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.

95 thoughts on “Go Ahead: Be A Beginner!

  1. I love you. A wonderful reminder for all of us.

    Personally, I love the process of learning new things, the process of spinning, knitting, weaving, etc.. because there is always something more to learn. And while the end result is lovely, life isn’t about end results so much as what you are doing in that moment.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    I was halfway through writing a comment about how I agree with what you’ve said, but thought that you came across as a little harsh to people who were just trying to encourage beginners, who are often all too ready to give up when their first attempts don’t meet their expectations.

    But then I realized I would be defending thoughtlessness, lazy comments that are ultimately untrue, and the kind of thinking that causes people to devalue textiles and handwork on a massive scale.

    It’s okay to be harsh in the face of all that — not cruel, but honest and intellectually rigorous. And some people may whine about how mean you are, but that’s better than giving up the fight.

    On the other hand, as Sgt. Majorette pointed out, sometimes these “art yarn” comments are a tongue-in-cheek kind of humor, which doesn’t necessarily come through online. And while I don’t have a problem with that, it does seem that a lot of people aren’t being very tongue-in-cheek about it.

    Anyway, lots to think about here!

  3. Abby, this is so sensible–thank you for articulating these ideas so clearly and satisfyingly. I had an additional thought: the problem with telling beginners that they’ve already learned everything needed (or that there is no such thing as, or no value in, expertise) is the same problem with telling little children that everything they do is perfect. It’s satisfying to tell them they’ve done something perfect because they get an emotional lift and we also get that warm fuzzy for being the deliverer of praise–it’s very tempting. BUT! when do children learn how to have the tenacity and emotional resilience to continue doing something that they aren’t yet good at? how do they learn how to care enough about learning to do something that they will be self-critical, and look for how their work can be improved? It seems to me that honest, kind criticism is really important in helping people (little kids and adults too) gain that strength of character. The fleeting emotional thrill of being told you’ve done a great job is nothing compared to the long-term life value of caring to do better–of valuing truth more than your own ego.
    Just my two cents! I really enjoy your philosophical posts.

  4. What an excellent post.
    I’m a knitter and also a potter. This pottery hobbie of mine, I enjoy it tremendously, but I have to constangly fight off people wanting me to do more, do bigger, do better, sell…

    Let me be a beginner, let me explore, let me be!

  5. Hi Abby. I found you blog when I found your YouTube video on Drop Spindle Basics. What an amazing blog you have and this post really rang true. I have only just started spinning – your video was the catalyst I’m pleased to say. Am I a beginner? – ohhh definately. Is my first lot of yarn art? Not a chance. Is it lumpy and bumpy and all different thicknesses – darn right it is. But best of all I’m having FUN and I can’t wait to see what I can knit up using this lot of yarn and best of all it will be all my own work. I admit I have bought the cheaper yarns – having picked up knitting again after many years – but now the desire to control not only the types of wool I use but also the colours etc is the driving force behind me trying to spin my own. Will it last – I sincerly hope so. I’m enjoying myself so much. My kids are super impressed (a hard thing to do when Mum does so many crafts)and I’m finding it so relaxing. I wish all the new crafts I try could be this relaxing at the beginnning. Thank you for your blog, your videos and the inspiration you provide for so many. Well done.

  6. Very interesting Abby. I was in your spinning class on Sunday at the Sock Summit. I loved the class. You are a great teacher and I just noticed your forthcoming book! Can’t wait to see that. I will be at SOAR since I live in Bend and hope to see you there.

  7. I am a knitter surrounded with a lot of spinners. I love knitting projects from their gorgeous yarns. Nothing is more satisfying then knitting from a yarn a friend lovingly spun.

  8. Amen, sister! And you’re dead-on right. Years of knitting didn’t bring me much closer to an understanding of quality, or what MADE the quality. It was spinning that did it for me…and I’m much more cautious in my purchases now.
    You go, girl!
    (and it was nice to see you again at SS09)

  9. I just bought a Turkish drop spindle at Sock Summit. I am a Beginner. I have just a smidgen of an idea how it works, but that’s it. On to the adventure!

    I wish I’d taken your class. But at the time I registered, I had no idea I’d want to spin!

  10. Well, I realize I am late responding to this, but I will, mostly because I started laughing and nodding my head at what you were sayin’. It’s true, and it occurs in ALL fiber areas for beginners, and it is RUDE and WRONG. My position has always been that you CANNOT break the rules (so to speak) unless you have first learned them. This allows you to ask the great “what if…” questions and go in all sorts of directions trying new things. If you don’t have the basics down of good yarn (and by that, I mean yarn that is purposefully spun, holds together well, and serves the purpose for which it was made by the spinner), you can’t really apply your mind to the possibilities as easily as someone who has done their “internship”, however long it takes.

    This applies to quilters who barely “baste” the sandwich together, don’t do a proper binding, then call it an “art quilt”, when a single washing of the so-called “quilt” would cause it to disintegrate from lack of sufficient effort applied to doing the job right. It isn’t the design of the quilt that is at fault, it’s the execution of the craft they didn’t bother to learn. But you will hear certain people say they are “artists”, and therefore the technical aspects of the craft don’t apply. Bosh!

    Great seeing you at Sock Summit, and finally getting to meet Denny. I was only sorry we had no real time to visit and spin. My spindle spinning is improving (and dammit, I already ordered my book from Amazon… should I have it shipped to you, and you could sign it for me? Are you doing a book tour to Seattle area?), and I will NOT be at SOAR, because I will be in Vancouver, BC with Charllotte Kwon doing traditional Indian dying with bugs and plants all week… and after that I have no money for SOAR, which makes me sad, but I am thrilled I was able to go to two special events this year. 🙂 I heart you, but I am jealous of the cherry Matchless. I’ve been wanting one, but I will have to settle for keeping my old faithful Matchless… and I am trying to save up for a 30″ production wheel from someone, now that I won’t be getting mine from Bill Wyatt…

  11. Thanks so much for this post. I think I’ll print it, store it with my wheel, and re-read it from time to time, as well as handing it to folks who seem to think I’m unnecessarily putting myself down when I refer to myself as a beginner! As a former teacher, I fought the good fight against the “let’s always tell the kids that they are totally special and skilled no matter what they’ve actually accomplished” mindset. “Beginner” shouldn’t be a dirty word; it should be a badge of honor. It means you had the guts to try something new!

  12. Abby,

    I am the lady who was looking for a Country Craftsman wheel a month ago. I finally did buy a wheel…a Kromski Polonaise, thanks to help from my husband…!:-)

    As a beginning spinner, I thought to take lessons but then, as a beginner I thought “I have been drop spindling for a while now and, I have read, and read, and read, my eyes out on how to use a wheel”. “Let’s see if………

    Of course folks told me…as a beginner that I should not learn to spin on a Kromski Polonaise because “it is to hard to learn on”, but, being the beginner I am I thought, “but it has up to 23:1 which is what I will need for the future” “What if I…….tried it anyway….”.

    That is how beginners think. We jump off cliffs, dive into the deep end, and fly without lessons. I have taught myself how to spin without biases from others, and without others saying stupid things to me like what you talk about in your article. I have been unpreturbed and I, by the way, have grown up with my Kromski and she and I love each other and a wheel and it’s owner should. I know her and she knows me. We are friends!

    I hope I never stop being a beginner. I am untainted by anyone’s biases, habits, preferences, or quirks. I adopt no one’s opinions or doctrines.

    I learn by feel, sight and instinct. I know what good yarn should be and work toward that. Maybe one day I shall have art yarn. But…I am enmoying being a beginner..and I hope I never recover.


  13. I’m not sure if my comment in this thread is ironic, considering the post’s subject, but…I’d love to see an in-depth technique post about longdraw, like the one you did on spinning from the fold. I’m an adventurous beginner wanting to learn more!

  14. Abby – what a beautiful mind you have. So impressive, concise and descriptive. I wish I had the facility to make the kind of distinctions your mind makes! Your essay on the beginner’s mind is as near perfection as I can imagine. Qudo’s all around!

  15. Well said, Abby!
    And I agree with Andrea as well… Go away all you pushy folks who demand that I ‘produce’ expert quality goods (yarn and knitting and art and whatever) and quickly! I am a beginner. I LOVE being a beginner! I have so much yet to explore! And practising to do… and playing… and planning… and reading… and… and…
    And I’m happy to take as much time as it takes… the longer the better.

    And to the barely acquainted ‘friend’ who, upon entering my private room some years back while I was exploring ‘painting’ for the very first time since childhood (exploring, experimenting and making a great big, wonderful mess), commented “I don’t know why you are bothering to paint. You are obviously terrible at it!” – You didn’t stop me :D)

  16. Ok, so I just popped in and read only this post for random reasons and man- you really need to be writing a book. I take it back… a series of books.

    Ok so I can’t begin to even spell yarn. Does that make me a pre-beginner? Un-beginner? I mean what about those other categories of folks who have never considered Yarn and stumble upon your website via accidental keystroke eror but yet they are captured and curious. I think “the beginning” of most things starts long before you even become labeled a beginner. Most things seem to start with a thought or feeling, maybe story from some drunk guy sitting at the bar next to you or other means of coming into your consideration. I mean, if the beginning started at the bar no one would ever ask “what’s a guy like you doing in a place like this” because nothing would’ve happened before then. My point is, I totally agree with the life lesson in your post and I don’t have to know how to spell the “y” word to get it. I just would like to ad that I think we’re all so busy “beginning” the task that we often disregard the importance of learning before doing. Learning the history, concepts, possibilities, theories and dam good stories that set the foundation for a solid creative learning experience. Although, I must admit…I don’t ever want to hear the history behind wal-mart, I can’t seem to get past the stuffed animal machine by the front door before wanting out.

  17. I just wanted to say i read your post and i am yet to meet a master or an expert even in spinning – many claim to be these but they are not – someone so trained and skilled in one area that could spin a masterful yarn of total perfection and quality, everytime they spun – id like to see that human being.

  18. abby, this post on your blog was very inspirational to me as a beginner. i went to the opening of a brand new yarn shop today in my town ( now there are 3!). I noticed ( and asked) if she sold any handspun. she said ( and i saw none). That made me start thinking i could produce yarn that was of better quality than what i was in the store purchasing today. By the way, she was selling patterns she had printed off of ravelry; is there some rule against this?

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