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The Spinning Loft, 3/28 and 3/29 2008: The Full Story

In years past, I used to live on the highway. That was, in fact, almost 20 years ago, and in an era when I never would have thought that, should the World-Wide-Web occur, it would be attempting to sell me Mississippi Fred McDowell ring tones for my cell phone at the place where I’d link to lyrics that attempt to explain that phrase. So, what’s living on the highway? In my case, I worked for a Chicago bluesman by the name of A.C. Reed. We’d go out on runs — a day’s drive in a Ford Econoline extended van full of musicians, followed by checking into a motel, setting up at a club, generally eating fast food, then playing ear-bleedingly loud music in a smoke-filled club full of variously intoxicated people, followed by breaking down, packing up the van, getting more fast food to eat, crashing for as long as possible at the motel, and then doing it all over again.

In that lifestyle, you spend most of your time squabbling with fellow musicians, talking… er, all manner of trash, chain smoking, arguing about whether it’s gonna be The Clown or The Colonel for lunch, asserting that you know it’s really Canada when the Tim Horton’s show up, and the real Mason-Dixon line is actually the Waffle House line (it’s the south if there are Waffle Houses, someone contended), telling the new guy he was stupid to buy smokes in Indiana when you’ll be in Kentucky tomorrow and they’ll be even cheaper, talking… er, trash, and, well, staring at a lot of asphalt. You get to know a lot about the interstate, and what’s close to it, and where they go, and what they’re like. That’s what living on the highway means. You’ll be out for weeks at a time on some run, driving frantically to make the gig, not a moment’s real downtime, your life in suitcases and plastic bags of stuff from the last truck stop, constantly on the move, constantly telling and hearing all manner of stories.

So, one of the things A.C. used to always say up on the bandstand was that he was fittin’ to get down. “I’m gonna get down like James Brown!” he’d shout, hot pink tenor sax in hand. And then, with a rueful sixtysomething grin, “I better not get down too far, though, or I might not get back up!” People would laugh, and A.C. would do a number — something lively and danceable — and the wisecracking would keep going. Eventually he’d say, “I done wore it out on that one. I’m gettin’ old! I can’t do the things I used to do! Man, I look like Keith Richards!” (He didn’t, but this would make people laugh a lot anyway.) “Only Keith Richards is already dead, all he’s gotta do is lay down!”

Any time any of us living out on the highway would get to feeling particularly worn down, we’d find ourselves saying that: that we looked like Keith Richards, and we were already dead, all we had to do was lay down.

Well, last week was spring break. And the poor manchild — he got sick. And then about Wednesday, I started to feel not so fabulous. Thursday I took us both to the doctor, who verified there was no contagious plague going on here, and gave me the good drugs so I could make my gig in Michigan that weekend. You don’t cancel gigs unless you’re in the hospital. You gotta make the gig, and once you’re there, you gotta do the gig. Old bluesmen know all this, and it’s exactly how so many of them have managed to quite literally play themselves into early graves. Which old bluesmen also know, but it doesn’t change the fact that you gotta make the gig, for lots and lots of reasons. So, medicated much more professionally than your average old bluesman, and taking full advantage of Trucky’s comfort, I hit the highway and pushed straight through the roughly 4 hours up to Howell, Michigan. Just a mild, short drive — nothing like having to go from, say, Atlanta to Telluride overnight (really, we did that once).

While I was driving, it dawned on me that despite all manner of experience with being out on the road, I pretty much never hit the road alone. On the one hand, it’s totally sweet to do so — you never have to argue about what music to listen to, or stop for someone else’s bio break, or any of that crap. On the other hand, it gets lonely after a while and it stinks to be fumbling for your own cough drops.

The Spinning Loft is on Mason, just off the corner of Michigan, in a little bungalow, with parking back behind it. Beth has the first floor — one large room and two smaller ones, plus storage, a bathroom, and kitchen area. And a front porch, it seemed, but this being March in Michigan, who looked closely at that? Not me. But still, it’s a fabulous, down-to-earth, comfortable space, with wonderful light and, let us not forget, fiber, wheels, equipment, books galore.

About the time I was done unpacking (but not setting up for the gig yet), we were joined by Sharon Winsauer and Faina Letoutchaia, and basically, that’s when it all started to get out of hand. Lucky for Faina and her cold, me and my cold took pity on her, and did not force her to hide under a table where I couldn’t video her showing us how to really use Russian spindles. Lucky for me, she showed me anyway, and now, given some practice, in another five years or so I might be able to spin a viable amount of yarn with one.

Sharon had brought, to show me — and I failed to photograph so this is her photo — the real, genuine, actual, original Heere Be Dragone shawl. Folks, there is no way to make photos do this one justice. I want one of these shawls so desperately, but I’m the biggest loser in the world when it comes to carefully following a gigantic chart… and when I said that, Faina chuckled. “The thing is, about Sharon’s designs,” she said, “It is only one repeat.” Faina and Sharon both scoff at my plaintive wails of “But I knit so slow! I’m not a good enough knitter to tackle this!” including when I confessed to Faina that I’m still chickening out of starting her famous Forest Path Stole due to gross incompetence in the execution of nupps.

That’s when Beth had Faina pull out her latest shawl.

This is Beth’s photo, because I was too gobsmacked to take a picture, apparently. Seriously, I came home without a picture. What Faina has done here is take Andean (including pre-Columbian) designs from weaving, and translate them to lace. This is a feat which Faina makes look easy, but I’ll tell you, it gives me fits, even with patterns I know off the top of my head since early childhood. A while ago Faina and I were talking about this general concept, and I was showing her photos of various kinds of things, and I think I probably pointed her to this incredible time sink — The American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropologial Textile Collection. If that link isn’t working, start with Anthropology Department at AMNH, and look around their collections links for the textile collection. There’s a searchable browser interface — ohhh what a time sink, full of the ability to look at things like this and that and… anyway. Seriously, go get lost in that collection. I don’t know if I can make any of those links work for sure if you don’t already have their site open, and the thing is, it’s just an incredible textile collection. Even if I am biased, and it’s a collection that my parents’ work contributed to years ago.

Anyway, Faina… Faina is truly one of the world’s finest textile researchers, and don’t let her tell you otherwise (which she probably would attempt to do). Her fluency with all things fiber is simply amazing. And her interpretation of patterns involving complex symmetries and subtle nuance is amazing. So there she is, standing there with this unbelievable shawl, the design sources of which are absolutely obvious to me, but they’ve never been knitted lace before, and she tells me I should name the shawl. Such an honor!

Faina's Swatch

People were clamoring for the pattern for this shawl, but she has no immediate plans to write up the pattern. However (I’m so lucky) if I can manage to spin enough Faina-acceptable yarn, she’ll knit me one. That’s a done deal. It may take me some time, but it’s a deal. And that, of course…

…is why I need to spend a lot of time practicing with these, after the quick lesson Faina gave me. That, incidentally, was a real eye-opener! I can see the potential for quite an extreme level of productivity with the Russian spindle as pictured above. These are made by Edward Tabachek and the incomparable Faina has had input into them helping Mr. Tabachek get them fine-tuned into production-grade tools like traditional ones. I have to say, it’s often the case when I’m looking for some rather esoteric or near-forgotten fiber tool, Tabachek is the guy who makes it.

Anyway, right! So there I am in this fabulous shop, starting off my gig totally humbled by the stars who’ve shown up so far, and we’re just barely getting started with setup! Long about the first sound check, chairs are arrayed around the shop and those fiber packs are spread out and I discover that I forgot the stack of handouts and books I wanted signed by luminaries Beth had told me to expect to see around. Whoops! Well, worse things could have been forgotten. And that’s when Ellen walked in. She and I have been friends online for many years, but never actually met in person till this past weekend. I knew it was her by the exclamation, “Ah — wall of fleece!” and the fact that she stopped in her tracks right there.

You can just tell this is Ellen. She’s decimated the Wall of Fleece, and she’s grinning about it… in a t-shirt that reads “GOT FLEECE?” Who else could it be? And Ellen brought Jerry along too, of course, and he joined us for our spindle evening. We got started just about on time, immediately after the arrival of Marilyn Van Keppel and Greg Cotton, who drove all the way from Missouri and Iowa respectively. What an astounding list of luminaries! It’s humbling, and exciting, and possibly a little intimidating to realize you’re teaching a room at least half-full of teachers and people who drove further than you did to get here.

So, spindles. The subject of spindles is hard for me to distill down to a few hours, and I’m passionate about them. But yet, I sometimes feel out of sync with my fellow spinners in the US when it comes to them, and there are lots of reasons for this. So what can I teach people about spindles in a matter of an evening, that’s worth sitting around for? The short answer is a few tricks, a few techniques for low whorl, and some discussion that hopefully provides food for thought — and let’s try to make it all fun.

I’m fortunate to have handy examples of pre-industrial, spindle-spun textiles that have been in regular service, and to have examples of the tools used to produce them. That’s where we started things off, along with talking about the Andes a bit and how kids get started learning to spin yarn and handle fiber in general — some fiber, and a stick, followed by the transition to a weighted stick, and the fact that now we’re at the level of technological development which allows static civilization to arise and continue. Without this weighted stick, I like to point out, cultures stay hunter-gatherers. This is that primaeval tool which brings humanity out of ancient prehistory — and now we’ve grown to a point where we don’t even really remember it, or we see it as a novelty as often as not, if we see it at all. Even those of us who love textiles tend to overlook the simple spindle.

So, I like to tell a few stories, and pass around a few things. Last Friday, I passed around a child’s garment about 70 years old, and a bag I wove that’s about 23 years old. I passed around some spindle-spun yarn, and some simple — even primitive — spindles. These are low-rent, low-investment tools… but you can do amazing things with them. And then we hand out the modern American equivalent: the toy whorl spindle with the hardware store dowel. We played with those a while, and talked about what made them hard to work with. Then, we got into some things you can do easily and cheaply to change your spinning experience, and modify the spindle temporarily or permanently to behave more how you’d like it to. We talked about simple repairs, and compensating for problems, and what makes for more or less productivity — from lifestyle, to technique, to spindle attributes, and so on.

Eventually, everybody had some yarn built up on their spindles, so it was time to talk about how to ply with it. Everyone learned some simple winding-off techniques and ball-winding maneuvers, got the point where they had a small Peruvian-style ball, and we covered plying. We did a few stupid yarn tricks. And lo, we were out of time — too soon, too soon!

But the wool shop sleepover portion commenced. What madness! What fun! What a wonderful way to get to know folks better, and extend the too-short class time casually. Even if, as documented by Ellen…

…I look like Keith Richards at this point.

Seriously, that photo is half the reason why I kicked off with that story. I totally look like Keith Richards. I’m already dead; all I gotta do is lay down. But instead, I took my high-falutin’ decongestant, mourned its incompatibility with beer (I managed to drink ONE) and mostly guzzled the hot tea and chowed down on cough drops.

What a wonderful crowd of folks! Donna, with six kids, is in exactly the lifestyle situation which makes spindle-spinning productive. You know, because it’s about all you can do in between wrangling six kids. She was edging an absolutely gorgeous, snuggly triangle shawl. And if I had six kids, I’d be far less perky and charming and personable than Donna. Hah, Donna, I called you perky! Anyway, Donna’s post with things she took with her from the spindle evening really makes my week. With a class like that, it’s hard to know if, as a teacher, you’re really hitting the mark or not. And Donna, I think Beth may have found your crochet hook, if you’re missing it.

Beth just forwarded me a photo she got from one of the weekend’s Lisas — this would be the Lisa with the incredibly fabulous leafy sweater, not to be confused with the Lisa who brought her third handspun yarn to show, and I’m telling you, third yarn? The first two must have been a lot of yarn. There’s no other explanation for the impeccable spinning she’s already doing. Anyway, Fabulous Leafy Sweater Lisa sent Beth a picture of herself spinning off a rock outcropping out on a hike this week. See, Lisa? It’s addictive, this notion of goofy spindle tricks. Just you wait and see.

That’s Lisa, Faina, and Cindy, during sock yarn class.

Jofran also had to go early — the following day involving a multifamily trip to Detroit. But before she left, she very kindly offered me space to stay if I am able to make it up to Ann Arbor to see Stephanie’s book appearance next week, which I’d love to do, but don’t know if I can. But geeze, I’d love to.

We also had multiple Michelles! One was a model student, and one was definitely big trouble. However, this can be forgiven on account of her Trans Am is actually cooler than mine. I have a totally pedestrian 2000 that’s bone stock except for the cat-back exhaust, whereas she has a ’79 Bandit Trans Am with a bored 454. Perhaps we can schedule a spin-in at a midwest Firebird event. Here’s Michelle and Marilyn.

Michelle… had me sign her wheel. Man, now I really feel like Keith Richards. Patsy Z had already signed it, too. Marilyn brought a SpinTech — so now of course, since I sat right next to her and it’s totally quiet, that one’s going on my shopping list too. Let me know if you see one.

Here, Kat is hiding her face from us, Greg is surrounded by the pair of Lisas, and Faina is giving me the stinkeye for taking pictures.

This is the LOUD corner. The moist side of things. In the center, Beth is crowned with a tiara. That’s Beth! Oh, and Shannah is back there doing some sort of “keeping the shop running” thing or another. You can only see the tops of their heads, but on the other side of Ellen from me, you’ll find the heart of the trouble: Jillian and Carla. They’re unmistakably trouble, and unmistakably fun… and Jillian caught me by surprise when she passed along greeting from Kristi Porter — who I haven’t seen since she was in college and I was living on the highway, and we used to hang, doing absolutely nothing yarn related whatsoever. Though I often looked like Keith Richards back then too. Kristi, as then, looks far more presentable than me.

And Jillian’s new book is out now, woot! Definitely calls for a beer. And no, I swear, I’m not saying nice things about Jillian just because she brought me two sixpacks of fine local beer. That would totally take at least three sixpacks.

And hey, speaking of apple-for-teacher type stuff, will you look at this?

Faina is such a show-off. Well, okay, she isn’t, but she really should be. This little drink cozy makes me want to drag a random chullu knitter to Faina’s place and leave them to it. What’s most shocking is that I don’t think Faina’s ever seen a) anybody knitting a chullu or b) a chullu, up close and personal. This is a feat of knitting prowess that truly astounds me. “But look at the inside,” Faina insisted.

This is shockingly close. The fabric totally feels right too. “All three colours at once is tricky,” Faina commented mildly. Total understatement.

Anyway, so, spinning for socks. Ellen was kind enough to bring along a variety of sock disappointments, and tell their tales of woe. That was a huge help, because what I’d brought along for show and tell, other than some yarn, was a selection of socks, in various states of done-ness, from the circular sock machine. My problem, you see, is that I love to spin sock yarn… and just can’t seem to finish a pair of socks.

“Do you have second sock syndrome?” several folks asked in unison. I was trying to think how to answer that, when Ellen answered it for me. “She has first sock syndrome,” she said. It’s a fact. I want to like knitting socks. But… but I seem to just… not knit them. I start them, don’t get me wrong. That’s just as far as it goes. I truly need a designated knitter. I’m not kidding; if you’re a zippy sock knitter and you want to knit me socks in exchange for sock yarn, holler. This is getting embarrassing.

We started off spinning a firm, dependable sock yarn, with marling and striping, from two colours of blue faced leicester top. We spun firmly, and then we plied firmly, and then we gave it a rough finishing wash, and talked about a variety of things while we ate our tasty lunches. I’m telling you, nobody believed that the just-plied yarn above was going to look like it did. But that photo is of the very skein I passed around, that everybody liked.

After lunch, we passed around Beth’s skein of 100% merino, super-stretchy, super bouncy sock yarn. “I’d swear it has elastic in it,” she said, when she called me up asking about it. “Oh yeah,” I said, “We’ll be covering that in sock class. I promise.” And it’s easier than you think it is! By the time we were done with those 100% merino samples, and washed ’em up again and put ’em out to dry, it was time to get into a little bit of talk about the structure of 3-ply yarn, and why a true 3-ply yarn is going to wear better than a chain plied yarn. We did both of those anyway, using SWTC’s Karaoke space-dyed merino/soy silk.

In sum, we did worsted spun sock yarn, woolen spun sock yarn, and “spinner’s choice” twice. I think pretty much everyone managed to have a moment or two where the long draw clicked — and that was HUGE fun, because that’s really one of those things I feel is best seen and shown, rather than talked about. Kat’s clicked with the Karaoke, and it was shrieks of glee and huge grins all around. “I’ll spin what she’s spinning,” Greg said.

I’m itching to hear, over time, what ends up sticking from the sock yarn class, and what people took home. I had a blast deciding what range of yarns we were going to spin, with what techniques, and choosing the fibers. A HUGE thank you to Louet North America for supplying me with the positively luscious fibers for both of these classes. I’m particularly partial to the dark BFL. And the merino. Plus, well, there’s the Northern Lights pencil roving for the spindle class. And, you know, that Karaoke is growing on me. And that white BFL isn’t bad either. But, no, seriously, that dark BFL is particularly nice, and I’m definitely going to have to get some of that for my personal stash. It’s definitely the nicest coloured BFL top I’ve had in years.

But anyway, I’ll be interested to see who spins what. I’ll bet on Kat spinning up some fabulous woolens from that Karaoke, the fiber that let her really get her long draw going. If Jillian has enough beer, maybe she’ll do a bouncy merino. And I’m definitely going to spin some of that BFL, and beg Marilyn for her Faroese slipper pattern.

I expected to be coming home mostly empty-handed. Such was not to be the case! Not by a long shot.

The good news is, Beth can score me almonds. And several wonderful folks brought me almonds. Indeed, Marilyn blames me for gaining 5 pounds since she learned about them (but then, since I had SO many almonds, she kept hers and took them home, so how upset can she be?)

I’d just like to hop quickly to this photo from the end of the whole event. See, there’s Ellen, not moved too far from the Wall of Fleece, and Jerry looks amused, while Beth (crowned by a skein, of course) is on the phone, probably frantically calling in a desperate plea for MORE FLEECE!

Okay, actually she’s talking to Denny. I can’t show pictures of everything Denny sent because a) Flickr’s being incredibly slow right now and b) I already ate the chocolate. Plus the manchild got his Bionicle, which it turns out, IS the right one, and it’s from this year’s collection, and was not one that he already had. And I’m sure Chad will find a really good use for luxurious, spectacular salt that he totally recognized for what it was. And I’ll wear this:

and embrace my inner pink. For you, Denny. Just don’t tell everyone.

Supposing you can get Flickr to do its job, you can see all the photos here:

Abby’s Yarns on Flickr

and I’m sure, when you see just exactly how trashed Beth’s place is after the gig, you’ll agree there’s yet another reason I look like Keith Richards.

Sunday morning, incidentally, I lost my voice entirely. It’s actually back for the most part, as of yesterday. It appears that, in the wake of pushing myself to make the gig, I… got an ear infection. That would be why this writeup has been so long in coming; lucky for me, I didn’t have to make any more gigs just then, or I might have gone out like Charley Patton, wringin’ wet with sweat from the bandstand and coughing like mad till I drop on the spot.

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Workshop Prep!

March continues to bring all sorts of excitement. Yesterday’s news, for instance, said “Flooding is almost guaranteed in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region, he said. The Little and Great Miami rivers and the Ohio River could hit flood stage or rise above…” and this morning, quite a bit of flooding, even nearby, is being reported. We’re atop a rise on higher ground and our drainage is good, but it’s wet. Here’s my office window view the past few days:


It was raining so hard I drove the boy to the end of the driveway to wait for the school bus (no school closing for him, as our district is not one of the ones underwater). He snapped this photo of our swamped main storm drain that leads to a nearby creekbed (which is normally almost dry).

It’s been 4 or 5 inches of rain in the past 24 hours, apparently. Oh, the melodrama! Just… not enough to scare the bus drivers.

And time for work, too, Mom.

Pay no mind to the almost-finished objects and works in progress and so on, standing taller than my monitor and threatening to crush me. I won’t be getting to any of those today. No, today is a workshop preparation day. This seems, to me, not odd at all, because I grew up doing it — but at the same time, I think my upcoming workshops at The Spinning Loft in Howell, Michigan are the first I’ve done in over a decade, so it’s been a while.

Working with Beth has been fabulous; she’s given me accurate head counts all along the way, kept me posted on any special needs, gathered things she’s got questions about dealing with the topics at hand, and let me know what sort of things she keeps on hand just in case. She’s asked all the smart questions about space needs and class configuration and setup. It’s hard to believe she hasn’t been hosting workshops for decades; she’s on the ball about this.

The bulk of my fibers for my two workshops arrived last night, and today I’m divvying them up into packets. I find that doing these in advance, student by student, streamlines the in-class time for certain types of classes. I always do enough for the signed up students, plus me, plus two, plus I try to have extra random leftovers of various things. Having packets ready, plus extra, plus leftovers, is especially important if a material is hard to find, specialized, or requires advance setup (like warps for a weaving class). Unforeseen things happen. If someone spills his coffee right into his pile of materials, having more is a win. And what if there are extra people who show up? Let’s just say I’d rather have overprepared than underprepared. Nobody ever left a class upset that there were too many supplies, but too few? That’s a problem.

I could just take this heap of pencil roving and distribute it in class — and sometimes, I’d do exactly that. But we’ve got a full group and lots of material to cover and it’ll be easier to be able to say “Now, take your pencil roving — that’s THIS” and hold up my sample, “and do THIS with it.” So I’m divvying it up.

Then I do the same with the other fibers planned, and put together a packet.

Well… 15 packets, plus extra bits.

And that’s the fiber for the evening spindle class! We have three very nice pencil rovings, a medium wool top, a coarser carded brown wool in industrial sliver, and some fine wool. This selection gives me room to work with spinners at all skill levels from “never touched fiber before, not sure what a spindle is” to the likes of Faina “Forest Path Stole” Letoutchaia, who I’m sure will be ready with a basket of overripe tomatoes just in case I don’t have answers for her about something.

(NB: Faina is one of my favourite yarn people. We wisecrack with each other, but don’t mistake it for anything other than good-natured! I’m hoping she’ll stay after class and show me a spindle trick or two with the Russian spindle, a tool which… well, I don’t think I even own one right now, we’ll put it that way.)

Selecting fiber for the sock class was a different sort of exercise. As we were discussing in “Spinning for Socks: Why?” there are many things that make a given pair of socks ideal. With this class, I want to not only teach students how to spin sock yarn like the millspuns they may be buying to knit socks with, but give them an opportunity to think about what more is possible.

So, we’ve got your basic soft, fluffy Merino top, and we’ll talk about how to get a bouncy, lofty, squishy sock yarn with it, like some of the American and Japanese brands. We’ve got a few natural shades of Blue Faced Leicester, and we’ll get into harder-wearing sock yarns with these, like some popular millspuns from Europe. And then we have a few blends, like the Karaoke merino/soysilk blend featured in “Spinning for Socks: Colour!, and…

…some of my drum-carded luxury sock blends, and a bit of that pencil roving, and a longwool, and… yeah. Lots of stuff. And I should be finishing making the packets, instead of sitting here blogging in the dreary rain, warily eyeing the increasingly sodden back yard and exclaiming, “Holy crap, is that a new stream in the neighbours’ horse pasture?”

It’s my hope that people will leave this day-long workshop with the tools to spin the sock yarn they really want, and with some food for thought about socks in general, and what they’d like to get out of their socks, and how they can produce custom yarns that make that more possible than the mill does.

I’ve still got to make a handful of spindles for folks to try in the spindle class, and make sure I’ve got enough for folks to choose one to take home, and I have to put together student folders with the paper handouts. And I have a few more samples to spin to be handed around, and the ones dealing with colour need to be wrapped so they show how the colour works. If this series goes well, I’ll probably want to extend the show-and-tell materials, and have actual socks to pass around if I do this one again, much. Indeed, workshop prep can take as much time as the workshop itself!

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Art Yarn, Novelty Yarn, Spinning With No Purpose In Mind, and Emotional Yarn

From time to time, people ask me this:

Is it true that you hate art yarn, and process spinning?

Categorically not.

What I’ve said is that I don’t personally use a lot of novelty yarn, and consequently do not produce it. One of the things I’m trying to get at with a lot of discussion of this subject is that by and large, I think most spinners tend to produce yarn that is what they are interested in using. In this day and age, one thing that tends to draw people to spinning is the ability to produce something that you can’t simply buy. What that product is, specifically, will vary, as will the reasons you can’t just buy it. Often, once folks have tried their hand at spinning, they find it’s just as addictive as whatever yarn use initially caused them to give it a whirl.

Not all my spinning, by any means, is spinning for a purpose; but I do often answer questions about how to do it. I spin plenty of yarn just to spin it, with no greater sense of direction than “This fiber would make a delightful laceweight yarn,” or “This would be a really fun single with flashes of silk, for a felted project of some kind maybe,” or “I think I’ll try this way of using colour that isn’t what I usually do.”

Let me liken this to music. I enjoy music tremendously, both listening to it and playing it, and sometimes talking about it as well. I harbor no illusions whatsoever that I’m a brilliant musician, that I’m worthy of gigging or recording or winning a Grammy or anything like that; but I absolutely do like to go sit on the front porch with my guitar (well, not in this weather) and play and sing, and I enjoy when that can be shared with other people as well, listening, singing, playing, however. And in order to be able to do that, I have to have at least minimal competence. I need to be able to tune my guitar; I need to physically be able to execute the hand movements that result in playing a song; I need to know how the song goes, at least to some extent. Learning the changes of a 12-bar blues progression didn’t make me unable to have fun or jam or play the guitar — it freed me up to be able to do things with it that provided a huge range of new challenges that are substantially more enjoyable, not just for me but for anybody in earshot.

Yes, sometimes I sit down just to aimlessly play my guitar. Sometimes I’m actively practicing or learning a new song; sometimes I’m playing a requested tune for my son; it varies. But across the board, the acquisition of skill and knowledge enhances each of those experiences for me. So that being the case, I think it’s hard for me to relate to people who do not enjoy learning new things or who seem not to want to progress in their abilities. For me, something like playing music, or spinning yarn, is not really a passive activity. It’s not like watching a movie, or listening to the radio — it’s something in which I’m an active participant at the very least.

So, do I ever sit down to just spin the fiber however it tells me to? Absolutely, and I do pay attention to the fiber. Sometimes, I’ll think “This is going to be a thick yarn, and fuzzy” and it turns out when I get started that, no, it’s just not working right that way, and I have to rethink it and spin it finer. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It really depends. I don’t always sit down to spin, with a specific project in mind; but I do tend to document that stuff more, for reasons which seem totally obvious to me: I don’t need to track the more impromptu stuff, really, and I tend to find there’s more value in documenting the stuff that I want to be able to repeat, or tell someone how to do. But the vast majority of my yarn wasn’t spun with specific projects in mind.

I spin a lot of yarn, though — really, a lot. And I make a lot of things with it. My home — and at this point, arguably the homes of my extended family and close friends — are filled with fiber stuff I’ve made. I spin so much yarn that there’s really no way for me to simply treat a skein of it here or there as a decorative element; the truth is that in the entire house, the only rooms without my handspun yarn in them right this second are 2 of the bathrooms. I think. There are at least 5 skeins of yarn on the kitchen counter, 8 on the dining room table, my skeiner’s in the living room and the loveseat’s covered in yarn, there’s a spindle with yarn in progress tucked in a bookcase, a huge box of fiber in a corner, another spindle with plying in progress tucked in next to the TV, more yarn on the bookcases in the dining room, a skein drying in the main bathroom, the electric spinner on a living room bookcase, my ball winder set up on the coffee table… and that’s just one floor of the house, and it’s the least yarn-covered.

In other words, if there’s a free surface in my life, odds are very good that it will be, in short order, taken over by a fiber-related project. And when those projects are done, they move into utilitarian functions in the house more often than not. So I guess you could say that I do, in fact, decorate my house with yarn… just not as directly as I think is proposed by folks suggesting the use of yarn as a decorative, sculptural element, as a piece of artwork to be considered finished as it is. I love yarn, and I love it in yarn form, but one of the things I love about it is its potential. For me personally, it has to have that potential to really speak to me. I have a harder time forging an emotional connection to a yarn whose use potential isn’t readily, viscerally apparent to me.

Often while I’m spinning, my mind will wander, in all sorts of ways, but commonly, to thoughts of what this yarn might become. As the fiber flows through my fingers, as the greedy twist devours it under my careful guidance, I ponder the socks it might be… or is it a sweater? Perhaps a hat. Maybe it’s just going to be yarn.

Over the past few months, in odd moments here and there on the phone, I indulged myself in spindle-spinning some Peace of Yarn “hyperfine merino,” on my Kauri wood Bosworth top whorl spindle. I spun it fine, and smooth, and slow, just to savor the spinning of that fiber with that tool. I did the same carefully winding it off into tiny little balls, and then winding those together into a two-stranded ball, and then again, when I plied it (slowly, again on the Kauri wood spindle). And then I skeined it, washed it, measured it. It’s 254 yards from 8 grams; that’s about 14,400 yards per pound.

I love the little skein. But let’s be honest: what the heck do I think I’m going to do with it? I don’t know now, any better than I knew while I was spinning it. The entire exercise is pure indulgence. The odds of me functionally, realistically doing anything with it any time soon are… slim. If I’m smart, I’ll give it to someone who does do things with yarn like that. But you know, I probably won’t; I’ll probably let it sit here on top of my computer monitor where I can stare at it and fondle it and pet it and think meandering, silly thoughts about it, possibly for years. Like I say — pure, aimless indulgence.

By contrast, if a master spinner of novelty or art yarn were to sit down with a goal in mind, with a particular objective, and sample and test and swatch and experiment and develop specific techniques to achieve his or her end, the yarn thus produced is far from purely indulgent. It’s a labor of skill and artistry and technique. It is then the purpose-spun yarn while my little lace yarn is the shallow indulgence.

What I’m getting at here is that you can’t judge a yarn by its most salient surface characteristics alone, you can’t judge a spinner by an individual yarn, and in any case, you can’t easily categorize all this stuff. Sure, you can measure and describe and take pictures and talk about technical data but that’s still only a fraction of the whole picture, and it doesn’t cover the emotional attachment you may — or may not — have to the yarn you spun.

A little while ago, I gave away some yarn to which I’d been very attached. I spun it for a purpose, years ago. I think it was 2004. It was a blend, of very fine merino dyed with cochineal, with tussah and bombyx silk, tussah silk noil, and camel. It was in my favourite colour red. Tweedy, lofty, soft, it looked like a brick wall. I think there were about 1200 yards, and I had spun it to be a lacy cardigan for me. That yarn survived many things with me, lived with me in three different homes, moved across the country with me, changed careers with me. The bugs I dyed the fiber with were from my father’s secret stash of cochineal, from a bag my mother let me pillage after his death. The camel was from just about the first camel fiber I ever had. It was just about my most favourite and most emotional yarn that I’d ever spun. And that cardigan I dreamed of, that I spun it for, would have been my favourite sweater, I was sure of it.

The thing is… I kept not making the sweater. I don’t know why. I really, really don’t. And then there I was, looking at my personal stash and trying to pick a thank-you gift to send a fellow yarn lover (who has a far better track record for knitting project completion than I do), when my eye fell on the brick yarn. Right then, in my heart of hearts, I knew what I had to do. I had to part with that yarn. I had become too attached to it. I had reached a point where I couldn’t seem to use it; and having reached that point, it was like I had killed the yarn. No, really! If I’d never use it, then I was robbing the yarn of its potential. I was sentencing it to a fate of nothingness. Everything that it could be, it would never be, if it only sat there in my personal stash doing nothing, being nothing. If I truly loved that yarn, I realized, I’d let it go and send it to a home where its odds of being something were greater than they clearly were in my home.

This experience opened my eyes to something I hadn’t fully registered was true about myself. Even though I’m a stasher, even though I’m a pack rat, even though I keep some things forever… it seems I believe it’s morally and ethically wrong to have yarn I know I’m not going to use. I still haven’t entirely sorted this through, but I think it has to be related to why I don’t spin much novelty yarn or art yarn, even though I’ve enjoyed learning various techniques for doing so and even like many such yarns when other people spin them. I think perhaps I can’t make myself spin them, or can’t make myself want to, because viscerally I believe I won’t find a use for them and that’s cruelty to yarn.

Do I think anybody else ought to feel that way? Nah… I’m not the arbiter of anybody else’s yarn ethos. But — and this is the funny part — I want everyone to have a yarn ethos. I want everyone to have strong feelings about the subject, and I abhor yarn apathy and yarn nihilism. I want people to feel things about their yarn (and their textiles at large), and to recognize that they do. I want there to be favourite t-shirts, and best interview suits ,and threadbare comforters you can’t let go, jeans you’ll patch forever because you’ll never find another pair like that, wedding dresses saved forever and baby socks that bring a tear to your eye just to see how small they were, scarves you made when you were 12 that you still wear at 30, uniforms you wouldn’t be caught dead in if they didn’t pay you, the way the smell of wet canvas makes you remember that one summer… strong feelings about your textiles. That’s what I believe in. And the only people to whom I really don’t relate about it all are the ones who just feel no such connections or emotions, to the yarn and fabric in their lives. That’s never going to be handspinners, whatever they most like to spin. So I don’t hate any of it, at all. I’m just passionate about my yarn ethos and, apparently, incapable of comprehending people who aren’t similarly obsessed.

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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.

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.

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.

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What’s On My Wheel Today? and a Question. Well, two.

Our drought has finally ended, giving way to record rainfall. However, they say it’s probably too late to save the trees that have been so confused this year, starting with an ice storm, then an early thaw, then a late freeze, then a dry spring, then an outright drought.

But this was a beautiful fall day.

Just look: the grass is green, it’s raining and wet everywhere, and those trees are all turning colours normally. I could have just stood on the porch staring for ages.

SOAR, it turns out, left its mark on all of us.

Cosmetic really, I swear. We’ll get the old girl fixed up in short order. The poor thing. I believe she was garrotted by the seat belt when I braked hard on the drive home, because she had the wound upon arrival, but not when loading up the truck.

And she’s spinning fine.

I’m having a finer spinning binge right now, which I think may well be Margaret Stove’s fault. I took her 3-hour retreat session at SOAR, and it was truly spectacular. Loyal readers of this blog will know I’ve always had a tendency to spin fine yarn. However, I’ve never been able to get quite as consistently fine with a wheel as I can with a spindle, and I produce fine yarns much faster with a spindle than a wheel (which is partly, I suspect, because I really like fine, high-twist yarn). Margaret Stove, on the other hand, produces insanely fine yarn using a wheel, and it’s less extreme in twist. One might think that the last thing I needed was a class on spinning fine yarn. That’s exactly why I signed up for it. Well, that and the fact that Margaret doesn’t teach in the US very often — I think the last time she was here was ten years ago. Always take a rare opportunity to learn from a master. Always.

Anyway, her methods are different enough from my old routines that they’re work, but they are also comfortable production methods, easy to settle into and work for a while to learn new habits. And satisfying. And right now my problem is not having enough truly fabulous fiber. I obviously need some of the 16 micron raw merino Margaret brought to her classes, raw, to teach us to wash and spin carefully from the lock.

Speaking of washing, Margaret’s washing method is actually very fast. Okay, I mean, it’s not going to get you a spotlessly washed merino fleece in minutes. But it is completely unintrusive and sustainable as a washing method for superfine fleece that you’re going to spin into froghair — 20 minutes of lock washing would definitely produce a day’s worth of spinning.

Anyway, the mill fibers I’m spinning are very nice; they just aren’t that nice. So that should tell you how nice the stuff Margaret brought was.

So what is that on my wheel? Oh right. It’s a Chasing Rainbows merino/cashmere.


…it’s coming out pretty fine. But the itty bitty neps and the commercial prep are not All That They Could Be. Also, look! Evidence that I need to just go buy a macro lens.

I’m also — because I have to take breaks — spinning this not-so-fine yarn:

“Not so fine” is of course a matter of contrast with the merino/cashmere. This is 50/50 merino/angora, which was someone’s door prize at SOAR. All I remember about it, really, is Jeannine saying “Is this something you can use?” and me saying that I do sometimes spin angora, and then it was in my bag. It’s very nice merino/angora. I split it in half and it’ll be something lace. I think. I finished this bobbin from half of it, and I’m deciding if I’ll do the other half on another bobbin and ply, or else spin something else and ply it with it. Right now I’m leaning towards just spinning the other half on another bobbin — I never do anything with That Much Angora, and since this is fine and firm, it won’t shed much.

In both cases, I’m working on learning Margaret Stove’s worsted join, and eventually I’ll have some good one-handed photos of that for you. You know, as soon as I come up with a good way to take one-handed worsted photos. There are several tricky elements to that. I now realize exactly why it is that my father taught me to take pictures at an early age, and why he pressed me into service as a hand model for many techniques as well.

I got a great question from Carrie, who asks two questions, and gets good answers in the comments as well, go check out what Maggie says. Carrie asks:

So I have two questions: can you park and draft on a wheel? I have always been told that’s the easiest step to start with on a spindle but it seems like it would be handy, but a PITA, on a wheel.

I love park and draft. You can park and draft with anything! The basic premise remains the same no matter what equipment you’re using. What you’re doing is using your spun yarn as a twist battery (or that’s how I think of it). Just keep the twist from moving into the fiber supply, and build up a bunch of it. Like Maggie says, pinch off the twist, treadle for a while, and when you have enough twist built up, stop treadling, let the flyer come to rest, and there you go — you can draft at your leisure.

Park and draft is great, because you can really get a sense of the fact that twist moves independent of whatever you’re using to generate it. The fact that twist is its own entity is what makes a lot of drafting techniques work! If you were to break them down and not think about what’s going on generating twist, several popular drafting methods are variants on park and draft. The parking is just not obvious. Worsted techniques, where no twist is allowed in the drafting zone, do involve the buildup of twist in the already spun yarn, followed by you allowing it into the drafted fiber. All you’ve done is shift the timing a bit and speed the process up. Some woolen techniques, like double drafting, also use the same principle: you let twist pile up in the thin parts of an initial draw, then move that (plus some more twist that’s coming in) out into the slubby parts as you do your second drafting run. You can also use the park and draft principle when splicing a broken yarn, whether on a wheel or spindle, or long after the fact.

I’m sure someone has more park and draft thoughts — let’s hear ’em!

Second, (in several parts), how early do you start kids learning to spin? And can you (okay, can I) teach them without being an expert myself?

I say let ’em start as soon as they can sit up and grab stuff. Walking and talking are not required. But just like anything that kids learn, the way they learn as infants isn’t always obvious learning to grownups. They model observed behaviour, and they experiment, and they go from trying and not being able to do, to suddenly doing as if they had been born doing whatever it was. Give your baby a tuft of fiber. Expect it to get slobbered on, and trashed… but keep doing it. It’s just like teaching them to hold a cup or use a spoon. You don’t really teach it; you model it, and they do it.

This is why Chinchero elders were so worried about me at age 5, when I couldn’t spin at all. To them, I looked like a 5-year-old who had never touched a fork and was only capable of shoving food in my mouth with my hands.

Don’t expect a little kid to sit down, focus, and produce something. But if you would give a kid a spoon, a crayon, a book with Velcro flaps and buttons and zippers to play with, consider also giving them trash fiber to fiddle with, a stick to wrap it around, yarn to play with, and eventually a cheap spindle. Yes, these things will suffer the consequences of toddler use. But it’s real learning.

I tell folks I can’t remember a time before I could do at least some yarn stuff. That’s true. What I don’t often tell people is that I can remember being very, very little (like 15 months, based on when my parents say specific things I remember happened). Even before our family moved to Peru, my parents and my extended family gave me yarn and fiber to play with, and were doing stuff with it while I was around. Really little kids will learn more than you think, but mostly through play and copying adult (and big kid) behaviour. One of the things they can learn, if we aren’t careful, is that there are things they can’t do because they’re adult things. While there are some things we want to have be in that category, others we don’t.

That was probably earlier than you expected me to say, wasn’t it?

Let’s talk a bit about older kids, say, preschool age to early grade school. You can do all the stuff you’d do with a really little kid, but they’ll also be ready for more. For them, a great thing to do is teach them to ply first, using a spindle. This gets the mechanics of holding onto yarn while a dangling thing twirls, into their physical knowledge base. You can have them play with a spindle with some already spun yarn on it, learn to get yarn onto it, learn to secure it, learn to take it off, and learn to wind balls of yarn. With a wheel, you can teach them to treadle. Let them have at a wheel with nothing on it, and work on treadling and keeping things going one way, then going the other, and then stopping at will and changing direction (this isn’t a bad exercise for grownups to do either). With their fiber, show them how to draft it using only hands, and put twist in using only hands. Show them how it moves apart, and twist grabs it. Don’t worry about what the results are. Just let them play with the mechanics of it all. Here, incidentally, is a great use for that practice of predrafting to spinning thickness — teaching a toddler to spin! Give them fiber they can just add twist to, then teach them how you made it like that, then let them go.

They’ll likely surprise you. You really don’t need to be able to do any more than that to teach someone — anyone — the basics of spinning. Especially if they’re kids! Kids will tend to be just that awed by the magic of it.

Now, if they’re older — say getting on towards puberty — then they’ll need to want to learn it, or there will be nothing whatsoever that you can do to teach them. At that point, you have to teach them like you’d teach grownups, but expect less impulse control and possibly greater frustration.

Here’s the really hard part for a lot of people teaching kids to spin: they might be better at it than you are, really fast. Be prepared.

There’s definitely more to say about teaching kids to spin, but I’ll leave it for a separate post for now. I’ll also be having a further question roundup soon — so if you were thinking of asking something, ask!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this little bit of fiber pr0n:

I had to pull that out of my secret stash today, and I’m just not sure I can put it back. It’s also making it hard for me to finish the rest of my workday, by gum. Some of you can tell at a glance what it is, I’m sure. As for the rest of you, I rather suspect we’ll be discussing it tomorrow. With more pictures.

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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.

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A little more about SOAR…

I really had every expectation of blogging from the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat (SOAR). “It’s a resort,” I figured, “there’ll be net and plenty of time and it just won’t be a big huge deal.” I couldn’t have been more wrong, and the fact that I could have gone with such expectations is a clear indicator that I went into it as a SOAR novice. But, I’ll tell you, now that I sit down to attempt to write about the experience, I wish I could have kept a journal. It would have gone something like this:

Day 0

Dear Diary,

Drove all day and found the very secluded Shanty Creek by the skin of my teeth, just before sign-in was supposed to end. My room wasn’t ready and a nice lady at the sign-in table said I should go talk to Phreadde and wait with the other people whose rooms weren’t ready yet. I was a little nervous, because though I knew there were folks coming who I knew from mailing lists and so on, there wasn’t really anybody I really knew knew, though I was aware there’d be folks around who were friends with my parents. Which, well, you never know how that’ll go.

My room was finally ready just before dinner (which was a giant buffet). I threw my stuff in the room as fast as I could, learned I had a roommate (some chick named Denny something), and ran back to the buffet to eat something before the welcome program. I had had a note at sign-in from Amy Clarke Moore, the editor of Spin-Off, filling me in a little on the scheduled items I needed to know about as a scholarship winner, and I’d just heard from Amy (who I had met once before) that she had to leave due to a death in her family.

At the welcome program, all the SOAR mentors were introduced, and there were logistics discussed, and scholarship recipients were introduced as well (I’d been warned). I had meant to just sit in the back and observe so I’d know the score, but it didn’t end up working that way; I blame the aforementioned Phreadde.

I was very relieved, after putting names to faces and so on, to discover that my roommate also considered coffee a priority, and had brought strong coffee with her. There was a several-hours long blur of meeting people I’d only known online, or only heard talked about, and now it’s time to pass out so I can be up at 7 AM for Judith McKenzie McCuin’s class on Primitive Breeds. I don’t really think I’m interested in the subject of primitive breeds and in some respects talking about breeds in general can get boring, but everyone keeps telling me I really need to take a class from Judith and I would really like to meet her. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Day 1

Dear Diary,

Okay, so breakfast was a whirlwind, the coffee was weak, the stuff Denny brought is much much better but there’s no time to make it, and I did get my stuff to class and get set up in time. Why did I forget my hand cards and combs? Ah well. Loaned someone the Victoria; glad I brought extra wheels.

By lunchtime, I realized I was completely wrong about not being interested in primitive breeds of sheep. In fact it’s been a lifelong fascination of mine, an obsession really. I just didn’t really realize it because some knowledge of sheep breeds has sort of always been there for me and I never stopped to think about the whys and wherefores of breed development as it relates to culture, ancient history, and the development of civilization. I mean of course I’ve thought about textile technology in that context, but never about the sheep breeds and what that would tell you also about how civilization spread and…

By dinnertime, I said this to my roommate, who told me that a friend of hers had said “I would take a class on boiling water from Judith — and I’d learn something amazing that I never knew was related to it all.” I wonder if she teaches about boiling water? Maybe she should. What’s more, it was really nice to handle raw fleece with nothing but my hands, again. Also I wonder where one might see one of these artificial knees for thigh-spinning from that Bronze Age dig. I have to come up with something like that, I totally want to try the thigh-spinning thing that makes a good 2-ply yarn with a down, then up. I bet you could do a lot with it really fast. Damn, I forgot to ask where the spun yarn is stored that way and if you can walk around doing it.

After dinner, the evening talk was also Judith, and on the same subject as the workshop I was taking… but far from redundant. After the talk, I met a bunch more people, all of whom are awesome, and then somehow accidentally ended up spinning some cotton, and I even enjoyed it! Must sleep, more class in the morning.

Day 2

Day 2? Really? Whoah. I’d swear I’ve been here a month. So it’s really interesting that all these so-called primitive breeds are multiple-coated. It was really clever of Judith to bring commercial, mill-prepped variants of the same fibers, and not let us spin those till after handling the multiple-coated fleeces totally by hand. You know, much as I’m glad there’s a ton of prepped fiber available nowadays, you do miss things if you don’t do your prep, and geeze is it nice to be working with fleeces that were vetted by someone who really knows how to pick them. And the stunning black on this one Shetland fleece, and the three fabulous coats… I want more.

Seriously, the Shetland really impressed me a lot. I think if I were going to just have one kind of sheep, these guys would probably do the trick. The outer coat is probably almost as good for rope as real llama is, and oh! The teacher totally didn’t think I was nutty when I said that, and didn’t go off on a thing about how llama can be soft and fine. I mean, I know it can, but then what do you use for rope?

I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Crap, did I miss dinner? Not yet? Oh, tonight is the official scholarship dinner? I gotta hurry then, oooh, and get my things for the gallery. Fooey, I forgot to write down that these are all handspun objects I use all the time and there’s a theme and… oh well. I wonder what other people brought to show.

Denny says she has some other friends from Canada coming tomorrow and we have to show them our stupid yarn tricks. More on that later.

And then there’d be a gap; a blur. Nothing but the groggy morning of getting ready to leave. I could tell you what I learned, what I saw, who I met, conversations that were started that I know will take forever to finish; I could piece together the sequence of events from various clues. But I have no idea what order to put them in, where to start, how to make sense of it in a principled manner. So here it is, disjointed instead.

I met Clara from Knitter’s Review, and totally dared to take her picture while she had her hands full of comb. You would not believe the carnage she and Theresa left at their feet in class…

And they had BIG cups of coffee, and I did not. I have no clue where they got it.

Oh, so this is the famous Judith:

She’s taking a brief detour here, having just had us spin a marled yarn from three colours of mill-prepped Shetland top, and then gone for some commercial merino top to demonstrate drafting across the top with fibers that everybody knows, and give folks a few things to practice with respect to that drafting style.

Oh, I guess this is the other view…

but, I’m afraid I spent a lot more time watching hands than anything else, so those stand out for me.

I tried to take pictures, but then they’re a blur…

I love the faces in this shot. Not just because I loved meeting folks, but because everybody’s facial expressions are anything but neutral.

Above, in the foreground, Phreadde is undoubtedly stating an opinion about Denny’s hand card solution. In the midground, Janel may look understated about the flair and zazz she exhibits with her use of a popular Andean plying technique, which she uses to better advantage than most of the Andeans I know… if not all. She brings style and attitude with her beautifully.

I won’t even name names for who all is engaged in ritualistic sock worship here. But just look how gracefully Janel handles it.

And then in the background, Jenni is doing her usual subtle quiet thing, spinning yarn so fine that I think it’s absurdly fine, on her WooLee Winder-equipped Ashford Joy. Beth is right next to her, spinning away. I really wish I had more good pictures of Beth, because she was constantly… okay, here’s the thing. Beth was, without a doubt, the most egregious user of the line “Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on,” at SOAR this year. With an absolutely deadly twinkle in her eye as she downplayed the magnitude of her absurdely nupp-ridden lace shawl, then walked around acting like she thought people might not think she was cool enough to be there. C’mon Beth, you should know that anybody who owns a fiber shop is everybody’s BFF for life in the crowds we run with. But that’s all it is. Certainly none of us like you just because, you know, we like you. In fact, I never liked you. “Just a few nupps,” my… uh… sainted Aunt. Some people.

The one back there in the chair with the glint in her eye and smothered grin? That’s Sara. Unlike Beth, who I never liked at all, I used to like Sara, right up until she gave her “official SOAR mentor advice for the week,” which was “Finish things.”


The fact that I went to SOAR this year is really traceable to one email which I received from Sara early this year. It said simply, “I’m going to give you some advice, which may be rude and is certainly not solicited. Go to SOAR. Go this year. Figure it out.” I’m not sure that Sara takes “no” for an answer. She has that certain thing, I’m not sure how it works, which does mean she can get away with saying stuff like “Finish things,” and not simply be pelted with rotting fruit and driven out of a room full of people who are intimate with the work in progress. Even worse, I rather suspect I’ll finish a few things because she told me to. She can just make you do stuff. Stephanie said “I swear I might have learned something just from standing near Sara Lamb.” Here she is doing so:

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s Sara. If it’s not Sara, someone stole her jacket. It’s hard not to rip Sara’s garments off and run off with them, not only because they’re beautiful garments, but because they’re interesting from a technical standpoint. I did not steal any of Sara’s clothing. This time.

And hey, Steph’s shirt isn’t so bad either. “You know, if you get it, anyway,” she said. To which I say, “For great justice!” or maybe “You have no chance to survive. Make a stitch.” I mean, maybe you had to be there, in that geek past life… editing config files that said things like

# Are all your base belong to us?
$takeOffEveryZig = 1;

but… well, anyway. So there’s Steph learning something from Sara Lamb. Of course, whatever it was, I imagine she forgot it surviving the cheap swill…

…though she did good resisting Denny’s railroading for a while. I did less well.

I feel it only fair to say that at this point, this was after we’d talked about it earlier in the week, Denny had gotten me to demonstrate the classic Chinchero girl trick of plying off a terrace or balcony, and I’d come totally clean with her about the risks involved. I mean, I was pretty confident; I took my share of grief from the yarn breaking or the half hitches slipping, and the spindle going a long way down some ruins. But she still could have totally gotten her eye poked out. Low tech entertainment can still be high risk. 4 out of 5 handspinners surely agree this is a dumbass maneuver. I formally deny all responsibility for the teeth-catch maneuver.

I heard tell that Denny in fact credits Judith McKenzie McCuin (or J-Mac as some were calling her) for providing the insights which caused her to realize she needed to rip her sweater. At first as Denny was explaining this, none of us had any clue where this was going.

You can identify a SOAR attendee here easily actually — black shirt, covered in fluff and fuzz, the thousand-yard stare is measured with skeins of yarn, and somebody just said “Now put your hands like this,” and they’re doing it.

See? Obviously some of us were too tractable.

Steph almost paid for it with her neck a few times. Julia was only one of many people to nearly take her out in the Great Ripping Relay of 2007.

It was that dramatic. And admire that snarl that’s being repaired, too, by the way. I’ll leave that story to the yarn’s owner.

This is Jeannine. I could learn a lot from Jeannine and I hope to. As a member of a panel discussion, she commented “They didn’t give me a microphone, but that’s because I don’t need it.” She had no trouble making herself heard… but yet, managed to be understated somehow. That’s a skillset I simply don’t comprehend. But anytime you’d turn around, there was Jeannine or the evidence of her presence at SOAR. Many people were wearing these little sheep pins, for instance. “Jeannine, a few years ago,” someone explained. In the spinner’s gallery, she brought old-fashioned project documentation to a tiny little bowl that you almost couldn’t see, that you might have missed at first pass, that was a project fraught with vicious puns in fiber form. She wore garments made from nothing but samples from past SOARs. She brought us a handspun, handwoven ribbon…

…filled with words of wisdom, which I didn’t write down and wish I had, the one of which stuck with me the most was:

When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.

And that right there is why I do this yarn stuff. Some of it can only be passed hand to hand. No writing about it, no lasting objects, can save things if people don’t learn the hand to hand part… and no research later can bring those back. Don’t let those libraries burn with the lore unlearned.

See how long that is? It’s twice that long.

There is still tons more to say. TONS! But there is a start.

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I survived SOAR!

Yesterday morning, while frantically attempting to locate coffee, figure out if I knew where all my spinning wheels were, what I was shoving in the truck when, and what time I’d manage to hit the road, I ran into Stephanie, who I think had probably had more coffee than me at that moment — I had just discovered that the only coffee that was left was decaf, which as we all know, is not in fact coffee at all. “I’m surprised SOAR doesn’t have a death rate!” she said, and several responses occurred to me. Slowly, though, given the aforementioned lack of adequate coffee. The first was “Are we sure it doesn’t? Did you check?” and the second was, “Man, I wish you hadn’t said that right before everyone starts driving home.” I might have actually even said one of those things, but I can’t be sure. I probably just whimpered something about coffee.

But, in any case, here I am at home now, not having become a major SOAR casualty. I say “major” because the sad truth is I’m a wreck. A mere husk of a human being. I’ve been trying to post a simple “I made it home!” post for the past 4 hours, and this is as far as I’ve gotten.

So, how was it? Well, it was, wow. The kind of event where you’re sitting in a chair spinning, and someone walks past you, and you say “Did you know you have a swatch stuck to your butt?” and she says “Yeah, it’s on purpose,” and the 12 people who overhear the conversation don’t so much as blink. The kind of event where you’re eating dinner with someone you just met who, in turn, mentions someone you haven’t met, and someone else at the table says “Which one is she?” and the first person says “The one with the real Orenburg,” and half the people at the table leap to their feet and say “Where is she? I gotta see that!”

And, you know. By “see” they mean “fondle.”

Or you could also describe it as the kind of scene where the drunks are nigh coming to blows, not about whose sports team is superior, but about whose worsted is more worsted… and when it comes to blows, it involves whipping out spindles and proving it. It’s the kind of place where everybody is covered in fuzz and fluff and you see people walking around wearing garments you’re pretty sure you saw on the cover of a magazine a few years ago… no, not garments made from the pattern, the garment from the photo. Where “Did you make that?” is arguably a stupid question, where you’re walking around spinning and people stop you not to ask what you’re doing, but rather, where did you get that spindle, and do they have more? How much was it? What? You’re kidding, he should raise his prices! It’s the kind of place where you see something priced for $250 an ounce and you think, “My god, what a steal!”

There’s a ton to say, and at some point when I am slightly more coherent, and the photos have been sorted, I’ll say it. But for now, I’ll leave it at “I’m back, I survived, and you guys should totally all go, even though it causes positively surreal fatigue and will probably leave you looking at your very full inbox and thinking of it like procesing a Shetland fleece with nothing but your hands.” For those of you waiting on replies, the inbox has been skirted and I’m separating the locks meticulously as we speak. Many, many, many thanks to my better half, who engaged in many epic and heroic feats over the past week. He’s the greatest ever.

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Debates: Wheel vs. Spindle

Here we go with round one of my series tackling some of the classic debates in the handspinning arena. A few of you laughingly commented this might be an odd choice of timing to go picking fights, what with absurd heat waves going around and how that affects temperaments — but then again, perhaps a little productive debate serves as a constructive outlet, eh?

In emailing with folks a bit following last week’s On Opinions and Disagreement, one of the things I found myself talking about was, “Why?” Why get into the arguments at all? And you know, it comes down to something Deborah Robson said in her comment:

Abby, at the first SOAR I attended (not “participated in,” I’ve never done that) just after I became editor of Spin-Off I was given the job of moderating a panel “discussion” on woolen and worsted.

I am a profound introvert (occasional appearances to the contrary) with an entrenched ability to see most sides of nearly any question (may have been my saving quality).

The panel consisted of between six and eight of the most knowledgeable and opinionated handspinners the English-speaking world has ever produced.

Let’s just say (1) I was still standing at the end of the evening (miracle) and (2) there were no definitive answers, although there were a *lot* of opinions expressed and most of the folks in the room (which was packed) thought a lot about yarn while the conversation(s) went on. Whew.

So: Are you going to add “woolen/worsted” to your list of topics?

At some levels, it’s quite straightforward. . . .

That’s exactly it. Even when you sit down a panel of undisputed experts and ask questions that seem straightforward, odds are you won’t come away with definitive and absolute answers; and experts won’t always agree (in fact, they might argue heatedly). But if we listen, and argue, and are invested in the discourse, then odds are we’ll walk away from it all with lots of food for thought, and perspectives we hadn’t considered before.

I told Deb that part of why I want to do this series is to point out that when you go looking for good, solid information, the sources you find don’t have to agree with each other in order to be authoritative. Like Perl programmers always say, TMTOWTDI. Er, excuse me, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

And yes, Deb, I do plan to cover woolen vs. worsted in this series!

Right, then — moving along. One of the questions that newer spinners often ask — and it tends to start debates and sometimes ruffle feathers — is “What’s better, a wheel or a spindle?” Or sometimes, it starts out simply enough with someone stating an assumed perspective such as “I’ve gotten a spindle, and am starting to learn, and I can’t wait till I’m skilled enough to move up to a wheel.” Then someone says “You aren’t required to get a wheel! It’s not necessarily moving up!” and someone else says “Well, since I got my wheel, I sure haven’t spun on spindles,” and the debate is on.

So let me tell you about my own preferences.

I started out with a spindle. A low whorl spindle, fairly clunky and imperfectly balanced, I suppose. I’d guess it must have weighed in around 1.5-2 ounces (or, say, 45-60 grams). The spindle consisted of a fairly straight, smooth-whittled eucalyptus stick (fairly round), and a wooden whorl that had been carved by hand. This was a typical spindle to give to a child, but also a pretty typical spindle for an adult to use. Children and adults alike, once accomplished spinners, would use these spindles for production work.

Now, this isn’t to say that some weren’t better than others, or nobody had favourites, or anything like that. Of course that kind of thing happens — some tools just seem to be better or more comfortable than others, and then too, with use and wear, many tools break in and get better at being tools.

So, too, do spinners. I think this is a key thing in the wheel vs. spindle debate, one we’ll come back to shortly. Well, insofar as “shortly” is something we can ever say about my writing, eh? But seriously, what made it possible — makes it possible — for Andean spinners like the ones from whom I learned to produce fine, spindle-spun high-twist warp yarns in quantity, at the rate they do in the Andes, using only the humblest of tools? The answer is practice. Just as the spindles break in, so do the spinners. It becomes reflex, instinctive. That doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen — though, perhaps, in years rather than weeks or months.

Indeed, it took me about three years, or three years and change, to reach the point of being an adequate spinner. I started shortly after turning five years old, and it was the year I was eight when people in the Andes first deemed my spinning acceptable in quality, if slowly produced. It was later that same year, back in the USA, when I encountered my first spinning wheels. One was a Shaker-made great wheel that my parents had found who-knows-where, which still resides in my mother’s house and which I covet. The others were wheels that I tried out during the time when my parents were demonstrating Andean weaving at the Sunapee Craft Fair, which our family attended routinely for such purposes for a number of years.

Having finally been deemed a near-adequate spinner by Andean standards, my reaction to the flyer wheel was one of scorn. Its usefulness in producing yarn that qualified as good yarn by Andean weaver standards was almost nonexistent (certainly for such examples as I tried then, which were older Ashfords and Louets, none of them fast wheels). The people spinning, as well, were spinning thick, floppy yarn (often thick and thin) — yarn which my Andean teachers would never have accepted as functional. In a classic display of 8-year-old arrogance, I concluded that the only real purpose for flyer wheels was to make it possible for people who couldn’t really spin to produce any yarn at all — and certainly, no real spinner would stoop to doing it mechanically like that.

The great wheel, on the other hand… ah yes, the great wheel. Spinning with it was hard, for one thing. It was a kind of spinning I just didn’t know how to do yet — you only had one hand to do all the fiber wranging, and the other was used turning the drive wheel. In short order, I came to absolutely love plying on it; in no small part because my parents had started teaching workshops in Andean weaving, but no millspun yarn could readily be found that stood up to the wear and tear of warp-faced weaving where the warp is a structural element in the loom itself. As a result, my parents purchased millspun coned weaving yarns, and added plying twist to them to make them wear better for those classes. This was tedious for certain — and a great opportunity to put a willing kid to work with an incredibly fast means of twist insertion.

By the time I was 10, I had learned to use hand cards, produce rolags, and spin long draw woolen yarns. I did enjoy that, but the problem was that I couldn’t use those yarns for Andean weaving, absolutely my fiber art of choice. The woolens made great weft (but who cares, if you want to weave warp-faced fabric?) and knitting yarn (but knitting is boooooooooring!) so again, I mostly stuck with spindles, which I viably could use to produce the yarns I wanted to use.

Indeed, it wasn’t until my late 20s when I decided that I wanted to spin “gringo yarn” for crochet and, later, knitting. When I did, reluctantly at first, I eventually concluded that I was going to need a spinning wheel to do it, if nothing else because I’d spent decades with my spindles producing yarn for Andean weaving. I needed a small flyer wheel too, because space was at a premium in my life then, and I ended up with one of those very Ashfords that I’d scorned all those years ago. There I was, working on spinning thick, loose, low-twist, floppy yarn on purpose. I never would have imagined it possible when I was a kid, but it was true.

Then, I set out to try to spin Andean weaving yarn to my satisfaction with a flyer wheel. UGH! What an exercise in futility and boredom — yet it was a trifle to do with a spindle. I felt like I simply couldn’t do it fast enough. And in the long run, you know what? The truth is that I spin Andean weaving yarn faster with a low whorl spindle than anything else. That simplest of tools is truly the best one for the job.

The thing is, it might not be the best tool for the job for everyone. I’m not an objective judge; I have the experience of being trained from early childhood to produce that yarn in that way. While I learned other spinning methods and so forth as a child as well, they’re not what I was steeped in. I’ve got a level of expertise with the Andean spinning that I will most likely never achieve with any other kind of spinning.

Trying hard to be as objective as possible, though, one thing I can definitely say is that being a hard-core production spinner with a spindle requires more of someone than producing that volume with a wheel. There is a longer learning curve. Once you commit to it, and once you achieve the comfort level the tool requires to be used in a production capacity, you can do tremendous things with it, and indeed, even outperform more technologically advanced tools in many cases. But the more technologically advanced tool will allow you to reach higher production levels more quickly, with less time invested in training.

In watching some one of those many history channel type shows, one time I saw one that was talking about weapons development, and the English longbowman. These were dudes who were trained for lifetimes to be able to deliver a deadly sustained rate of fire on a battlefield. They were terrifying, and extremely valuable because of the time involved in training one up. But then the firearm entered the world, and the same sustained rate of deadliness could be brought to a battlefield by someone *without* a lifetime of training. Suddenly, the same level of deadliness was available to people who were investing money in firearms rather than time and related resources in training for the longbow. Instead of that military force being something you could only get through lifelong training programs, it was now something you could get thanks to machinery.

Exactly the same thing is true for textile production. In the Andean town where I spent so much of my childhood, tremendous levels of productivity were achieved thanks to training up from childhood on, and everybody being involved in it. In the more modernized world, however, the need to produce textiles is solved more by mechanization than by lifelong training.

Let’s take a side trip for a moment, and consider too the John Henry story — no matter how good he was at driving spikes, he couldn’t beat the railroad-laying machine. Then, too, Paul Bunyan was defeated by a machine in the end. The same holds true for textile production: no human, no matter how amazingly skilled, can beat the mill in the end.

The implications of these historical events and these folk tales is worth pondering. Is it in fact the case that a peasant with a gun does exactly what a longbowman does? Are tracks laid by John Henry indistinguishable from those laid with a rail-building machine? Can we detect any difference between Paul Bunyan’s logs and the logs cut by a logging machine? I would say that some people can, and some people can’t.

For some, there’s clearly an art to the longbow that’s different from, and unrelated to, simply putting firepower on a battlefield. There’s a mythos to the figures of John Henry and Paul Bunyan that speaks to people — an allure in the capabilities of humans who seem larger than life because they can perform amazing feats. And so in some cases we glamourize the longbowman, mourn the defeat of John Henry or Paul Bunyan — even as we avail ourselves of the advantages of greater speed, availability, and lower cost. Eventually, we mourn the loss of whatever it was that we might have learned from these archetypal figures — but we don’t stop to think, what did it take to defeat the longbowman, the John Henry or Paul Bunyan? It required that we create machines to do so, because the capabilities of these highly-skilled humans was such that their accomplishments seemed impossible.

The spinning wheel is a machine. It is one of the machines upon which civilization is built. And mechanization isn’t bad; it’s essential to our lives and those of our forebears going back aeons. Machines are invented, by and large, to do things that people do and do them faster and cheaper, or to do things people can envision doing, but can’t quite.

The spindle, on the other hand, is a simple tool. It is a hammer, a straight saw, a chisel, a source of heat, a pot or pan, a knife, a pen. Where the spinning wheel is a printing press, a spindle is a pen. Both require skill and training to operate… and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other, and that goes both ways.

My son sometimes contends that there is no reason to write longhand, given computers and typing, which are faster. Some say there’s no reason to memorize multiplication tables if you have calculators (or, heck, the table itself written out to refer to). Most of us would reflexively disagree, though, and say “Sure there is!” And much of that, I believe, is because we’ve memorized our multiplication tables, learned to write longhand, and the skills are second nature. But will they be generations from now?

Consider: if one has not spent a lifetime writing longhand, one has not developed the skills in it of a person who has. Someone who has spent that lifetime possesses a facility with the tools of paper and pen which can’t be matched by someone who’s spent little time with it. For that person — like my son — typing is just faster and writing doesn’t seem worth it. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe the thing I find magical about putting pen to paper and making marks is really… nothing, or nothing universal.

If we were to look carefully at children now, we would likely find that many of them can’t tie their shoes — something that people in their 30s and older would assume is an essential skill. But in this era of high-tech fasteners like velcro, is it really? It isn’t, if you never get shoes that must be tied.

But now let’s go back over all of these examples. While the first gun-armed troops to take the field may have been less skilled, less trained than a longbowman, now, there are skills and arts and highly refined practices that go with firearms, too, and people who spend lifetimes perfecting those. There are things achieved because railroads could be laid, or lumber could be brought in, faster, safer. There are things written and published thanks to typing, which never would have been if written longhand. So it’s not like these technologies are bad. They just do things a little different, and what we get from them is a little different, and in general, the technological approach appeals to most humans — at the very same time as there is a romance to thinking about the humans who have so excelled at what they did that the only way to outdo them was by building machines.

The down side to mechanization is that we do lose a little, sometimes. Where, now, are the longbowmen, the superhuman railroad-layers and loggers, the illuminators of manuscripts? They’re gone; and with them, perhaps, the facility with a bow, hammer, saw, or pen that those folks must have possessed to do what they did.

If they aren’t gone, they’re few in number. Certainly this is true for those who can do production work with spindles — and that’s part of why I think we now believe, and accept so readily, that wheels just are faster. It’s true that they are, for some things. But not for all. However, most of us never have the chance to develop the real spindle speed that made spindles so ubiquitous a tool for most of human history. We tend to move on quickly to things that get us results faster, and perhaps not explore the results we never really knew were possible with the simple tool.

For this reason, I do urge spinners not to simply eschew the spindle altogether, and not to view it as only a low-cost starter tool that will help you to decide if you want to do this enough to spend the money on a wheel. Spinning on a wheel and spinning on a spindle are the same, and not. They are related, and they’re totally different.

Lately, truth be told, I do more spinning while sitting around; and I do more knitting than anything else. So I’m spinning more on wheels than I am on spindes. But I never leave the house without my bag that carries, among other things, a spindle and some fiber. Spinning on the go is easy for me, being a skill I learned in early childhood. I can do it while I’m doing almost anything else. It’s more portable, more forgiving, than knitting projects (though maybe if I ever knitted anything that wasn’t lace…) and spinning on the go is really just part of my way of life.

Summing up, if I want to spin very fine or short-stapled fibers, I do it on a spindle. If I want to spin on the go, again, spindle. If I want to spin super high-twist yarn, spindle. If I want knitting yarn, thicker yarn, or to spin while watching TV, then I opt for the wheel.

And lastly, don’t assume — like I did, about flyer wheels as a child — that a tool you scorn or dislike now will never be one that you find useful. It may take decades for perspectives and wants and needs to shift, but they can; and being open to that can be very rewarding.

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Cleaning A Drum Carder

Well, I had to give Cardzilla a good cleaning after a tweed blend I just finished up, so I figured I’d document the process for all to see.

You can really tell the poor guy needs a cleaning. Look at all this trash on the main drum!

And the lickerin drum — stuff piles up there after a huge batch. This is, as it was explained to me when I got my first Strauch, “where everything piles up that you didn’t want in your batt anyway, if you’re doing it right.”

And grit and fiber get everywhere — like down in the bearings and around the axles and everything, if you aren’t careful.

This can be very annoying.

It could also be a huge problem if you let it pile up, and cause mechanical issues. Best case, you end up saying “Wow, did this thing come with felt washers? I don’t remember that!” and worst case, well, you get problems. Ideally, I notice if this is happening and clear it immediately. Sometimes I don’t, though. These things happen. We’ll take care of it.

First things first. I grab one of my beater Ashford student hand cards…

…and, with the carder moving forward, gently clean off the licker-in. I start here because the main drum is going to pick stuff up off the licker-in as I loosen it, and if I had done the main drum first and gotten it all clean, I’d just have to start over.

Once I have the licker-in well cleaned, I move on to the main drum. I use the Ashford hand card here because, I admit it, it’s larger, and I’m lazy.

With the hand card resting lightly there, I operate the carder in reverse. Most of the excess fluff just comes right off.

Then I have a hand card full of trash fiber.

I repeat this step as needed, ending up with a pile like this.

Ted asked recently about the “trash yarn” that I spindle spun from drum carder trash — how do I prep it for spinning? Well, here it is! I’ll tell you more about that in an upcoming post. But this is what I do for prep.

With the big stuff off, then I have at those bearings and axles with tweezers.

And ugh, this is the scary part. Did you guys notice what it says on that yellow sticker that’s been in the background a few times? It’s not kidding; this is how I generally wound myself — grabbing bits of fluff and accidentally jabbing a finger into the licker-in.

Once I’ve picked the axles clean, going forward and back to unwrap fibers, I move on to the tool that actually comes with a Strauch carder for cleaning the main drum: a flick carder. The teeth are longer, and they dig things out better than the Ashford hand card does, but it’s also a smaller tool so I use it in a second pass when needed.

Lots and lots of stuff comes off this way, but not the volume that the first pass got.

So now, we’re looking good, right?


You can’t necessarily see it easily, but after I take that fella (the technical term is a “foosher,” because you use it to foosh things with canned air)…

Holy cow, there really was more stuff there, kinda hiding.

And if we didn’t get those out, those would be neps in our next batt. Yuck.

Okay, so now we’re done, right? Right? I mean, look at the axles here.

Sorry guys. Not done.

What? Aw, c’mon! What is that?

It’s where your nagging mom says, “Did you pick up the rug and sweep under it, or just push the dirt around it?”

Sigh. Okay, okay.

And then we’re still not done. Look at the carder in that photo, and ignore the pile of debris! More neppy trash.

This brush, too, is a Strauch tool that comes with. You use it after all the other things.

Okay, now we’re looking good.

Yeah, looks pretty decent.

However, the absolute and undeniable truth of the matter is that there’s *still* going to be stuff on here sometimes! So I usually run through a light batt of fine white merino wool, lightly misted with water. That picks up any dust and particles I might have missed. Also check the brush attachment if you have one, and make sure you don’t have lingering junk there either.

I cannot stress enough that the big yellow sticker means business, especially if you are cleaning a motorized carder. Don’t screw up. Even if you are as careful as I am, believe me, you can hurt yourself. And when I do, usually it’s by jabbing the pad of my index finger just so, getting a wound that takes a while to close nicely, and irritating the bejesus out of me when I want to settle down and spin that evening. Or knit, crochet, weave, write with a pencil, or do almost anything… sigh!

In general, you want to clean like this either any time that your carder needs it, or if you’re moving from one type of fiber to another, or changing colours. The more often you do it, the faster it will go. The more attentive you are while carding, the less time you have to spend on the annoying parts like tweezing fiber out of crevices.

Improper use and inadequate maintenance are the things that kill drum carders. With decent cleaning and maintenance alone, and if you make sure you follow your carder’s instructions, the carder itself can last basically forever. Cardzilla is no spring chicken, and the only thing he’s ever needed other than cleaning is a new motor — the aftermarket part.

Your specific carder may call for slightly different maintenance and cleaning practices than mine does; always do what the guy who made your carder tells you to do, instead of what some random chick on the Internet says.