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I’d rather have the skill and not need it, than need the skill and not have it

Here’s the thread:

And my thoughts after reading the article…

I think I’m probably somewhat different from a lot of developed-world craftspeople, in that I did not start into this stuff as an adulthood — instead, I was born to it and raised in it, in ways that are very, very old-fashioned. So with textiles, I never experienced this thrill of discovering, “Wow, I could be good at this!” and I never went through really consciously thinking about the frustrations of not being able to do the really fancy stuff yet. Obviously, I went through frustrations — but it was all at the same time as so many other childhood frustrations, as we learn to deal with things like tying our shoes or using utensils to eat with and that kind of thing. For a child, a certain amount of frustration and lack of skill is normal. Adults have grown accustomed to competence and so perceive things differently when they’re trying to do new things.

I also haven’t lived my whole life in the industrialized world. I think this is a major, major factor in the whole thing, and something that Metcalf doesn’t address at all. The industrial world is NEW. It’s really, really different from what was before it. So now we have say 8 generations worth of adaptation to the industrialized life, in the most modern parts of the world, compared to countless generations before that. What’s the big difference between the two worlds as I see it? In the non-industrialized world, what you do every single day has a clear, tangible, direct impact on your survival and wellbeing. Every day’s actions can readily be put into a larger framework that gives them the context they need to have meaning. It is meaningful that I got up and dragged my butt out to dig potatoes, because once I have dug those potatoes, I have FOOD. I will eat *those very potatoes that I dug just now.* They wouldn’t have been there to dig if they hadn’t been planted and tended to, either. If want them next year, I have to do it all over again.

On the other hand, this morning I got up, got in a car with my family, dropped off our child at school, and headed on in to work to sit at a desk for a while reading email, then go to a meeting to talk about the same thing that’s been talked about in 8 prior meetings already. Since then I’ve identified a couple of things that weren’t behaving like they were supposed to (and fixed those), written a status report, and gone to lunch at a restaurant. In exchange for this and the remainder of the day, twice a month, the number in my bank account will change such that it gets bigger, before then getting smaller again in turn as I exchange those numbered intangibles for concrete goods that I get from stores.

In one of these worlds, there is a direct and tangible connection between the time and effort and energy one spends doing things, and whether (or how well) you live. In the other, it is all very abstract.

I personally hunger for the direct connection: for a sense that it *matters* if I get out of bed today, or not. To be entirely honest, in the very abstract sense of working a white-collar job in the industrializeed world, it doesn’t mean squat if I show up or not. Everything it means is several levels removed from the nitty gritty stuff at the core of human survival or quality of life. It’s all artificial or abstract. It isn’t real. At the end of each work day, there is nothing tangible, nothing real, to show for all the hours and effort that I have spent. There are web sites and people whose email was answered, I suppose, but what do those *do*? How are they relevant to the fundamental human and societal necessities? In five years, who will give a wet slap?

The answer to that last question is, basically, nobody. It doesn’t honestly matter at all. Nobody cares NOW what I did workwise five years ago. I can’t think of a SINGLE TIME in my professional career (which pays me money that I use to buy things like my house or my car or my food or school for my kid) when someone has said “I’m really impressed by this, how did you do it? That’s beautiful. That’s interesting. That’s useful,” in a way that was really, truly fundamental. The things I do for work are useful *only for work* — only in the context in which they are created. They’re totally abstract goods and services.

But on the other hand, the things that I make, those are tangible objects. They are real. They serve a purpose with a direct connection to the foundations of human life and human society. They stand as a testament to the notion that I, my wit, my skill, and my toil exist, and have existed, and triumph in fundamental, essential ways. These things speak directly to the fundamentals, from which we are abstracted and removed in modern industrialized life. Food, shelter, clothing, those are real and essential. Web sites, better-looking PDFs, emails answered or unanswered, are tangential, ephemeral, transient. I can feel strongly positive about making someone a baby blanket that keeps getting used. Did I not have an absolutely astonishing black thumb, I could feel the same about planting a garden, growing food, harvesting it, and eating it. I can feel strongly positive about these thigns because at a visceral level, I recognize them as essential. But the only way I can achieve any semblance of such feelings about my abstract white-collar industrialized world job is by thinking “there are people to whom this really matters.” Only by attempting to convince myself that some part of what I do is essential in someone’s eyes, am I able to even bring myself to work, which otherwise would seem completely fraudulent and fake. This would probably be much easier if I were, say, an auto mechanic, and not a software developer.

Hard work and discipline are learned things. I believe that in the pre-industrial world, you had to have those qualities by the time you grew up, or you just plain didn’t make it. Nowadays… well nowadays, I don’t think you do, because you could have money, and you could get that in ways that don’t involve hard work and discipline at all, and lots of people do. I don’t think that culturally or individually, humans have come to a point of balance about all of that being the case. This leaves those who Metcalf refers to as “makers” in his article at loose ends. Whereas it was once essential that makers be making all the time, because that’s how stuff got made, now it is possible for stuff to get made *without* makers working all the time or often even being involved. But this too, I think, has long been a pretty basic human goal, because it’s hard to be a maker of absolutely everything so people specialize, and then you’re forced to interact with lots of other people to subsist, which means you’re dependent on them and thus beholden to group rules, and then what happens if you lose one or more makers anyway? It’s intrinsically appealing to think, “Hey, I don’t want to depend on people! Far simpler to depend on machines! And those just have to be made, instead of spending lifetimes learning to do things!”

Another factor in play here is people looking for sustainability. Let’s say you’re an English longbowman. I understand those guys were intensely deadly, a force to be reckoned with like you just can’t believe. But it took them a lifetime of training to be that good. Meanwhile, you could put a rudimentary gun in the hands of the rankest of recruits with no training, and he’d be almost as deadly. And if he’s killed, you’ve lost a month or two of getting him up to speed to use a gun, instead of a lifetime of training to the longbow. I use this example to point out it’s not limited to crafts, to makers — many human societies tend towards the cheaper and more replaceable no matter what it is. Even when it’s a lesser product.

Well, anyway. Something Metcalf doesn’t address in his article is one of the fundamental reasons why I do a lot of what I do, and that basically can be boiled down to the question of lore, or knowledge, and the preservation and dissemination thereof. Because let’s say that you operate a machine that makes, oh, socks. You know that it makes socks. One kind of socks. You know how to make it do that. You know what to put into it to get socks out. But that’s not the same as thinking about what makes a sock a really good sock, or knowing how to make a machine that can make socks (which if done well, is going to involve at least some knowledge about what makes a good sock). But you need socks, and you know how to make them fast using this machine, so it’s all good. And then one day, for whatever reason, your sock machine breaks. If you know a) what makes a good sock b) alternative ways to make socks c) different kinds of socks exist d) how to fix the sock machine, you are merely inconvenienced. Same, arguably, if you don’t know those things personally but know who does and can get him or her there to solve the problem. But, well, in any case, someone has to know all or most of those things. The mere fact that a sock machine exists doesn’t mean we no longer need the knowledge of how to make socks without that machine. Even if that machine never breaks, possibly knowing those things means you can make a better machine to make socks eventually!

My 7-year-old son largely believes that writing longhand is an obsolete and unnecessary skill which he does not believe worth putting forth effort to learn. I can relate to this, given I felt the same way about many things in school myself. What I’ve been trying to explain is that although he’s right in some respects — he really COULD just type — if he can’t write longhand, he’s dependent on a computer or typewriter to communicate things in written form, and those are much finickier and more demanding devices than pen and paper. In other words, I tell him, being able to do things with less technology — do things by hand — is LIBERATING. To repurpose some controversial rhetoric, I’d rather have the skill and not need it, than need the skill and not have it. 😉

In the final analysis, everything that composes the modern industrial world is, as we pretty much all accept, built up using the work of many aeons of those who have gone before us. We go to school and we learn, in 12-20 years or so, thousands and thousands of things, and in many cases, people before us spent their entire lifetimes, or many lifetimes, arriving at those data (and that’s not even factoring in the stuff we learn outside of school). We can leverage all that by knowing what’s gone before, by not forgetting, by not losing track of the things that are fundamental and essential, and we do that all the time, not just when it comes to craft.

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Edward’s First Yarn Work

This morning, before I had had more than about a sip of coffee, my 7-year-old son walked up to me all super-perky and said, “Mom, is there any yarn you have and you are not going to use it so you want to sell it?”

“Why?” I asked him.

“I want some yarn for a project,” he said. said something about a cat toy or something. I got a couple more sips of coffee and went to go dig out some yarn for the manchild to have for his own stash. He picked out the world’s most day-glo orange, and a deep blue, Red Heart Super-Saver oddballs from my stash of those (you have to have that sort of yarn around, for moments like this, you see). The manchild was FAR more awake than me, and sat immediately down on the floor and pronounced he was going to combine the two yarns into one fatter yarn. He lined up the two ends, started twisting, and then said, “Hrrrm. This could take a while.”

So, to make a long story short… I said I’d set him up on a wheel and teach him to ply. Mind you, this is actually a fairly self-serving thing — because if he learns to ply and he gets good at it, I can continue the many-generations-old tradition of making kids do all the tedious plying. After some consideration, I concluded that the spare Suzie would probably be the right thing to get him set up with — double treadle, already on the beat-up side, adjustable in lots of ways, and practically identical to my primary wheel so something he’s seen in action lots. Even though he initially thought it would be more fun to use the cute one with one big treadle and a fuzzy treadle cozy, he bought into it. 😉 I probably would have opted for the Kiwi too, but that’s out on loan. No Journey wheel for starting him off, no charka action, no extremely fast 40-year-old double drive electric spinner of great deadliness and volume.

That Suzie needs some TLC. I may end up putting the not-hi-speed-head from my Suzie Pro on it. This one is some sort of older, maybe prototype, Suzie, that I bought used. All in all it’s in okay shape, but needs TLC, and since we replaced the drive wheel and the bracket the footman rods connect to is different in form factor and balance from what the newer drive wheel would have expected, eventually, I have to get ahold of Majacraft and get a new whatever-that-piece-is… so since the balance of the wheel is flawed right now, it’s got the ST-like “where it balances and comes to rest” issue, which isn’t typical for a Majacraft wheel. And it wont have that once it’s had more TLC. Anyway, so I quickly rewrangled the scotch tension rig, which also needs love, got things settled, and sat the boy down to get plying.

Chad helps out with making sure Edward can keep treadling, especially given that the length of his legs means that the chair AND the wheel kept scooting on the floor.

Once he’d get things going, he’d start singing: in the beginning, “Feeding it yarn, feeding it yarn, feeding it yarn…” and then at this point, after we’d readjusted things by putting non-slip stuff under the wheel, under the boy-sized rocking chair (which in turn had to be kept from rocking by placing shoes under the rockers in the back, because he was losing treadling power because the chair would rock instead, hah), “I can see a mountain of yarn piling up, I can see a mountain of yarn piling up…”

Any time that he’d stop though, he’d also instantly relax all tension on the yarn, and then things would backspin and… then he’d start again and sometimes in the wrong direction. 😉 Since he rationally understands it all, having spent so much time with me for a mom and whatnot, he didn’t have any problem understanding what’s SUPPOSED to happen, and some things, I think, came very instinctively to him — observe his hands in the video, not bad for approximately 3 minutes of experience plying on a wheel!

MPEG, small, requires viewer

I’ve told him that if he gets good at this, I will indeed pay him to do it. I think there’s even a possibility it would work out really well for him as he could burn up energy while we all sort of sit still. Realistically I’m not any better at sitting still than he is — I have just managed to acquire a few fidgeting activities that don’t give the impression of simple fidgeting, and which produce concrete results.

Posted in both my LJ and spinningfiber…

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Why Spin Traditional Yarns?

In this day and age and in this western Europeanized culture, when spinning isn’t exactly something that is done out of necessity; when we have developed machines to do our spinning for us, is the effort to spin nice plain “traditional” yarns really just a sort of backwards timewasting (not taking into account the funness factor)? And the time and effort of handspinning would be better directed toward novelty/art type yarns of a sort that aren’t practical for various reasons to produce in an automated process?

Thanks to Geekling for the question.

This is the central question that I have struggled with for a great deal of my life, having grown up a weaver and spinner and in part, outside of the modern industrialized world. Many times in my life I have asked myself what, if anything, it means that I’ve achieved the skill levels that I have in the textile arts — and what value do these skills have in the modern world?

Certainly these skills are not valuable because without them, I would go unclothed (or clad in skins) — as would have been the case before industry and mass production. Unlike cooking — an archaic skill with modern interpretations and adaptations which most people roundly agree remains useful — textile production is no longer in any way essential to our daily lives. While most people will, at some point in their lives, have reason to be intensely grateful that they can cook, or negatively affected by inability to do so, most people in the modern world can cruise through their entire lives without ever having to produce a textile object of any type.

So what value is there? I think there are several factors at play, for me personally, narrowing the focus solely to spinning traditional-style yarns, which is a small subset of the textile techniques I personally consider extremely important. I’m also leaving out “fun” as your question says to do.

First, although it is possible to buy many kinds of yarn which are commercially produced (and cloth, and clothing) at a lower cost than the time invested to produce the same thing would be worth at even minimum wage, the truth is that the ability to produce your own goods exactly to your specifications allows you a much broader range of options than if you are forced to select from pre-fab goods. This could be compared to saying, in a world where you can buy chicken soup in a can, why would anyone bother making it from scratch? The answer is that the chicken soup from scratch is very likely just a superior product to that in a can, or made from a recipe that is unique and not found on the mass market. Clearly, for many people, that’s not a sufficient reason to bother with all the hassle involved in making homemade chicken soup, or baking your own bread, or whatever. But for others, there is something that makes it unquestionably worthwhile to have, say, great-grandma’s chicken soup just the way you want it.

The development of machines to make textiles is truly one of the most pivotal revolutions in history. Truly, it changed the world utterly, and unlike many other technological revolutions, did such a good job that it rendered itself all but invisible. But essential to the actual adoption of technological, mass-produced goods is the willingness of individuals to accept a lesser product than what can be custom-produced. We accept clothing that comes close to fitting, but that doesn’t fit us as well as something made expressly for each individual. We accept fabric that doesn’t wear as long, because it will be trivial to replace. We accept yarn that isn’t really as good or quite exactly what we want, because we can have it NOW, and we don’t have to learn to produce it.

Another factor is that there is value in the preservation of knowledge. All knowledge. Even apart from the fact that mastery of traditional techniques can allow for greater control and range of options in producing things that aren’t practical to mass-produce or make by mechanized means, there is historical value in making sure that things of the past are not lost from the world. As many people will agree that there is value in studying, say, hieroglyphics, or researching construction methods used in ancient Rome, so too there is value in researching, understanding, and preserving textile technologies. I would argue that it is all the more essential that these be learned by active practitioners, as there is far more to truly skilled textile production than can be simply written down, or than can be gleaned from examining old objects, old tools, and so forth. What’s more, because textiles are so commonplace in our lives that we don’t even think about them most of the time, I would contend that textile technologies are at far greater risk of becoming lore that is truly lost — a loss that impoverishes the entire world. Assuming, of course, that you believe as I do that there’s value in history.

I also personally believe that there’s value in really understanding things — that understanding the principles, premises, and so forth allow you to really maximize what you’re able to get out of technology, even. For example, I believe that if you drive a car, you’ll be a better driver for knowing how to drive stick, how gears work, when to use what kind of gear, and so forth — even if you drive an automatic transmission. And understanding how brakes work, what they do when they’re working well and what they do when they aren’t operating at peak efficiency, not only makes you safer and happier about driving, but lets you identify when it’s time to perform maintenance — even if you just pay someone else to do the maintenance. And you’re better off having a sense of whether or not a brake job is a big, hairy deal or a minor thing — you will be less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by an unethical repair person, for example. So too with producing textiles: knowing how to do it, what the materials are, and so forth, can make you a better judge of value when you do go to buy mass-produced items. Or handmade items, at that.

The final value factor for me is a little harder to nail down. That value is that it is worth developing skill to create even that which can be done by a machine. Machines are, at their root, devices contrived to do that which humans can do, thus liberating humans to do other things; or devices to simplify and aid in the objectives that humans wish to achieve. The relationship between humans and machines is a theme that runs throughout all of our daily lives, and has throughout history and across every culture of which I have any knowledge whatsoever. In thinking about that… I really like this quote:

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
~Elbert Hubbard, The Roycroft Dictionary and Book of Epigrams, 1923

There are countless stories, tales, fictions and realities of the struggle of man vs. machine. In producing more traditional handspun yarns, where similar goods are produced by machines, am I some sort of textile John Henry? Well, perhaps. But time and again we see that there is some intrinsic desire that humans have to do the work ourselves, for reasons which are perhaps primal and hard to quantify. I am called to by forces I can’t fully verbalize, that exhort me to engage in textile production and to preserve the lore of doing so. Others are called to by forces which say, “Make music, even though machines can do that,” or “Write stories, even though people watch TV more than they read these days.” It is a part of the human condition — and answering those calls has a real value, even though it is very hard to put into words.

Originally posted in “Spinning Fiber” community, 2005

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Hot Yarn Porn!

All yarn pr0n all the time! The past week or so of yarn.

Exciting yarn pr0n! Hot mohair action! Thrilling blends! Commercial alpaca!

Click any picture to go to the photo gallery (and you can leave comments and questions on the photos there if you like, too).

One ply kid mohair, one ply tussah silk, appx 2400 ypp

One ply merino/tencel, one ply merino/tussah silk, one ply space-dyed in the roving tussah silk

2-ply alpaca from commercial combed top

Next up: Deciding whether, and how, to dye the mohair/silk, and what purpose it’ll be put to. I’ve decided that 1.5 lbs or alpaca is going to be a cabled sweater, which means I won’t be getting to it anytime soon, and I’m going to deliberate about pattern, and doubtless come up with my own to a degree so that I can be one of the cool people who does that. The purple 3-ply tweedy giant skein is like 850 yards and, given an appropriate pattern, could be a close-fitting lacy sweater with a nice drape to it. With 3/4 sleeves and a wide neck, cropped. Haha.

I should be working on the shawl for my mother-in-law also, of course.

Next up spinning stuff: if there’s a Fiber Friday theme I’ll do something for that, I figure. I have this one bag of maybe a pound of blended interesting colour stuff I bought off ebay a while back, that I spun some of 2-ply and so now, of course, I have to come back and match that like a year later. I’m on a mission to spin my way through all the stuff that doesn’t readily fit in a neat location in my new stash organization scheme. Because if nothing else, the yarn’ll store in less space and it’s that much closer to being used for something, I guess.

I want to do some blending… but, I’m waiting for my new motorized Fricke drum carder, which I hope will get here in time for the weekend. It would be sweet to be playing with it this weekend. And now that I have solved my drum carder quandary, I have to also choose, then score, a floor loom. Then maybe I could chill out for a bit and just be productive.

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Projects, Projects…

A handful of recent projects. Lace knitting, even…

I started this in September as a “should take a while” project when we flew to Connecticut for my father’s memorial service, and finished it last week on vacation in Ohio:

It’s “Baby Cashmere,” which is a cashmere/merino/alpaca blend. One large panel with the leafy thing, two small end panels that are zig-zags, knitted; then each panel edged and straightened out some with single crochet then simple filet crochet border, then sewed together, then a simple crochet edging all around.

The major point of this project was prototyping for the shawl I figured on having made for my mother-in-law for this past Christmas, from this yarn that I spun last summer:

Impossible to photograph the yarn, and it turns out, even harder to photograph in progress

once it’s finished and blocked I’m sure it’ll look better. I’ll have to take pictures in daylight probably.

Included in the album are 2 photos of the swatch for it — it’s the leafy pattern, with central diamonds, and leaves have sorta diamondy vines around the center diamonds, which are going to occur throughout, and… well, okay, it’s just not gonna look right until it’s done and blocked and stuff.

Aaaaand a small amount of spinning:

I had 2 pounds of this commercial alpaca top in my stash when I sorted it the other week, and resolved to spin it all up reasonably fine, to get the hang of the new accelerating head for the Suzie that Chad gave me for my birthday. Turns out, inidentally, that I can cram about 8 ounces of this on a standard Majacraft bobbin:

That one’s not quite full yet. Once I get a pound — about 8 oz on each of 2 bobbins — then I’ll get back to the plying. I got about 6 oz onto the Woolee Winder bobbin, so I figure I’ll get another skein around that size off, then cram those 2 bobbins the rest of the way full again, using up the remainder of the yarn, and then ply for 17,000 years and be done with it. Then I’ll try to figure out what to do with the yarn.