A First Look At Something Huge

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll dive right in. Something arrived in the mail last month, packed in an Interweave envelope and bent in half (argh!) in my mailbox. I knew right away what it had to be and I was torn between opening it on the spot in the chill at the end of the driveway, and getting back in the truck and driving up to the house to take it inside where I could really have a look at it. I’m a smart girl sometimes, so I chose the latter.

So let me backtrack a little now. Well, a lot. It was the very start of 1977, very early in the morning, and I remember the airplane landing after it seemed like we’d been traveling forever. My mother carried my baby sister down the steps and I followed her with my father riding herd behind me. My ears popped, then swelled again. The world tilted funny. A long long way away across the tarmac there were pillars and a building. The air smelled like dust and nothingness and live growing things. People were talking and I don’t remember much about all of that; I just remember I walked, dizzily, faint, feeling like my feet didn’t quite touch the ground, eyes focused on one of those pillars, till I reached out a hand to steady myself on it, and puked my guts out, sobbing, choking, and short of breath.

Room 4, Hostal Loreto
I know that days passed after that, but I don’t remember them much, except for a hotel room with an Inca wall in it, the taste of chicken broth with noodles and cilantro, simple bread, and Coca-Cola. Eventually, I remember sitting in the courtyard of the Hostal Loreto, whitewashed walls and cobblestones and geraniums, and the sounds outside of a city speaking languages I didn’t know — car horns, street vendors hawking their wares in singsong refrains that would become very, very familiar to me in time, but which then were new and alien. The sun was so very, very bright, clear, yet chill; I was so hungry and so tired all at once, and the sorroche or extreme altitude sickness was fading. A man was talking with my parents in Spanish. “Sunday, market day, we’ll go,” my father translated for my benefit. “My birthday!” I said gleefully, and the man asked me in English how old I’d be. “Five,” I said proudly.

That man came back to take us to our destination. “For your birthday,” he said, “I brought you earrings,” and gave me a pair of dangly, jingly, silver things. “You don’t have pierced ears!” he said, then turned to my mother, “You haven’t pierced her ears!” Laughing, my mother affirmed this, and thanked the man, who insisted she keep the earrings for when I could wear them. And then we were off.

We were, it turned out, bound to see the town of Chinchero for the first time. “If we like this town, maybe that’s where we’ll live,” my mother explained. “We’ll like it!” I insisted. “It’s my birthday.”

In retrospect it all should have seemed more foreign than it did. Perhaps if I had been old enough to know what foreign was… but I guess I wasn’t. There were lots of kids, and lots and lots of them had no shoes. In fact, neither did lots of grownups. But some people had great shoes made out of rubber, and I envied them those incredibly cool shoes. There was a marketplace filled with people, a constant underlying murmur punctuated by occasional braying donkeys, someone yelling at a scruffy dog, children shrieking and running around. Fish was frying and I stepped on a mango peel in the cobblestone walk. The sky was perfect blue and I wanted to run and run and run with the other kids but I was tired just from walking.

Chinchero, 2005

We were the only gringos around. People pointed, talked amongst themselves, ran up and touched my hair — which in those days was as blonde as blonde can be. My parents were asking what seemed like everyone in the market about some piece of weaving; people were laughing. When it was time to eat, we walked away from the hubbub a while, out into the nearby ruins, and sat on a large, carved-up boulder I later learned was called the Pumaqaqa. My father opened cans of tuna with his pocket knife, and we feasted on tuna sandwiches made on the small, flat round bread that was a Peruvian country staple. We washed it down with Coca-Cola and had watermelon for dessert, and back we went to the market.

At some point that afternoon, the tone of things changed. My parents were talking to a Big Girl (because that’s how you see the world when you’re a girl who’s just turned five: there are grownups, and there are also Big Girls, you know? Impressive, awe-inspiring Big Girls) and then we went with her to her house, and a field just above her family’s courtyard. She was showing something to my parents about some weaving thing, and they were intently watching and listening and asking questions, but honestly, I didn’t care that much because she did have lots of sisters and nieces and several were about my age, so we played tag until it got dark and we had to go.

Our house, only in 2005

The next thing I knew, we’d moved into the upstairs of a house right on the plaza where the Sunday markets happened, a house that belonged to the town. My parents were learning weaving stuff, lots from that same Big Girl, whose name was Nilda. She and her family lived down the hill. The lady across the street came and got me one morning and sent me out with Sabina, the Big Girl who lived down the street, to learn to tend to the sheep, and after that, I didn’t see my parents as much because I was out with the girls tending sheep all day every day. People would come get my father and whisk him away in a swirl of men, out to work in the fields, and he’d stagger home at night under the weight of enormous sacks of potatoes. The whole town would come check on us and make sure we were eating and knew what to do with potatoes and things like that. I showed some kids how to color with crayons, eventually breaking my crayons in pieces so I could give them away. Kids gave me yarn, old ladies gave me scrap wool and a spindle. Bigger girls made small warps, tied them around my waist and nailed the other end into the dirt, then stuck my hands in the yarn of it all, earnestly, assuming I knew what this was, and why, and that I’d learn it.

One day my parents sent me to go buy matches from the store around the corner. They sent me with an empty box of matches, and enough money for them, and told me the word: fosforos.

“Fosforos,” I repeated, “fosforos, fosforos, fosforos.” All the way to the store, and then I walked in, and the Big Girl who was obviously in charge said something, I didn’t know what, and I went to say “Fosforos,” but I couldn’t remember the word, suddenly. I held up the box. “Inti?” she asked, looking at the picture of the sun, also the brand name for the matches. I shook my head. That wasn’t it. We went on and on. More of her family came in. I kept showing the box and trying to think of the word. Then finally, the girl said, “Fosforos?” I brightened right up, the transaction was complete, I ran home with the matches, and my parents cooked dinner on the Primus stove.

A few nights later I woke up in the middle of the night when some men walked outside, talking loudly. What woke me up wasn’t the men talking — it was the realization, in my sleep, that I understood every word they were saying, and it was in Quechua. From then on, I spoke Spanish and Quechua too.

I had the run of the town, which really, all the kids did, so long as they were also getting their work done. Mind you, the adults and Big Girls of the town also had full say to scold, discipline, and school any kid found out and about. I ran with the girls aged 5-10, and we looked up to the girls aged 10-adult, and we answered to them too, and the one Big Girl that everybody knew was the Big Girl, the one who everyone looked up to and stood in awe of, was that one named Nilda that we met on my birthday.

“Nilda still goes to school,” someone would say. “I think I’ll do that, like Nilda.”

“You will not,” another little girl would scoff. “She’s the only girl that does. Girls have work to do and can’t waste time in school.”

“Nilda’s not wasting time. Plus she does everything.”

“Yeah well that’s her. She can do that. It’s just crazy.”

We grew up that way. And the amazing Nilda would do all manner of amazing things. She was the one we copied tactics from when we were selling our little weavings to tourists. We’d go to her as often as not to get tricky weaving questions refereed, things that the grown women would have answered more brusquely. She’d call us all waylakas and we’d all work harder. She was our role model.

Jump now to about 1981. My family was back in New Hampshire, and winter was settling in, and I got out of going to school for a whole week! What a great deal! What was the occasion? Nilda was coming to the US, and staying with us for a bit, and we were all going to New York City so she could do some demonstrations and lectures. I wondered what she’d think of the US. I’d answered questions for everyone in Chinchero, lots and lots — but it’s not the same as being there, just like you couldn’t explain Peru to people who’d never been there. I thought it was so cool that we were going to get to show someone from Peru around the US a little bit. It was like totally separate parts of my life coming together. It seemed fair.

I was old enough, worldly enough, by then to realize how vast the gulf was between the worlds in which I’d lived. I’d seen gringos in the Andes completely fail to cope. I’d met people in the US who couldn’t envision it, had never heard of Peru. I’d known people from the country in Peru who tried to go to the city and it didn’t work out. There were gaping chasms between the vast gulfs separating my worlds. What would Nilda think of November in New England, the poptop soda can, the fact that literally everybody has plumbing and electricity and cars?

Well… I think she blinked a couple of times, took it all in, and in a totally unassuming way, gave these lectures and presentations at the Smithsonian with the same ease and presence she commanded anywhere in the rural Andes. In one breath, she’d tell me in Quechua to fix a loose braid in her hair while she demonstrated backstrap weaving, and explained things in English to people who’d come to see her at a gallery.

Back in Peru in 1982, my peer group was in full production mode weaving things to sell to tourists. There were lots more tourists now than there had been five years earlier, and also, sometimes we’d all go in to Cusco and sell stuff there. We quickly realized we could sell stuff at a certain price point far faster than we could make it; and so we solved that problem by simplifying designs, using more plain weave, and ultimately, buying machine-spun Dralon synthetic baby yarn, then overplying it to add sufficient plying twist to make it stand up to weaving, and using that instead of handspun. The grown women and bigger girls scoffed at us, called us waylaka, and shamed us into learning the more advanced patterns regardless. Some girls just stopped at the tourist production level though. Traditional production for traditional reasons was falling out of favor. But you knew you couldn’t show those tourist goods to Nilda and expect her not to point out what was wrong with them in ways that really made you think — think about how you marketed them to the tourists, how you made them, the time you spent on what parts of production, everything.

Skip now to 1985-86, a time we lived high on the hog in Peru, in a posh apartment in Cusco, after so many of the roads had been paved. I think that was right after Nilda finished up at the University there, and she was in the city too. City life was different from country life in Chinchero; all Spanish, not so indigenous, everything that entails, which is far too much to get into just yet, but believe me, it’s a big deal. There, too, was Nilda, gracefully and easily hanging yet another whole scene, managing all sorts of projects for tourism enterprises, getting everybody else around her to do all manner of things, and making it look easy.

Carolina Concha's Hands/><br />
Or there’s 1990. Nilda came to the US again, this time for longer. She’d been multiple other times. I worked with her that summer on demonstrations that she did, and we spent lots of time together weaving, teaching, demonstrating. She forced me to tackle my stack of unfinished objects, and finish them, deriding me nonstop for my waylaka ways, asking me to simply consider what my godmother would think if she were still alive, and who among my peer group back in Chinchero did she think I’d tell first, and look, she’d set up 31 warps and I’d only done 2 dozen, was I not even trying? She’d never stop smiling, the ribbing was always good natured, it was a dose of Chinchero womanhood, in jeans and t-shirts in a conference room at an American art museum.</p>
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Or maybe 2002, when I helped my father with a textile tour to Peru. It was the first time I saw the growing Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, founded by Nilda, and visited the towns where she was working her magic. One night I sat with her in a tent as the members of the tour settled down for the night. It was a bitter cold night and we were drinking tea to keep it at bay. “So your father’s diagnosis is serious, isn’t it?” she asked me. “Very,” I said, “You know, his doctors told him that other than his scheduled treatment, he should continue living his normal life, but then they really honestly weren’t prepared for what his normal life is like.” She made me more tea and we talked about cancer, out on a plain beneath a glacier two days travel from anything like the facilities my father would need if something unexpected happened.

A few nights later, back in the city, we all had a special dinner at a top-notch upscale restaurant run by friends of Nilda’s. My father’s back was hurting badly. “If I can’t go to Pitumarca,” he told me, “I’ll stay in Cusco, and you’ve got to do the tour stuff. But while you’re there, there’s a weaving they only do there, and it’s really hard, and you should learn it quick while you can.” I agreed, we headed off, and in the whirlwind of it all I asked Nilda what this weaving my father had mentioned might be called. “Palmay Ramos,” she said, “there should be someone at the CTTC building today who knows it.” Once there, it took some asking around, and eventually, one woman surfaced, out of the handful of Pitumarca women still doing Palmay Ramos. I asked her to teach me to do it, and she stopped for a moment and looked at me, pure Gringa, jeans and steel-toed boots and whatnot, but with a country girl’s hat and a weaving needle stuck in it.

“No,” she said. “It’s too hard.”

“Well, teach me,” I said. I’d done this dance before. She’d have said that to anybody, most likely — but with someone visibly an Andean weaver, she’d expect them to debate and argue and wheedle the teaching out of her. So I started doing just that. We went back and forth a few times, till she laughed, and walked away — walked up to Nilda, the powerhouse woman behind this multi-town weaving empire of which she was a part, and said, “Can you believe this gringa wants me to teach her Palmay Ramos? Does she think she can learn it or something? I mean, can she weave?”

“Yes,” said Nilda, looking at me sidelong, “she weaves okay.”

There is no taller praise. And Palmay Ramos is weaver’s madness, best left for another discussion.

Or there’s 2004. I was at my computer job on Page Mill Road in Silicon Valley when my phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nilda,” she said. “Meet me for lunch at the Stanford alumni center!” She was there, at a conference dealing with, I don’t know, philanthropy and third world economic development or something, with her husband and two sons in tow. We ate, and talked about lots of things, and when I left I got pulled over for speeding on my way to a parent-teacher conference at my son’s school. Not two weeks later when my father died, Nilda organized memorials for him back in Peru.

In 2005, CTTC’s new building opened, with a museum and a shop and class facilities — a building located on the grounds of the Qoricancha, the site which is perhaps the most egregiously-pillaged site in the history of the conquest of Peru, from which tons and tons (literally) of gold were stolen. CTTC’s building there is the first time since 1535 that indigenous Peruvians have owned any part of that land. And when it opened, the city of Cusco closed off part of the main street of Avenida Sol, a street where I remember, in my childhood, seeing city men drag and kick old indigenous women off the sidewalk and into the street, spitting on them, saying “Sidewalk’s for people, not indigenous dogs!” They closed it off — and weavers from all the CTTC communities came to town, in indigenous dress, and had an indigenous party with a Quechua-speaking master of ceremonies.

I cried my eyes out. This is the first time I’ve written of it; it was that emotional. In my life, to have seen such change — and to know that it happened because of Nilda.

Last year she called me up from Toronto, at the Textile Society of America meeting. Unable to keep laughter from her voice, she said, “They tell me you call yourself a spinner now!” I verified this shockingly humorous statement — me, a spinner.

I do, when faced with quandaries dealing with textiles, business, economies, family, culture, and identity, ask myself “Well, what would Nilda say?” I’m a woman who has struggled with her sense of self, and lived with parts of me in several worlds, wondering how to integrate them all and be who I am without constant existential crisis. And in general, I think I do a pretty good job. But if you want to see someone who makes it all look easy and who makes me look like I never achieve anything and just know a little tiny bit about textiles, well, go meet Nilda. Go see the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

And that, folks, is where I’m going with this whole long thing. I’ve been saying “Meet Nilda, and go see CTTC” for years now — but that’s prohibitive for some folks, obviously. Not everyone can go to Peru and see the textiles, meet the weavers, learn about their cultural aspects, and so on. But you could see what I saw in my mailbox:

Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez!

Nilda has written a book! I knew she was doing it; first of all it’s something we’ve all talked about for ages, and second of all, being on the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, the not-for-profit which sponsors and assists CTTC, I hear a thing or two about what she’s up to on a pretty regular basis. Third, at the 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, I met Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press, who had but recently finished editing the book. And then fourth, I’d heard from a limited number of people who’d seen it in its just-pre-press stages, telling me they liked it quite a bit. Truly, I was beyond eager to see it. And now I have.

For me, of course, it is impossible to detach the extremely personal closeness I have to the subject, and give only an unemotional review of this book. It’s impossible for me to tell you about it, without telling you all the things I just have, simply to let you know why this is so huge and momentous, even though it’s something so small and ordinary that the postal carrier can bend it in half and cram it in my mailbox.

This book is a triumph for Nilda, for CTTC, for Chinchero, for all of our families. It is glossy and beautiful and approachable and real and perhaps it is only the tip of the iceberg but it’s there, it’s really there, this 96 page opus that can take you straight to a world where knowing of textiles is like literacy, a world where the things we yarn dorks feel drawn to are known to be essential and urgent, a world which could so easily have perished entirely a decade or two ago, and didn’t. Didn’t, because of Nilda and a small number of other committed people, who just made the world change a little here, a little there, until now, when a tiny and wizened old indigenous woman can stand barefoot drinking chicha at a gala on once-conquered terrain, beside city folk who she now out-earns with her traditional skills — skills that a decade or so ago, she thought she’d take to her grave and they’d be gone forever.

This book is not a how-to guide or instruction manual. It’s not a simple buyer’s guide or catalog. It’s not an ethnography or a memoir. It’s a little bit of all of those things. It’s a trip to meet Nilda and see CTTC and visit the world of the Andean weaver (who is by very nature also a spinner, knitter, and anything-involving-textiles-er). And if all of that weren’t enough to recommend it, there’s the fact that the profits all go to support CTTC. I just don’t know what else I can say, except to congratulate Nilda on its publication, thank everyone Interweave for bringing it to press, and hop up and down hollering “OH MY GOD YOU WANT THIS BOOK!” to everyone I know with any interest in yarn, the Andes, grassroots development, or social change. Go! Find the book! Buy it if you can, ask your library for it if you can’t, and if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

The photos interspersed throughout are all from 2005; I’m still looking for, and digitizing, older ones, but it didn’t seem right to have no photos. Most of these are from my trip to Peru for the CTTC building’s dedication and opening ceremony.

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.