Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lessons from the Flu

So the media tells me that this year's flu season is off to an early and dramatic start. Sadly, this does not come as a news flash to me. You see, I am part of that early and dramatic start. (Insert sad-face emoticon of your choice here.)

Instead of plying yarn and spinning new yarn, instead of finishing up those two nagging UFO's left over from before Christmas, and instead of workshop prep, I have been laying on the couch. Moaning. Channel surfing and cruising the internet. Which was probably not wise. On the other hand, it was educational. Here is what I learned:

~Television is a mindless wasteland of Botoxed bimbos and plaid-shirted men with beards, all of whom speak in a language of bleeps and boops. They also yell a lot.

~Do not try to learn what is going on in the world from television news channels. All those are is outlets for "pundits" with "opinions", all of which seem to be about what is wrong with everyone else.

~Netflix is your friend.

~To go on Netflix you have to go on the internet.

~The internet is a series of tubes filled with cats. And people who have no basic spelling or grammar skills.

~If you are looking for angry, bigoted, uninformed, and paranoid people, go immediately to the internet. It's a virtual smorgasbord of rage.

~There is also yarn on the internet. Lots and lots of yarn.

~Sometimes it is a good thing to be too sick to get up off the couch and go across the room to where your purse containing your credit card is.

~There is also a lot of bad yarn on the internet. A. Lot. Some of it sold by those people with the bad spelling, or by the angry and paranoid. Really. You should see some of the crazy stuff people put on their Etsy pages. This is also a good reason to not get up to get your purse. Dudes, if you want to sell stuff, keep your politics and religion to yourselves.

~Do not look up your symptoms on the internet. I may or may not have actually been suffering from Anthrax.

~A cup of hot water with honey, lemon, and Jack Daniels will make you not care about television or the internet.

~You are better off not caring about television or the internet.

~Put on some soft music, knit something mindless, cuddle a kitty, and sleep. You will feel so much better.

~Most importantly, respect your body. Rest. Heal. The world will wait, and you're not missing anything.

~These lessons may also turn out to be useful when you are not sick.

And, on that note, I'm going to take a nap.

Monday, January 07, 2013

St. Distaff's Day

...or Another Excuse to Spend A Day Spinning.

Back when spinning was a "real job", St. Distaff day was the traditional day that spinners went back to work, the day after Twelfth Night. Naturally, they were thrilled to be back at their spinning wheel, and made excuses to celebrate.  There is no St. Distaff, but in those days, every holiday was in honour of one saint or another, so the spinners (clever girls that they were) made a new saint to celebrate. And we celebrate to this day.

(For you non-spinny types, a distaff is a spinning tool. It is a rod or board used to hold unspun fibre, especially flax, and keep it organized and tidy for the spinner to draft from. The actual patron saint of spinners is St. Serafina, who also happens to be the patron saint of the suffering and deformed. St. Catherine is also a patron saint to those who craft with wheels, such as spinners and potters. They have their own feast days, but not today!)

My celebration will consist of a day of plying. To be honest, I have not taken the Twelve Days of Christmas off from spinning. I have, in fact, done pretty much the opposite. I have done little else. Oh, a little cooking here and there, and ridiculous amounts of bread have been baked, but mostly, spinning.  I am running out of empty bobbins, though, so plying is becoming a must.  I have this...

 ...about 300g of Wensleydale top, handpainted by Spunky Eclectic in the November Spunky Club colour way "Not So Seaworthy" (inspired by a photo of a shipwreck, presumably a flaming shipwreck). Three singles with random colour placement for a 3-ply sock yarn.

And this...

...the rest of the NZ Crossbred roving, also from Spunky Eclectic, that I had spun before Christmas. Once this is plied, I should have enough for a vest.

St. Distaff will be well celebrated around here!

And what is a celebration without a feast?  January 7 also happens to be Ukrainian Christmas, which, being of Ukrainian descent, I observe with a massive feed of the family's favourite Ukrainian foods. There are holopchi (cabbage rolls)...

...and a massive number of hand-made peroghies...

Along with a big pot of borscht, some poppy seed roll, and a roast, this will be an epic feast.

I will admit that we are a day late this year with this feast. Tradition dictates that the Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve on the Gregorian calendar, but family scheduling made tonight a better night to do this. And it works out just right for me. I have to hang around the house as all of the food that I prepared over the weekend slowly cooks to perfection in the oven. I have plying to do. And it's St. Distaff day, a day to celebrate spinning.

So whatever this day brings, remember to take a moment to make a little string in honour of a non-existent saint and celebrate the magic of what it is that we do when we take a fistful of fluff and turn it into something wonderful to knit or weave with. And if you don't know how to spin, hug someone who does--and maybe they'll offer you a lesson or two! And if you don't have a spinner around to hug, celebrate anyway.

Because life is good.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Truth About "True Woolen"

I've been laying low and spinning for the past few weeks, with sporadic bursts of baking and holiday gatherings thrown in to keep things interesting. I've been pondering the projects I am taking on, preparing for my 2013 workshops, and writing. And all of this means I have been thinking way to much about the minutiae of our craft.

So I was deep in this place of over-thinking when the dreaded phrase that never fails to raise my blood pressure came up again. This phrase is one commonly used in technical spinning circles, but it's definition varies from expert to expert. It is a phrase that strikes terror in the hearts of spinners everywhere. And it is a lie. This phrase is "TRUE WOOLEN".

Spot the "true" woollen. C'mon, I dare ya!
 As spinners, we all want to do it "right". We want to make our yarns in the best traditional manner we can. But few of us actually understand the physics and mechanics of making the yarn, even the most experienced of us. We rely on the experts and gurus who have taught us for the correct language, the proper terminology, and the correct definition of the terms. As a teacher, I have seen dozens of people who have spun, successfully, for years suddenly throw everything they know out the window because a famous teacher told them that they were doing it "wrong".

Now, I am not a fan of the "there is no right or wrong" school of spinning, either. I do believe that some techniques are more effective than others, and that learning these techniques and refining them will make you a better spinner.  And, sometimes, you have to learn the less-effective techniques, too. Learning the "wrong" thing will often help you understand the "right" thing. There are several very effective ways to make yarn, each with its own virtues and shortcomings, each with a very specific outcome. It is learning which techniques works best for the result you want that sets you free to be a great spinner.

As I see it, the problem does not lie in the "right" and "wrong" techniques. It lies in the language we use to describe these techniques. And some of the most misleading and inaccurate language exists in the phrase "true woolen".

Here's what's wrong with that phrase: "true woolen" is far too often used to describe a drafting technique rather than the yarn. Woolen and worsted are words that describe YARNS, not techniques. I cringe every time I hear someone say, "I'm working on perfecting my worsted drafting." or some such other twaddle. (Though I will admit that I frequently joke that "that's some of the worsted drafting I've ever seen!") I reiterate: worsted is NOT a drafting technique. Nor is woollen. They are the resultant yarns.

Briefly, to clarify: A woolen yarn is one in which the fibres, after spinning, plying, and finishing, lie in a non-parallel arrangement. The fibres, when examined, will be jumbled in all directions, pushing outward and making a fuzzy, lofty yarn. A worsted yarn, on the other hand, is one in which the fibres, after spinning, plying, and finishing, lie parallel to each other. These fibres will be arranged in a smooth, linear manner, pulled close together and pushing up and down along the length of a smooth, compact yarn.
For the uninitiated, worsted is on the left, woolen is on the right.
What determines whether a yarn is woolen or worsted is NOT how long your drafting zone is, or how fast or slow you draft, or whether you double draft or not. It is how the twist enters the fibre and how it stays there. There are several steps to creating a woolen or a worsted yarn, which I will not go into in detail here today. Let it suffice to say that selection and preparation of fibres, spinning techniques (including spinning wheel set-up!), plying, and finishing techniques are all factors in making these different styles of yarns successfully. And the more of these steps that are appropriate to the style of the yarn, the closer to "true" woolen or worsted we get.

Woolen yarns are best spun from non-parallel arrangements of fibre, such as roving or rolags. However, there are ways of spinning parallel arrangements, such as sliver or top, to achieve a woolen result. It's just easier to start the way you intend to continue. Non-parallel arrangements will obviously be easier to turn into non-parallel yarns, and vice-versa for parallel arrangements. Drafting techniques that allow the fibres to stay non-parallel (i.e. by not pulling them out straight before allowing the twist in) will obviously keep those fibres in that configuration.

And it is at this point that I get a little testy. There is pretty much one way to draft a worsted yarn: by pulling the fibres straight and guiding twist in with your lead hand. There are several ways to draft a woolen yarn, all variations on a theme. We attenuate (pull the fibres into a thin line) and allow the twist to go where it will. We do not guide the twist in, we do not control or compact our fibres with our lead hand. We pull those fibres thin over a space of a few inches, or we can pull them out to the full extension of our arm. We can pinch fibres to control the rate at which the twist grabs them, or we can let the twist travel unimpeded. (We call the first "supported long draw" and the latter "unsupported long draw".) We can use a Scotch-tension wheel, or a bobbin-led, or a double-drive. Or a spindle. No matter how fast or slow we draft, no matter how long we pull back, these techniques all achieve the same result: a non-parallel yarn.

Adherents of the "true woolen" draft insist that we must draft quickly and with little control, relying on "double-drafting" (another bugaboo--don't get me started!) to smooth out our yarns. They sneer at slow, controlled drafting, or at "supported" drafting as being less than traditional and resulting in inferior yarns. They tell us that other methods make our yarns "too tight for woollen", or worse, the dreaded "semi-woolen".  They tell us that woolen yarns must be, by definition, uneven in the singles, lumpy and slubby. They tell us that we cannot make a lace-weight or thin woolen, that woolen must be thick to be lofty. They are wrong, or at least inaccurate, on all counts. The simple fact of the matter is, if you do not guide the twist into fully parallel fibres over a short, controlled space, you are making a woolen yarn. Tight, loose, even, uneven, thick, thin, semi-, hemi-, or demi-, WOOLEN.

 I think it is time to put a stop to this nonsense. We have got to stop labelling one drafting method as a "true woolen" technique, and we have to start looking at what the language of our craft means. Let's stop using the word "woolen" to talk about drafting and start using the proper words like long-draw and short-draw. Let's stop quibbling over "supported" and "unsupported". Let's make the yarn that we want to make, in the best way that works for us and stop putting false labels on the way we do it.

Lets make yarn that is true for us.