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Do You Have Any Advice About SOAR?

A few people have asked me recently if I have any advice to offer about going to Interweave’s Spin-Off Autumn Retreat.

Yes. Here it is.

SOAR is intense!

Don’t try to plan for other things during the course of SOAR. Just go and do SOAR.

How does it work exactly?

Okay, here’s the deal. SOAR is broken up into two parts: the workshop portion, and the retreat portion. For the workshop portion, when you sign up, you’ll choose your first, second, and third choice of workshops from this list. You’ll only get into one of these! You’ll find out which when you get your confirmation and whatnot. For the workshop portion, you arrive Sunday afternoon or evening, there’s dinner and a kick-off presentation in the evening, and some unstructured social time.

Monday morning, you get up, eat breakfast, and start your workshop. There’s a break for lunch (and usually one coffee break in the morning and one in the afternoon). After lunch, you go back for more workshop, until dinnertime. All your meals are large group meals, buffet style, and you eat with whoever you eat with. After dinner, there may be an evening lecture for you to choose to attend, or not; and probably some unstructured social time as well. Tuesday and Wednesday are essentially the same.

On Thursday, the retreat portion starts. If you were only there for the workshops, this is when you’ll head out. The marketplace opens this day, and there’s nothing scheduled for it. There are still group meals. People who are coming for only the retreat portion start to show up. Thursday evening, there’s a kick-off session and you sign up for retreat sessions. You get to choose four total; two per day. Thursday would be your main shopping day at the marketplace, too.

Friday, you’ll get up, eat breakfast, go to your first retreat session, be there till lunch, and then after lunch, go to your second session, till dinnertime. After dinner, there may be evening programs. Saturday is the same, but generally Saturday night there’s the big spin-in gathering. There are informal spin-ins and socializing and whatnot all week, of course. Sunday morning, there’s breakfast, and generally a closing program, and people start to head out.

Will my family likely want to go along?

In general, I wouldn’t count on it, unless they’re fairly fiber-obsessed. Like I say, it’s intense and pretty nonstop. Whatever down time you have you’ll likely end up spending on fibery pursuits. If that’s likely to cause strain, you may be happiest not trying to fit it in together with a family trip.

If I can only do one of workshop or retreat, how do I pick?

Tough call. I’ll assume for the sake of this post that you don’t have a scheduling issue one way or the other, and just talk about choosing one.

The first thing I’d do is take a look at the workshops. Have you, for example, always wanted to take an in-depth class on carding with colour? If so, Deb Menz’ workshop session would be three days of that. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to take a class from Nancy Bush or a class from Judith MacKenzie McCuin; this year’s SOAR offers both in one class… for three intensive days. Or maybe you just know that it’s time for you to take some serious, no-joke hands-on and in-person instruction of a general nature; there are a few such options this year. But the bottom line is, is there a workshop — or multiple workshops — which you are just dying to take? Are you looking for three intensive days of study? If you are, then there is probably nowhere better to go get it. One teacher (or two for the Nancy and Judith class) for three days! I can tell you that as a teacher, it’s an exciting prospect, because all too often you’re trying to fit a lot into a smaller length of time and it’s hard to do the topic justice, or you have to pick and choose what you’ll cover. Workshops are terrific intensive classes.

If, on the other hand, there isn’t anything you definitely want to commit three days to, or you aren’t sure; if you’d rather have a larger chunk of uncommitted time; if you would rather get smaller chunks of more teachers, and more variety… well then in that case, the retreat may be the way to go. For a first-timer, the retreat is possibly more approachable in that you get to sample various teachers, and then reach those conclusions like “That’s it, next year I want three days with Sharon Costello if she’s teaching here again,” or “Wow, cut silk pile is amazing! I had no idea! I need to know more! Lots more!” But at the same time, the retreat is a little bit more hectic because there’s more going on and more moving from place to place; for the workshop, you set up in a classroom and that’s where your activity is.

What classes would you pick?

It dawned on me belatedly that, as a SOAR mentor, I wasn’t going to get to take any classes. I know, I know, it’s obvious, right? Still. That’s the down side.

You’ll say this is a cop-out answer. It’s really really true though! Anybody who’s teaching at SOAR is going to have fabulous stuff to offer. Every single one of the classes offered is going to be excellent. No matter who you are, there is something for you to learn in each and every SOAR workshop or retreat session. You could literally pin the schedule on the wall and throw darts at it to pick, and you’d get great classes. Last year, for instance, I talked to someone who’s been spinning since before I was born, been to pretty much every SOAR, and who was taking Maggie Casey’s Spinning 101. And she learned stuff. I took Sharon Costello’s needle felting retreat session, even though I thought I had less than zero interest in needle felting; I loved it, and it changed my mind about all kinds of things.

But that said, you could start by ruling things out. Let’s suppose I were picking classes for me. For example, I’d love to take a Deb Menz class, but I also know that she teaches regularly at the Cincinnati guild near me (and which, one of these days, I’ll make it to a meeting of — it’s just that I keep remembering it’s the first Thursday of the month *after* the meeting is over). Anyway, I could go take her class there, and look for someone at SOAR who never comes to the area where I live. And I took Judith’s workshop last year; maybe I should let someone else have a chance, and besides, I can’t just always take the same person’s class, even if it’s Judith!

It’s also worth considering things simply from the perspective of when you’re likely to be able to take another class with this teacher. For example, even though I don’t think I have a major interest in colour in knitting, this is the first time I can remember seeing Vivian Hoxbro teaching at a venue I can get to in quite some time. That was why I took Margaret Stove’s retreat session on spinning fine wools for lace last year, and boy am I glad I did.

For retreat sessions, I think you pick two that you know for sure you want, one that’s from a teacher you’ve heard great things about but have no idea if it’s a subject you’re interested in, and one that you think you just aren’t interested in at all. For me last year, I knew I wanted to take Carol Huebscher Rhoades on spinning big yarns, and Margaret Stove on lace yarn… and I’d heard great things about Maggie Casey as a teacher so I took her class even though it was about long draw, a subject I know fairly well. And I wrapped it up with Sharon Costello about felting, expressly to broaden my horizons unexpectedly.

I have nothing but praise for all the SOAR mentors this year. Except maybe that Abby chick; what a poser, who does she think she is? But seriously though, maybe I’m lucky I can’t take any classes this year, because it would be impossibly hard to choose.

It’s not all about classes or shopping!

My father used to tell me I’d really like SOAR if I went. “Oh sure,” I’d always say, “I’m going to go, and hang out with your friends… great. Whatever.” I’d been to plenty of fiber shows and conferences and the like as a tagalong of various kinds. I really didn’t need one more, y’know? After all, it’s just one more fiber event.

That’s honestly what I thought, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s so much more than just another fiber event. SOAR is without a doubt the major fiber community event. It’s where you go as a pathological fiber-obsessed nut job, to be with your own kind; to realize that you can just walk over to the author of some of your favourite books, and have a totally regular conversation; to meet people you would never have known were out there, let alone that you’d end up best friends; to have your boundaries pushed and your brain picked and your assumptions challenged and the seeds of a jillion new projects planted. You go to SOAR, and you realize you’re not alone, and this is your fiber family, and you have things to give to it just as you can count on being able to come home for Thanksgiving dinner in a pinch. It’s where a chick in a conversation (Hi Rachel H!) says “I’m really interested in building wheels,” and is then rushed over to meet a bunch of dudes named Ashford, Schacht, and Lendrum, who are all standing around chatting. It’s where you can stand around socializing with the people behind those shops you’ve mail ordered from, and really realize what they do for the community.

After it’s over and you leave, time passes and you pick up your next Spin-Off, or you look at the Interweave books on your shelf, then magically, there are faces behind all the names. You’re looking at the masthead that says “PUBLISHER: Marilyn Murphy” and instead of that being some nebulous name, you know it’s that tireless, hard-working lady who was everywhere at once and still had time to chat with everybody. You know that the Phreadde Davis who wrote the ankletto article is actually Fibergal and she and her husband are driving forces behind many things at SOAR that aren’t on the program but are traditions all the same. You know that Carol Huebscher Rhoades, Spin-Off’s tech editor, has absolutely stunning hair and works her tail off making sure things are right. You know that everybody involved is a person, a fiber-obsessed textile nutjob just like you, who has made it a personal mission to spread the lore and the community. You know for certain that it’s not like in many other pursuits, where it’s just a job for people. It is simultaneously humbling and uplifting.

Should I take projects to SOAR?

You should! You should take finished things to put in the fashion show and gallery; you should take things to show and tell with; and you should take stuff to work on, too. There won’t be any shopping till Thursday, so if you want extracurricular stuff to spin or what have you, take that along too if you’re going for the workshops.

Anything else?

I can’t think of anything right now, but ask me a question if you have one, and if I can answer it, I will!

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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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Spinning for Socks: Colour

When I said the next post up in the sock yarn series would talk about colour, Sara playfully asked:

colour?? colour? Of what do you speak? Are you *that* close to Canada that u’s have infiltrated??

There are quite a few ways to address this, such as reminding Sara that I’ve never known her to avoid Canadian contact, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Indeed, some of my favourite fiber folks are Canadian (and probably yours too!) But well, yes, there is evidence of Canada invading Ohio. I could go on at some length about this evidence — there’s plenty — but the really telling piece is simply this business listing in the Yahoo! yellow pages.

That’s right, folks, there is a Tim Horton’s within 10 miles of my home (or do I mean within 16 kilometers? Nah, the invasion is still not complete). Indeed, there are a dozen Tim’s in a 25-mile radius. So there’s no way this is a coincidence, any more than that Tim’s in Afghanistan is a coincidence. I haven’t seen Canadian troops… or have I? How would I know? Hrmmm. Perhaps they’re responsible for the periodically suspicious niceness I keep encountering. Perhaps they’re the reason my Kroger has been sold out of Wasabi-Soy almonds for the past 6 weeks or so — Denny may be sending them down after nuts, and leaving none for me.

But in any case, Sara, the bottom line is that for reasons I can’t pin down, I have always apparently been a Canadian speller. I do enjoy the use of colour, but I realize (instead of realising as our friends across the pond might do) that in the fiber arts (not fibre arts) we often use it somewhat haphazardly. So in this bit about spinning for socks, we’ll talk about using it in planned ways, in the spinning stages, rather than in the dyeing stages. And I think we’ll do it using some fiber that came my way via some Canadians — Southwest Trading Company’sKaraoke, now distributed by Louet North America, a 50/50 blend of merino and soy silk. It comes in white, and three predyed handpainted colours; we’ll be working with the colours today.

These colour techniques work with any multicolour top or roving, and can be extended to work simply having multiple colours instead of a handpaint (in which there’s one top or roving with different colours on it in sequence) ; we’ll have a few examples of those as well.

Well then, let’s get to it.

There are a couple of interesting things to point out about this fiber. I know, it looks like a mish-mash of contrasting colours in a random placement — but it isn’t.

You may need some floor or a counter to spread things out on to see it, but there’s order and a clear colour sequence. You can preserve this and depend on it when you’re spinning, and (lest it not be obvious) make choices like this when you handpaint your own fiber as well. This is convenient for socks if you want to more or less match up the colour shifts between both socks. Start by lining up your fiber into two like parts, as you see above.

Once I’ve lined the colours up, you can see there’s some fiber that comes after the end, or before the beginning, of the full colour sequences we have laid out. I broke off this excess, and set it aside for later. You can also see that what I have is two folded pieces of top, right? And the ends are in either extreme of the colour sequence. Hrmmm.

Solved! Now I have four similar lengths of top where the colours are all pretty neatly lined up the same. Some of you, I’m sure, have already seen where this is going. These aren’t totally identical lengths, but hey, they’re close enough for government work. That’s right — government work on self-striping sock yarn! Hey, it could happen.

So now let’s divvy this up further. I’m going to take the top one, and the third one, and put them together; and then I’m going to take the second one, and the bottom one, and put them together. Each of these pairs will become an individual skein of two-ply yarn. Here’s what we do:

1. Start at the blue end of length 1, and spin it onto one bobbin.
2. Start at the blue end of length 3, and spin it onto another bobbin.
3. Ply these bobbins together.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 using the remaining 2 lengths.
5. Admire your results.

Now, if you look closely, you’ll see places where there’s one ply of blue and one ply of yellow, or one ply of yellow and one ply of pink, or just in general, places where the colours don’t like up perfectly. Click here for the honkin’ huge version of the photo if you need to look closer — there are sticky notes on it to point out these marled (or barberpole, depending on your terminology preferences) sections.

Yes, you could have made them line up more closely by using fiber lengths 1 and 2, and then fiber lengths 3 and 4; but if you had done that, would you have had two skeins that matched as closely? Nope. But, maybe that’s what you wanted, instead of having marled sections. The choice is yours!

Well, allright then. What if you didn’t have a handpainted fiber with that clear and consistent colour sequence, but you still want to pretty much match things up? Don’t despair! This is a great example of a time when you might want to split your top.

Now I have two narrower strips where the colours do line up. I can split these again, and follow the first set of instructions… or, you know what? I could just spin singles from these two, and chain ply.

I pulled tufts off the end here, which I then spun from the fold, muddying up colours a tiny bit. Then I took those bobbins of singles, and chain plied them (some folks call it Navajo plying). Paimei helped.

Good thing we had that snow day so the manchild could snap these photos.

The chain plied example is at top; at bottom is our prior two-ply yarn.

So why would I chain ply anyway? Well, I’m going to be assured of almost no marled areas. My colour transitions are going to be clear-cut and definitive.

It’s also fast, uses all the yarn, never requires lots of extra bobbins, and works to preserve colour shifts even where they’re vague. In other words, I chain ply for reasons of speed and expediency, and for specific colour reasons. I don’t do it for structural reasons (unless we’re talking about using a chained single instead of a plain ol’ single), but we’ll take about that in a later article.

A chain-plied yarn has essentially the appearance of a 3-ply yarn. For most knit applications, it’s indisinguishable from a 3-ply and the structural differences truly are immaterial. If you’re looking for crisp colour shifts, it’s likely what you’re after.

At first glance, the two yarns above — yes, it’s two yarns, from two different colourways — seem incredibly similar, and close enough to match each other gaugewise and everything. And that’s true. But the blue-green-purple at left is a chain-plied yarn in “Mermaid,” while the one at right is a true 3-ply in “Rainbow.” Observe…

I spun the “Rainbow” fine, blurring the colours a little (we’ll get to that) and here’s a bobbin of single. I did three such bobbins, after splitting a length of top in thirds — just like how I did it above splitting it in half, only I split it into rough thirds. Since it can be hard to eyeball that kind of thing, the colour shifts didn’t line up particularly well once it came to plying.

See? We’re getting some marl effect happening. But you know…

…I kinda like that.

Yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely lots of marling, and it’s a 3-way effect, not just 2-way. YOu can see it wonderfully on the left side of the photo.

Now, you can get marling with chain plying too.

See? This is that same chained single, and you can see that the single has some barberpole effect, and then so does the ply.

Let’s back up a tiny bit, by the way. I almost forgot to say that there is no reason you have to preserve colourways. We’re just talking a bit about how you can. Observe…

At left, our colour-preserved yarns; at right, a 2-ply yarn in which I did nothing whatsoever to make two bobbins line up colours or what have you. That’s right — nothing. In some places it did, in some places it marled, and it’s all totally random. This works very nicely with analogous colour combinations (that’s when, if you were looking at them on a colour wheel, they’d be right next to each other — as Beth would say “more blendy!”) But results can be more startling and perhaps less pleasing to the eye if you’ve got a colour combination with stronger contrasts.

Well, so what if we don’t have a handy-dandy space-dyed or handpainted fiber? What if we have, say, three fibers in different colours, and we’d like to get them all in there?

You know, like these guys.

I can just take the ends, and spin from them going straight across. That’ll preserve the colour shifts cleanly, or…

I could also press them closer together, and draft from the end a bit, creating a bit more blurring. I could predraft these together, too, and then spin the resulting fibers.

So what if I find myself getting just one colour coming out?

Yeah, that can happen. So I’ll just stop spinning that colour, and break off…

Then I can just start spinning again from a different colour.

You know, I can do this from the fold as well.

I don’t have to leave my finger in there — once it’s drafting, it’s good to go.

I’m going to get blue, then white, then grey, and in between, the colours will blur from one to the next. And then I can chain-ply if it I want to preserve that colour sequence, which I can also make up as I go along. I mean, I can just grab whatever fiber I feel like, and spin a bit.

You know, there’s something useful about doing this on a spindle, too. If I want to be confident that I’m getting the same length of yarn each time, I can be pretty sure of that with a spindle, because the lengths I’ll spin between wind-ons are likely to be similar. So I might spin two wind-ons each of blue, then grey, then white, then blue, then grey, then white… and then do that again for a second single… and then ply those. That’s going to be some very closely aligned 2-ply self-striping yarn.

You can do that on a wheel, but it’s harder to track than it is with a spindle. This is also a great way to use up odds and ends of leftover fiber, and make them into a striping yarn.

Okay folks, there’s one other thing to let you know about the fiber I used in these examples, in case you’re going to use it too.

Oh boy. That looks bad, doesn’t it? Well, I have to say, this is something I’ve encountered with soy silk (and remember, this fiber is half soy silk). I think it’s particularly pronounced here because this is a blend, and the dye exhausts at different rates. What seems to have happened is that a bit of excess dye has piled up in the soy silk; it’s exhausted from the dyebath but it’s not fully bonded to the fiber. Well, synthetics can be a bit tricky to dye. You can do a few things about this.

I discovered the problem when I went for the hot-cold fulling wash — you know, the “Judith Says” wash, of which I’m also a proponent. I encountered it a few minutes after starting the super-hot soak. Once said soak was completed, I rinsed in super-cold water, till the water ran clear. Then I repeated the super-hot soak, and less dye came out. Again, it rinsed clear in the cold, and there was no dye hitting the other colours in the yarn, thankfully. I gave it one more super-hot soak, and it was clear. I wrapped up with one more cold soak and the ol’ beating of the yarn.

Here’s before…

and here’s after.


and after.

If you’re going to do the abusive wash, this is a good way to deal with excess dye. In fact, the possibility of excess dye is another good reason for the abusive wash, when you get right down to it. Wouldn’t you rather know now, and be able to take steps to do something about it now, rather than after you knit socks and then washed them in with some other clothes or something? I know I would.

Excess dye, while not ideal, is a fact of life. Blues and reds are the most common culprits (and blacks, but those are often dyes which contain blues), and man-made fibers are by and large more prone to dyeing peculiarities in non-industrial processes, at least in my experience. While every dyer at any scale of operation makes every attempt to avoid having any such issue altogether, sometimes it’s not entirely possible to address it at one given stage rather than another, and sometimes you can’t even spot it until you reach a specific stage. Fiber is a particularly vulnerable stage of things, especially if you’re talking about a blend of a fine, easily felted fiber such as merino and a more resilient man-made fiber such as soy silk; you can really ruin fiber by subjecting it to a treatment like the one I use for finishing yarn. And sometimes yarn is too vulnerable, so you need to solve the problem in the fabric or the garment stage. Plus, sometimes you encounter it in storebought clothes! So, what’s a textile nerd to do?

I keep Synthrapol on hand. If I’m in doubt, I do a cold wash with Synthrapol — and I do it with off-the-rack clothing of certain types as well (say, blue jeans). So what’s this product I’m talking about? Paula explains it really well. Honestly, I believe this is a product that has a place in the household of even the textile non-geek; it’s there to keep you from turning the whites pink by accident, and so on.

Other than my abusive removal of excess dye, other than a wash with Synthrapol… you know, sometimes things really are HAND WASH COLD – DRY FLAT. That’s often partly because of industrial processes not doing what they could potentially do to eliminate any running issues or what have you, but sometimes it really is the best idea. There are many variables; to be sure you know what will happen, this is a reason why I like to recommend testing by spinning samples, finishing them, swatching them, and then subjecting the swatch to the care intended for the finished object. It’s sort of the yarn or fiber version of pre-shrinking your yardage of fabric before you cut your pieces for a garment that you’re sewing. It’s a good idea.

Anyway, back to the sock yarn.

Top: chained single. Bottom: 2-ply. At first glance, the same yarn — right? But they aren’t. We’ll talk more about that in part 3 of this series, Structure!

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

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

Well, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spinning For Socks: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Tell me a bit about Andean spinning!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey, Michigan!

I met the fabulous Beth at SOAR 2007, where she’d have you believe she wasn’t constantly a focus of attention — even though the truth is everyone would keep drifting off mid-conversation, staring at her fabulous selection of shawls, fortunately brought back quickly by Beth’s wit and charm.

Among other great things about her, Beth owns The Spinning Loft in Howell, Michigan (which means she’s conveniently located for me to visit in order to acquire accessories and doodas with a big blue and gold M on them, and bring them back to Ohio for display on special occasions). I haven’t been to Beth’s shop yet, but we’ll be fixing that. This has been a priority for me since meeting Beth and hearing about her shop; and every time I talk to her, we end up talking about stuff that a spinning and weaving shop should have, and then I say how many — even great ones — don’t but I wish they did, and Beth says something like “Oh no, I’ve got a wall of raw fleece in different breeds, and I’ll sell it in smaller quantities so people can try things, and for the breed studies we do…”

All in all, it’s probably fortunate for all concerned that her shop, while less than a day’s drive away, isn’t close enough to me that I’m constantly over there attempting to pillage it. Beth’s fabulous, she clearly has a fabulous shop, and she also does all the things for her local spinning community that anybody could want their fiber shop to do. Just look at her class and lesson schedule! She’s got great things going on all the time, and works hard to bring in incredible teachers, like Jenny and Galina and — I’m tempted to try to drive up there for this one — Patsy Z… quite a roster of folks on my list of people I want to take classes from! What’s more, I know her shop is frequented by a few other people I really admire (like awe-inspiring lace knitter and handspinner Faina Letoutchaia), and all in all I just can’t help but picture a shop where I would clearly spend far, far too much time.

So when I told Beth I was putting together workshop plans, and she asked me what I was doing in March, well, everything just seemed like a total no-brainer, and so I’ll be debuting a couple of new classes at her place, and if you’re in the area you can come join us on Friday, March 28 for “Spindle Tricks” in the evening, and all day Saturday, March 29th for “Spinning Sock Yarn.” I absolutely can’t wait!

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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.