Getting Started!

UPDATED 17 July 2017!

I originally wrote this in 2008, but have updated it annually ever since.

At this time of year, we seem to always have a huge crop of new spinners and would-be spinners looking for information about getting started. So I thought I’d take a morning and pull together an overall post linking to things I’ve written on the subject and various other resources too. What’s more, I’ve been spending part of my holiday fixing and updating old posts with current information, so you may find a few new things.

Bear in mind this is a list of information and resources for those who are brand new to spinning; I’ve tried to keep from going too far into the more intermediate or potentially esoteric stuff that could be confusing for a beginner. We’ve got plenty of space for that under a heading other than “Getting Started.”

1. What do I need to get started spinning?

Spinning can cost basically nothing

I wrote a whole post about that entitled
What do I need to get started spinning?
— start there! You can do it with as little as $5-10. At a minimum, you’ll need a spindle and some fiber. You can make the spindle, but you’ll probably want to be sure you start with fiber in great condition.

How do you know if the fiber you’re getting is in great condition? That is tricky if you’ve never spun before! If there is a brick and mortar within an hour of you that sells fiber, you’ll probably learn tons just by going there and touching some things. If you can’t get to such a shop in person, there are plenty of shops online. I recommend doing your very first shopping with one that has a dedicated storefront website, rather than using a sales-hosting platform — not because there aren’t great vendors on etsy and similar sites, but because until you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to sort through listings with confidence. Please note: once you know what you’re looking for and what you like, it’s a completely different story. But I’ve seen a lot of folks end up frustrated with their first purchases as they’re trying to learn, so it’s something I like to suggest.

2. What kind of fiber should I get?

fibers

Here are a few suggestions. If you’re wondering what some of the terms mean, here’s an explanation, complete with handy pictures (requires free registration).

3. Are there any books or magazines you recommend?

PLY Magazine is the must-have magazine. Founded by spinning teacher Jacey Boggs, PLY is a grassroots, community-driven magazine about spinning, and you’ll want every issue — they’re based around a common theme, so each issue is an excellent reference at many levels of expertise. You can also subscribe digitally.

Interweave Press’ Spin-Off Magazine is the “big name” in spinning magazines, having been around for 40 years, evolving from a grassroots publication to its present incarnation as a brand in the F&W Media empire. Despite no longer being the grassroots publication it once was, Spin-Off’s editoral team remains excellent and there’s an incredible body of information here.

stringtopia2011

Some excellent books when you’re starting out:

Start Spinning by Maggie Casey. Maggie is the owner of Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins in Boulder, and a spinning teacher par excellence.

Spin Control by Amy King picks up where Maggie’s book leaves off, and teaches you how to take control of your yarn.

Respect The Spindle is my own humble offering in the field, dealing with spindle spinning topics from beginner to advanced. This link is to the ebook for all your instant gratification needs, but it’s also available in print (and there’s a video, see below).

Spinning in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts is the canonical book about spinning with a high whorl spindle, and an excellent resource.

Productive Spindling by Amelia Garripoli is another great spindle reference.

Some DVDs or streamable videos:

Start Spinning, The DVD from Maggie Casey is the perfect 2-disc companion to her book. This is also available for download.

Drafting: The Long And Short Of It, my first instructional DVD, is a more intermediate DVD that goes into lots of detail about various fiber options, multiple ways to spin your yarn, and how to fine-tune what you’re doing to get exactly the results you want. You can download this from Interweave as well.

Respect The Spindle: The Video is more or less one of my half-day spindle classes condensed to an hour in DVD form. It shows many of the techniques from the book, but also works fine as a standalone video. Like the others, it’s also available for download.

4. What about online sources?

There are tons! More than you can shake a stick at, even if it’s wrapped in yarn. I’m going to pick out a handful of online resources I recommend highly for new spinners, though.

One thing to bear in mind as you delve into the world wide web of spinny stuff is that as with anything online, there are good sources of information, and less good sources, and even sources that are filled with falsehood. It can be hard to know which is which. And whereas formal publication usually ends up being something done by people with a ton of experience in a given subject, casual publication like having a web site is something anybody can do. That doesn’t mean casual publications are bad — far from it! But it does mean, as a reader, that it pays off to spend a little time figuring out who’s giving you information, and what that person’s perspective is.

For example, my perspective is that of a spinning teacher and writer about spinning, who’s been at it for almost 40 years in a variety of contexts. I will obviously see things differently from someone who started spinning a couple of weeks ago. Does that mean you should only read one of us? Absolutely not; but it’s worth thinking about the differences in perspective or experience, as you read things. Consider: my experience trying a brand-new prototype spinning wheel is probably not going to be the same as a brand-new spinner’s. Which perspective you’re after is up to you. You may be looking for instruction (in which case I’d recommend seeing what an experienced teacher has to say), or you may be looking for a peer group as you start out on your spinning journey (in which case, you’ll probably be most interested in meeting fellow new spinners). One of the fabulous things about the online spinning world is that you can have all of those things.

WEB PUBLICATIONS

  • KnittySpin is the spinning focused section of web pioneer Knitty.
  • Spin Artiste is always great eye candy, and I love the interviews.

WEB COMMUNITIES

  • You can find all kinds of things — and share your own — with hashtags on all the social media sites that support them. You’ll probably never run out of anything to look at with #handspun, and if you use social media, sharing about your process is a great way to meet new people and learn new stuff yourself.
  • Just for kicks, if you’re looking for some top picks from my own archives, read this 100th post..
  • 5. Can you recommend any good videos on the web?

    Well, I’ve got a few aimed at the complete spinning novice, even starting on a budget:

    Starting late summer/fall 2017, I’ll be updating my own youtube channel extensively and regularly, including selecting the best videos I run across by other people and organizing them into playlists for your viewing pleasure.

    As with web sites, videos on YouTube vary wildly in terms of the quality of information they contain. There are some reasonably well-produced videos that contain horrible misinformation. Wherever possible, try to take a minute and figure out where the video came from — someone who spends a lot of time spinning, or someone who started a week or two ago? The more folks sharing what they do, the better — but be wary of authoritative pronouncements from people who haven’t been spinning any longer than you have! In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that most people making really authoritative, “This is how you do it” pronouncements, instead of saying “Here’s one way to do this,” are relative novices.

    Why do I think this matters with videos? Because ideally, I think you should be looking at good spinning practice, or good form, if you’re looking for something to emulate and practice. If this was dancing or gymnastics, I would be saying you’re better off watching someone who’s been dancing for years than someone who just started and has never been to a class or performed or anything.

    6. What are some great places to shop for spinning equipment and supplies?

    Well, here are a few of my longstanding favourites. These are people who I can call up and say “Hey, do you have… or can you get… and is there anything like…” and who I trust with every fiber of my being (har har). These are the kinds of folks who you can go to with a dilemma and they’ll solve it. They’re the ones you can trust if you can’t make up your mind. These people are pillars of the larger fiber community. These are the people my family calls up to figure out what I should get for Christmas.

    • Carolina Homespun was my local shop when I lived in the SF Bay Area. If you are in that area, run, don’t walk, and then camp out and wait for Morgaine and Lann to let you in, if that’s what it takes. Make sure you visit them at every fiber show where you see them.
    • The Fold, better known as “Toni.” Not only does Toni Neil have an incredible full-service fiber shop — at least, I assume she does although I’ve never actually been to her shop, only her booth at various events, and dealt with her lots on the phone and in email — but she’s someone who Makes Stuff Happen. Like, she talked Jonathan Bosworth into making spindles. That kind of thing. I can’t say enough to praise Toni. I just can’t. She’s too fabulous.
    • The Spunky Eclectic is run by my longtime friend Amy King, author of Spin Control. I’ll put it this way: I call Amy up when I need a treat for myself, and can’t figure out what it should be. I place standing orders with her, and when there’s a new product on the market, she’ll know about it, have tried it, and have the scoop. And she can Get Things Done. When I have a task I know I can’t get to in time, I can count on Amy to do it to my standards and beyond.

    If you’ve talked to that list of people, and they can’t find what you’re looking for? Then you can’t have it; it either doesn’t exist, is a treasure of rarity beyond compare and you have to hope someone’s leaving it for you in their will, or is backordered for however long they said. Seriously, if that list of people can’t make it happen for you fiberwise, nobody can. These are the folks you can call up in total chaos, confusion, despair, whatever — and they solve it, and give you a good deal besides.

    7. Any other thoughts for a new spinner?

    Just that, if there is any way at all for you to swing it, go meet other spinners. Take classes if you can, but even if you can’t or don’t want to, just meet other spinners. There are things about this that can’t be learned from books, videos, and so on. There are things that must be passed from one hand to another. You will get things out of a few minutes spent with other spinners that you can’t get out of years of spinning alone, even with the greatest references in the world. Spinners who’ve been doing this for a while make it look easy, and it is — with just a little practice. But in the beginning, just like riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument, you might be surprised to find it’s not as easy as it looks. The good news is it’s also not that hard — it just takes practice, and within a month you can easily be making lots of great yarn.

    Oh, and one more thing: this. Consider it a yarn manifesto, and enjoy.

    That’s it! Please feel free to share your thoughts about being a new spinner, and any questions you might have, in the comments.

    What’s the deal with those heavy spindles marketed for beginners?

    From time to time, the question arises: Why are there so many heavy spindles marketed as being “Great for beginners!” and so on? We’re talking about spindles weighing 3-5 ounces (85-140 grams), with big fat dowels for shafts, and generally low whorl. “Would you ever use this thing?” people ask. “Could you?”

    Well, sure.

    That was a great spindle, and I used it all the time. Its primary purpose was plying, but I spun on it too. I used pretty much no other spindle between the ages of 7 and 10 (I’m 8 in that photo). During that time, I mainly spun weaving yarn — fine, high twist weaving yarn. I’ve no clue what it weighed, but it was probably right in that 100 grams-ish range.

    Let me tell you, that spindle was indestructible. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d give to a kid who’s constantly on the go. That spindle knocked around in bags, got crammed into backpacks, dropped from extreme heights (you know, doing stupid yarn tricks), tossed around like crazy, used to thwack sheep, jabbed into the ground, used to pry rocks out of dried mud or dig up a pot shard that looked interesting, used to doodle in the dirt, sift through smoking hot dirtclods to stab a potato baked in a dirt clod oven, oh, I’m sure the list goes on. If you can think of a potential use for a stick, that spindle probably did it. And still got used to spin yarn.

    In the USA at that time — let’s say the late 70s and early 80s — spinning yarn was a fairly fringe activity, engaged in by a very small number of people, most of whom either had some fiber animals and were living a farm-type lifestyle, and a few of whom had some sort of academic interest in the pursuit. Knitters were in the closet in those days, crocheters were all about the granny square afghan from Red Heart, and weavers occasionally spun, but mostly didn’t. If you wanted a spinning wheel, and you found one, it was an antique, or it was most likely a kit-type wheel from Ashford or Louet. As for spinning fiber, well, it came from someone you knew with a fiber animal.

    Think about it. There was no Spin-Off; if you were lucky you could find books by Mabel Ross, Allen Fannin, and Peter Teal, and if you were lucky they were about objects you could find, but they generally really didn’t touch on spindles at all. Sometimes you might see a spindle demonstration, but rarely were there classes. I think there were literally four or five dudes who made spinning wheels. You’d hear that in Europe, you could buy fiber and equipment. And all in all, spindles were an afterthought, a curiosity, something that you might use to get started, maybe. If you were getting started at all, in a pursuit that had so few people doing it. I mean, there are probably more people who build fully functioning 1/18 scale gasoline engines, hand-machining their parts, than there were spinners in the USA at that time (and I’ve seen one of these engines at a car show one time, and it blew my mind, but my google-fu fails me. Which clearly points out how few of these hobbyists there are… which is my point). Seriously, nobody spun; and if they did, they didn’t do it with spindles, by and large.

    But anyway, without a doubt, most of the 2 dozen or so spindle spinners in the US at that time spun — and taught — with large, heavy, low whorl spindles. There are lots of reasons for this; and first of all, I’m going to send you off on a jaunt over to Jenny’s blog, to read her Ode to a Low Whorl, which eloquently covers many of the fabulous things low whorl spindles offer. Without reiterating too much of what Jenny says, all of which I totally agree with, I’ll present a quick list of benefits of the low whorl:

    1. Stability. With the weight at the bottom, low whorl spindles are less vulnerable to interrupted spin than top whorls. A low whorl, if it wobbles, generally keeps spinning; a top whorl with a wobble is more likely to stop sooner or feel really jerky.

    2. Sustain. Low whorls are more prone to spin for a long time than high whorls.

    3. Slop tolerance. Because of 1 and 2, it’s easier to build yourself a low whorl spindle that will get the job done, than a top whorl. I know I’m not alone in having stabbed a potato with a stick and used it to spin. That works with a low whorl; it doesn’t work so well with a high whorl.

    So if you’re building your own spindle — as you would have been before the ready availability of fabulous tools we have nowadays — you’re going to have better luck with a low whorl. It’s also easier to make a low whorl that doesn’t need any other hardware (like a hook) than a top whorl with no additional hardware required.

    So what about weight? Well, here’s another interesting thing. What most of the folks who taught anybody to spin with spindles were running into as a huge problem back in ancient history like the 1980s was that spindles would backspin in nothing flat, students wouldn’t catch it, drafting on the fly was giving folks problems, and so anything with more momentum was a help. People weren’t really teaching park and draft then so much. So you needed a spindle that would keep going even if you were spinning chunky thick and thin beginner yarn — and that’s a heavier spindle.

    Fast forward a little bit, and there started to be some great information about spinning, much more readily available, and more tools, and a wider range. I personally think Priscilla Gibson-Roberts’ High Whorling is an exceptional book about spindle spinning, filled with technique and real useable how-to info; the new edition is called Spinning the Old Way. It’s an excellent book, and really makes spindle-spinning accessible… but it focuses on high whorl spindles! Sometime in the past 10-15 years, we’ve started to see tremendous improvement in the availability of information about how to spin with spindles… but most of it has just not talked about low whorls at all.

    What’s more, in that same span of time, suddenly we started being able to get a wide range of fabulous fibers, prepped, dyed, totally ready to spin (again, not something we had back in ancient history like the 70s and 80s). The world of the beginning spinner, and beginning spindle spinner, and heck, spindle spinner or spinner at large, has really changed. What’s available, where, and at what price… much of this is a matter of fashion in the spinning world as it is elsewhere.

    So, would I say the heavy low whorl spindle is still the ideal place to start? Well… yes and no. It depends. In a perfect world, you’ll start with some loving handspinner shoving tools and fiber into your hands, demonstrating, taking you shopping, and shepherding you on your way. In an almost-perfect world, you’ll start with something that just speaks to you and makes you want to use it, want to fiddle with it, want to play around. But in reality, you’re probably going to start with whatever it is you first get your hands on. Admit it. We both know it, and it’s okay.

    If, then, you find yourself with a heavy low whorl drop spindle in your hands, and folks are telling you it’ll never work, don’t despair! It can; and the truth is, chances are you’re going to feel clumsy and awkward no matter what kind of spindle you have in hand. But down the road, you’ll find yourself acquiring more skill, and as you do, you’ll start to develop your own tastes and preferences. As you spin, too, these will evolve and shift. Eventually a time will come when you likely have a collection of spindles in varying weights and configurations, and you’ll have different feelings about them, and choose from them at will. It’s sort of like having kitchen knives. Do you need a cleaver? Maybe. What about a filet knife? Depends. But I think you need a chef’s knife, a paring knife, carving knife, and a bread knife at a minimum… and learning to use those tools effectively involves different things for each one. So it is for spindles.

    What do I start people off with? Honestly, I give ’em fairly heavy, somewhat imperfect low whorl spindles with lgreat durability, explain what makes the spindle work, and tell ’em where to find materials to make variations, and point ’em to local fiber shops or festivals to shop for more, of various kinds… which these days tends to mean “high whorls.” I don’t worry about people finding good info about high whorl spinning, or finding great high whorl spindles; but decent (or any) low whorls and good low whorl technique are harder to come by, so I like to make sure those are things I provide, in addition to the in-vogue high whorl stuff.

    So summing up, don’t discard that boat anchor! You may find you really like it down the road. Seriously. I’m not making this up.

    Oh… and lest you thought I’d forgotten about the sock yarn series, I have not! Colour is coming up, but I’m waiting on some skeins to dry so I can swatch them and take pictures. Bright, colourful pictures. Why? Because it’s March, by gum, and we could all use a little colour. With or without a U. Hi, Sara.

    For those of you coming to Beth’s place in Michigan later this month, I’ll be bringing the upcoming sock yarns, along with fiber for them, and you’ll learn how to reproduce them (among other things).

    One last piece of news to report, also: I’m delighted to tell you I’ve been selected as a mentor for Interweave’s 2008 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat! I absolutely can’t wait (but yeah, I know, I have to). It promises to be loads of fun and I’m hoping to see lots of you there. I’ll be teaching a 3-day workshop called Spinning For A Purpose, and four half-day retreat sessions on maximizing spindle productivity. I feel deeply honored to be included in the lineup this year — what a lineup it is! It’s hard to believe it’s barely March and I’m already looking forward to fall.

    Spinning For Socks: Why?

    Socks are a great way to use your handspun yarn, and a great way to push your boundaries in spinning and acquire new skills. A pair of socks isn’t a huge and unwieldy project, and the commitment to knit them isn’t tremendous — but they’re varied and versatile. There is no one canonical way to make socks happen, no single set of attributes that make for the ideal pair. As a wearer of socks, you probably have several types — and if you’re a knitter of socks, “several types” may be an understatement. Those things said, though, we can make a few generalizations about socks.

    1. Socks must stretch sufficiently to allow them to be pulled on over wider parts, and then once in place, settle down and fit snugly without leaving excess fabric to bunch up and get uncomfortable.

    2. Socks are a structured, fitted garment; they need to retain that structure in order to work well as socks.

    3. Socks are ideally not itchy and scratchy. Nobody likes to have irritated feet.

    4. Socks need to be able to breathe; hosiery which doesn’t allow for air movement can compound, or even cause, all sorts of discomforts and woes.

    5. Socks are commonly worn with shoes. In fact, it could be said that socks function as an important buffer between foot and shoe, protecting both from interacting in such a way as to potentially damage each other (say, by keeping shoes from chafing or blistering your feet, and keeping skin oils and so on from piling up in your shoes). As such, socks are subject to wear and tear often not encountered by other fitted garments.

    So, then, we need sock fabric to be stretchy, but still bounce back; stable enough to hold its structure; not itch or irritate, and allow air and moisture to pass through; and we need the fabric to be able to take a beating from friction.

    To address the first elements — stretchy and bounces back — we choose a knitted fabric, or sometimes a crocheted fabric, over a woven one. Knits are, by and large, the stretchiest fabrics. Knitting or crochet allows us to address structure by using numerous different sock designs, shaping that fabric as we create it, incorporating the structural elements into it from the ground up, rather than by cutting and seaming as we might with other fitted garments. Doing this creates a finished product which doesn’t have the same weaknesses as a garment whose structure and fit come from cutting fabric and seaming it up, and this helps with our final point about taking a beating.

    In between those things, we have a lot of room to play with materials in order to address points 3 and 4 — not being scratchy, and being breathable and comfy. If we’re looking at commercial sock materials from the mill, we now have an incredible range of options, sock yarns of every imaginable variety, yarns that aren’t billed as being for socks but make great socks anyway, luxury fibers, rugged fibers, blends, you name it. The modern day is a sock yarn buyer’s paradise. So why, then, would we want to bother spinning our own sock yarn? Especially, some might say, when we know that these are going to be garments that will be subject to lots of wear and tear. Why not just buy sock yarn and be done with it? Why invest the time?

    Well, here’s the thing. When it comes to producing yarn, absolutely nothing is faster than the mill. But that doesn’t mean what the mill produces is actually better — it’s just faster to produce, viable to sell in large quantity, and thus readily available and easy to replace, and as a final result, cheaper. It definitely saves you time to simply buy sock yarn.

    Of course… it would save you even more time to simply buy socks. And you know, that might be good enough — in the same way it might be good enough to buy a ready-made birthday cake already decorated, or a shirt that fits great except for the sleeves being too long (but you just roll ’em up so it’s not a big deal). Truly, it is good enough, which is why most people do, in fact, wear machine-knit, mass-produced socks.

    This is where my mother would point out that her father never did; he would only wear the socks my grandmother knit for him. Mere storebought socks, he insisted, were a clearly inferior product. Mass-produced socks wouldn’t fit just right, wouldn’t wear well, suffered premature structural failure due to cost-cutting measures like seaming up toes instead of grafting, and weren’t even really worth repairing given the quality of materials, the likelihood of repeated failure, and the frequency with which repairs would be required.

    You have to understand that my grandfather, a Cold War era nuclear physicist, was the kind of guy who took a methodical and scientific approach to everything in his life — I have no doubt that he performed extensive and rigorous testing in order to reach these conclusions, likely even documenting his process and presenting his evidence to my grandmother when determining he’d only wear handknit socks. This was a man who explained his beliefs about table manners to me with a discourse on the economy of motion as applied to eating. If you knew Clark, you knew that if he made an assertion, you could take it to the bank.

    But I digress! I’ll take it as a given that those of us reading (or writing) this piece will accept handknit socks as high-quality and worth making and wearing. By extension, then, it is reasonable to propose that handknit socks should be made with the absolute finest of materials — at which point we must question whether mass-produced yarn is, in fact, the very best thing available for socks. My grandfather would tell me that I need to draft, then conduct, an experiment using good scientific method, then make my findings available for peer review, in order to determine this for sure, but I’m going to make simple assertions based on my own body of anecdotal evidence instead.

    I said earlier that you can’t beat the mill for speed and volume. And that’s true; you can’t. However, you can beat it for quality, and here are a few reasons why.

    Durability isn’t a mass-producer’s first priority. Hey, everybody knows this. If you’re in the business of selling something you manufacture, you want to be sure you’ll be able to keep selling it. If you were producing something which never wears out, then once everyone has bought it, your sales dry up; you need people to keep buying it, which means it needs to wear out.

    Unparalleled excellence isn’t a mass-producers most essential goal either. A mass producer does need to have a product of sufficient quality to make you want to buy it, and it needs to cost less to buy it than it would cost you to make it. But that’s as good as the product needs to be. It is prohibitively costly to routinely exceed your needed quality guidelines as a mass producer.

    Given sufficient market saturation, mass-produced goods own the market entirely and hand-produced goods don’t compete. Mass-produced goods are faster, cheaper, easier to come by, and good enough. Since you can get replacements easily and cheaply, you don’t care if it doesn’t last forever. In a very practical sense, it really doesn’t matter.

    Large scale production finds savings in economies of scale. But what does this mean for yarn? Well, for example, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber means you make more money from the same raw materials. However, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn for all purposes. Using less twist means the equipment spends less time producing the yarn (and lower-twist yarns tend to contain less fiber as well, actually) — again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn.

    Actually, for sock applications, it pretty uniformly means an inferior yarn. Less fiber in the yarn, and less twist, both mean a yarn that is more prone to wear, by pilling or shedding fiber and becoming threadbare. Such yarns will often tend to be less resilient as well, and prone to losing any elastic qualities more quickly. For lots of purposes, this really doesn’t matter, but I maintain that for socks, it does. If I’m going to handknit socks, I want them to last longer than storebought socks, and be worth repairing, and for it to be possible to repair them.

    Now, mind you, there are mill-produced sock yarns out there which posess superior wear properties; but unfortunately many don’t. As a sock knitter, you may have experienced this, where some socks lasted really well and others were thrashed the first time you washed them. When you’re buying yarn, you’re at the mercy of the market choosing your materials; but when you spin your own, you are in complete control of these quality elements. What’s more, learning to spin your own sock yarn, and becoming familiar with how it feels and behaves, enables you to very quickly assess mass-produced offerings and predict how they’ll wear — a benefit to you even if you don’t always spin your own sock yarn.

    Speaking of being at the mercy of the market, how many mass-produced sock yarns can you name that are made from blends of merino, silk, and angora? What if you wanted some? Supposing you found it, do you like the colours, and is it the right gauge for the socks you want to make? No? Well… why settle? As a handspinner, you could have exactly the yarn you want, produced on a one-off basis for just this exact pair of socks you have in mind — and you can rest assured it’s produced to the specifications you want. And you can have it in the quantity that you want.

    Coming from the flip side of things, what if you have just a few ounces of a fiber you really like, but you aren’t sure what to do with it? Well, socks are a great and flexible project that doesn’t use a ton of yarn (and therefore doesn’t use a ton of fiber either). Consider spinning sock yarn. Even if, in the final analysis, you decide you don’t want socks from that fiber, then there are a number of other things you might do with sock yarn — and people who’d probably love to swap you something else for it (the yarn world isn’t exactly devoid of sock knitters, after all).

    So now we’ve covered “why spin sock yarn!” Tune back in soon for more in our series about spinning sock yarn. Next up: colour!

    Tell me a bit about Andean spinning!

    I’ve answered a few questions in various places over the past several months about Andean spinning, which is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I first learned to spin in the Peruvian community to which my family moved when my sister and I were little, and spinning in the Andean way is totally second-nature to me. So, first, let me give you a little bit of background.

    My parents actually met doing fieldwork in Peru as undergraduate students in anthropology and archaeology during the 1960s. My mother had grown up skilled in all manner of handwork, as all the women in her family have been since time immemorial; it was all just a fact of life for her. My father had no such background, but shortly after my parents married, he underwent then-experimental knee surgery, leaving him with restricted mobility for over a year. His mother-in-law, my grandmother, loaned him one of her several looms and got him started learning to weave during that year. By the time I was born, he’d become obsessed with the fiber arts. Some of my earliest memories are of crawling under his loom, watching treadles and heddles and sheds and shuttles.

    In the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t an awful lot of information around about Andean textiles. You could find some stuff about pre-Columbian items, archaelogical stuff, and a few things which were largely conjectural — technical and academic studies of textiles performed largely by means of deconstructing textiles and theorizing how they might be made with Western methods. My mother being a brilliant ethnographer and my father being an eclectic anthropologist, one of the questions which occurred to them was simple: “Hey, you know, when we were in Peru we saw people doing this. Has anybody gone and asked them how?”

    The answer turned out to be “sort of.” The bottom line, though, was that there was definitely lots of room for extensive and in-depth research, which really needed skilled textile people to conduct it. And so it was that my family moved to Peru in 1977, and joined the community of Chinchero. Over the years, my parents wrote numerous things about Andean textiles. Of these, my personal favourite is probably “Learning to Weave in Chinchero,” in the Textile Museum Journal, 1987. Perhaps more widely read and easy to find is my father’s spring 1985 Spin-Off article entitled “Andean Spinning,” reprinted in A Handspindle Treasury and quoted for its line about Andean spinners being slower by the hour, but faster by the week, than a wheel spinner. And of course, if you’re quick right now, the current issue of Spin-Off features an excerpt from Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez’s new book!

    Recently, folks have pointed me to a few videos around the web showing Andean spinners in action. In fact, it’s because of some of these videos that folks are asking questions! The questions have been great for me, because Andean-style spinning is so second-nature to me that it’s hard, sometimes, to know where to start describing it. It might be something like trying to decide how to describe American cooking. “Well… stoves are used. Oh, and microwaves! Ummmmmm, hrmmm, is eating meat typical? Are there regional variations? How do stoves work? Oh, that depends what kind… yeah, there are several kinds… uhhh, also there are backyard barbecues, except that’s really grilling and the word ‘barbecue’ can mean different things depending where you are, and… okay, some people say pizza is like that, but others don’t agree…”

    For me, Andean-style spindle spinning is as commonplace and ordinary event as ordering pizza. More ordinary, in fact, because even though I have a fourth grader and consequently “pizza” is requested for every meal, I’ve spent a lot more time spinning than ordering pizza (to his chagrin, perhaps). I learned to do it exactly as described in my parents’ writing, and Nilda’s. For the Andean spinner, producing yarn is (as Nilda says) a lifelong pursuit. You start early in childhood, with an expectation that you’ll be doing it at a production level by the time you’re 8-10. Basically, your spindle is always with you.

    In a thread on Ravelry’s Spindlers group, someone asked about a quote in that Spin-Off article by my friend Nilda, excerpted from her recent book. The quote, from 80-year-old Emilia Yana of Pitumarca, saying “Only when I die may I be done with spinning, although when we die we take our spindles… so perhaps we will continue to spin in the other world…” The poster asked if it was traditional to bury spinners with their spindles. Here’s what I said:

    Well… it’s not uncommon in indigenous Peru for folks to be buried with some grave goods – some of their daily things and/or best loved things or gifts from loved ones. Much of this harkens back to Inca beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the ability of the living to interact with the dead and vice versa. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it and all in all I think that a lot of what ends up going with folks depends on the folks who survive them. I think those urges are fairly universal when you’re looking at a dead loved one, but the American ways of dealing with death tend to shunt some of that stuff aside thanks simply to logistics.

    In the rural Andes, there aren’t any morticians or what have you; your family gets you ready to be buried. Caskets are generally borrowed (yes, borrowed) from the church, and used in a funeral ceremony and procession; at the graveyard, the dead are buried without a casket. There is an 8-day mourning ritual undertaken by the bereaved, which includes all manner of things intended to make sure that the beloved dead are settled comfortably in that other world (such as the ritual washing of their garments at a fork in a river, various specific types of feasts and gatherings, and so on). Anyway, most likely anybody who has ever been part of the process of getting a loved one’s body ready for burial or what have you can relate to the desire to send them off with grave goods; it is quite primal in my experience. So, it’s not just spindles – I can remember childhood friends of mine being buried with treasured toys, and my comadre (like a godmother/grandmother, a complex relationship but a very very important one) we buried with a spindle and some of her very fine weaving, but there were tools she cherished that she wanted the rest of us to have and keep using, and I wove my coming-of-age stuff with her equipment.

    Textile production capability is a huge, huge, HUGE part of the identity system for traditional Andean textile producers. I can’t stress enough how huge. Traditionally, you would literally be raised from birth to engage in it. As a stage of life thing, the spindle is both the first, and the last, of the textile tools to be taken for granted; it is everpresent. Peruvian spinners do not usually think of themselves as spinners primarily, unless they are truly exceptional at it in some way (I, for example, am somewhere in about the 50th percentile of spinning capability, by Andean standards – adequate, but a long way from being “a spinner”). Instead, spinning is a simple fact of life. Everybody does it, or if they don’t do it now for whatever reason, can do it.

    Well, or so it was, but started to shift away from being, in the past 30 years or so, with the advent of new roads and modernization and lots of things. For a woman of Emilia Yana’s generation in most textile towns, though, it was totally true; she would have been born and wrapped tight in swaddling and bound with handspun, handwoven belts, carried on her mother’s back a year or more while her mother had little time to weave but only time to spin. By the time she could sit up she’d have had fiber in her hands; by the time she could toddle, a spindle; by the time she could talk, fiber to pick and clean, and by the age of 5 or so, weaving would have begun. By age 6-12 she’d have been a production spindle spinner; in her teens, she’d have mastered more weaving; by her mid-to-late teens and entry to motherhood, she’d be back to doing lots of spinning again, and as her children grew a little older, eventually more complicated weaving, on until old age starts to make that hard and then back once more to spinning.

    But, you know what’s interesting? Odds are she’ll have identified herself not as a spinner, but as a weaver. Why? Because “weaver” includes all those other things, in the traditional Peruvian definition of most towns (who does what can vary from town to town; there’s no real firm and absolute gender role about it, necessarily).

    The Spin-Off article is an excerpt from my friend Nilda’s new book, which in my admittedly non-neutral opinion, does a great job of showing what the traditional Peruvian textile life is like. It is part of your identity, what you do, what you wear, what you are.

    In a thread on Knitter’s Review, French spinner Klara tells about a documentary she saw which included spinners in the background of footage from the Andes. This is, indeed, a ubiquitous piece of footage to include, partly because the sight of spinners is so commonplace. Andean spinners, who walk a lot, spin anytime they’re on the go, or doing things which may require them to be interrupted periodically. They spin in every moment of possible downtime — they’re just always spinning. Well, and plying.

    The Knitter’s Review thread includes a link to a video of Patabamba women spinning and plying (okay, the video says it was shot in Q’enko, but the women are in Patabamba clothes, which is nearby.) The video is set to music, and the words to the song are “Hey, spinner woman — you teach me to make thread, and I’ll teach you to fall in love!” Anyway, here’s what I said in that thread:

    Andean spinners use low whorl spindles exclusively. Within that, they’re generally referred to as a pushka (or Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco spells it phusca — one of the fun things about working with things in a language that has been entirely unwritten until quite recently is that you just don’t know how to spell it) and a canti. Pushkas are smaller and lighter than cantis, and are for spinning as opposed to plying; neither is “light” by modern standards. You might use the same spindle (in a medium weight) for both purposes, but the words for doing it remain the same: pushka is the verb to spin, canti is the verb to ply.

    There is essentially no low twist Andean yarn; low twist yarn does not wear well and Andean spinning is still a living tradition dealing with the production of textiles intended to be used, a tradition which until recently had little interaction with the industrialized world’s acceptance of lower-grade, less-durable textiles. The amount of twist in Andean yarn far exceeds what modern first world standards will generally accept — for the entire life of the yarn, no matter how it’s washed and so on, plied yarn will kink up on itself when not stored under tension. However, fabrics woven (or knit) from this yarn wear incredibly well: I have daily-use items over 20 years old which need only minor repairs, and textiles which have seen many generations of wear (such as a child’s lliclla or manta which is about 60 years old).

    Fiber prep consists of hand-teasing, and pulling cleaned fiber into a roving. This is often a task that children are put to work doing. The majority of the action, however, is in the spinning stages. Typical spinning technique is a very fast double-drafting method which uses an initial long draw followed by subsequent slub correction. Spinners will spin varying lengths of yarn per draw before winding on, but they’re generally much longer lengths than modern first world spinners think is feasible with a spindle. By storing spun yarn via walking it up into a butterfly on your hand, it’s possible to control very large lengths of yarn — limitless, basically.

    For spinning, the spindle is generally started with a flick of the fingers akin to snapping them. Yes, you may run out of spin, but if you do, you walk yarn up and give the spindle more spin again, and keep going before you wind on.

    When you have a full spindle, you will either spin another full spindle (thus arriving at a point where you have two full spindles), or, if you only have one spindle, wind off into a tight, coursed outer-feed ball (I tend to refer to these as Peruvian style balls to differentiate them from the loose, non-coursed balls commonly wound by hand in the modern first world, but they’re not the only place such balls are wound). Once you have either two balls of singles, or two full spindles, you then wind these together in turn. If you plan to dye the yarn, you wind them into a skein — typically by planting the two spindles in the ground, standing next to them and then using your arms to wrap the skein. This particular trick is a lot easier to do than to describe, although it’s not exactly easy until you get the hang of it.

    When you get to the end of one spindle, this is where some spinners make use of what Americans now call “Andean Plying,” after my father’s article entitled “An Andean Plying Technique,” in Spin-Off a while ago. Folks with an interest in the cultural aspect of things will perhaps find it worth note that not all spinners use this technique, and those who do use it only sometimes. While clever and convenient in various settings, it is not widely viewed as a production technique; and even where it is used, it tends to be used to wind a two-stranded ball most of the time.

    Most significant, in my opinion, is that this technique, and many others like it, are obvious and throwaway things to the Andean weaver (who is by nature a spinner as well), and whose comfort with all things textile-related allows for all manner of tricks such as this to facilitate the completion of textile tasks with simple tools or even no tools at all beyond your own hands. I believe this to be the most significant difference between the Andean textile producer’s mindset, and the mindset of modern first-world producers who tend more towards creating tools to handle specialized purposes.

    Yarn is dyed in this two-stranded, unplied state — because if you tried to dye it after plying you’d have inadequate penetration due to the amount of twist in both spin and ply which gives Andean textiles the resilience and water resistance they posess (an Andean poncho will shed rain for quite a long time, becoming wet on the outside but not soaking through to the inside, literally for hours).

    Experienced spinners then drape the dyed, double-stranded skeins over their arms — inserting one arm through the center — and ply straight from that as it hangs there. I don’t recommend this technique to people who are not comfortable with working directly from loose skeins, especially loose skeins of extremely fine, extremely high-twist yarn. Instead, I recommend doing what kids do: rewind the skein into a tight ball that feeds from the outside, with those courses for various other clever reasons I won’t get into here, and go.

    Neither the pushka nor the kanti has a hook or notch; both have a simple shaft, and a plain round whorl near the bottom of the shaft. The very bottom of the shaft is tapered to a point, so you can easily stick it in the ground to wind off from and so that it reduces the drag when your spindle gets really full and you’re in semi-supported mode, as may happen. While a lot of low whorl drop spindle aficionados in the modern first world use a wind-on method which involves going under the whorl and then back up to the top of the shaft, leaving a chunk of yarn floating in midair, Andean spinners simply twirl the yarn up the shaft and secure with one or two half-hitches. This is essential to the real Andean plying technique that allows you to get the speed you want to get the job done.

    To start the spindle for plying, place the shaft flat against the palm of one hand, lightly holding it there with your thumb if you need to. Put your other hand flat aginst it, fingertips basically where the spindle is. Put your elbows at about waist height or so, and then take that second hand and push forward, rolling the spindle shaft down the first hand as you go. When it gets to the end, let go, and let double-stranded yarn feed out, stopping it before it hits anything. You can now use that first hand for all manner of manipulations on the yarn if needed, including making a big upside down L out of the yarn so you can control really staggering lengths of yarn doing this… or, as I showed folks at SOAR last year, do the thing we did as girls showing off and goofing off: ply off an Inca terrace or a balcony or what have you.

    That trick, incidentally, requires a fair amount of confidence in your yarn, your plying, and your ability to feel the yarn to gauge how much twist is still going at a great distance, because you can’t see it. And also your half hitch. Screwing it up when we were kids would mean the spindle would go flying and there’d be a lot of teasing. It was one of a number of silly tricks kids would do.

    The most important spindle behaviour required to make this type of production spinning possible, btw, is sustain. The spindle needs to spin for a long, long time. How fast it spins is not necessarily relevant; you can get a spindle spinning faster than most people (outside the Andes and being raised to it from birth anyway) can draft, and what becomes a bottleneck to productivity is if it *stops* spinning.

    It doesn’t take 20 years of practice to learn to do these things, however — in fact, it takes about a half an hour. But, they’re much easier to learn in person, and I find they’re sometimes easier for people who have not already learned other spindle techniques which they’ve then got to set aside a little bit.

    Andean spinners get most of their spinning done while on the go — walking from town to town, walking places in general, etc. Indigenous Andean mothers also carry their babies with them pretty much all the time (like, unless their big sister is carrying the baby or something — in the third world, there’s often not a good place to put a baby down). Babies are swaddled tightly, and carried on the back in a kheparina, which is like a manta (a square carrying cloth). When babies are awake, they’re perched such that they’re watching over mom’s shoulder. When asleep, the kheparina is relaxed so they’re laying down flat. When they’re nursing, it’s swung around to the front.

    Let me know if you want to hear more about knitting; this is already long. Or, of course, if you have questions about what I’ve said.

    One other comment that I neglected to add is that in that video, most of the spinning is actually in slow motion. This actually gets to the heart of one of the challenges involved in learning some of these techniques in the Andes — incredibly tricky things (if you don’t know how to do them) happen at very high speeds, and the cultural belief is that the burden of learning is on the student more than the teacher. Really, the best way to learn these things is to be a child growing up with them… or, as my parents have been wont to say, be trained anthropologists with a child to send out into the mix, and then be prepared to learn from children.

    As an aside, I once commented to an anthropologist that I’d been raised by anthropologists. “How does that differ from being raised by wolves?” she asked me. “Well,” I told her, “I think those raised by wolves are less likely to feel that they’re engaging in participatory observation within what’s nominally their own culture.”

    Okay, maybe you have be an anthropologist to find that funny. But I assure you, if you are, it’s a knee-slapper. I promise! Just try it out at your next anthropologist party (and, if you’re looking for the good anthropologist parties, ask for the ethnomusicologists — they’re like professional party researchers).

    Anyway, there’s a little bit to ponder about Andean spinning. There’s tons more stuff to think about, discuss, and show — but as I say, for me, it’s a little like answering a question such as “So, tell me about food.” I’m always thrilled to discuss the subject, show how it’s done, and answer questions. I’d love to have Andean spindle techniques more widely known — they’re extremely fast, extremely productive, and, well, they’re cheap! They’re not tool-dependent; you could leave an Andean weaver on a desert island with a few sticks, one sharp object, and some potential fiber animals, and come back a year later to find her thriving with clothing, shelter, and the roots of civilization.

    Historically, there’s a reason for that: the high Andes are not a forgiving and easy environment. Near the equator at high altitude, the sun burns but it’s still chilly; it freezes many, if not most, nights. Many crops won’t grow; there are few trees. Livestock, too, is somewhat limited, as even the grasses are coarse or very short. The extreme mountainous terrain makes things like the wheel of marginal use. The only metals around in any quantity? Gold and silver — pretty, but too soft for tools and weapons. In the rural Andes, everything is stone and clay and textile, and the textile is the key to survival.

    But even though that’s true, the Andean weaver — who of course spins — doesn’t view production as drudgery or anything like that. It is high art, and play, and social activity. As little girls, my friends and I compared ourselves to the big girls we wished to be like, gaining status in our social circle by acquiring new skills, showing off to each other with them, challenging each other. These trends persist throughout one’s entire life, and are important even after death — my late best friend’s younger sister commented to me that she thought her sister had died before ever mastering a particular pattern, and I vehemently stated that wasn’t the case… but couldn’t resist saying I learned it first. I remember who taught me every pattern. I remember racing to out-produce my friend Maruja weaving belts for sale to tourists, and who all came to sit with me in the plaza while I worked on my first big weaving. I know how to quietly reinforce a young girl watching me warp, who figures out what pattern I’m warping for. I have spun for the extended-family stash of yarn, and taken my withdrawals from it for my projects over the years. I’m secure in my identity as a human being, the master of my surroundings and my destiny, and I can feel all of that with every toss of the spindle, with the twist in my hands, and the production never stopping, no matter where I am.

    I tell people it’s like a fidget that’s productive; but it’s much more than only that. But it’s also… nothing at all, and totally ordinary. Yes, I spin (and ply) while I’m walking places, or standing around, or on the phone, or in meetings, or riding in the car, or in a waiting room. I hate dead times when I can’t do it; I will always try to find a way to spin, and I’m certain this is because of the Andean upbringing. So this is part, in my opinion, of why Andean techniques work the way they do — every spinner is like that, and every spinner finds ways to be able to spin during all the possible moments one might do so. So imagine if you spun with the time you might spend biting your nails, doodling on a notepad, waiting to stir the soup, waiting to pick up your kid from school, waiting for the bus… you would be surprised what you get done, and how easy it would become!

    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.

    Drafting, Predrafting, Prep, and Control

    In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that a lot of the online discussions about getting started with spinning your own yarn include advice like “You really need to predraft your fiber in order to be able to spin it well,” and “If you aren’t getting fabulous yarn immediately, predraft more! Attenuate your fiber to the thickness you want your yarn to be, then put the twist in.”

    What surprises me is not that this advice is given, but rather that it seems to be turning into a conventional wisdom about what a new spinner must do, and then it’s passed on as such, and it gains more and more ground and in some cases, talking with newer spinners, I have been shocked to discover they honestly did not know that this was not a requirement.

    So, okay, caveats first:

    • Like the perl geeks say, There’s More Than One Way To Do It. The same techniques, tactics, and approaches don’t work the same for every spinner, every fiber, every prep, or every goal.
    • This is my personal take on the subject. Yours may differ; other expert spinners may disagree with both of us.
    • Everything I say is exactly what I believe 100% of the time without fail, except for when I don’t — because, as the wonderful Maggie Casey says, “It depends.” There is always a case that calls for the opposite of whatever I’ve just asserted. Let’s grant that, and move along.

    With that out of the way, let’s define some terms for the purpose of this discussion.

    1. Drafting is, in essence, managing the process by which you introduce twist to fiber. This sounds really simple — but if we were talking about cooking, it would be the process of introducing heat to food. If you have ever cooked anything, you know this is actually a much more involved process than it sounds like from so simple a definition. In cooking, you can get completely different results from putting the exact same food in a hot pan instead of a cold pan; similar things are true for drafting when you spin. Drafting is the heart and soul of spinning yarn, as well as the pure mechanics.
    2. Preparation, or prep, is what must be done to fiber in order to draft it. If you were cooking, consider: you could take a potato and put it straight into an open flame, leave it there, then pull it out later ready to eat. But that’s only one kind of cooked potato, and there are many others. You won’t get french fries, potato chips, potatoes au gratin, mashed potatoes, or latkes that way. You have to do prep, such as slicing, peeling, pre-cooking, and so on, to even stand a chance of being able to get the results you want.

    Okay, so here it is, baldfaced and simply stated: I don’t believe in “predrafting.” You know, except for when I do, as previously stated in the caveats. What we’re calling predrafting now is typically the practice of taking your fiber and getting it into a thinned-down state where, if you simply introduce twist, the result is yarn. I consider this to be nothing more than one type of prep work — not an essential step to spinning, but rather, simply one possible prep option. That being the case, I don’t like to think of new spinners believing it is a requirement in order to spin yarn.

    In fact, no preparation at all is required to spin yarn (from wool, at any rate). I could walk up to a sheep in a field, pull off a few tufts of fleece, and without doing anything else to that fiber, turn it into yarn. Really nice yarn, even, and I could do it in production mode and churn out a fair bit of it faster than you might think. I could do nothing more than that, and clothe my family forever. Heck, probably your family too, and probably also make all kinds of tools from the yarn. And if those were the only goals we had for turning wool into yarn, we’d never do any kind of prep at all.

    However, we want more from our yarn. We want lots of different kinds of yarn, suited to lots of purposes. We want lofty, soft yarn, and dense long-wearing yarn, and bumpy funky yarn, and smooth sewing thread, and yarn that’s for keeping us warm, and yarn that’s for walking on or building buildings or making sails for ships or being weapons and tools… so how do we get to the point of being able to have all those things?

    We all know, in theory at least, that you can have a wool yarn for almost any purpose imaginable. We have all (well, all of us who are likely to be reading this, at any rate) handled wool yarn that was coarse and scratchy and ropy, and handled wool yarn that was delicate, soft, and airy. If we’re weavers and knitters and crocheters and familiar with the yarn shop, we’ve learned there are kinds of wool, and some are softer than others, while others are stronger, and still others are shiny, and “wool” isn’t a simple catch-all.

    But what we don’t know, until we start to become spinners, is that there’s another entire world to the question. We don’t know, at first, that we could take merino wool — which everyone knows to be soft and fine — and turn the exact same fiber into gossamer, rope, all-purpose yarn, yarn for socks, yarn for shawls, yarn for sweaters, yarn for rugs. That cognitive leap hasn’t happened for us yet. But it will (and then, we’ll likely never recover and the world of yarn will be forever changed for us).

    As soon as that leap is made, the question that arises is obvious: How? How do we take the same fiber and make it so many different things? And the answer is, we do it the same way we take that aforementioned potato and make it into so many different meals. We use different processes, and follow different combinations of steps in different ways.

    You can’t take a raw potato, and smash it with a fork, then add in some milk and butter, and mix it all up, and have mashed potatoes. You have to boil the potatoes first in order to mash them. If you took a potato, and chopped it into cubes, then threw it in a deep fryer, what you pulled out would not be potato chips (crisps, for those of you on the other side of the pond). But if you sliced that potato so thin you could see through your wafers, and placed those wafers in the deep fryer, then what?

    This is because, as the olde farte spinners are wont to say, prep matters. Not only does it matter if the prep is done well, but it matters how it’s done and what kind of prep it is. When you do prep work, you’re doing it with an eye towards what you’re going to make. When you pick up that potato and decide if you’re going to peel it or not, that decision is made based on many factors — like what you’re going to cook, and if you like peels in it, for example. Chances are that you have tools which are specially made to help you with different prep tasks in getting that potato ready to cook. You have knives well suited to slicing, chopping, peeling. You may have a special peeler. You may have a food processor. You might have learned a variety of different tricks for getting it prepped just how you want it for the purposes you intend today. You know all this stuff already.

    But if you’re a new spinner with some new fiber, then chances are you don’t. What you have in your hands would be the equivalent, most likely, of a new frying pan and some diced, peeled potatoes and a small single-use pouch of vegetable oil. It came, if you were lucky, with a sheet of paper that said “Turn on stove. Place pan on heat. Use contents of vegetable oil pouch. Add potatoes. Stir until ready.”

    Following these steps will, in fact, produce cooked potatoes. One kind of cooked potatoes. You will be able to eat them. Assuming, of course, that you figured out that “use contents of vegetable oil pouch” meant “open it and pour it in the pan” and so on, but that’s a separate whole thing. But, well, once you have those cooked potatoes, are they what you had in mind? Are they what you hoped? Are they like cooked potatoes that you’ve had in the past? What if all you got was a mass of potato matter, burnt in some places, uncooked in others, which you had no desire to eat at all and which bore only a surface resemblance to any potato-based meal you’d ever seen?

    Luckily for you, in steps The Intarweb(tm) with the answer! You should, says the ‘net lore now, make sure the oil is hot, and preseason your potatoes. You must use salt and pepper. Doing this, people say, they’ve gotten home fries! Delicious home fries! So you follow the instructions, and now you, too, have home fries.

    Thing is, this has essentially no bearing whatsoever on how to get mashed potatoes. Everything you’ve just learned as a requirement for “cooking potatoes” is aimed at cooking one single potato dish, in one single way, from one single kit. Nothing about that is bad; home fries are delicious and tasty and being able to cook them is wonderful. And you do learn things from cooking up that home fries kit which build your cooking skills at large, and make you better able to fry things in general, and not just potatoes. You just haven’t touched on boiling, on leaving peels on if you like, on making julienned fries, or countless other things about the possible cooking of potatoes; and while frying is one valid means of cooking up potatoes, it is only one — and it’s not necessarily the easiest start for all cooks.

    Another problem is, of course, that once you’ve added salt and pepper, you can’t take them out. This, then, is where we turn back to the fiber, and talk about taking your fiber and attenuating it out to spinning thickness, then adding twist. Once you’ve done that, you can’t undo it, just like you can’t un-cut your potatoes. In other words, once you’ve done your prep, that prep can’t be undone. You can only do further prep. Each additional step you take during prep then limits what you can do with the fiber. Certain kinds of prep are absolutely essential to getting certain results, and don’t work well at all for others. Each prep style needs to be mated with a spinning style in order to achieve yarn, and these work together to produce a whole end result.

    This is where dancing comes in. When you learn to dance, you learn to do moves. Perhaps you learn them standing in a formal ballet class, one hand on a barre, with a metronome keeping time; perhaps you learn them hanging out with some pals blasting loud music that your parents hate; but it’s moves that you learn. And then you learn to combine them, string them together, move from one to the next. You learn to make them flow with music. You build a repertoire of moves, ways to use them, combinations, and things that eventually, your body can execute without real conscious control. This has been referred to by many as kinaesthesia — a key component to muscle memory.

    It’s important to our discussion here because, unlike cooking potatoes, spinning yarn absolutely requires the development of muscle memory to achieve real control and real success. Like learning a dance move, you’ll practice it and practice it, perhaps staring in a mirror to see if it looks how it should, perhaps comparing your physical movements to static pictures on a piece of paper, analyzing your results in some frustration, and persevering… until suddenly, maybe just once, maybe just for a second or two, bam — the muscle memory hits. It could be fleeting, then gone again, and you strive to get it back, simultaneously elated that you really felt it, and frustrated that, having felt it, now you aren’t feeling it.

    A spinner needs this sense, needs this physical knowledge. Is it possible to make yarn without it? Yes. Is it possible to really own that process, really make it work for you, without it? I believe it isn’t. On paper, dancing is nothing more than executing motions set to music. In practice, though, it’s more; and to really be good at it, you have to feel it — whether you’re dancing in “The Nutcracker” or going clubbing and thinking how sweet it would be to lose yourself in the tunes for a few.

    I think what a beginning spinner should be shooting for isn’t the yarn you’ll produce right off the bat. The yarn is secondary, really — I know that sounds crazy, but trust me on this. What the beginning spinner should be shooting for is the moment when you know you’re really dancing, really on beat, something larger than you is working through you and you could go forever just like you are right now. You’re looking for the moment in learning to ride a bike when, suddenly, it all came together and you knew you weren’t going to fall over, and you could just go and go and go. It’s the time you swung a bat at a baseball and you saw it hit and felt it through your whole body and the ball went flying and everybody was hollering “Run! Run!” It’s buttoning your winter coat in the dark one frigid morning. It’s reaching in your pocket and being able to tell what’s car keys and what’s change. It’s not having to look at your fingers while you type, knowing where the buttons are on your game controller. It’s all the same thing, but you have to learn it, physically, for each of those things. No amount of rational comprehension will ever substitute for feeling it.

    This is part of why small children learn to spin easily. Children are still in the throes of developing their kinesthetic sense of the world in which they live and how they can interact with it. They can’t tie their shoes, they can’t eat with utensils, they can’t make buttons work, they fumble with things, they try and fail — and that, too, provides them with a useful tool for learning to spin: readiness to deal with frustration. Kids are really up to speed on the whole idea that understanding how something should work doesn’t mean that they can just do it. It’s part of their daily reality. But for adults and older children, we’re adept at negotiating our life skills and learning new physical things comes very hard. We want it to be the case that comprehension, and following steps, produces the results we desire. We expect it to do so, because most of the time, it does.

    As adults, too, we become goal-oriented more than process-oriented. We know we’re spinning to get yarn; therefore getting yarn is the goal. So anything that gets us there is good. And, well, that’s true. But it’s limiting in the long run, because eventually we’ll build up a repertoire of quick-and-dirty moves that we can perform by rote, but never by feel. We’ll be able to stand in ballet class meticulously moving from first to second to third to fourth position, executing perfect pliès at every one, but we won’t be able to fly through an entire routine on stage as if something else were moving us. We’ll go out clubbing and we’ll be that chick who just looks like she’s trying too hard, instead of being that other chick who’s laughing and dancing and doesn’t even know anybody is watching her.

    Bringing it back to the potatoes (my mother would be so proud), yes, it’s possible to learn tips and tricks and follow directions and get great food. It’s like cooking from a recipe. There absolutely is a time and a place for it. But the best cooks, the cooks who really own it and shine, are the ones who can take or leave the recipe; the cooks who understand the recipe and yet can depart from it at will, the ones who can look in the pantry, pull out four things, and improvise a brilliant dinner. They’re the ones for whom it’s not just a science and a technology but also something you do while you’re singing, humming, tapping your feet; the ones who have a rhythm to their potato-dicing and can smell when it’s all coming together just right.

    When I’m teaching people to spin, that’s what I’m trying to help them become: spinners who can bring to bear all of the technical, scientific, and methodical stuff with the totally intangible sounds-like-a-hippie-fridge-magnet-slogan kind of stuff, to be able to dance through the process and emerge with exactly the desired yarn. I want them to feel it, but also be able to analyze it and reason it through. I want them to know there’s always more. I want them to be able to problem-solve and perform epic feats of spinnerly daring. I want them to risk, and fail, and learn from that; to set their sights high, take the long shot, and end up right on target. I want them to have the confidence to say “I can bake apple pie even without the nutmeg this recipe calls for,” and the savvy to say “This oven clearly runs hot, and I have to change my plans in order to get the pie I want.” I want them to be able to say, “Okay, the stir-fry kit was good, but next time I’m chopping my own veggies,” and get their dinners just how they want them.

    So, you’re wondering (if you haven’t forgotten entirely where we were going), what does this have to do with that “you must predraft to spinning thickness” conventional wisdom?

    The simple answer is, I hate it. I don’t want to see new spinners believe it’s required. I don’t want them to depend on it as a method. I think it’s crippling. Do I think it’s cheating? No. It’s one way, and a valid way, to get one kind of results. But I think it’s limiting. I think it robs a new spinner of key formative time early in the process, time that’s some of your best opportunity to develop the muscle memory you need to really control what you do, and to love your results, rather than just liking them.

    I think it appeals to us because we want to get yarn, and get yarn now. It works for that. For certain kinds of yarn, it has a place. For certain preparations, you do want to do the final prep yourself, immediately before spinning, say by pulling a roving or fluffing it up or tightening a puni or rolag or breaking it into pieces or all sorts of things. And you can learn a lot about fiber and how it moves by going through those process, and by attenuating fiber down very small without adding twist. It is a useful learning exercise at times, and it is a valuable tool to have in your toolbox at others. But what it isn’t is a requirement or an absolute; and as I say, I find it to be a hindrance to the acquisition of other spinning skills, which while they’re slower coming in some respects, make everything that comes after that much easier.

    So then, what advice would I offer new spinners to counter “you need to predraft?” Ah, I’m glad you asked that question!

    • Don’t worry about how your yarn looks. Really, don’t even think about it. Think about how it feels to spin. If you do this, then sooner than you think, that yarn you weren’t thinking about is going to look and feel far better than the yarn you made when you said “Abby’s totally full of it” and predrafted to spinning thickness anyway. In fact, I encourage you to do that.
    • It’s not a waste of time or fiber if you don’t get the yarn you hope for right away. It’s not — it’s an investment in skills acquisition. You are studying; time spent studying, and resources spent on study materials, are not wasted. Plus, later you’ll have them for benchmarks.
    • Do what you’d do if you were predrafting to spinning thickness… except, then add twist with your fingers. You can watch how twist takes the fiber, very closely. You can feel it in slow motion. You can just play with it.
    • Park and draft. When you spin, you aren’t using a tool to turn a material into a product. You’re not using a spindle (or wheel) to make wool (or other fiber) into yarn. I know, I know — this sounds completely bogus, and this next part sounds like a cheesy bumper sticker, but here goes: visualize yourself controlling twist. Twist is a force of nature, and you are its boss. It wants to eat your fiber. Are you going to let it? Eventually. But you’re going to feed it in a controlled way, because you are the boss of it (or you will be) and you know what’s best. Right now, all you’re doing is wrestling with it, sparring with it, learning its moves. Park and draft is a fabulous way to do that, and the building blocks of skills you’ll use forever as a spinner.
    • Relax. Laugh, let it go. It’s all good.
    • Remember: it is hard. Like anything else with so physical a component, people who are good at it make it look easy. I mean, Michael Jordan makes basketball look easy, but that doesn’t make it easy for mere mortals. You wouldn’t expect to walk onto a basketball court and do what he does; don’t expect to pick up a spindle, or sit at a wheel, and do what master spinners do. And forgive yourself when you don’t.
    • Take breaks. You’re learning a physical thing; you have to give your muscles a chance to have things gel. This won’t happen overnight.
    • Praise yourself. Lots of people around you aren’t going to have any idea what you’re doing. They aren’t going to have any helpful feedback. They’re possibly even going to be downright weird about it. Ignore them. You are doing a difficult, amazing thing. It will come.
    • Don’t assume that what worked for someone else will work for you. Sometimes what’s easy for one person is impossible for another. Don’t be afraid to try different things.
    • There is no One True Way. As a spinner, you must find your own way. In this case, you really are a special snowflake! Ask lots of people; disagree, argue, form opinions, state them, test them, try new things, and be willing to learn new ones too. In the long run you’ll have a style that’s all your own that’s made up of things you built yourself and things you learned here, there, and everywhere. Take advice from people who disagree with each other.
    • Everyone has something to teach you.You can learn The Answer To Everything You’ve Been Wondering, That One Perfect Truth, from someone who has never spun before, and in fact, you just put a spindle in his hands. Be ready and willing to learn it!

    And so, gentle reader, we come to the end of “Why Spinning Yarn Is Like Cooking Potatoes… and Dancing.” I hope you’ve enjoyed the diatribe! Remember, everything in it is 100% guaranteed to be my firm and unflinching opinion (predrafting stinks!), except of course for when I totally disagree and think you absolutely must predraft. In sum, know how to do it — but don’t depend on it. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s cool — try something else, as there’s lots of other stuff to try. And if you’re a brand new spinner, don’t let anybody tell you “this is how you have to do it.” There’s no such thing!

    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.