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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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You know, I think I will.

Ellen is always offering me some of her northern Illinois snow. She knows full well that, after part of my childhood in rural New Hampshire, and my early adult life in Chicago, this is a brilliant wisecrack and an offer which I’ll never take.

Except… maybe I will. Our weather lately has been so strange; huge thunderstorms, tornado warning, tornadoes the next county over, floods, mudslides, and so on that I’ve found myself thinking, you know, a foot or two of snow might be preferable.

Yesterday, I couldn’t see the back fence (some 30 yards away) most of the day through the downpour. All the drainage areas around the yarn were running like little rivers full of muddy rainwater; the pond across the road, typically a foot or more below its banks, looked like it might overflow at any moment; our storm drain, near the mailbox, was totally overwhelmed and water was higher than the culverts on the ditches near all the driveways. In my office, at the northwest corner of the second story of the house, high winds would hit, slamming straight into that corner, the corner right in front of my face while I’m at my desk. The house would creak and moan, and my breath would catch involuntarily at the thought that I was a whole two feet from that bluster and pounding rain. The noise of it drowned out all my usual background noises. The manchild ran up from where the bus dropped him off at the end of the driveway — 100 or so yards — and came in the door quite sodden; Wednesday, early release day, I always forget that.

There I am, beating my inbox with a stick, eyeing the corner in front of me and checking out the window to see the rain mercifully slowing a bit, while my better half is in his office on a work conference call, and our oh-so-grownup son plays video games in the living room — and POP! Silence.

“Blackout,” the boy hollered. But this was starting to get old hat now; it’s the third one in the past 10 days or so. We’ve got it down to a science now; everyone’s got flashlights in arm’s reach everywhere, and besides, it’s about 4 in the afternoon this time, so it’s really not dark. Although this did mean it wasn’t easy to see how far off the ights were out, which as luck would have it, would now otherwise be possible since the rain had slowed enough to restore moderate visibility.

I pulled out my cell phone, found the slip of paper in my wallet on which I had — one of the last times — written the electric company emergency number and related info, and called it in to the automated line. I contemplated putting it on autodial or something, but with it being a phone tree, there’d be a lot of pausing. Besides, surely this was the last time I’ll be calling for a while. I kicked myself for thinking that thought. I know better.

Unlike the past times, there had been no reports of outages in the area of the service address. I’d have panicked for a second except for two things: I’ve pathologically checked the balances every time I’ve called about the past few outages, and chances are I’m the only weirdo to put all the relevant info on a slip of paper just in case after the last couple of times. Clearly, I was just the first one to call in.

I went to go tell Chad the score… whose conference call had moved to his cell phone. Good lord. I went to grab my knitting. What knitting? Well, the project I started in the first blackout, when I realized that colourwork by flashlight was really not fun.

My eyes are definitely too old for that. If you curious what that’s all supposed to be, I did use the flash.

Who knows when I’ll finish that hat now; as noted, I had to start a new project because of that; one that would be easier to work on in poor light. Which for some reason I figured was alpaca/silk lace on size 2 US needles. Hey, it isn’t colourwork, right? But sitting by the back door in what light was coming in, it dawned on me that my eyes may be getting old for that too.

Just my eyes, you understand.

One of the things I’ve always sort of enjoyed about power outages is the silence. This time, though, there wasn’t a lot of that; there was more throwing of paper airplanes, and bored ten-year-old. Which is where it first occurred to me that snow might be better. Snow comes with “Wouldn’t you like to build a snowman?” while a drenching downpour and 45-mile-an-hour winds comes with “Let’s get you out of those wet things, and good thing we have a propane stove in a power outage.”

“Just crazy weather,” I said.

“Yeah,” the boy said. “Or maaaaybe… you didn’t pay the power bill!”

“Hah,” I said. “Parents are deep conditioned to do that, first of all, and second, think that and check on it the first second there is a power outage. Which is why you know to say that.”

“Maybe it’s the zombie apocalypse,” he suggested. He’s recently become interested in surviving that.

“Not a chance,” his father replied, free at last from conference call, work day forcibly over. “We can tell because we’re listening to NPR and it’s the same as always.” If it were truly the apocalypse, we explained, the radios would go silent and the lights wouldn’t be coming back on. Edward pondered the implications. “No more video games, then,” he said glumly, imagining it.

“More importantly,” said his mother, “No washing machine.”

“Why is that so bad?” he asked. Hah. Clearly, I’ve ruined this boy. I bit back a rant about when I was a kid and we lived in rural Peru and you didn’t even have running water in the house, while Chad pointed out the flushing toilet would also stop working.

“Yeah,” I said, “But having lived without both, I’d miss the washing machine more.” We all talked about that sort of thing a while, while Chad cooked pasta for dinner in the failing light.

Lifestyle is a funny thing. I’ve lived, entirely content, without electricity and running water. But I don’t want to do it in my modern American home. I don’t want to do it in a family of only three people, far far from others. I don’t want to do it considering the lifestyle I’ve built for myself now, which is totally dependent on electricity. I don’t want to do it without really fabulous oil lamps to light up my handwork, dammit! Reading and sewing and so forth by candlelight is a massive drag. And I hate washing laundry by hand and outhouses are a total drag in bad weather and geeze would I hate to be nagging the kid about the chamber pot.

Remind me to call my mother up and tell her she’s a saint, I was an ungrateful wretch, and she’s right, someday I’ll thank her, and that day is today.

The cell phone came out again, and I checked back with the electric company. “Estimated time by which power will be restored is 8:40 PM,” I reported. Mmmm, yay.

It’s amazing how much technology there is in a house nowadays. When the power comes back on, the servers all have to be brought back online, for cryin’ out loud. The phones have to come back up, and the satellite stuff, and the desktop computers, and a half-dozen clocks reset, and make sure the garage door works, and… geeze. I love it, and I hate it, and it’s part and parcel of the modern lifestyle I lead.

If you’ve tried to reach me and haven’t heard back, drop me a line again. It seems to be drying out a bit today, so I’m hitting the post office, restocking on candles and batteries, and doing laundry in a panic so if, in fact, it is the apocalypse soon, at least I’ll have clean pants.

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So, what does a decade do?

Well, here’s a photo from ten years ago, right about now:

That small, red-faced fellow was, well, small and red-faced, and a few hours old. And his dad could finally hold him too.

There were these massive thunderstorms promised and flood warnings and all kinds of things, and my mother made it in a few hours later, right before lots and lots of flights were cancelled. The boy was born at home in the middle of the night, after less than 3 hours of actual labor; ever the all-or-nothing kid.

The manchild’s grandpa Ed came too, briefly, a little later, and sat with us doing what he always did…

(he’s spinning silk)

There were massive thunderstorms, and floods, like I said… and in the back patio, the calla lilies bloomed. Calla lilies always make me think of the boy being born, now.

Soooo tiny. Even tiny feet.

Now, his feet are the same size as mine, which means I’m permanently out of socks, because he steals mine and then wears them outside with no shoes and ruins them. His shoes — which can generally be found with ease by tripping over them on the stairs — are the same size I’ve always had to buy my Chuck Taylors in.

He stands to my shoulder. He is 2.82 times taller than he was 10 years ago today, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when it’s the difference between “20.5 inches” and “4 feet 10 inches,” it’s a lot.

He is like his mother, and his father. He reads all the time, is stubborn beyond belief, obsessive about his interests, and cannot imagine why other people don’t share his passions; perhaps if they were just told more about them? He’s outgoing to a fault like his mother, but at times, like his dad, he’s his own best company. He’s too smart for his own good, and he has no clue when to shut up. I’m no help there at all.

Happy birthday, kiddo. I’m super proud of you.

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Make My Day, eh?

This has been kind of one of those mornings. The manchild didn’t want to get out of bed, which means I got to start right out nagging, before I even had the coffee started, and the whole morning process was behind schedule and time felt pinched and everything. I felt like I was wading through Jell-O getting him a quick breakfast made and my coffee brewing and continuing the delightful motherly nagging at which I’ve grown so skilled: Find your jacket! Are your shoes on? Do you have your backpack ready? You have to go down to wait for the bus in 2 minutes. Okay, now you have 1 minute. And so on.

That’s when the thunderous crash from upstairs happened. I’m hustling the kid out the door, knowing if he doesn’t walk out the door in 45 seconds he’ll miss the bus and I will then be forced to drive him, which sucks, because all I really wanted was to take a shower and there won’t be time, and what DID crash upstairs? Oh geeze, I hope the cats just knocked a thing of laundry soap off the washing machine. And the manchild can’t find his gameboy. “It’s charging in the truck,” his father reminds him from the top of the stairs, “because you forgot the charger at your grandparents’ house,” while I’m saying “I can’t find it right now, you need to leave without it so I can see what the giant crash was,” while my better half says “I already took care of it,” and the boy says “No, that’s my DS, what about the gameboy?” which amazingly, Chad knows is in the kitchen with the Mad magazine, and he hands it to him, and the kid heads out the door with me hollering HAVE A GREAT DAY AT SCHOOL HONEY! and thinking about my now-cooling cup of coffee back in the kitchen.

The crash was the humidifier, filled with water, being knocked over by the cats, and broken. This is a catastrophe on many levels and it’s entirely possible that eventually today I’m going in search of a new one. Along with going to a bookstore if the books I ordered for the manchild’s 10th birthday don’t arrive today. Plus work. But not till after coffee, a shower, and more coffee.

This moment, of course, is when I realize that I, master of my laundry destiny, She Who Controls The Flow Of All Textile Objects In Our Life And Orchestrates The Schedule Of All Of It So That There Are Always Clean Socks, have somehow allowed a situation to arise in which all of the pants which presently fit my enlarged butt are dirty. There is no one to blame for this but myself — for the state of my laundry and the state of my butt and the state of my wardrobe since I refuse to buy myself more fat pants than I already have. Yes, my routine was thrown slightly off course due to the incident in which the light bulb exploded in my hands and rained broken glass and who knows what else into the basket of clean Mom clothes, but that was at least a week ago. I knew full well I had an untenable laundry situation and I did not remedy it.

More coffee then, and work, while the laundry launders and I dream of clean hair, remind myself I’ve lived far rougher than this, and start deleting about a thousand stray pieces of spam that showed up overnight in my inbox. Mmmmm. I take a moment to mentally rant about how back in the day, those of us who cared about anti-spam stuff said that, oh never mind. What’s the use? That battle was lost more than a decade ago and the computer professional Abby has recovered. More coffee, and a dozen actual emails answered. My horoscope says “Dress sharp, keep your eyes open and don’t hesitate to make the first move as the week begins.” Gee thanks! Maybe I could be said to “dress sharp” by donning jeans which might have broken glass in them (and that don’t fit right now anyway).

**** brief intermission ****

Right, and so there I was, writing that last paragraph, listening to my fat pants in the dryer, when I was informed someone would be stopping by the house in about a half an hour. Now you find me clean, but in too-small jeans (I think I’ll skip lunch. I wouldn’t be able to breathe if I ate it anyway, not in these jeans. I don’t know what I’ll do about leaving the house; it’s not gonna happen in these jeans either). Perhaps “dress sharp” means “dress such that you feel a sharp pain in the waistband.”

In any case, there I was feeling quite Mondayed, when I learned that both Janel and Julia have listed me as a blogger who makes their day! Er… their days? Is it the same day in question, or a different day for each of them? Argh! Each of them says I make her day (take that, inner grammar cop! I’ll show you!) I’m stunned, and touched, and I wonder, today of all days, what were you guys thinking? I mean, Janel, you’ve got no end of incredible projects you take well in hand and just make happen; you amaze me. And as for you, Julia, you’re another one of those people who leaves me awestruck, being someone who can host fashion photo shoots and 6-year-old birthday parties with equal grace and style, and actually FINISH things, and look great in your handknits… wow. Janel and Julia, if I make your day, I can only surmise it’s because, especially on a Monday like this, you’re looking at me, laughing, and thinking “There, but for the grace of God, go I — I could be an unshowered, behind-schedule harried mom yarn nerd with no clean jeans.”

So I’ve been thinking all morning about who I’ll name as bloggers who make my day. Quite honestly, and though I’m sure everyone is saying it, you all do; every member of the blogging community, which is much more of a community than I’d have thought it was, functionally speaking, when I first entered into it. There’s no way for me to pick just 10 people; none. So here’s a few, and if it’s more than 10, well, tough! I’m going to try to name a few folks who I haven’t seen named yet, and who consistently help me through those mornings like this one was.

Amy, Boogie, The Spunky Eclectic has been making my day since before either of us were really doing this blogging thing, and she has been a valued member of my online world for quite a few years now.

Sara Lamb is an instigator, a pusher, an enabler, and the owner of a fabulous dry wit. She simply Does Things.

Ellen is another friend of several years in the online world, someone who is always quick to remind me that I absolutely can do what I set my mind to, and who could perhaps be accused of kicking the odd soapbox out right in front of me so I’ll accidentally step up on it and start ranting.

Deb Robson is one of those people who just… makes things happen. I suspect she might argue with me about this, but she’s one single individual without whose efforts vast amounts of fiber lore would have been lost entirely over the past few decades. She’d probably say “Oh, someone else would have done it,” but I don’t think that’s true; and in most cases, if they had, they wouldn’t have done it as thoroughly and as well and with as much love and dedication, as Deb has. And does.

Elizabeth I would never have met if it weren’t for blogland. She’s down-to-earth, and real, and I know she totally understands why it is I have to crank up the loud AC/DC in my car, and then turn it up again, and again, and if she were sitting next to me and I had to peel out from a stoplight just this once, she’d understand. I know she would.

Amelia and I are evil twins. Seriously, we’re both the evil one. But in a good way.

Carol blows my mind; she’s real, she’s tough, she lives with her whole heart and soul and puts her money where her mouth is.

Ted sent me a wonderful gift recently, which gets its own blog post momentarily. Of it, he said, “For a minute I worried about sending you a handspun handknit gift, but then I thought, maybe a lot of people think that and so you don’t get many and you might like one.”

Jenny makes my day often, and she especially made my day with her Ode to a Low Whorl recently.

Cassie knocks my socks off; again, a doer and achiever and wonderful human being who I’d never have gotten to know if it weren’t for blogland.

I heart mamacate, and keep taking too long to respond to her emails and so on. Like, really too long. Like a year too long. And she has the absolute most fabulous “about” slugline ever: “A blog to serve the needs of the infertile lesbian fiber arts breastfeeding parents of twins community, particularly those who are left-leaning democrats employed in research and education. Don’t all comment at once, we don’t want to crash the server.” Sing it!

Lastly, I feel I should close with a confession of sorts about blogland. Are you ready? Okay, here it is.

When my online friends started reading blogs and whatnot — and I was a little late to reading blogs, since I was doing 800,000 other online things — they all started reading this one by some Canadian knitting chick. And all 100-zillion of my online friends would keep emailing me, catching me on IRC, finding my livejournal, sending me AIM messages, or talking to me in person to say “You should read her blog! Omigod! You’d love it!” By the time the first half-trillion people had said so, I had a mental image built up in my mind of some phenomenon like that dancing baby thingy, or the chain letter joke list that got forwarded to me 800 times by every person who’d just gotten email the first time, or the alleged macarena craze. So I totally blew off looking at that blog. Because, I mean, whatever. Whoever this chick was that had this huge mass of fans, just… whatever. I totally didn’t care. Big deal. Dancing baby! Macarena! Shut up shut up!

Time went by, and people got more and more into her blog. I mean, it was just nuts — people were crazy about it, and they’d start quoting this chick, and doing what she said, and I just kept thinking, “Oh, whatever.” And then this one day, somebody, somewhere, told me that said blogger did not advocate the darning of socks.

“What?” I said, aghast. I mean, handknit socks — save them! Learning to darn is also useful, and it’s not like it’s hard, and there’s a skillset there, and… what?

“Yeah,” whoever it was said, “She just says to throw the socks away, because darning is stupid and pointless and a total waste of time.”

Well, that was it. That was the absolute last straw for me. I wasn’t having it. “Well that’s it,” I said, “I’m going to go right over there and I’m gonna give this wool floozy a piece of my mind! Does she not realize that, as a person who apparently has the attention of scads of people becoming interested in the fiber arts, she has a moral obligation to, well, to not tell people to throw away their easily repaired handknits, at least? That’s it! I’m going to go kick her butt!”

So I did; I stormed right over there (well, you know. I was really vehement and vigorous cutting and pasting a URL into my web browser, muttering under my breath and thinking just what I was going to say) and read the post someone had told me about where this fiber trollop said to just throw out your socks — and as I read it, well, I was shocked. And horrified. I mean, I was utterly aghast. The more I read, the more appalled I was.

You see, the article didn’t say anything of the kind.

Nope, it was light-hearted, and this chick was poking fun at herself over her sock mishap. Nothing, NOTHING AT ALL suggested that simply throwing out a handknit was the way to go, or that darning was stupid and pointless.

So, there I was with a great head of bluster and steam built up, based solely on third-hand hearsay. The horror that crept over me could best be described as me thinking, “Oh my god! That poor woman! I even believed this totally false thing that pissed me off about her, and I’m a seasoned ‘net skeptic!” I didn’t know what to say. I did know I felt stupid and guilty. Surreptitiously, I started reading her blog, as if in some way that counted as an apology. Bit by bit, I realized that here was a woman committed to her obsession — one she and I had in common, which is to say, “stuff that has to do with yarn.” And beyond that, she was clearly and visibly committed to the notion that yarn dorks are a community, and yarn dorks online in particular are a powerful community. To my shock, I realized that I actually… I actually… I might LIKE this woman.

Eventually, I met her in person, and you know what? In fact, I do like her. We could totally hang. And — and this is the point of where I’m going with all of this — it’s true that I’d likely never have met her if it weren’t for blogland, but even more importantly, if I hadn’t taken the time to actually go read her stuff, if I’d only listened to the buzz, if I’d just read the occasional thing in a magazine, or her books, I would have had all kinds of misconceptions about her and never gotten to know the actual person. And that’s what makes blogland really cool: it’s not all edited and streamlined and produced cleverly and structured neatly and whatnot. Instead, it’s people. You really can just hang, and that, most of all, is what makes my day.

Thank you all for hanging with me, even on Mondays like this.

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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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A First Look At Something Huge

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll dive right in. Something arrived in the mail last month, packed in an Interweave envelope and bent in half (argh!) in my mailbox. I knew right away what it had to be and I was torn between opening it on the spot in the chill at the end of the driveway, and getting back in the truck and driving up to the house to take it inside where I could really have a look at it. I’m a smart girl sometimes, so I chose the latter.

So let me backtrack a little now. Well, a lot. It was the very start of 1977, very early in the morning, and I remember the airplane landing after it seemed like we’d been traveling forever. My mother carried my baby sister down the steps and I followed her with my father riding herd behind me. My ears popped, then swelled again. The world tilted funny. A long long way away across the tarmac there were pillars and a building. The air smelled like dust and nothingness and live growing things. People were talking and I don’t remember much about all of that; I just remember I walked, dizzily, faint, feeling like my feet didn’t quite touch the ground, eyes focused on one of those pillars, till I reached out a hand to steady myself on it, and puked my guts out, sobbing, choking, and short of breath.

Room 4, Hostal Loreto
I know that days passed after that, but I don’t remember them much, except for a hotel room with an Inca wall in it, the taste of chicken broth with noodles and cilantro, simple bread, and Coca-Cola. Eventually, I remember sitting in the courtyard of the Hostal Loreto, whitewashed walls and cobblestones and geraniums, and the sounds outside of a city speaking languages I didn’t know — car horns, street vendors hawking their wares in singsong refrains that would become very, very familiar to me in time, but which then were new and alien. The sun was so very, very bright, clear, yet chill; I was so hungry and so tired all at once, and the sorroche or extreme altitude sickness was fading. A man was talking with my parents in Spanish. “Sunday, market day, we’ll go,” my father translated for my benefit. “My birthday!” I said gleefully, and the man asked me in English how old I’d be. “Five,” I said proudly.

That man came back to take us to our destination. “For your birthday,” he said, “I brought you earrings,” and gave me a pair of dangly, jingly, silver things. “You don’t have pierced ears!” he said, then turned to my mother, “You haven’t pierced her ears!” Laughing, my mother affirmed this, and thanked the man, who insisted she keep the earrings for when I could wear them. And then we were off.

We were, it turned out, bound to see the town of Chinchero for the first time. “If we like this town, maybe that’s where we’ll live,” my mother explained. “We’ll like it!” I insisted. “It’s my birthday.”

In retrospect it all should have seemed more foreign than it did. Perhaps if I had been old enough to know what foreign was… but I guess I wasn’t. There were lots of kids, and lots and lots of them had no shoes. In fact, neither did lots of grownups. But some people had great shoes made out of rubber, and I envied them those incredibly cool shoes. There was a marketplace filled with people, a constant underlying murmur punctuated by occasional braying donkeys, someone yelling at a scruffy dog, children shrieking and running around. Fish was frying and I stepped on a mango peel in the cobblestone walk. The sky was perfect blue and I wanted to run and run and run with the other kids but I was tired just from walking.

Chinchero, 2005

We were the only gringos around. People pointed, talked amongst themselves, ran up and touched my hair — which in those days was as blonde as blonde can be. My parents were asking what seemed like everyone in the market about some piece of weaving; people were laughing. When it was time to eat, we walked away from the hubbub a while, out into the nearby ruins, and sat on a large, carved-up boulder I later learned was called the Pumaqaqa. My father opened cans of tuna with his pocket knife, and we feasted on tuna sandwiches made on the small, flat round bread that was a Peruvian country staple. We washed it down with Coca-Cola and had watermelon for dessert, and back we went to the market.

At some point that afternoon, the tone of things changed. My parents were talking to a Big Girl (because that’s how you see the world when you’re a girl who’s just turned five: there are grownups, and there are also Big Girls, you know? Impressive, awe-inspiring Big Girls) and then we went with her to her house, and a field just above her family’s courtyard. She was showing something to my parents about some weaving thing, and they were intently watching and listening and asking questions, but honestly, I didn’t care that much because she did have lots of sisters and nieces and several were about my age, so we played tag until it got dark and we had to go.

Our house, only in 2005

The next thing I knew, we’d moved into the upstairs of a house right on the plaza where the Sunday markets happened, a house that belonged to the town. My parents were learning weaving stuff, lots from that same Big Girl, whose name was Nilda. She and her family lived down the hill. The lady across the street came and got me one morning and sent me out with Sabina, the Big Girl who lived down the street, to learn to tend to the sheep, and after that, I didn’t see my parents as much because I was out with the girls tending sheep all day every day. People would come get my father and whisk him away in a swirl of men, out to work in the fields, and he’d stagger home at night under the weight of enormous sacks of potatoes. The whole town would come check on us and make sure we were eating and knew what to do with potatoes and things like that. I showed some kids how to color with crayons, eventually breaking my crayons in pieces so I could give them away. Kids gave me yarn, old ladies gave me scrap wool and a spindle. Bigger girls made small warps, tied them around my waist and nailed the other end into the dirt, then stuck my hands in the yarn of it all, earnestly, assuming I knew what this was, and why, and that I’d learn it.

One day my parents sent me to go buy matches from the store around the corner. They sent me with an empty box of matches, and enough money for them, and told me the word: fosforos.

“Fosforos,” I repeated, “fosforos, fosforos, fosforos.” All the way to the store, and then I walked in, and the Big Girl who was obviously in charge said something, I didn’t know what, and I went to say “Fosforos,” but I couldn’t remember the word, suddenly. I held up the box. “Inti?” she asked, looking at the picture of the sun, also the brand name for the matches. I shook my head. That wasn’t it. We went on and on. More of her family came in. I kept showing the box and trying to think of the word. Then finally, the girl said, “Fosforos?” I brightened right up, the transaction was complete, I ran home with the matches, and my parents cooked dinner on the Primus stove.

A few nights later I woke up in the middle of the night when some men walked outside, talking loudly. What woke me up wasn’t the men talking — it was the realization, in my sleep, that I understood every word they were saying, and it was in Quechua. From then on, I spoke Spanish and Quechua too.

I had the run of the town, which really, all the kids did, so long as they were also getting their work done. Mind you, the adults and Big Girls of the town also had full say to scold, discipline, and school any kid found out and about. I ran with the girls aged 5-10, and we looked up to the girls aged 10-adult, and we answered to them too, and the one Big Girl that everybody knew was the Big Girl, the one who everyone looked up to and stood in awe of, was that one named Nilda that we met on my birthday.

“Nilda still goes to school,” someone would say. “I think I’ll do that, like Nilda.”

“You will not,” another little girl would scoff. “She’s the only girl that does. Girls have work to do and can’t waste time in school.”

“Nilda’s not wasting time. Plus she does everything.”

“Yeah well that’s her. She can do that. It’s just crazy.”

We grew up that way. And the amazing Nilda would do all manner of amazing things. She was the one we copied tactics from when we were selling our little weavings to tourists. We’d go to her as often as not to get tricky weaving questions refereed, things that the grown women would have answered more brusquely. She’d call us all waylakas and we’d all work harder. She was our role model.

Jump now to about 1981. My family was back in New Hampshire, and winter was settling in, and I got out of going to school for a whole week! What a great deal! What was the occasion? Nilda was coming to the US, and staying with us for a bit, and we were all going to New York City so she could do some demonstrations and lectures. I wondered what she’d think of the US. I’d answered questions for everyone in Chinchero, lots and lots — but it’s not the same as being there, just like you couldn’t explain Peru to people who’d never been there. I thought it was so cool that we were going to get to show someone from Peru around the US a little bit. It was like totally separate parts of my life coming together. It seemed fair.

I was old enough, worldly enough, by then to realize how vast the gulf was between the worlds in which I’d lived. I’d seen gringos in the Andes completely fail to cope. I’d met people in the US who couldn’t envision it, had never heard of Peru. I’d known people from the country in Peru who tried to go to the city and it didn’t work out. There were gaping chasms between the vast gulfs separating my worlds. What would Nilda think of November in New England, the poptop soda can, the fact that literally everybody has plumbing and electricity and cars?

Well… I think she blinked a couple of times, took it all in, and in a totally unassuming way, gave these lectures and presentations at the Smithsonian with the same ease and presence she commanded anywhere in the rural Andes. In one breath, she’d tell me in Quechua to fix a loose braid in her hair while she demonstrated backstrap weaving, and explained things in English to people who’d come to see her at a gallery.

Back in Peru in 1982, my peer group was in full production mode weaving things to sell to tourists. There were lots more tourists now than there had been five years earlier, and also, sometimes we’d all go in to Cusco and sell stuff there. We quickly realized we could sell stuff at a certain price point far faster than we could make it; and so we solved that problem by simplifying designs, using more plain weave, and ultimately, buying machine-spun Dralon synthetic baby yarn, then overplying it to add sufficient plying twist to make it stand up to weaving, and using that instead of handspun. The grown women and bigger girls scoffed at us, called us waylaka, and shamed us into learning the more advanced patterns regardless. Some girls just stopped at the tourist production level though. Traditional production for traditional reasons was falling out of favor. But you knew you couldn’t show those tourist goods to Nilda and expect her not to point out what was wrong with them in ways that really made you think — think about how you marketed them to the tourists, how you made them, the time you spent on what parts of production, everything.

Skip now to 1985-86, a time we lived high on the hog in Peru, in a posh apartment in Cusco, after so many of the roads had been paved. I think that was right after Nilda finished up at the University there, and she was in the city too. City life was different from country life in Chinchero; all Spanish, not so indigenous, everything that entails, which is far too much to get into just yet, but believe me, it’s a big deal. There, too, was Nilda, gracefully and easily hanging yet another whole scene, managing all sorts of projects for tourism enterprises, getting everybody else around her to do all manner of things, and making it look easy.


Or there’s 1990. Nilda came to the US again, this time for longer. She’d been multiple other times. I worked with her that summer on demonstrations that she did, and we spent lots of time together weaving, teaching, demonstrating. She forced me to tackle my stack of unfinished objects, and finish them, deriding me nonstop for my waylaka ways, asking me to simply consider what my godmother would think if she were still alive, and who among my peer group back in Chinchero did she think I’d tell first, and look, she’d set up 31 warps and I’d only done 2 dozen, was I not even trying? She’d never stop smiling, the ribbing was always good natured, it was a dose of Chinchero womanhood, in jeans and t-shirts in a conference room at an American art museum.

Or maybe 2002, when I helped my father with a textile tour to Peru. It was the first time I saw the growing Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, founded by Nilda, and visited the towns where she was working her magic. One night I sat with her in a tent as the members of the tour settled down for the night. It was a bitter cold night and we were drinking tea to keep it at bay. “So your father’s diagnosis is serious, isn’t it?” she asked me. “Very,” I said, “You know, his doctors told him that other than his scheduled treatment, he should continue living his normal life, but then they really honestly weren’t prepared for what his normal life is like.” She made me more tea and we talked about cancer, out on a plain beneath a glacier two days travel from anything like the facilities my father would need if something unexpected happened.

A few nights later, back in the city, we all had a special dinner at a top-notch upscale restaurant run by friends of Nilda’s. My father’s back was hurting badly. “If I can’t go to Pitumarca,” he told me, “I’ll stay in Cusco, and you’ve got to do the tour stuff. But while you’re there, there’s a weaving they only do there, and it’s really hard, and you should learn it quick while you can.” I agreed, we headed off, and in the whirlwind of it all I asked Nilda what this weaving my father had mentioned might be called. “Palmay Ramos,” she said, “there should be someone at the CTTC building today who knows it.” Once there, it took some asking around, and eventually, one woman surfaced, out of the handful of Pitumarca women still doing Palmay Ramos. I asked her to teach me to do it, and she stopped for a moment and looked at me, pure Gringa, jeans and steel-toed boots and whatnot, but with a country girl’s hat and a weaving needle stuck in it.

“No,” she said. “It’s too hard.”

“Well, teach me,” I said. I’d done this dance before. She’d have said that to anybody, most likely — but with someone visibly an Andean weaver, she’d expect them to debate and argue and wheedle the teaching out of her. So I started doing just that. We went back and forth a few times, till she laughed, and walked away — walked up to Nilda, the powerhouse woman behind this multi-town weaving empire of which she was a part, and said, “Can you believe this gringa wants me to teach her Palmay Ramos? Does she think she can learn it or something? I mean, can she weave?”

“Yes,” said Nilda, looking at me sidelong, “she weaves okay.”

There is no taller praise. And Palmay Ramos is weaver’s madness, best left for another discussion.

Or there’s 2004. I was at my computer job on Page Mill Road in Silicon Valley when my phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nilda,” she said. “Meet me for lunch at the Stanford alumni center!” She was there, at a conference dealing with, I don’t know, philanthropy and third world economic development or something, with her husband and two sons in tow. We ate, and talked about lots of things, and when I left I got pulled over for speeding on my way to a parent-teacher conference at my son’s school. Not two weeks later when my father died, Nilda organized memorials for him back in Peru.

In 2005, CTTC’s new building opened, with a museum and a shop and class facilities — a building located on the grounds of the Qoricancha, the site which is perhaps the most egregiously-pillaged site in the history of the conquest of Peru, from which tons and tons (literally) of gold were stolen. CTTC’s building there is the first time since 1535 that indigenous Peruvians have owned any part of that land. And when it opened, the city of Cusco closed off part of the main street of Avenida Sol, a street where I remember, in my childhood, seeing city men drag and kick old indigenous women off the sidewalk and into the street, spitting on them, saying “Sidewalk’s for people, not indigenous dogs!” They closed it off — and weavers from all the CTTC communities came to town, in indigenous dress, and had an indigenous party with a Quechua-speaking master of ceremonies.

I cried my eyes out. This is the first time I’ve written of it; it was that emotional. In my life, to have seen such change — and to know that it happened because of Nilda.

Last year she called me up from Toronto, at the Textile Society of America meeting. Unable to keep laughter from her voice, she said, “They tell me you call yourself a spinner now!” I verified this shockingly humorous statement — me, a spinner.

I do, when faced with quandaries dealing with textiles, business, economies, family, culture, and identity, ask myself “Well, what would Nilda say?” I’m a woman who has struggled with her sense of self, and lived with parts of me in several worlds, wondering how to integrate them all and be who I am without constant existential crisis. And in general, I think I do a pretty good job. But if you want to see someone who makes it all look easy and who makes me look like I never achieve anything and just know a little tiny bit about textiles, well, go meet Nilda. Go see the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

And that, folks, is where I’m going with this whole long thing. I’ve been saying “Meet Nilda, and go see CTTC” for years now — but that’s prohibitive for some folks, obviously. Not everyone can go to Peru and see the textiles, meet the weavers, learn about their cultural aspects, and so on. But you could see what I saw in my mailbox:

Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez!

Nilda has written a book! I knew she was doing it; first of all it’s something we’ve all talked about for ages, and second of all, being on the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, the not-for-profit which sponsors and assists CTTC, I hear a thing or two about what she’s up to on a pretty regular basis. Third, at the 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, I met Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press, who had but recently finished editing the book. And then fourth, I’d heard from a limited number of people who’d seen it in its just-pre-press stages, telling me they liked it quite a bit. Truly, I was beyond eager to see it. And now I have.

For me, of course, it is impossible to detach the extremely personal closeness I have to the subject, and give only an unemotional review of this book. It’s impossible for me to tell you about it, without telling you all the things I just have, simply to let you know why this is so huge and momentous, even though it’s something so small and ordinary that the postal carrier can bend it in half and cram it in my mailbox.

This book is a triumph for Nilda, for CTTC, for Chinchero, for all of our families. It is glossy and beautiful and approachable and real and perhaps it is only the tip of the iceberg but it’s there, it’s really there, this 96 page opus that can take you straight to a world where knowing of textiles is like literacy, a world where the things we yarn dorks feel drawn to are known to be essential and urgent, a world which could so easily have perished entirely a decade or two ago, and didn’t. Didn’t, because of Nilda and a small number of other committed people, who just made the world change a little here, a little there, until now, when a tiny and wizened old indigenous woman can stand barefoot drinking chicha at a gala on once-conquered terrain, beside city folk who she now out-earns with her traditional skills — skills that a decade or so ago, she thought she’d take to her grave and they’d be gone forever.

This book is not a how-to guide or instruction manual. It’s not a simple buyer’s guide or catalog. It’s not an ethnography or a memoir. It’s a little bit of all of those things. It’s a trip to meet Nilda and see CTTC and visit the world of the Andean weaver (who is by very nature also a spinner, knitter, and anything-involving-textiles-er). And if all of that weren’t enough to recommend it, there’s the fact that the profits all go to support CTTC. I just don’t know what else I can say, except to congratulate Nilda on its publication, thank everyone Interweave for bringing it to press, and hop up and down hollering “OH MY GOD YOU WANT THIS BOOK!” to everyone I know with any interest in yarn, the Andes, grassroots development, or social change. Go! Find the book! Buy it if you can, ask your library for it if you can’t, and if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

The photos interspersed throughout are all from 2005; I’m still looking for, and digitizing, older ones, but it didn’t seem right to have no photos. Most of these are from my trip to Peru for the CTTC building’s dedication and opening ceremony.

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Quiet. Finally.

This moment, right now? It’s a momentous one indeed. I’m sitting at my desk in my office with a full cup of coffee, and it’s quiet. So quiet that I think if I just sit here and listen for a while, I’ll be able to hear myself think.

The holiday hubbub has ceased (though cleanup and so forth still remain). Much to his chagrin, today was not a snow day for the manchild, and school started up again on schedule; but snow is falling softly outside, meaning that even there it’s quiet. The simple quiet is a treasure which simply cannot be priced. No XM Kids, no video game noise, no TV, no mom music either, only the whir of hard drive. No crashing and thumping and rumpling and stomping. No questions. The cats — wisely — are even leaving me alone for a few minutes. The phone isn’t ringing.

I know this can’t last; it’ll be over any minute when something breaks the spell of silence. But the sheer relief of quiet for a few moments is unbelievable. It’s a downright physical relief, and when I go for a long long time without any silence, I forget that.

In December, I think I said “I think I’m turning into one of those people who doesn’t like the holidays at all,” and now it looks like i can confirm that. I feel guilty about that, but there it is. As my father would say, “Guilt is a useless emotion. It really serves no purpose to feel guilty. Instead of feeling guilty, people should just not do whatever it is they’re going to feel guilty about!” Here, of course, anybody who ever knew my father is simultaneously laughing and rolling their eyes; we all discussed this with him at length over the years, explaining that the problem with his admittedly impeccable logic is that sometimes, you just feel something. In this case of guilt I’d need to simply not feel dislike for the holidays, and that hurdle is one I’ve yet to leap. Partly, it’s that not liking the holidays is new. I never expected to find myself feeling thus, and so am ill-prepared.

The down side to quiet, and hearing myself think, is that then I am at risk of listening. While normally that’s absolutely fine, right now, it’s exhausting. Ah! But just like that, the moment is over. What’s left of the coffee has grown cold, the enormous cat has jumped into my lap and won’t let me type, the phone rang, and I’m back to the email backlog and getting the last ever batt club stuff ready to go out Friday and Monday. Well, peace was nice while it lasted! I think I’ll try it again soon.