A Good Yarn

I’m still floating (or should I say “lofty”) from the 5-day spinning class I took last week at Sievers. Since I basically unplug when I land on Washington Island, here’s the capsule version. And because I was so enthralled, I kept forgetting to take pictures. Here’s a group photo of the class taken by Sievers’ Carolyn Foss.

That’s me on the far left, holding the remains of a distaff of basswood bark. More on that shortly.

The Backstory
The instructor was Deb Jones, and I really, really wanted to study with her. I’d met Deb when I was teaching a concurrent class at Sievers.  Sievers instructors often share thoughts and theories about teaching at the end of the day. I felt like I could learn about more than spinning from Deb. I was 100 percent right. She did a beautiful job of managing a group of 14 with a wide range of interests and varying levels of experience in spinning and dyeing.

I was barely qualified to be in the class. This year it was Beyond Beginning Spinning. Before I registered for the workshop, I contacted Deb to discuss a) if it would be possible for me to attempt spinning my basswood bark in class and b) what skills I would have to acquire beforehand. She said a) yes and b) I needed to be able to spin wool on a treadle wheel. I bought a wheel in April, had a short lesson when I picked it up, and arrived on Washington Island on August 29 hoping I hadn’t developed too many bad habits.
The Class
Because I was pretty focused on not embarrassing myself or being unfairly needy, I can’t swear this is true. But I think there were 12 or 13 different models of spinning wheels brought to the class. Deb watched us all spin for a little while to assess our needs, then gave us our first challenge. By the end of the day, I was much more confident about how to set drive band and the Scotch tension on my Ashford Kiwi to produce results that were intentional. By the end of the week, I was able to spin with a long draw and spin from the fold.

Here are four singles I spun early in the week.

And here they are plied and cabled. Navaho plying took some hand holding (literally), but now I absolutely love it.

One evening I did manage to, ahem, ply a yarn in the same direction it was spun. Oops.

I’m assured that everyone does this at least once. I assume I’ll do it more than once.

Deb had a beautiful selection of fibers for us to sample. Here’s a silk cap I dyed in one of the class dyeing units and yarn I spun from it.

I loved spinning the silk and the linen, and I can’t wait to sample the rest of the fibers Deb provided.

There would have been time in class to sample all those fibers, but I really wanted to spend some time exploring what I could do with basswood bark. In the past, I’ve made basswood cordage, twisting and plying it by hand.

Spinning Basswood Bark 
My first attempt with basswood bark on the wheel was a little like wrestling snakes. Then Deb showed me how to set up a distaff. I didn’t think to take a picture, so you’ll have to image what it looked like. We used:

  • the handle of a broom from the bathroom
  • the spare tire from my car, as a weighted base to stand the broom handle in
  • and a piece of PVC pipe and some rags, to keep the broom handle from wiggling too much in the tire.

Deb taught me how to lay out the fiber and tie it on the distaff. It was much easier to manage that way.

This photo shows some of my spun basswood bark fiber in a skein across the top. The ball on stick shows what the bark looks like after being boiled for a couple of hours. The boiled yarn is what I used to crochet the small sample bag. I’m very happy with the results, and can’t wait to see what happens when I have a bit more practice.

But Wait, There’s More
Over the years, I’ve spent some magical times at Sievers, both as a student and as a teacher. This week ranks right up there. And this may have been my all-time-favorite inter-class studio visit. On Thursday afternoon, Daryl Lancaster’s A Wearable Extravaganza class visited our studio to learn what we’d been up to. They arrived wearing their beautiful custom-fit jackets, and treated us to a fashion show after oohing and aahing in all the right places at our stuff.

It was fun to spend some time visiting with Daryl on the way to the airport. I also got to have lunch and reflect on ideas with my friend Ellen Graf, who was in Daryl’s class. I made some wonderful new friends, and think the magic that forged lifelong friendships in my first Sievers class is still strong.

During the week, I had a chance to visit with some of my island friends. I hope others will forgive me for coming and going with nary a word. I suspect they know exactly how it is when you’re learning something new and exciting and your head is swimming with possibilities. And in a few weeks, I’ll go back for The Gathering and get to see them then.

On Friday, Deb asked us all to sum up the week. The word I chose: Possibilities.

So thank you all — Deb, the Sievers crew, Daryl, Ellen and everybody in the class. That big, dopey grin on my face? Still there.

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Plying, Playing and Winging It

Before leaving for Amana last week, I managed to ply my first yarn on my new spinning wheel. Since I was pressed for time (and didn’t think of it until later), I didn’t check the Wraps Per Inch or weigh the yarn.

Eyeballing and winging it are well within my comfort zone. I know I can always come up with a solution if I run short. But taking a few minutes to check the weight and WPI would certainly make it easier for someone else to begin a similar project. Next time.

This time, though, I guessed that I had enough yarn to make a small pouch using a couple of looping variations. This fairly bulky yarn let me work on a scale that was good for demonstrating to the public. Like most looping, this was a good project for a situation where there were many distractions (like good conversations and the siren call of the cookie table). I did manage to make an unintentional decrease in the cross-knit section. The world did not stop spinning on its axis as a result.

Starting from a needle chain base, I worked the bottom in Burundi stitch (a complex looping variation that intersects with multiple previous rows). I finished that section with a row of double-crown (a knotted looping variation). Then I switched to cross-knit looping, which looks like stockinette stitch in knitting. A few more rows of Burundi help stabilize the rim. I added a tubular strap with a loop on the end that goes through another loop and around a button on the opposite side of the bag. The button I made from looping stuffed with the extra-kinky bits of the yarn that I broke off rather than fight with on the body of the bag.

I finished with exactly two inches of yarn to spare.

The double-loop closure should be secure enough to attach to a belt loop. I’ll use this bag for my digital camera. But I want a bit more protection for the screen side, so I’ll add an outer pocket, which will also give me a place to keep paper, a pen, and an extra media card. I’ll also add a tab and button at the top as insurance to make sure my camera can’t pop out. My plan is to pull out the walnut dyebath for the yarn I’ll use for the pocket and tab. With a bit of color contrast to add interest, who’ll know that I ran out of yarn? You won’t tell, right?

By the way, en route to Amana I stopped at Borders in Madison to go to the restroom and check out the magazines. I bought the May 2010 issue of Yarn Forward, a British knitting magazine, which has a tutorial article on naalbinding by Swedish fiber artist Barbro Wilhelmsson. Looks like you can buy a digital version of the issue here.

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Tension, Tangles, And A New Language

Does this happen to you? You’re working on some fiber technique when bam, it hits you: “This sums it all up right here — Life, the Universe and Everything.” (Thank you, Douglas Adams.)

On Monday, I picked up my new spinning wheel and started practicing. By the time I was ready to change the bobbin, I was feeling pretty good about things. That, of course, is when it all fell apart. I could only produce severely overtwisted stuff (can’t call it yarn) that wouldn’t feed onto the bobbin. I fiddled with everything that could be fiddled with, and emailed Kathi for help. The main cause of my problem was that I put the new bobbin on (mumblemumble) backward, so it couldn’t rotate (my husband hero, Bill, figured that one out). And because it wasn’t operating properly, I was getting more and more excited and thus treadling faster and faster.

This is all good, though. I won’t make the bobbin mistake again. I have a much better feel for adjusting the Scotch tension on this wheel now. And I’m making my treadling speed much more deliberate. As you can see, all of this is now producing results that I can, in fact, call yarn.

Many of my thoughts this week were as twisted as that mess in my hand. I had some time to try to sort them out, thanks to this week’s record number of mechanic and vet appointments, but am still looking for answers.

Daryl Lancaster gave me a lot to think about with two posts. In the first, she shared her excitement at seeing the work of a new generation at the Conference of Northern California Handweavers.

I don’t know if there is a Project Runway influence here as well, but the rectangular shapes of the garments that came parading across the runway were not the shapes of yore…  I’m going under the assumption that since home ec is not part of the current curriculum in most schools in the US, that these amazingly talented young women are learning fashion skills somewhere else.  The influence is pretty clear, since the rectangular clothing up on that stage was thoughtfully draped over someone’s body (a dressform?) and folded and tucked and seamed, stitched and embellished into some extremely creative clothing.

Daryl also wrote a thoughtful post that touched on why she didn’t post images of those garments but really addressed the larger issue teaching artists protecting their intellectual property.

More than one of us noticed that as we were teaching, there were small video cameras or cell phones pointing at us and we realized too late, that our seminars were being recorded.  I’m going to assume that because the equipment is so available, just point a cell phone and press start, that no one actually thinks about the long term ramifications of these actions.  I’m also going to assume, at least I hope this is the case, that those who are recording the seminars, are just trying to remember everything that was said, fine points the teacher made that weren’t in the handout, and that that recording will eventually go by the wayside and never be looked at again.  Trouble is, those recordings will now be downloaded to a computer, and will be available for viewing by anyone anywhere for the rest of all time…. And, once a guild has passed around the handout, seen the photos of all the samples, and listened to the video of my seminar, where is the incentive to actually hire me to come out and teach.  This is no different than making twenty copies of the latest sock pattern in Knits magazine, and passing them all around the knitters’ guild.  This is all about protecting those of us who spend our lives providing projects, creating inspiration, and pushing the envelope of what we do all the while trying to eek out a living. It is about having control of your work…

I’m guessing that the students recording seminars at CNCH were probably not the youngest people in the room, probably not meaning harm, probably not intentionally disrespectful of an honored teacher. Hold on. One more thing to add to the mix.

Out of the blue, I got a phone call this week from an artist whose work I’ve long admired. We have friends in common on Facebook and my name kept popping up on her screen. Her curiosity led to a call, which led to a lovely conversation. Here’s the part that relates to this post, heavily paraphrased by me: She developed her unique style in part because Native American elders with whom she studied told her plainly that she could learn but not copy their traditional styles.

As a teaching artist, I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with Daryl. If this were an easy way to make a living, more people would do it. For the most part, students are very respectful of our work. But like those native elders, we may have to more clearly state what behaviors we expect from students. And yet…

We want to see young fiber artists learn, grow, and be part of the community for many years to come. That applies not only to those in the CNCH fashion show, but also to young embroiderers, surface designers, garment makers, knitters, spinners, and all their brethren and sisters.

For the better part of a year now, I’ve been working to learn new skills I think will be necessary for communicating with learners who are native in a language I still speak haltingly. Communicating in 140 characters or video involves translation, for people like me. While I’m translating, they’re designing LED clothing, for pete’s sake. I believe their perceptions of media and access to information may be as different from mine as, well, take a moment to reflect on this from Hisako Sekijima on values regarding labor and possessions.

Even when two people or groups treat each other with respect, when you’re not speaking the same language things can get messy. Now I’ve got all this overtwist in my head, and it’s not winding on to the bobbin.

How can fiber elders meet the needs of learners who speak this new language? Could fiber teachers make information so available that copyright protection is a non-issue, and still make a living so they can keep teaching and inspiring that next generation? How do we balance all this?

What do you think?

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Canoe Say ‘Spinning Wheel’?

Other than the phrase “whatever floats your boat,” it might seem that spinning and canoeing have little in common. But today I couldn’t help but think how much buying a spinning wheel is like buying a canoe. A bit of history might help explain.

Back in another life, my husband and I owned a whitewater paddling school and we sold kayaks and canoes. To match customers with boats that would best suit their needs, we needed to figure out what those needs were.We spent a lot of time asking personal questions, doing on-the-water demos, educating buyers.

In February when I decided to buy a spinning wheel, the flashbacks started. Only this time, I was on the other side of the transaction.

Setting Wheels In Motion

In February, I’d never even demoed a treadle wheel. I’ve made miles of hand-twisted cordage, but I’ve only spun on a drop spindle and on the great wheel my dad made for me from a recycled bicycle wheel. But I did a little research (mostly based on price), picked a model, and contacted a dealer.

The dealer was Apple Hollow Fiber Arts in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Owner Kathi Cascio took a couple of rustic furniture classes I taught with my husband at Sievers a few years back. I didn’t know then but I do know now: She could sell canoes, if she put her mind to it.

I started by telling Kathi what I thought I wanted in a wheel. In particular, I’m interested in making thread that incorporates my basswood bark. Kathi asked me to send her some of the fiber so she could sample it. I sent her basswood, some basswood-and-wool cordage I twisted, and a small looping sample made from that cordage.

Kathi addressed questions I wouldn’t have known to ask. She recommended a couple of choices, in my price range and a little above it. I chose to spend a little more now, but I think this wheel will serve my needs very well for a long time.

I can almost hear spinners out there laughing at the idea of just one wheel. Moving on…

The Plan Comes To Fruition
Today I drove a couple hundred miles round-trip to pick up the wheel and, more important, get the spinning lesson Kathi offered along with it. On the drive home, I felt a list coming on. I think it applies to more than just spinning wheels and canoes.

  • Get Good Help. A knowledgeable, experienced dealer can help you gather, sort, filter and interpret the information that will help you make the most informed choice. 
  • Spill The Beans. In some ways, sharing information with a dealer is not that different from sharing your medical history with a health care provider. Even House needs a history to make an accurate diagnosis.
  • Be Patient. It might take some time for the dealer to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together in a clear picture. Give them a chance to think before you press for a recommendation.
  • Be Open Minded. If the dealer suggests something other than what you expected, ask for their reasoning and give it careful consideration. Remember, you’re buying their knowledge and experience.
  • Be Fair. The dealer who sorts out all that information, helps you make an informed choice, helps teach you — that dealer has earned the sale. I’ll save my soapbox speech on that topic for another time.

I’m off now to read the owner’s manual for my new wheel and then to sleep, perchance to dream of sheep jumping over the basswood retting tank. I know. That’s baaaad.

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