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 confess that I did not walk away from the bait of a similar comment about spinning, though I managed to stop short of engaging in a long, drawn-out, pointless argument.

    I appreciate this post, as well as much of the discussion it has inspired. The learning and beginner aspects are part of what I love so much about spinning. I enjoy the process, and derive considerable amounts of joy from the fact that there is so much more for me to learn.

    I also wanted to thank you for the helpful insight you provided over on Ravelry comparing Spin Control and Intentional Spinner. While I think it is likely I will one day own both books, (as well as others, too) it was very helpful in deciding which book I will get next.

  2. Thanks for the comments about beginners. I am a high school English teacher, and I try to share some of those ideas with my beginning writers. They want to be Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Faulkner all rolled into one with their very first piece. It’s not gonna happen.

    As always, your writing is inspirational, informative, and interesting. Thanks for your great ideas.

  3. I did it all “wrong” when I bought my wheel a little over a year ago. First, I bought an old wheel that is more than a little quirky; then I had no one around me to teach me. I used the internet and some good books and I just sat down and played with my wheel until we became friends. Now she and I still enjoy spending time together (and she is still cranky but then so am I sometimes) and we even make some really beautiful yarn together. It’s not been easy but I didn’t expect it to be. The learning curve is steep and boy if learning new skills keeps you young, then I am a baby!

    I so enjoy your comments and thoughts on the beginner spinners rav group. It’s been inspiring to this 50+ year old woman who came to the fiber arts late in life but is having a really good time.

  4. It was interesting to read your position on a beginner’s yarn not being art yarn. There’s always the inevitable question of “What do I do with this? I don’t want to waste it!”, and the response is either “Wind it up in a ball and put it away as a souvenir” or “It’s art yarn. Put it in a project.” I think it boils down to giving ourselves permission to throw the crap yarn away–that the world is not going to go to pot because you made crap yarn and won’t keep it.

  5. Beautiful post, full of wisdom.

    I love the word “peevesome.”

    I do sort of agree with Sarah about American culture in terms of beginners, but I see what you’re getting at. Americans rarely cherish process, they value results. I appreciate so much the open-mind idea and the comparisons to Zen. For some reason, while I was reading I found myself thinking about the Japanese potters who are among those in Japan designated National Treasures.

    And I am determined to cherish my beginnerhood, no matter how frustrating it seems right now, and perhaps even remain a beginning spinner forever.

  6. i used to spin novelty yarn exclusively because i liked the way it looked and how “easy” it was, then i realized that i would never be able to consider myself a master (or even advanced) spinner unless i learned how to spin different things. it’s been hard. it has required a lot of time and trial and error. but now i know that if someone asked me to spin a 15 wpi sock yarn from fibers x and y, i can comfortably do so, and well.

    i have a friend, though, who has been a year less than i have. she spins only “novelty art yarns,” and sells them. she watched me struggling to learn new things, perfect my techniques, and expand my horizons. when i have suggested that she learn how to spin other things, she has refused, citing the “people can just get that at wal-mart” excuse. that’s depressing on so many levels.

  7. ps. the people who make the comment about the walmart yarn vs handspun are the same people who are amazed that i make cakes, cookies, waffles, muffins, donuts, bread, and pancakes from scratch. “you know how to do that? i thought we could only make things with a mix.” ummmmmmmm

  8. I consider myself a beginner, although I started 4 or 5 years ago. I spin and I am tickled with my results…but I am still a beginner. And I am not ashamed to call myself that because there is always something to learn! And since I am self taught (mostly) the learning curve is extended and harder..but it is good and I am happy. That is the major reason to spin, isn’t it?
    Perfection. That is a laugh! No such thing, especially if the human hand gets anywhere near it. I do aspire to improve and to reach a high level, but I will never aspire to perfection because that would ruin the enjoyment and add to the frustration, which would kill the entire process for me. Nor am I in competition with those who can pick it up and spin 2-ply lace weight almost immediately. I am in competition with myself, and that is enough.
    This is not an ego trip for me, it is a very very special time and product and I don’t want to spoil it with negativity or thoughts that would change it into “work.” (I reallly hope that doesn’t sound sappy)
    Beginners yarn it beautiful! It is not art yarn, it is beautiful and a treasure. As an old fart..I do not really like “art yarn” but I love beginners yarn!
    Now then, If I could spin and dye like my hero Abby, I would be the first human to develop a real purr.

  9. Thought provoking. Reminds me of something someone told me years ago about Karate black belts.

    Originally one became a black belt by practicing the art for so long and so intensively that the white belt became black from use (dirt, IOW).

    Or, as another friend from Israel said, “Can’t you Americans do *anything* without getting a t-shirt for it?”

  10. Wow.

    I love being a beginner, I love the wide open possibilities and the challenges of learning something new. I get bored right about the ‘expert’ stage, the limitations and the grind of plowing through the last bits get me down. I’ve NEVER thought of the mastery stage as being another opening! That’s so brilliant. I’ve often beat myself up about not being able to stick to any one thing for too long, wondering why I’m not just a chef or a sculptor or a fabric designer or anything, and I’ve been jealous of those who are. Now, well, I’m all sparked by the possibilities of mastery. No idea what I’ll work on, but I like the thought. Here’s a random ‘get out of crabby free’ from me, I hope it works. Mwah!

  11. I wonder if I’ll ever gain mastery of my spindle. It seems like every time I learn a new skill, I need to learn another one. It could be depressing, or it could be an adventure…depending upon my point of view or mood of the day. There is a multitude of skills and techniques to be learned using just my little spindle. I can’t imagine what kind of world my wheel will open up to me when I finally get back to it…next year :o)

  12. Hi Abby, what a good blog (I never thought I’d find myself using that word in such an ‘online community’ fashion!) ‘peevesome’ – I love it! yes I’m a beginner spinner and, so far, the people I’ve spoken to who are involved in it have been very supportive. How odd – I wouldn’t have thought that egos could find much mileage in wool.

    I started about 3 weeks ago after I saw a lady spinning in tudor costume (it was a tudor outdoor event nr. Weymouth, Dorset). She’d made a whole authentic costume – everything from flax skirts, underskirts, bonnet and a woollen bodice. She was very kind and showed me how to use a drop spindle and even gave me some batts(?) to get started on.

    My first job as a teenager was in a woollen mill in Yorkshire. The place did all the processes except dyeing, from blending thru’ weaving to finishing . At that time, in the 60’s, there were plenty of mills large and small in my area. Now there are only 2 left. I don’t live there now but it was a huge part of my local culture,in the blood so to speak because it used to be such an important industry.
    Later I worked in the same mill as a blender and spinner (ha ha). It was all mechanised of course but all the same, the processes of creating cloth from raw wool were basic and hands on. The smell of lanolin was everywhere and the noise in the weaving shed was deafening.

    So – I’m a beginner and as a spinner I make a pretty good demolition man! I’ve managed to spin about 30 feet of yarn but it’s been hard. I’m pretty cack-handed as we say and have struggled to get any rhythm or flow into it. My main problem seems to be that I can’t prevent twist getting into the fibre before I’ve properly drafted it. My control is poor and I’m all tensed up. I made myself a spindle but I don’t think it’s very good. Right now, I’m trying to just work at it and improve but I keep making the same mistakes. I’ve seen your fascinating tutorials on youchoob and really want to get into this but I’m a bit discouraged by my attempts so far. Help!


  13. You may remember that I was one of those who made the commet about “if I wanted perfect yarn …” I, for one, really didn’t mean “perfect” yarn is only machine made, or that you can’t hand spin very uniform and “perfect” yarn. I was in that heady area where I’d just managed to make any yarn at all. You are very right in everything you say. What I did find is that there were many people who were held up as “experts,” or who held themselves as such. I was terribly confused and, at the time, had no idea who the really good spinners and/or teachers were. If I had it to do over again, I’d have waited awhile and kept reading until I figured out who WAS the expert. While I am flattered that people might ask me HOW to spin, I am not very comfortable giving that help – yet. I try to direct them to people like you and Judy who are very good spinners, even though you don’t always agree on technique. That being said, it has been very helpful to ME on those times when I have tried to explain things. It slows me down. I’m also one of those who feels I should be able to do anything with a minimum of effort and practice. Most things come to me that way and, when it becomes more of a challenge, I get frustrated easily. I’ve stuck with the spinning and, recently, spun my first successful (if somewhat uneven) lace weight singles from one of your beautiful Peaches & Cream batts. It’s not “perfect,” but it’s as “perfect” as some of the commercial lace weight yarns I’ve bought. You have NO IDEA how much I wish you and I were in the somewhat near place. There’s nothing I would rather do than be able to spend just a little time watching you and listening to you. Retirement has made the $$$ tight, but I’m hoping that I will be able to do that one day. —Oh! And I rarely “predraft” anything thanks to you. Exception: the corriedale I nearly felted when I decided to try dying.

  14. Thank you for your philosophy about beginnerhood (?). It’s encouraging without being artificial–telling a newbie their work is as good as an expert. Don’t know where we got this notion that first time out should be expert, but drives me absolutely nutters. It happens in many areas of life. Not to mention the idea that every effort will be stellar. Oops. Sorry to climb on your own soapbox.

  15. Thank you for a great post.

    I have learned SOOOOO MUCH from you Ravelry posts, and your you-tube videos. I’m not sure I would be actually spinning now if I hadn’t had you as a teacher.

    I know the internet is different from “in person” classes, however, I feel that I know you and have taken classes from you. I hope I can someday take a “reallife” “in person” class from you.

    I hope it will be allright to quote parts of it (with a proper acknowledgment of course) in a personal letter to my grandson. He is just entering middle school and I would like to encourage him to try and learn new stuff.

  16. Here, here. I only know that a couple years ago when I purchased my first drop spindle and was having immense difficulty I made a comment on one of the spinning groups about feeling so inept after reading how 4th grader took right off with spinning and I major issues you commented to me about how we, as adults, want to immediately be the experts and bypass the learning process. You said many other things as well which I will not go into here….if it had not been for your encouragement and reminder that it is okay to be a beginner I may not have stuck with it. Thank you Abby!!!! 🙂

  17. hi, Abby,
    what do you think about electric spinners?
    I’m hit with knee issues and can’t treadle longer than a minute or two.
    Handspindling is nice but very slow, so I’m thinking about an e-spinner but mentioning this makes the most of my co-spinners look as I said I planned to murder my mother…
    So I would love to read your thoughts about e-spinners…
    Thanks in adavance and warm regards, Sabine

  18. I love being offered the opportunity and the encouragement to climb up on the soapbox! Thank you Abby!!

    Therefore, with that encouragement – I am climbing up to add in my two cents.

    I believe that society in general has somehow all taken a detour down the “I cannot give criticism because it will crush self esteem” pathway. And, they don’t seem to know how to get back to reality because they like living in a place where everything is “perfect”. They like the illusion this creates, because it feels good.

    In this delusional state, we have stopped giving encouragement and are only giving empty platitudes praising mediocrity.

    I much prefer to receive constructive criticism which encourages me to continue to grow and improve my skills in whatever task I am attempting.

    I applaud you Abby for this post! It is just the encouragement every beginner in any task needs!

  19. There’s nothing better than the moment where you go from “I know what I’m doing” to “what the heck just happened?” Unless it’s the moment when you figure out how you did it. If you’re not a beginner, then you’ve been in the same place too long. =)

  20. Abby:
    If you want debate, let’s start a new program called “No spinner left behind”!

    Sorry could not help myself. Too many of the comments were supportive 🙂 and you clearly wanted debate. so…

    I think a beginner spinner should have to do the equivilent of the piano scales I was forced to do. Like being able to do the correct WPI on demand. They should have to work with the cheapest wool. They can never touch “good” luxury fibers until they are certified accomplished. They must start on the oldest, poorest mechanical wheels and heaviest spindles. Because if we encourage new spinners, they might displace us by buying good fibers and tools, taking classes and might even teach us something!

  21. One of my biggest peeves is the “hold onto that yarn because once you learn to spin you’ll never be able to spin that yarn again”
    Seriously? You want to repeat that yarn that is over twisted in some spots and drifts apart in others?

    Actually, it’s easy to make bad n00b yarn (as opposed to a well-spun controlled thick-and-thin yarn) whenever you want to.

    The secret is gin.

  22. Machines are taking over. I read a very long article by Michael Pollan in Sunday’s NYT about how the mass production and marketing of food has resulted in decreased nutritional value and increased waistlines. Did you know that when cake mixes were first marketed, people wouldn’t buy them because they didn’t considered that “cooking,” so the industry added the requirement of cracking open an egg, which was enough to make people feel they were doing enough labor to call it “making a cake” and the mixes then sold.

    How I wish we could collectively get back to that mindset! The desire to learn something, to master a skill – whether it’s making the perfect pie crust or spinning an awesome yarn – is sorely lacking and I guess all we can do (besides becoming Quakers and they’re too religious for me) is dedicate ourselves to learning and teaching others.

    Man, I miss hanging out with you guys on Rav.

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