Go Ahead: Be A Beginner!

I walked away from an argument today — no, really, I did — and not for the first time. Okay, so it’s an argument I’ve had plenty of times before and it’s a losing battle, and that’s why I walk away from it more often than I don’t.

I love a good debate. I love it when someone challenges my assumptions and makes me think. I love the interchange of ideas, even when there’s a disagreement. My best friends are all people who can hold their own in an argument, without just being jerks. But I’m completely aware this is a relatively fringe position these days, and folks with that outlook can be few and far between. And one of the reasons I started this blog was to have my own soapbox. So here’s a soapbox moment, and when I’m done, please, take the soapbox and have your own in the comments.

Here’s the thing. I hate some of the stuff people say to brand new spinners. Actually, to folks who are brand new to many things, but particularly spinners. Some of this advice is peevesome or downright offensive; some of it is insulting to people who’ve made huge commitments to skill and excellence, and much of it is actually condescending and belittling to the beginning spinner it’s intended to support. Let’s go through a few of these, shall we?

If I wanted perfect yarn, I’d buy it at Wal-Mart!

Really? Because a skein of acrylic selling for 50 cents an ounce is the pinnacle of yarn perfection? Because there’s no point in producing a skein of merino-silk-cashmere blend yarn spun exactly to your specifications when you could just buy a cone of cheap mill cotton? Because this…


or this…

Pagoda, spun from Pippi fiber

or this

Shocking Merino 3-Ply

is all stuff it’s not worth bothering to do, because you can totally just buy yarn at Wal-Mart. Yarn just like that.

Another problem with this whole line is that millspun yarn isn’t perfect. It has tons of flaws. But until people are fairly experienced in judging yarn (which comes quickly from spinning, and more slowly from other pursuits) most folks can’t detect these flaws. The textile mill wasn’t developed because people wanted a more perfect yarn than could be produced by hand; it was developed because people wanted more yarn, faster, for less investment in training. What mills produce is an approximation of the work of an experienced handspinner — an approximation that is good enough to do the job considering it’s cheaper and easier to get more of, and can be made with a lower-end workforce.

In the less-than-300 years we’ve had millspun yarn, and textile mills making cloth, and a move to mass production for clothing, people’s exposure to really good textiles has gone down; people’s ability to judge a good-quality fabric or garment has diminished; people can’t even tell, and they just assume that whatever machines are doing must be better than what people can do — at least, for textiles. I find this perspective incredibly tragic. I don’t even know where to start talking about how tragic it is.

Your first yarn is art yarn!

No it isn’t. It’s beginner yarn. Beginner yarn is great, and very powerful, and a wonderful thing, and something to be tremendously proud of. But it’s not art yarn. You can’t do it on purpose, you can’t reproduce it, you don’t understand the technical structures involved, and there are no guarantees it will stand up to being used. Real art yarn is produced by people with skill and training — people who have invested time and effort into acquiring those things. They have techniques that produce specific results, which they can execute reliably and describe and define and teach. Their yarn is not an accident. Their yarn is structurally sound.

These same things can’t universally be said of that first beginner yarn — but that doesn’t mean the beginner yarn is bad. It just means it’s beginner yarn. Think about it this way: if you were to pick up a guitar, would you expect the first thing you played on it to sound like Andres Segovia playing Bach fugues? I hope not — because if you really think that, you’re going to be disappointed. Nobody should be giving you the expectation of instant excellence with the guitar, because it’s a lie. Playing the guitar takes skill, and that skill takes practice to acquire. Spinning is no different.

I think it sells a beginner short to tell them their novice efforts are master-quality (and let’s not even get into what it sounds like it says about master work). It sells beginners short, because it’s a lie. People do it in an attempt to be supportive, I know, but I think it’s better to praise beginner work for what it is, rather than to liken it to the work of people who’ve spent time and energy studying and practicing. Why? Because as a beginner, I think you have a right to know there IS more; that you can do better, and you will, and that all it takes is wanting to and practicing. I mean, how much of a bummer is it to think that you just learned everything there is to know in 15 minutes? Does it even ring true, or do you know deep down it’s a lie and a platitude?

I think a big part of the problem is that people sometimes don’t want to be beginners — and I think that expectation comes in part from this notion that it’s supportive and good to tell beginners their work is somehow “advanced” or “expert” or “art.” But as I see it, being a beginner is a sacred, special time. In fact, in Zen, there is a saying:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

This concept of the Beginner’s Mind is an important one to study in a Zen context… or, really, any context. Being a beginner is the most liberated time you’ll ever encounter. You are totally free to not know what you don’t know; you shouldn’t have to be working to overcome baggage; you should be under no pressure to demonstrate or defend a subject or position. Nobody can judge you for saying “I don’t know.”

But in American culture, we have devalued being a beginner. We urge people to hurry into mastery, even if only by proclaiming themselves to have achieved it. We suggest that not having mastered something is bad, when all it really means is that you haven’t mastered it yet, and what could possibly be wrong with that? I’m gonna say this again: There is nothing wrong with being a beginner.

In Zen pursuits, mastery surpasses being an expert, in large part because a master can reclaim the Beginner’s Mind, and is again free in ways that weren’t possible when being an expert. In other words, the greatest mastery there is comes when you can incorporate everything that you know, without being so bound by that knowledge that other things seem impossible.

Where this often falls apart in American culture (and likely others) is when people are looking to move (often as quickly as possible) from being beginners to being experts. It’s not uncommon for people at that stage of the game to want answers that are absolutes: do this, and then that, and you will get a predictable result. This is an understandable desire, but it’s my opinion that focusing too hard that way actually slows down the learning process in the long run. Being able to instead wonder, and question, and say “What if?” — being able to imagine a possibility and strive for it, knowing it will take work and time, knowing there is a vast world of potential that is not yet revealed, that’s what makes learning happen and happen fast. And there are as many avenues to mastery as there are people who’d pursue it.

For myself personally, I strive to be a beginner wherever I can. I want to always have those pathways open; I don’t want to miss out on taking an interesting detour because it wasn’t marked on a roadmap. I would urge everyone, no matter how long they’ve been spinning, to try being a beginner. Come to things assuming you know nothing, and don’t quickly be forced out of that mode of thinking. You might be amazed what this opens up for you.

Workin’ Hard, or Hardly Workin’?

The truth of the matter is that Denny was suffering. There’s this whole strike situation in her home city of Toronto, which means all the parks are closed and nobody’s coming to pick up trash or compost. They’re also putting new water mains in her street, so the water’s turned off all the time. There was even a threat of the booze folks going on strike, but at least complete disaster was avoided and that didn’t happen. But so then, there she was, suffering terribly, when the reupholstery people came and took away all her furniture. So she didn’t have anywhere to sit but the floor.

“Do you wanna come over?” I asked her. “We have seating. And garbage pickup.” She declined, at first — but then the next day, she reported that she was going to lose even the floor upon which she’d been sitting, so new floors could go into her house. And that, she said, was really that, and she and her younger son would be over in a few days.

We sent the manchildren off to YMCA day camp, and set about putting together class kits for Sock Summit 2009.


This was brutal hard work, you realize. The spindles were all made, the fibers were all here, but everything needs dividing up. On paper, there are 35 students per class times 4 classes, which would be 140 students. But — and I’ve talked aout this before — you always need to have extra class packs ready in case someone spills his tea in his stuff, or there just happen to be a couple of extra people who materialize unexpectedly, or because of other unforeseen issues. What’s more, the way it works for Sock Summit — which is brilliantly organized in my opinion — is that a vendor will be selling the class kits, instead of me and Denny handling them, and there is a chance that folks who didn’t take the class may be interested in picking one up as well. So we had to make a few extras.


Denny may hate my boss for demanding this, but we both know she’s right. But lucky for all of us, the Smith family arrived from Michigan and, since many hands make work light, we managed to get all the kits put together.

Packing Kits for SS09

Here’s a little bit of a kit teaser:

Spindle Spinning Basics Kit

The spindles, which people always ask about, are toy wheel spindles which have been lovingly made by my family, and ceremonially ornamented for good luck. They often feature secret messages — and these are no exception. Each one is unique and they spin quite nicely. For this run, we’ve upgraded from birch and poplar shafts to maple, oak, cherry, and walnut, and there’s a mix of waxed finish and unfinished. Here’s what they look like with a wax finish:

Limited Edition Toy Wheel Spindles

Denny is addicted to these spindles… and she may not be alone.

After getting kits all packed up and hauled back up to the yarn room where they await shipping, the Smiths forced us out on the deck for some hooping. Beth can do it.


Maggie can do it.


Ryan is a master. He says you do it like this: Hand…

Hand, Neck, Body!


Hand, Neck, Body!


Hand, Neck, Body!

I, on the other hand, can’t make it go. But this is a perfect example of how learning physical skills works: the youngest person in the group picks it up the quickest, and makes it look easy. The medium-aged kid can point out small things you should do differently and can teach you how if you’re willing to listen (Maggie helped me out a lot). And the grownups all sit around saying things like “I don’t think I can do this. Maybe it’s just not for me.”

Since all the grownup chicks in this crowd are spinning teachers, we found this observation to be a real knee-slapper. No, really, we did. Soooo…

Denny hopped up and decided to bring the empty cup and the beginner’s mind, and just learn; and so, she did.


Later, we all went to the fireworks in town, which were very nice and we had a great time sitting on blankets on the grass at the fairground… except for my son, who pronounced that his blanket was itchy. And then came the bombshell.

“I think I may be allergic to wool,” he said. While the rest of us sat speechless at the concept, and I started formulating an explanation of micron and prickle factor and comparing the grade of wool between the two blankets, Chad spoke up. “If you were allergic to wool,” he said, “you couldn’t live in our house; you would have keeled over dead by now.”

We all had to laugh. And laugh. And laugh some more. Because, yeah, there kinda is a lot of wool in our house.

For the 4th, Chad fired up the smoker. There were ribs, and pulled pork, and chicken, and we also made tamales. Denny made pie. Maggie was well-behaved and kept following grownups learning to do what they were doing, and the rest of the kids got constantly yelled at for running in and out of the house. You would think that if you’re constantly getting yelled at, then you would avoid the yellers; but yet that’s not how it works. This is just one more way in which I apparently do not understand the boy child psyche — like how they love to build things, but then the immediate desire upon completion is to smash it; seriously, I don’t get that. Not at all. And you could not have convinced me this was a boy-girl thing once upon a time, but yet, time and again, it appears to be. And I can assure you it’s not a parental expectation thing, and that these stereotypical boy behaviours were there in my son before he had a peer group to get them from. I don’t get it.

After we ate, we sat down to do more Tour de Fleece spinning, on my new cherry Matchless. But we were so full of food we fell asleep.

Tour de Fleece 2009 kicks off hard core.

But wait, what’s that I’m spinning on? Is that… could it be… wait! It says something on the treadle!

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

In case you can’t read that, it says something about 40 years of Schacht Spindle Company. Which must make this… let’s see…

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

a limited edition Cherry Matchless! And so it is; mine is the second one off the production line, right behind Beth’s. And no, the treadles aren’t really grey; it’s the lighting. Beth delivered the wheel to me with the start of a collaborative project on it, which you’ll be seeing more of soon.

Right now, the Matchless is a good match for the red oak floors in our house; but in a few years, it’ll be a much deeper colour, because that’s just how cherry is.

On the 5th, the Canadians went home and the Smiths headed back to Michigan and everybody took naps. And today it’s back to the grind again, finishing up warps for my Andean backstrap weaving class at The Spinning Loft. See how it constantly comes back to workshop prep?