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November, Shorter Days, Sock Blends

Today I’m working on sock blends, in large part to work my way through the pile of bombyx silk seconds that I wound up with from recent silk dyeing sessions. Basically, any time that a silk fails my quality control for being saleable as top, I put it on the blending pile — it’s still beautiful fiber, but not quite up to my standards for sale. Usually, this will be because I break a top while moving it; sometimes it gets too tangly in a dyebath; sometimes it weighs up a little short. Every now and then, there’s one where the dye doesn’t penetrate to the depth I expect it to, or the colour is just not quite right. So anyway, blending fodder.

Muted Sock Blends TodayAs luck would have it, here as days grow shorter and bleaker, I seem to have already worked my way through the lion’s share of bright colours, and I’m left with the muted tones, and a whole lot of gray superwash merino, which is absolutely wonderful in its softness, but… you know, gray! So here I am with muted-colour silks and gray superwash that I’ve postponed far longer than I meant to. There won’t be a new round of really bright silks until I do another dye day, and that’s not going to be until my next shipment of bombyx silk arrives, sometime this week I expect. Of course, with Thanksgiving approaching, and family coming in to town, next week isn’t going to be a big work week for me.

Sock blends, though, are big fun. I find them very satisfying. To be a really good sock blend, the fiber needs to be very easy to spin fine, and absolutely next-to-skin soft. It needs to have some memory, so there’s some stretch and bounce, and it needs to be a long-wearing blend. Combining superwash wool, various silks, and a little bit of nylon absolutely does produce such a blend, and then it’s up to the spinner to spin the sock yarn he or she wants.

Perhaps the trickiest element with sock blends is coming up with something that it’s not just as easy for someone to buy in a millspun sock yarn. Especially in the past few years, the range of options for commercial sock yarns have really increased, and this is a constant challenge for me as a fiber producer. I tend to solve it by adding really luxurious fibers into my core recipe — a little angora, or some cashmere, maybe baby camel down — and sometimes man-made high-tech fibers that do really interesting things (like firestar nylon, which if done right can be both really startling and not too overpowering).

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Abby’s Yarns Site Up and Running!

Well, the Abby’s Yarns site is finally up and running, and what with the Franquemont Fibers eBay store stable and reasonably full of inventory, I’m shifting gears from production work to web work for a little bit. Little by little, I’m gathering up, editing, and putting online many things I’ve written on the subject of fiber arts over the years, as well as building my online storefront. It’s no small task, but it’s very exciting to be putting it all together at last.

Choosing the first set of articles to work with is proving to be a bigger challenge than I ever expected! For November 2006, I’ll be focusing on handspinning basics and some of the most frequently asked questions I hear from new handspinners (or folks who’d like to become handspinners), and on getting shop infrastructure in place. Stay tuned to this space for regular updates!

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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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.

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Purple Mohair/Silk Triangle; Creme de Menthe Scarf

Some recent finished objects with handspun yarn, and one in progress.

1. Triangle, bottom up, improvised variant on “Falling Leaves” lace, bounded by criscrossed diamonds. The yarn: I blended mohair, tussah silk, and a dash of the horrible-looking orange and black firestar nylon, and that is this 2-ply yarn.

2. Sampler scarf, including lots of fudging! The goal: fit various lace patterns into bounded diamonds while using up the yarn, which I’ve been meaning to do something with for 2 years now. It’s a cashmere/tussah silk/merino 2-ply yarn, and the scarf, knitted on size 2 US needles, came to about 6 feet long.

3. Again with the using up stuff I spun a while ago, this yarn was dated 1/4/2004, and is a L:ouet camel/tussah blend that gave me because he rules.

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What is blocking?

What is blocking?

It’s when you stretch your completed object out or finish it in one of various ways in order to make it stay a given size and shape. The shawl I’ve been knitting on, here:

will not be that size or shape exactly when it’s done, and the pattern will really pop out once it’s blocked. As it is right now, you can’t really see the pattern — it’s very muddy looking.

Once the shawl’s complete, I’ll wash it (because I also want the mohair to bloom) by hand in cool water, and then roll it up in a towel and squeeze it till it’s only damp. While it’s damp, I will spread it out someplace big enough, tug it here and there to be make the pattern show and line up and so the whole object is the right size, and then pin it, weight it, or lightly go over it with a not-so-hot iron to make it steam a bit. Once it dries, it’s set in place like that (until it gets soaking wet again, of course).

Before blocking:

After blocking:



I’ve promised detailed blocking pictures for the next project to be blocked. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Articles That Irk Me Somehow

A selection of the kind of article I’m talking about, that definitely does heighten the profile of the fiber arts, but about which I have mixed feelings. I have seen links to these in some cases, but to collect a selection I just went to google news, put in “knitting,” and poof, all the same sort of articles crop up. I’ve been reading these articles for a few years now, in every local paper everywhere I go, in webzines, all over the place.

Unlike their colonial counterparts, whose clothing often depended on what was spun at home, many of today’s spinners are not concerned about turning their handiwork into fabric. Nor are they claiming to follow in the footsteps of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who spun every day to persuade Indian villagers to renounce imported textiles and resume making their own cloth.

Many spinners say they have no intention of making anything at all. They churn out skeins of wool, cotton or more exotic fibers like alpaca or camel, and pile up skeins, in their varied colors and textures, for display. Or they give them away to friends and relatives. It is the calming, rhythmic and even meditative effects of spinning that have won many people over.

Today’s bulky threads and bigger needles mean fewer stitches and less time. They also hide mistakes, which are obscured under embellishments.

“You don’t have to be really bright and know all the fancy stitches to make something beautiful anymore,” said Terry Schuster, a former JCrew and Urban Outfitters executive who took up knitting last year after moving to Tampa. “You just knit a pattern and the yarn does the work.”

“Knitting has definitely become the hip thing to do,” said Dana Lerner. “The yarns are so cool these days. You can make these gorgeous one-of-a-kind things. … It’s a timeless tradition that’s become new again.”,0,2161853.story?coll=orl-news-headlines-orange

“It was a very spiritual thing. All of that fiber went through my hands the whole time I was spinning and knitting,” O’Donnell, 46, said. “A part of me was in that shawl by the time I was done.”

Spinning, which dates back thousands of years, has been performed primarily by women, Colcord said.

Men, meanwhile, traditionally took on the more elevated roles of knitting and weaving.

On the way home from work last night, Chad and I were talking about this whole trend, and I commented that these articles seem to always interview these people who say the exact same things. “Well,” said Chad, “I mean, they make good copy, and all the people who’ve been involved with textiles forever aren’t going to say that kind of stuff.” I snorted. “Yeah, that’s a point — I mean can you imagine if they called up, oh, Alden Amos, and he said ‘Oh, it just makes me feel so connected to my ancestors to make spinning wheels — it’s so spiritually fulfilling!'” I don’t know Mr. Amos personally mind you, but from the things of his I’ve read, I don’t see that happening.

So, then I got to thinking — what would I say? What would YOU say? If I were going to write an article about this resurgence… well perhaps I should. But I’m also curious: how do y’all react to these articles and quotes?

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Denim-Look Mohair Silk Sweater!

From ages and ages ago, I had this yarn that I strongly felt should be a sweater, a sweater I even wanted, but which I had no desire at all to knit. A friend of mine kindly offered to knit it for me. We sat down together, talked it through, took measurements, and she designed and knit me a sweater. But, then she decided she didn’t really feel satisfied with how it came out, so she redid it! And now I have it.

Original post a bit about the yarn, which is a mohair and silk:

Photo gallery:

My designated knitter, who’s been knitting longer than I’ve been alive, says she really enjoyed the yarn, and — as I hoped would be true — it didn’t shed, it was possible to frog the entire sweater, it was pleasant to work with, and it has bloomed in the garment finishing process and should bloom a little more still. All in all I’m pleased. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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