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“Old School” vs. “New School” handspinning

Original Post:

Are people spinning yarn today for the same reasons they were a few decades ago? Maybe, maybe not — maybe some of both. When a more traditional spinner encountered a newer art yarn spinner and expressed surprise, a little bit of a culture clash occured. Here’s what I said:

Welcome to the culture shock that happens when a longstanding spinner meets the new generation, many of whom are intensely focused on novelty yarns! It is pretty common among the spinners I’ve gotten to know in the past few years, who have been spinning for 5 years or less. There’s a real sea change afoot relating to this. And even many of the traditional novelties are no longer in vogue. Related to this is the art yarn movement — novelty yarn which is spun and never used in a product beyond yarn; the yarn itself is viewed as the end product.

To an old-school spinner, much of these seems terribly wild and crazy. Me, I was so stunned by my overall “not getting it” feeling that I spent a year or two working on both traditional novelties and new novelties. Pretty much across the board, I can’t find a use for novelty yarns; but, some of ’em were interesting and fun techniques to work through. The traditional boucle and its many variants are actually pretty addictive to produce, even if I have yet to actually use more than one of my products — and because I got hooked on boucles, I now consider coned binder yarns, synthetic flosses, metallic sparkly thread, to be legitimate supplies — something you wouldn’t have heard me say 5 years ago.

I think what’s drawing a lot of new spinners TO spinning, in the first place, is the appeal of being able to create novelty yarns that can’t be purchased, and that are wild and crazy. These are knitters and crocheters who have previously purchased novelty yarns. It’s a really interesting time in the spinning world, if you ask me. And there is not a ton of interaction between the new school and the old school. 😉

I subsequently received this comment:

I think a lot of it is just that spinning bulky novelty-ish yarns is just flat out more fun…especially if you’re low on patience (*cough*) I do find that a lot of them look nicer than store bought novelty yarns though, because they’re not made out of cheap scratchy crap and still look pleasantly handspun. A very good conventional handspun tends to look a lot like a very good storebought yarn, and as a poor young knitter, I’d be more inclined to go buy that sort of yarn than spend more time and money making it (or spending a LOT of money buying a handspun version.) I’d rather spin something that I can’t buy cheap, ya know?

See, this is interesting. This reply contains a selection of the sorts of statements that surprise, and sometimes even tend to upset or irritate the more “old-school” spinners of the world. Here’s how that breaks down:

1. “Spinning bulky novelty-ish yarns is just more fun.”

I think this might be true for new spinners, but it is definitely NOT true for the vast majority of people I know who’ve been spinning for decades. Most of the really longstanding spinners I know derive their challenges from spinning meticulously designed and planned yarns that are ideally suited to their purposes, from pushing the boundaries of what they already can accomplish with the techniques they know, from learning really new things — and the tricks of the trade for producing novelty yarns don’t tend to do that as much for a really longtime spinner as for a new spinner. The exception here, of course, is that there are spinners who really were largely forbidden from trying some of those novelty techniques, for whom they are exciting new things — for a while, at least. Whether that continues to be true is hard to say. I myself, despite spending almost 2 years of study on novelties, and being entirely capable of producing them, just never really found most of them to be much fun.

2. “…and still look pleasantly handspun.”

See, this starts to get the old-school going. Generally speaking, thick-and-thin, irregular spun, slubbed, irregularly-plied, imperfectly drafted yarn, looks to a veteran spinner like evidence of newbie work. I assure you that I can tell the difference between a thick-and-thin yarn produced by an expert spinner with thick-and-thin design elements carefully planned for, and a novice yarn. However, people who are not spinners and possibly even spinners who are not as experienced as I am, tend not to be able to tell that so well. Moving straight on from there into part 2 of the same peeve for a lot of old-school spinners:

3. A very good conventional handspun looks just like a millspun yarn, and it’s cheaper to buy the millspun.

And this is where the old-school spinner’s head is likely to explode. This is perhaps true… to the untrained, undiscerning eye. And this starts to get into the real meat of things for a lot of long-time spinners. The truth of the matter is that a millspun yarn looks almost like a real handspun yarn. In order for the Industrial Revolution to succeed, folks, two major things had to happen: first, machinery needed to be created to closely approximate work done by skilled labor; and second, the world at large had to be sold on accepting a lesser product, for a far lesser price.

I can’t stress that enough. The mill, the factory, the modern world as we know it, filled with mass-produced goods — it all depends on people being willing to accept a life filled with things that are not quite as good as the original variants, simply because they can be made more widely available when mass-produced. Two centuries ago, your clothes would have fit correctly — because either you would have made them to fit, or a family member would have, or a trained professional would have. Now, almost nobody even KNOWS what correctly-fitting clothes look like.

A guildmate of mine is fond of saying, “Columbus sailed to the New World on handspun, handwoven sails.” This is a fact, and one not often remembered or considered these days. Folks, textiles are so integral to our lives, so essential to our daily routines, that in many respects they are largely invisible to us, now that most of us no longer engage in daily work to produce them, or spend large parts of our lives acquiring the skills to work with them. Does a really good conventional handspun look just like a commercial, industrial, mass-produced product? Not any more than an elaborately crafted piece of handmade wooden furniture looks like something you picked up in a box at Target for $69.95. It’s far more accurate to say the mass-produced item comes close to looking like the original, handmade thing. Do we all believe that handmade furniture must have flaws, problems, and major imperfections in order to “look handmade,” or do we marvel at meticulous joinery and finish work? Why do Ferraris, custom motorcycles, and that sort of thing cost so much more than just buying a new Honda? Because they’re made by hand by people expert in that making, expert in ways it can take a lifetime to achieve.

More with the fiber arts than other arts and crafts still practiced, modern industrialized cultures tend to use this language to discuss them where we say “Oh with all those flaws, it looks handspun and handwoven!” To someone who HAS invested an entire lifetime in really doing things meticulously, this is an extreme frustration. It would be like a master furniture maker having his or her work shrugged off and disregarded because it doesn’t look like a 6th grader’s wood shop project, which clearly has a “handmade look” to it, right? Those globs of glue, flawed joins at corners, the nail poking out the side, and the uneven stain under uneven polyurethane — definitely handmade. By a novice. Who I’m sure enjoyed making that napkin holder, but that doesn’t mean it’s a master’s work. It could even be very nice novice work, and functional, and pretty or cute or really entertaining to use — but it’s not master work. Master work is the Real Deal that mass-production seeks to emulate in sufficient quantity, and at low enough cost, to make it available to large markets.

So, old-school spinners were steeped in the notion that the goal is to become a master spinner — someone who COULD have spun and woven sails to cross the vast uncharted seas, clothed an entire family forever, taught generations to do the same. In that mindset, novelties, in general, are just that — novelties: funny, amusing, light-hearted; there’s nothing WRONG with them, but they aren’t “serious yarn.” This is especially seen to be true when we’re talking about novelties that simulate the newbie look, which now there are even millspun yarns that do. To a hardcore old-school textile artist, it is utterly mystifying why anybody would *intentionally* produce thick-and-thin yarn, for example. But meanwhile, to many new-school spinners, who cannot (or cannot yet) produce truly excellent old-school yarns, and whose yarn use norms probably also differ from the old-school spinner’s, the question is why anybody would choose to spin something you could arguably just buy. And that particular question, too, is a sore point for many fiber artists, because it’s been being asked for SO long — why would you weave, spin, knit, crochet, sew, or anything like that, when you can just BUY stuff? For fiber artists, too, it gets asked with much greater frequency and often condescension than for other kinds of craftspeople and artists. Consider, for example, the kind of money that goes into build home workshops for people who enjoy woodworking — and how rarely those folks are ever asked, why would you make a jewelry box, chair, table, when you could just buy one?

This is what I’m trying to get at by calling it culture shock — for a lot of people who’ve been spinning for decades, things like the art yarn movement, or spinning thick-and-thin slubbed yarns from expensive, well-prepped raw materials, are shocking and incomprehensible — in much the same way as the art yarn devotee has a hard time coming up with a good reason to spin a meticulous 2-ply thread. Obviously, both schools of thought share more in common than they don’t, however: neither side has to ask the other “But why do you spin at all, when you could just buy yarn or better yet, finished items?” And both sides have things to learn from each other as well.

My purpose here is not to call one side of this debate better or worse than the other — they’re simply different, with different rationales and value sets and aesthetics, which can be shocking to each other. But there are things to be gained, great things, from open and honest debate. For the old school, there’s all kinds of new opportunity to rethink what you might be used to seeing and doing; and for the new school, there are vast, untold wealths of knowledge held by veteran spinners, which really can make you better at doing what YOU want to do, whatever that is.

3 thoughts on ““Old School” vs. “New School” handspinning

  1. Oh, A-MEN, honey.

    …master furniture maker having his or her work shrugged off and disregarded because it doesn’t look like a 6th grader’s wood shop project, which clearly has a “handmade look” to it…Not any more than an elaborately crafted piece of handmade wooden furniture looks like something you picked up in a box at Target for $69.95…..

    Oh, my husband would love you. In fact I think I love you, too.

    Master work is the Real Deal that mass-production seeks to emulate in sufficient quantity, and at low enough cost, to make it available to large markets.

    That’s a really important point, along with the one about nobody knowing how clothes are supposed to fit. Since nobody knows what quality looks like anymore, they assume that mediocrity is the acceptible standard. Myself, I alter practically every shirt, jacket, and top I buy, because I don’t like my clothes hanging off me like sails.

    Speaking as a carpenter’s wife, however, I can say there’s a reason why I might *threaten* to buy a table, chair, or jewelry box–because the carpenter’s home is always the last to be worked upon.

  2. I am a beginning spinner – very beginning; my first lesson was on Feb. 8.

    I’ve been a fiber artist for 30 years, though, and I came to spinning through a desire to expand my skills in working with fiber and to deepen my knowledge and ability to create textiles. My first yarn was indeed very thick and thin and imperfectly spun and plied. I combined it with a commercial yarn and knit it up into a very servicable and attractive have, and immediately started a new and improved single. My spinning teacher is very impressed with the progress I’ve made in such a short time, but to my mind, that’s exactly what I should be doing. After 30 years, I know a lot about fiber – learning to spin is partly just practice to let my hands learn new techniques, but mostly a matter of seeking out and integrating ever more information about how fiber behaves before it becomes yarn. My current goal is to be able to spin a true fingerin weight 3-ply yarn for socks, and I think I’m well on my way.

    I suppose I’m an old-school spinner in this respect. I’ve always been and old-school knitter and crocheter and cook, too – I want to be able to make high-quality, long-lasting, beautiful goods. I don’t want to replicate what I could buy in a store; I want to do it BETTER. I take great pride in the quality and craftsmanship of what I make, and my pride will not let me turn out anything that is less than what I am capable of. Nor will it let me ever stop trying to improve what I am capable of.

    Thank you so much for the knowledge and information you offer in your blog. I’m working my way through reading every post, and learning a lot along the way. I look forward to one day taking a class that you teach – as much as I learn from your writing and videos here, I’m sure I could learn ten times as much from you in person.

  3. I am also a spinner who ‘doesn’t get it’ with the flash & dazzle of novelty yarns. In fact, I just can’t be bothered. Being a person who at one time was able to , and loved, to raise the sheep, and angora goats, and angora rabbits, I have to say, I’m leaning toward the Old School, enjoying the joy of the function and the feel of the real fibers, and the whole Foxfire image it impresses upon me.

    Now I’d just like to know how I could do this for some coins, because I could spin 10 to 1 what I can , or want to knit.

    Abby, I emailed you previously, I’m Jen from Napa CA …

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