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Go Ahead: Be A Beginner!

I walked away from an argument today — no, really, I did — and not for the first time. Okay, so it’s an argument I’ve had plenty of times before and it’s a losing battle, and that’s why I walk away from it more often than I don’t.

I love a good debate. I love it when someone challenges my assumptions and makes me think. I love the interchange of ideas, even when there’s a disagreement. My best friends are all people who can hold their own in an argument, without just being jerks. But I’m completely aware this is a relatively fringe position these days, and folks with that outlook can be few and far between. And one of the reasons I started this blog was to have my own soapbox. So here’s a soapbox moment, and when I’m done, please, take the soapbox and have your own in the comments.

Here’s the thing. I hate some of the stuff people say to brand new spinners. Actually, to folks who are brand new to many things, but particularly spinners. Some of this advice is peevesome or downright offensive; some of it is insulting to people who’ve made huge commitments to skill and excellence, and much of it is actually condescending and belittling to the beginning spinner it’s intended to support. Let’s go through a few of these, shall we?

If I wanted perfect yarn, I’d buy it at Wal-Mart!

Really? Because a skein of acrylic selling for 50 cents an ounce is the pinnacle of yarn perfection? Because there’s no point in producing a skein of merino-silk-cashmere blend yarn spun exactly to your specifications when you could just buy a cone of cheap mill cotton? Because this…


or this…

Pagoda, spun from Pippi fiber

or this

Shocking Merino 3-Ply

is all stuff it’s not worth bothering to do, because you can totally just buy yarn at Wal-Mart. Yarn just like that.

Another problem with this whole line is that millspun yarn isn’t perfect. It has tons of flaws. But until people are fairly experienced in judging yarn (which comes quickly from spinning, and more slowly from other pursuits) most folks can’t detect these flaws. The textile mill wasn’t developed because people wanted a more perfect yarn than could be produced by hand; it was developed because people wanted more yarn, faster, for less investment in training. What mills produce is an approximation of the work of an experienced handspinner — an approximation that is good enough to do the job considering it’s cheaper and easier to get more of, and can be made with a lower-end workforce.

In the less-than-300 years we’ve had millspun yarn, and textile mills making cloth, and a move to mass production for clothing, people’s exposure to really good textiles has gone down; people’s ability to judge a good-quality fabric or garment has diminished; people can’t even tell, and they just assume that whatever machines are doing must be better than what people can do — at least, for textiles. I find this perspective incredibly tragic. I don’t even know where to start talking about how tragic it is.

Your first yarn is art yarn!

No it isn’t. It’s beginner yarn. Beginner yarn is great, and very powerful, and a wonderful thing, and something to be tremendously proud of. But it’s not art yarn. You can’t do it on purpose, you can’t reproduce it, you don’t understand the technical structures involved, and there are no guarantees it will stand up to being used. Real art yarn is produced by people with skill and training — people who have invested time and effort into acquiring those things. They have techniques that produce specific results, which they can execute reliably and describe and define and teach. Their yarn is not an accident. Their yarn is structurally sound.

These same things can’t universally be said of that first beginner yarn — but that doesn’t mean the beginner yarn is bad. It just means it’s beginner yarn. Think about it this way: if you were to pick up a guitar, would you expect the first thing you played on it to sound like Andres Segovia playing Bach fugues? I hope not — because if you really think that, you’re going to be disappointed. Nobody should be giving you the expectation of instant excellence with the guitar, because it’s a lie. Playing the guitar takes skill, and that skill takes practice to acquire. Spinning is no different.

I think it sells a beginner short to tell them their novice efforts are master-quality (and let’s not even get into what it sounds like it says about master work). It sells beginners short, because it’s a lie. People do it in an attempt to be supportive, I know, but I think it’s better to praise beginner work for what it is, rather than to liken it to the work of people who’ve spent time and energy studying and practicing. Why? Because as a beginner, I think you have a right to know there IS more; that you can do better, and you will, and that all it takes is wanting to and practicing. I mean, how much of a bummer is it to think that you just learned everything there is to know in 15 minutes? Does it even ring true, or do you know deep down it’s a lie and a platitude?

I think a big part of the problem is that people sometimes don’t want to be beginners — and I think that expectation comes in part from this notion that it’s supportive and good to tell beginners their work is somehow “advanced” or “expert” or “art.” But as I see it, being a beginner is a sacred, special time. In fact, in Zen, there is a saying:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

This concept of the Beginner’s Mind is an important one to study in a Zen context… or, really, any context. Being a beginner is the most liberated time you’ll ever encounter. You are totally free to not know what you don’t know; you shouldn’t have to be working to overcome baggage; you should be under no pressure to demonstrate or defend a subject or position. Nobody can judge you for saying “I don’t know.”

But in American culture, we have devalued being a beginner. We urge people to hurry into mastery, even if only by proclaiming themselves to have achieved it. We suggest that not having mastered something is bad, when all it really means is that you haven’t mastered it yet, and what could possibly be wrong with that? I’m gonna say this again: There is nothing wrong with being a beginner.

In Zen pursuits, mastery surpasses being an expert, in large part because a master can reclaim the Beginner’s Mind, and is again free in ways that weren’t possible when being an expert. In other words, the greatest mastery there is comes when you can incorporate everything that you know, without being so bound by that knowledge that other things seem impossible.

Where this often falls apart in American culture (and likely others) is when people are looking to move (often as quickly as possible) from being beginners to being experts. It’s not uncommon for people at that stage of the game to want answers that are absolutes: do this, and then that, and you will get a predictable result. This is an understandable desire, but it’s my opinion that focusing too hard that way actually slows down the learning process in the long run. Being able to instead wonder, and question, and say “What if?” — being able to imagine a possibility and strive for it, knowing it will take work and time, knowing there is a vast world of potential that is not yet revealed, that’s what makes learning happen and happen fast. And there are as many avenues to mastery as there are people who’d pursue it.

For myself personally, I strive to be a beginner wherever I can. I want to always have those pathways open; I don’t want to miss out on taking an interesting detour because it wasn’t marked on a roadmap. I would urge everyone, no matter how long they’ve been spinning, to try being a beginner. Come to things assuming you know nothing, and don’t quickly be forced out of that mode of thinking. You might be amazed what this opens up for you.

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Workin’ Hard, or Hardly Workin’?

The truth of the matter is that Denny was suffering. There’s this whole strike situation in her home city of Toronto, which means all the parks are closed and nobody’s coming to pick up trash or compost. They’re also putting new water mains in her street, so the water’s turned off all the time. There was even a threat of the booze folks going on strike, but at least complete disaster was avoided and that didn’t happen. But so then, there she was, suffering terribly, when the reupholstery people came and took away all her furniture. So she didn’t have anywhere to sit but the floor.

“Do you wanna come over?” I asked her. “We have seating. And garbage pickup.” She declined, at first — but then the next day, she reported that she was going to lose even the floor upon which she’d been sitting, so new floors could go into her house. And that, she said, was really that, and she and her younger son would be over in a few days.

We sent the manchildren off to YMCA day camp, and set about putting together class kits for Sock Summit 2009.


This was brutal hard work, you realize. The spindles were all made, the fibers were all here, but everything needs dividing up. On paper, there are 35 students per class times 4 classes, which would be 140 students. But — and I’ve talked aout this before — you always need to have extra class packs ready in case someone spills his tea in his stuff, or there just happen to be a couple of extra people who materialize unexpectedly, or because of other unforeseen issues. What’s more, the way it works for Sock Summit — which is brilliantly organized in my opinion — is that a vendor will be selling the class kits, instead of me and Denny handling them, and there is a chance that folks who didn’t take the class may be interested in picking one up as well. So we had to make a few extras.


Denny may hate my boss for demanding this, but we both know she’s right. But lucky for all of us, the Smith family arrived from Michigan and, since many hands make work light, we managed to get all the kits put together.

Packing Kits for SS09

Here’s a little bit of a kit teaser:

Spindle Spinning Basics Kit

The spindles, which people always ask about, are toy wheel spindles which have been lovingly made by my family, and ceremonially ornamented for good luck. They often feature secret messages — and these are no exception. Each one is unique and they spin quite nicely. For this run, we’ve upgraded from birch and poplar shafts to maple, oak, cherry, and walnut, and there’s a mix of waxed finish and unfinished. Here’s what they look like with a wax finish:

Limited Edition Toy Wheel Spindles

Denny is addicted to these spindles… and she may not be alone.

After getting kits all packed up and hauled back up to the yarn room where they await shipping, the Smiths forced us out on the deck for some hooping. Beth can do it.


Maggie can do it.


Ryan is a master. He says you do it like this: Hand…

Hand, Neck, Body!


Hand, Neck, Body!


Hand, Neck, Body!

I, on the other hand, can’t make it go. But this is a perfect example of how learning physical skills works: the youngest person in the group picks it up the quickest, and makes it look easy. The medium-aged kid can point out small things you should do differently and can teach you how if you’re willing to listen (Maggie helped me out a lot). And the grownups all sit around saying things like “I don’t think I can do this. Maybe it’s just not for me.”

Since all the grownup chicks in this crowd are spinning teachers, we found this observation to be a real knee-slapper. No, really, we did. Soooo…

Denny hopped up and decided to bring the empty cup and the beginner’s mind, and just learn; and so, she did.


Later, we all went to the fireworks in town, which were very nice and we had a great time sitting on blankets on the grass at the fairground… except for my son, who pronounced that his blanket was itchy. And then came the bombshell.

“I think I may be allergic to wool,” he said. While the rest of us sat speechless at the concept, and I started formulating an explanation of micron and prickle factor and comparing the grade of wool between the two blankets, Chad spoke up. “If you were allergic to wool,” he said, “you couldn’t live in our house; you would have keeled over dead by now.”

We all had to laugh. And laugh. And laugh some more. Because, yeah, there kinda is a lot of wool in our house.

For the 4th, Chad fired up the smoker. There were ribs, and pulled pork, and chicken, and we also made tamales. Denny made pie. Maggie was well-behaved and kept following grownups learning to do what they were doing, and the rest of the kids got constantly yelled at for running in and out of the house. You would think that if you’re constantly getting yelled at, then you would avoid the yellers; but yet that’s not how it works. This is just one more way in which I apparently do not understand the boy child psyche — like how they love to build things, but then the immediate desire upon completion is to smash it; seriously, I don’t get that. Not at all. And you could not have convinced me this was a boy-girl thing once upon a time, but yet, time and again, it appears to be. And I can assure you it’s not a parental expectation thing, and that these stereotypical boy behaviours were there in my son before he had a peer group to get them from. I don’t get it.

After we ate, we sat down to do more Tour de Fleece spinning, on my new cherry Matchless. But we were so full of food we fell asleep.

Tour de Fleece 2009 kicks off hard core.

But wait, what’s that I’m spinning on? Is that… could it be… wait! It says something on the treadle!

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

In case you can’t read that, it says something about 40 years of Schacht Spindle Company. Which must make this… let’s see…

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

Schacht 40th Anniversary Cherry Matchless

a limited edition Cherry Matchless! And so it is; mine is the second one off the production line, right behind Beth’s. And no, the treadles aren’t really grey; it’s the lighting. Beth delivered the wheel to me with the start of a collaborative project on it, which you’ll be seeing more of soon.

Right now, the Matchless is a good match for the red oak floors in our house; but in a few years, it’ll be a much deeper colour, because that’s just how cherry is.

On the 5th, the Canadians went home and the Smiths headed back to Michigan and everybody took naps. And today it’s back to the grind again, finishing up warps for my Andean backstrap weaving class at The Spinning Loft. See how it constantly comes back to workshop prep?

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It’s been a whirlwind…

I have officially lost all track of time. In the past 5 minutes, or else perhaps it’s 5 years, the manchild finished school for the year, started summer day camp at the local YMCA, I got my copy of Amy King’s new book Spin Control, I went to Colorado to work on an exciting new project I haven’t gotten clearance to blog about yet, I saw the first laid-out pages for my book, I went to TNNA, my 40th Anniversary cherry Matchless arrived at my dealer’s, and officially started trying to make exercise part of my routine even though there’s no way I can fit it in.

Okay, it’s been 9 days, and I feel like today is the longest I’ve sat still (I think I feel that way because it’s true). I feel completely dizzy. And exhausted. And years behind on my email. And vaguely as if I’m forgetting at least 8 other things that have happened. But there are two pieces of big news. The first is that tonight, for the first time since I don’t remember when, I have time to spin something totally just for me. Something that isn’t committed to a project, necessarily. Something whimsical. Something I don’t have to spin, with no deadline. And I have absolutely no idea what to spin. None. I am totally at a loss. I can’t remember what to do with myself.

The second is that my book is officially available for preorder! I can hardly believe it, but, as my long-suffering editor said to me the other day, “This ruse that we’re publishing a book is getting expensive.” She was kidding. I hope. Seriously though, it’s real! It’s a real book. I saw real pages for it. With real pictures, and real words, and everything. It has an ISBN. It’s, you know, real. It’s really expected in November. And I’ve had a few folks ask me already where they can get signed copies. The first answer that came to mind was “Come where I’ll be signing them,” but when I said that in Amy King’s earshot this past weekend, she pointed out that with the wonders of modern technology, it’s actually possible for people to pre-order them, which she’d set up for her loyal Spunquistadores to do. “You should do the same,” she suggested. So I’m copycatting her, and there’s a link on the right nav bar where you can do just that if you’re so inclined. When the first copies hit the warehouse, I’ll get your pre-orders in, sign them, and send them out to you forthwith. Make sure you let me know who you’d like it signed to, or if there’s anything specific you’d like me to say.

But please do still come see me where I’m signing books… and I’ll let you know where that will be before too long. But in the meantime, I’m off to do my comfort spinning, and I’d love to hear what you consider comfort spinning!

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Some questions answered, and a daring plot

Several folks have asked how you do a criss-crossing wind-on. It’s pretty simple, and I wrote up the basics a few years back — with nary a question or comment! I demonstrated it with a low whorl spindle, and spiraling up the shaft to where you’ll do a half-hitch, but this same principle applies to any spindle. In this particular tutorial, I showed it at the starting stages — but you can do it at any stage at all. In the beginning stages, it saves a lot of wind-on time and usually helps keep what will become the interior of your cop from getting very slippery later on.

I’m going to digress for a moment here and reiterate something I think people don’t always realize intuitively. Ready? Okay then, here it is: lots of things apply to more than one type of spindle (or even more than one type of tool — so things that apply to the spindle often apply to the wheel, and vice versa). This criss-cross wind-on is a great example. The gist of the method, even though it’s shown on a low whorl spindle in this case, applies equally to a high whorl, or a mid-whorl, or any spindle.

Debbie raises an interesting point in a comment:

If seems to me that you are cheating a little by using a Woolee Winder as the comparison. If you were using hooks instead of a Woolee Winder, you could fit more yarn on the bobbin. The limit would be where the yarn hits the flier, instead of flat with the end of the bobbin. The yarn would pooch out in the middle of the bobbin, just like on the spindle.

Your main point that spindles can hold a lot stands up well without the comparison, however.

Interesting cop building method. Is this traditional Chinchero or your own take on how you find it most efficient?

I would absolutely agree that it’s possible to pack many standard bobbins much fuller than a WooLee Winder (although that, too, is something one can find debate over — because packing a bobbin to maximum fullness is also a skill, and the WW is no substitute for that skill in the final analysis). Certainly, that would be true for a standard Majacraft bobbin, and that would have addressed that in the specific case shown. For the record, the example shown — with the plying finished using a spindle — wasn’t something I set up to prove this point; it was something I encountered never expecting that I had more to ply than would fit on that bobbin, for a planned yarn where failing to get it plied as expected would have ruined the whole idea.

To illustrate Debbie’s point, here’s a bobbin packed full on my old Roberta electric spinner — which has a tensioning mechanism that makes for pretty tightly packed bobbins, to boot:

and another view:

The spun yarn on the bobbin is rubbing on the flyer arm in many places, and it’s no longer really possible to wind on stably in a way that yarn won’t slip off the ends and tangle around the flyer shaft. This can also happen after removing the bobbin, such that problems occur:

and in my experience, I have found these limitations on bobbin and flyer assemblies to be more absolute than the comparable limitations for packing a spindle full. But again, it also depens on the specific equipment. Not all bobbins can be packed to be fuller; not all spindles can be filled to the same extent; your yardage will vary, as they say.

Thank you, Debbie, for raising this — it’s a great discussion point. As to your last question, in Chinchero, while cop building is still unique to each spinner, there’s a strong aesthetic towards the bell-shaped cop, and this is sort of an upside-down interpretation of that aesthetic. Some spinners do criss-cross to stabilize things, but it’s not universal.

In other news, I am daring to hope.

These are four seedlings — cotton seedlings — which are not yet dead. They were planted with seeds from the one plant that made it last year, which produced two bolls. There were six in this pot, which we started inside in early May. One seed never sprouted, one sprout died very early, and these four are not dead yet. Based on this, I am, as I say, daring to hope.

There are four seeds each in these pots by the garage. There are also four more that have been added to the six that were in another pot, on the deck, that we planted at the same time as the indoor-started ones, and those have never sprouted.

I am daring to hope that a few plants will make it in each of these containers. This is a huge hope for me, because I’m not good with the whole plant-growing thing. Usually, my plantings look rather like this.

But sometimes crops work out okay if I’m involved. Houseplants never; crops, okay. Even so, I often think it best if I view the garden as belonging to my better half.

And yet, I dare to hope that it will yield tasty tomatoes, peppers, basil, and cilantro for us all to enjoy.

Our son is not plagued by my plant misfortune. Years ago in California, he planted a few sunflower seeds, and they grew into 12-foot-tall behemoths that eventually collapsed under the weight of their yield of seeds. We saved at least a pound of seeds, and this year, he planted some.

There were many here, but this crew has been beset by slugs or something, so a lot of ’em didn’t make it past being very small.

These have done a little better, though again there have been some losses. But we all dare to hope that perhaps the manchild’s sunflowers will again grow huge and tall.

Please wish us luck with our green things.

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Spindle Full, Spindle Empty, Need More Spindles

There’s a lot to say about filling up a spindle. I often hear from folks who have been told that a big problem with spindles is that you just can’t put a lot of yarn on them, and that’s one of the reasons why wheels win out.

The thing is, it isn’t true. Flyer wheels have absolute limits in terms of how much you can put on there: once the yarn on your bobbin is rubbing the flyer arms, you definitely can’t get more on there, no matter how much you want to. Let’s roll back the clock to 5 years ago or so…

I had a WooLee Winder bobbin full with at least 500 yards and 5 ounces of 3-ply yarn, and there was just no way to get the last bit on there, but it was completely mandatory that this be one skein because I had planned out this whole colour sequence thing in overly elaboraqte detail. I was seriously annoyed; “If I were doing this with a spindle,” I said, “it would have been no problem at all to just get the last 30-40 yards crammed on there. Grrr.” So that’s what I did:

I wound all three singles together into a butterfly, then plied from the other end onto my Peruvian canti (plying spindle) and the problem was solved in no time at all… other than that I had to pull the stuff on the spindle off through the orifice and closed-ring hooks on the WooLee Winder, so I could skein the yarn off the bobbin.

I still remember sitting there thinking, “I so would not have had this issue and waste of time if I’d just been using a spindle to ply this from the start.” Any time that I arguably saved with the wheel and WooLee Winder combo had been eaten up in dealing with this limitation. I knew from experience that I could put at least 8 ounces onto that spindle and it was a real shock to come up against the hard limitations of fancier equipment.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean you have to cram a spindle insanely full all the time. It can be a great way to work with thread and small quantities.

This is an impossible to photograph project that I’ve been poking at here and there for a few years. It’s some merino/cashmere top that I split up carefully and wound into small packages to preserve the colour sequence, and I’ve been gradually spinning little bits, winding it off onto another spindle, then winding it back onto a pair of matched spools for electrical wire that… well, it’s a long story. But this is one of those funny little extreme frog hair projects I constantly have in the background. I do the rewinding when I get to the point that I’ve used up one of the small colour-sequenced pieces. Someday when I get to that point, these two electrical spools will be full of super delicate merino/cashmere thread ready to be made into a carefully-controlled 2-ply thread with enthralling colour shifts.

I’ve got a similarly sized-spindle sitting by my slothing chair in the family room right now, and I’m periodically, carefully, meticulously spinning the yield of my first cotton crop: two precious bolls worth. This is intended for a SOAR project, because the cotton seeds came from Phreadde, and it’s a miracle that I grew plants without killing them, and cotton actually happened. Some seeds have been replanted this year, and if all goes well I’ll have at least 4 times the yield, and gradually, as time goes by, I’m going to get to where there’s a meaningful amount of cotton, from the half-dozen seeds Phreadde originally gave me at SOAR 2007.

I guess we can also take a sideline here and talk about why it is I really do desperately need more and more and more spindles, even if I keep getting spindles that seem incredibly similar to ones I already have. Here’s one reason.

I can’t remember, until I wind off, whether this was half of the singles I was doing for a specific project which explained managing colour sequences… or all of them. I have to wind off this spindle neatly and track the colour changes so I can remember, because I lost my notes. But I do remember that I was winding the cop with an eye towards showing the colour changes, and I took all these pictures along the way, and… yeah. Great. So I have to spend an afternoon going through those photos and winding that yarn off carefully, and then I can remember what I was gonna do next.

This one isn’t done yet. I just have to remember where I put the rest of the fiber.

I can’t wind off this one until I get a good picture in the right light, because in real life, it’s insanely pretty. But all my pictures keep not coming out. This spindle was Divine Bird Jenny’s, but we swapped some stuff. I love it that it was hers so I want to take pretty pictures of this yarn on it.

And then there’s this one, also plagued with the same problem, which is that I really want to take pictures of it as it is, because… it’s pretty, and something else (I’ll get to that). It’s my prettiest Bosworth in my opinion, and I spun this cop for exhibition purposes. I wanted to show something specific.

Can you see it in this picture?

I think it’s easiest to see in this one. The top part of it — closer to the whorl — is wound criss-crossing, and the lower part of it is not. Why would I do that? The answer is first of all that switching between these methods is part of what lets me build a stable, dense and full cop (the cop, remember, is the spun yarn you’ve stored on your spindle). Winding around and around packs the yarn tighter, but it gets slipperier and sloppier more quickly. Winding in an X holds it more stable and winds on more yarn per twirl of the spindle, but the packing isn’t usually as dense. Combining these methods allows for the best of all possible worlds in packing a spindle.

This was my carryaround spindle for about a month, then my sit-in-the-kitchen spindle for a week or two. It’s an 11 gram Bosworth featherwight, and it’s got 66 grams of merino/silk singles on it. For me, this is pretty much a functional limit with this spindle. The spindle still spins totally fine and would work for ages more, but I’m out of space for the yarn to go without compromising the shaft pace I need to set the spindle in motion, the stability of the cop, or the ability to keep the spun yarn securely in place when I start spinning the next length. More than this, and it would start to get annoying.

Allright, the truth is, it started to get a little annoying in the last few grams. But — and this is where I was going at the outset — it got a little annoying. It didn’t get impossible. I wanted to get the whole batch onto that spindle, so I decided to, and it went on there. There are ways — which there aren’t when you hit the hard limits of a bobbin and flyer.

At 7 times its unladen weight, the spindle performs fine — but differently from how it did at 11 ounces. I’d be lying if I said a brand-new spinner could do this. It takes time and practice, knowing the tool, knowing the yarn, knowing your own habits and tendencies.

I won’t know for a while — until I’ve wound it off, plied it, and measured it — just how much yarn there was here. But I’m reasonably sure it’s, well, a lot. I’m going to hazard a guess I’ll get around 600-800 yards of 2-ply yarn from this when all is said and done. I’m tempted to skein it and measure it as singles, for science, but I’m just too lazy right now and besides, I want it in plying ball form for an impending project that requires demonstrating that.

In any case, don’t let anybody tell you spindles don’t hold a lot. It isn’t true. On the other hand, what does appear to be true is that you need about 8 zillion spindles to have enough. I truly hope this helps.

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Spindle Positions

Wow, I want to thank you all for the terrific responses to the question about spinning standing up vs. sitting down! I would urge anybody who hasn’t to read the comments — there’s some fantastic food for though there.

Here’s why I asked: over the past few months, I’ve heard lots of people say lots of different things about spindle spinning positions, some stated very authoritatively and completely contradicting each other. In some cases, when I’ve talked to folks about these things, they’ve told me they were told in no uncertain terms that you really couldn’t spin sitting down, or standing up, or without reaching your hands way up over your head, or without using your whole body, or all kinds of things. So I started to wonder: first of all, who’s hearing these things, and second of all, who’s telling them?

What’s interesting is that if asked, a lot of people can’t remember where they heard, say, that you can’t spin standing up; others say that it just never occurred to them that they could sit down; so there really doesn’t seem to be an elite cadre of misinformation ninjas out there telling people untruths about the spindle or anything. But things that seem obvious to some of us, it turns out, are totally not. And some of the things we assume may even be mistaken.

I, for instance, assumed it was obvious you could just sit down. Or stand up. But then someone told me she’d found a particular video helpful learning to spin (which I thought was interesting since the video didn’t actually cover what most of the world has considered to be “spinning” for thousands of years), and I asked her what she’d found helpful about it — after all, I’m always looking to improve on my toolkit for getting folks started and reducing the time it takes them to be able to be hands-on trying it in ways that lead to rapid success. “Oh!” she told me, “Mostly it’s that the lady in that video is sitting down. All the other ones, people are standing up. I want to learn a spinning method that can be used sitting down, not one that requires me to stand.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I made a mental note to add “And of course, you can sit or stand as you prefer,” to the things I make sure to say when teaching a brand-new spinner.

You can spin, or ply, standing up.

You can spin, or ply, sitting down.

You can spin, or ply, while walking around. Heck, you can do it while dancing.

Something else to remember is that when it comes to spindle ergonomics, we’re all different and spindles are largely different from each other, and this is one of the great strengths of the spindle: you can figure out what works best for you personally. With a wheel, you’re restricted to some extent by the shape and size of the equipment — but with a spindle, your range of motion can be anything at all.

So if you’ve only felt you could do it one way, how do you get to be able to do it other ways? You’ll all hate me for this, but the answer is simple: just give it a try. At first it may feel awkward, but that’s normal enough. It takes time for a new movement to feel comfortable. And if you’re just starting out, I would urge you to vary your position a lot, and try lots of different things. You might be amazed what a difference it makes to be able to spin comfortably in any position at all.

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So here’s a question

I’m hearing two questions asked a lot lately, and I’m intrigued about them, so I figure it’s time to Ask The Blog. Are you ready? Okay, the first question is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re standing up?”

and the second one is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re sitting down?”

So I’d love to hear from you: how do you do it, and why? When you were starting out, did you strongly believe you had to do it one way or the other? Do you remember why you may have thought that? Has your opinion on the subject changed over time?

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Teaching Schedule 2009

Upcoming classes / events:

at The Spinning Loft, Howell MI; Friday evening 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Class space limited! Learn backstrap and pickup techniques in the traditional Andean way, using traditional patterns and methods, you’ll start with weaving, then move your way up to warping and tying heddles. This class will run from Friday evening July 17 through Sunday July 19.

at Tina Newton’s

, Portland, Oregon, August 6-9, with Denny (yes, THAT Denny) McMillan. Ideal for the brand-new spinner or the wheel spinner looking to get comfortable with spinners, Denny and I will serve as the spinning gateway drug pushers and open up the whole world of spinning for you.

in Frankfort, Kentucky, September 26, 2009, 10AM to 5PM; 800-441-9665 to register.

at Sun River Resort in Bend, Oregon, October 25-November 1. I’ll be teaching a 3-day workshop on drum carded blends, and a half-day retreat session on the same topic, 4 times.

There are a few more dates not set in stone yet, and I’ll update this page when those are firm.

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Too Much Twist

So how much twist is really too much twist? It’s common for spinners to talk about something having too much twist, especially if they’re new — but the truth is that yarn can handle way more twist than you’d think, and the exact right amount of twist is really subjective. When I’m talking about the question of too much twist vs. too little, I like to describe it this way:

Too little twist: Your fibers can still be drafted; the yarn slips and tries to keep thinning out, and with sufficient weight or tension, would drift right apart.

Too much twist: Your fibers are all so tightly twisted that the only thing they can do is kink up on themselves super-tight to ease the strain. When you try to pull them out straight, the yarn snaps.

All yarn, as you’re spinning it and before the twist has settled, or it has been plied and finished, will kink up on itself. That’s normal, and it’s supposed to! If the singles you’re spinning don’t kink up on themselves, you probably don’t have enough twist for your yarn to be structurally sound.

And that’s the crux of the matter: yarn has too little, or too much, twist, when the amount of twist causes it to be structurally unsound. This means there’s a huge spectrum in between too much and too little, and that whole spectrum is okay. It’s up to you, as the spinner, to decide where along that spectrum you want your yarn to fall, and you would make that choice based on many, many different things. When you’re starting out, I recommend erring on the side of having what feels like more twist than you want. Chances are, it’s actually less twist than you think it is, and besides, there’s a lot more you can do to salvage a yarn that’s a little twistier than you ideally wanted, than to salvage a yarn that is so loosely spun it simply drifts apart.

These things said, my son recently provided me with a great visual example of what happens when you get too much twist.

Here we have one computer headset, suitable for… you know, everything a tween could possibly want to do with a headset on a computer, plus for keeping Mom in her office from having to listen to the same song over and over and over again (hey, does that end? I know it ends; I don’t do that anymore, but when did I stop? Is there hope that this will end before he moves out?). This headset is dangerously broken, though you can’t tell from the picture above. Maybe this will help:

Can you see what’s going on with that cord? Well, let’s look closer.

Up at the top, you can see where it’s kinking up. Down at the bottom, you can see where it’s… got issues.

Here’s what happened. Every time the manchild would take off the headset, he’d drop it on his desk or the floor (sigh), and do it in such a manner as to introduce a single twist. When he would put it on, he would pick it up (usually from the floor), and give it another twist to orient it correctly before donning it. In this way, much twist was built up in the cord, and after a time, it kinked up on itself and became short enough that it wouldn’t reach his head. To solve this, he placed his hands on either side of the kink, and yanked it out straight. And just as with yarn, this cause breakage.

Oh yeah. As you can see, the headset cord is actually composed of a number of fibrous things internally, protected by a vinyl tube on the outside. This tube is intended to shield the headset’s cables, keeping sound transmission clear, and preventing other potential electrical hazards (though granted, those risks are pretty low with a headset, but then again, if it’s being thrown on the floor of a tween’s bedroom, you just never know). It is the tube which has failed structurally due to excess twist. The wires inside are somewhat more twist-tolerant — but in time, these too would fail.

You can see it above getting ready to happen. The vinyl is stretched and stressed by twist, and the wires are starting to poke through at the main kink-up point. This same thing will happen with the fibers in your yarn — first they will get stressed, and then they will break. Just like this headset cord, your yarn only has so much twist-carrying capacity, and when you exceed that, it will give way.

The correct solution to this problem, as we have explained to the manchild with his new headset (because seriously, I cannot work in my office if I have to listen to whatever soundtrack it is that has been put to Bionicle videos on youtube, and there are times when I absolutely must be working in my office and simply do not have the strength of character to engage in the lengthy argument about turning that crap down, particularly given the karmic sledgehammer that is yet to come my way in this respect due to the fact that I spent my teenage years playing the guitar for 8 hours a day), is to remove the twist. This can easily be accomplished by unplugging the headset and allowing the twist to run out, or, if the twist has started to settle, holding one end of the cord and spinning the headset in the opposite direction to remove the twist.

He has also been warned: his mother is very, very good at gauging twist, and will not have a problem detecting failure on his part to properly manage twist in his new headset.

In other news, today is registration day for the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat. Here’s wishing you all great luck and the classes you’re hoping for, and I look forward to seeing you there.

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Dear My Book

Dear My Book,

Okay, listen. This is a difficult time in our relationship, and I know we’ve been spending a lot of time fighting with each other and it’s been stressful, but first of all, I want to be sure you know, I mean REALLY know, that I’m deeply committed to working this out. I believe in us for the long-term, larger picture. When I look deep in my heart, I see a future with us together, happily working towards the same goals, sharing the good and the bad. I truly believe in that. I’m not losing my faith in that just because we’re having a rough time right now.

But that said, I would really like to clear the air between us, and I don’t feel that’s been happening effectively just going about it the way that we have been. So I’m going to try writing my feelings down and handing them to you, and it would mean a lot to me if you could take the time to read them, without just reacting angrily or anything — just read them, and think about them, and then after a while I’d like it we could talk through them all rationally.

Sometimes it’s hard for me not to feel like I’m in this all alone, and like I’m the one doing the heavy lifting, while you just sit there, cold and impassive. I can’t tell what you’re feeling. That makes me feel like it’s all my faith carrying us, and I don’t even know if you believe in that long term goal. It’s hard, when I don’t even know if you really want to be in this with me or not. I wish I felt like I had a clear picture how this strife of the editing process made you feel.

Other times, I feel like there are too many people involved — why are you talking to our editor so much? What do you guys talk about? You guys go off in secret without me there, and then you come back, and you start spewing things at me — this has to change, I can’t live like this, who’s taking out the trash, if you ever really loved me you would have remembered to pick up bread on the way home. I know she’s influencing you and it makes me feel powerless. Some of the things you’re saying to me when we fight I know are straight from your heart, but others just ring like something she said that you’re repeating. I’m glad you have an advocate and a champion but I also fear she’s putting things in your head that you wouldn’t otherwise think.

Every time I think we’ve worked through a major issue, it seems like there are more waiting in the wings. You’re angry at me when I take a break to eat or see my family for a few minutes. I don’t understand what you have against my family. They love you. Why can’t you see that? It’s not reasonable for you to try to cut me off from them. I don’t think that’s acceptable for our relationship. I don’t like how you control my days so completely.

I understand we have real issues that need to be worked through, and that we have limited time in which to resolve our conflicts. But even in spite of my faith that this is going to work out and we are going to live happily ever after, there are times when I desperately just want to run away. I want to tell you I think we need some time apart, maybe even to see other projects. It’s not about you, it’s about me: I need to recharge my batteries. Focusing so closely on you can’t be healthy if it continues like this. I know you feel like I’m just ripping your guts out over and over and making us hash over the same old things again and again, but sometimes that is what it takes.

I’m sure that someday down the road we’ll look back at all this and smile, happy that we worked through it and stuck it out. I can see that being as soon as November. But right now, I just wish you could cut me some slack, and starting putting a little of your own energy into making this whole thing go. At the very least, please respect that this is hard for me, and maybe just fend for yourself a little bit so I can see my family, or maybe hang out with the blog now and then. They’re not a threat to you. This is a done deal and it is going to be okay. Someday, the clouds will part and we’ll laugh and smile again. I love you, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now.

Yours always,

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