin it finer. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It really depends. I don’t always sit down to spin, with a specific project in mind; but I do tend to document that stuff more, for reasons which seem totally obvious to me: I don’t need to track the more impromptu stuff, really, and I tend to find there’s more value in documenting the stuff that I want to be able to repeat, or tell someone how to do. But the vast majority of my yarn wasn’t spun with specific projects in mind.

I spin a lot of yarn, though — really, a lot. And I make a lot of things with it. My home — and at this point, arguably the homes of my extended family and close friends — are filled with fiber stuff I’ve made. I spin so much yarn that there’s really no way for me to simply treat a skein of it here or there as a decorative element; the truth is that in the entire house, the only rooms without my handspun yarn in them right this second are 2 of the bathrooms. I think. There are at least 5 skeins of yarn on the kitchen counter, 8 on the dining room table, my skeiner’s in the living room and the loveseat’s covered in yarn, there’s a spindle with yarn in progress tucked in a bookcase, a huge box of fiber in a corner, another spindle with plying in progress tucked in next to the TV, more yarn on the bookcases in the dining room, a skein drying in the main bathroom, the electric spinner on a living room bookcase, my ball winder set up on the coffee table… and that’s just one floor of the house, and it’s the least yarn-covered.

In other words, if there’s a free surface in my life, odds are very good that it will be, in short order, taken over by a fiber-related project. And when those projects are done, they move into utilitarian functions in the house more often than not. So I guess you could say that I do, in fact, decorate my house with yarn… just not as directly as I think is proposed by folks suggesting the use of yarn as a decorative, sculptural element, as a piece of artwork to be considered finished as it is. I love yarn, and I love it in yarn form, but one of the things I love about it is its potential. For me personally, it has to have that potential to really speak to me. I have a harder time forging an emotional connection to a yarn whose use potential isn’t readily, viscerally apparent to me.

Often while I’m spinning, my mind will wander, in all sorts of ways, but commonly, to thoughts of what this yarn might become. As the fiber flows through my fingers, as the greedy twist devours it under my careful guidance, I ponder the socks it might be… or is it a sweater? Perhaps a hat. Maybe it’s just going to be yarn.

Over the past few months, in odd moments here and there on the phone, I indulged myself in spindle-spinning some Peace of Yarn “hyperfine merino,” on my Kauri wood Bosworth top whorl spindle. I spun it fine, and smooth, and slow, just to savor the spinning of that fiber with that tool. I did the same carefully winding it off into tiny little balls, and then winding those together into a two-stranded ball, and then again, when I plied it (slowly, again on the Kauri wood spindle). And then I skeined it, washed it, measured it. It’s 254 yards from 8 grams; that’s about 14,400 yards per pound.

I love the little skein. But let’s be honest: what the heck do I think I’m going to do with it? I don’t know now, any better than I knew while I was spinning it. The entire exercise is pure indulgence. The odds of me functionally, realistically doing anything with it any time soon are… slim. If I’m smart, I’ll give it to someone who does do things with yarn like that. But you know, I probably won’t; I’ll probably let it sit here on top of my computer monitor where I can stare at it and fondle it and pet it and think meandering, silly thoughts about it, possibly for years. Like I say — pure, aimless indulgence.

By contrast, if a master spinner of novelty or art yarn were to sit down with a goal in mind, with a particular objective, and sample and test and swatch and experiment and develop specific techniques to achieve his or her end, the yarn thus produced is far from purely indulgent. It’s a labor of skill and artistry and technique. It is then the purpose-spun yarn while my little lace yarn is the shallow indulgence.

What I’m getting at here is that you can’t judge a yarn by its most salient surface characteristics alone, you can’t judge a spinner by an individual yarn, and in any case, you can’t easily categorize all this stuff. Sure, you can measure and describe and take pictures and talk about technical data but that’s still only a fraction of the whole picture, and it doesn’t cover the emotional attachment you may — or may not — have to the yarn you spun.

A little while ago, I gave away some yarn to which I’d been very attached. I spun it for a purpose, years ago. I think it was 2004. It was a blend, of very fine merino dyed with cochineal, with tussah and bombyx silk, tussah silk noil, and camel. It was in my favourite colour red. Tweedy, lofty, soft, it looked like a brick wall. I think there were about 1200 yards, and I had spun it to be a lacy cardigan for me. That yarn survived many things with me, lived with me in three different homes, moved across the country with me, changed careers with me. The bugs I dyed the fiber with were from my father’s secret stash of cochineal, from a bag my mother let me pillage after his death. The camel was from just about the first camel fiber I ever had. It was just about my most favourite and most emotional yarn that I’d ever spun. And that cardigan I dreamed of, that I spun it for, would have been my favourite sweater, I was sure of it.

The thing is… I kept not making the sweater. I don’t know why. I really, really don’t. And then there I was, looking at my personal stash and trying to pick a thank-you gift to send a fellow yarn lover (who has a far better track record for knitting project completion than I do), when my eye fell on the brick yarn. Right then, in my heart of hearts, I knew what I had to do. I had to part with that yarn. I had become too attached to it. I had reached a point where I couldn’t seem to use it; and having reached that point, it was like I had killed the yarn. No, really! If I’d never use it, then I was robbing the yarn of its potential. I was sentencing it to a fate of nothingness. Everything that it could be, it would never be, if it only sat there in my personal stash doing nothing, being nothing. If I truly loved that yarn, I realized, I’d let it go and send it to a home where its odds of being something were greater than they clearly were in my home.

This experience opened my eyes to something I hadn’t fully registered was true about myself. Even though I’m a stasher, even though I’m a pack rat, even though I keep some things forever… it seems I believe it’s morally and ethically wrong to have yarn I know I’m not going to use. I still haven’t entirely sorted this through, but I think it has to be related to why I don’t spin much novelty yarn or art yarn, even though I’ve enjoyed learning various techniques for doing so and even like many such yarns when other people spin them. I think perhaps I can’t make myself spin them, or can’t make myself want to, because viscerally I believe I won’t find a use for them and that’s cruelty to yarn.

Do I think anybody else ought to feel that way? Nah… I’m not the arbiter of anybody else’s yarn ethos. But — and this is the funny part — I want everyone to have a yarn ethos. I want everyone to have strong feelings about the subject, and I abhor yarn apathy and yarn nihilism. I want people to feel things about their yarn (and their textiles at large), and to recognize that they do. I want there to be favourite t-shirts, and best interview suits ,and threadbare comforters you can’t let go, jeans you’ll patch forever because you’ll never find another pair like that, wedding dresses saved forever and baby socks that bring a tear to your eye just to see how small they were, scarves you made when you were 12 that you still wear at 30, uniforms you wouldn’t be caught dead in if they didn’t pay you, the way the smell of wet canvas makes you remember that one summer… strong feelings about your textiles. That’s what I believe in. And the only people to whom I really don’t relate about it all are the ones who just feel no such connections or emotions, to the yarn and fabric in their lives. That’s never going to be handspinners, whatever they most like to spin. So I don’t hate any of it, at all. I’m just passionate about my yarn ethos and, apparently, incapable of comprehending people who aren’t similarly obsessed.

13 thoughts on “Art Yarn, Novelty Yarn, Spinning With No Purpose In Mind, and Emotional Yarn

  1. I used to be somewhat apathetic about yarn; until I started spinning. While I still use mostly commercial yarn while I work to get my singles a bit more even, I have absolutely noticed that I am far more excited about and by yarns than I used to be. I recently won a skein of sock yarn. Plain brown sock yarn and I love it. I have spent several hours plowing through patterns and pattern elements trying to find just the right combination to make this “plain brown yarn” shine like I know it can. My partner thinks I’m a bit nutty, but since I keep her supplied with warm woolly socks and mitts she puts up with it. 🙂

  2. Wow! Great post.

    Interesting what you say about potential. I always felt that some of my yarn doesn’t get used precisely because it has so much potential. If I make a scarf out of it, it no longer has the potential to become a sweater. If I make socks out of it, it no longer has the potential to be mittens. I sometimes feel that the only way to keep the potential is to not use it.

    And that goes with fiber. If I card it, it no longer has the potential to be worsted yarn, for example.

    But there is also a downside to that, which your post clarified.

  3. I hope you at least took a picture of your beautiful brick yarn! That’s very generous of you, especially with the story of how it came to be. Very special. :o)

  4. Well, I have a fiber ethos and it’s very similar to what you describe. After having purchased (yet another) raw fleece and 8 oz. of raw alpaca (snow white, cria …be still my heart) this past weekend at Spinner’s Flock (SE Michigan), my thoughts have turned to: “when is enough more than enough”.

    There’s over 70 lb. of animal fiber to spun in my spinning closet. It ranges from coopworth to superfine merino. There’s processed stuff and there’s raw fiber (washed before it makes it to that cupboard, of course). I find the the raw stuff…the most labor intensive, is the stuff that gets spun and made into a finished item fastest. That is totally anti-intuitive, but totally the truth.

    The only explanation is my “ethos”. It is somehow more thrilling to take something in it’s raw state to a beautiful, functional item.

    Right on, Abby!

  5. Being a relative new spinner, especially when compared to someone like you :), I’m amazed and in awe of the power yarn made holds.

    Thank you so much for your wise, wise words.

  6. My dish washer broke, we had just booked our winter holiday,so I knew it would a few months before we could get a new one. So to make washing dishes by hand “fun” I thought I would go buy some nice dish soap and a drying rack. Then I went to go buy some dish cloths. A Huge Pang of Guilt came over me. Buying unhand made towels caused me grief. I have been weaving my own dish towels for decades.Yes I need to get over myself. And I will. This year, with cotton seeds tucked away safely till spring, I will grow,spin and weave my new towels. The fact I will have a new dishwasher by then means nothing.
    I think I know the brick yarn you speak of.It’s finished state has been discussed at great length.It will be worthy of its origins. Trust me. We love all the yarn.

  7. hmmmm….. you have enlightened me…I never thought that my husband had a yarn ethos, but he does most decidedly have a ragged t-shirt that he had when he was going to middle school in Egypt….he’s really a decent sort of chap.

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