I received an email the other day from a local knitting group asking me to talk to a group of knitters about spinning. They didn't really want a spinning demonstration (it couldn't be that easy!), but rather a discussion of what knitters need to know about fibers to help them make more successful projects.
So I started looking at what I call “Fibers 101,” a course that I’ve added to this blog in the past (see http://fiberlife.blogspot.com/2006/08/fiber-101.html and http://fiberlife.blogspot.com/2006/08/fiber-101-continued.html), with a view to revising that material for these knitters. I didn’t find much that needed to be changed.
So I went off to do my presentation, said my piece, handed out copies of the material to the 20 or so attendees, and invited questions. That’s when the true learning experience of the day took place - for me!
I’ve commented in the past that many young folk don’t get any sort of fiber education. First, let’s define “young” as less than 40 years of age. To my mind, anyone over 40 had a pool of cultural knowledge on which to draw that included some basic fiber knowledge of the “cotton comes from a plant and wool from an animal” sort. At least, I thought they did! But obviously we’ve been an industrial, non-agricultural society for longer than I believed.
The knitters in this particular group ranged in age from 14 to over 70, but most of them were between 25 and 50. So the large number of questions regarding the harvesting of various animal fibers came as something of a surprise. I did NOT expect the old, “Do you have to kill the sheep to harvest wool?” chestnut from this group – although I got it. Also unexpected were questions on which animal produces polymid (???) and why cotton, flax and silk fibers were all shorter than any animal fibers (again, ???).
Needless to say, I backed up. Obviously, I had thrown a lot of information at these folks quickly, and some of it just hadn’t sunk in. I explained that animals may be killed to harvest fiber, but usually aren’t, because top-notch fiber produced year after year pays for the cost of keeping that animal alive and in good health. I again went over the various types of manmade fibers, including polymid, and talked about the relative lengths of cotton, flax and silk fibers. And assumed we were finished with those sorts of questions.
I was ready to move on to why you choose woolen-spun fibers for baby sweaters and fuzzy shawls and felted mittens, and worsted-spun ones for gloves and outerwear sweaters and soft, fine wools, and how to look at yarn labels to find out this sort of information. I had quite a few samples of current yarn labels to help. I also wanted to expound on the affordability of fibers versus yarns, and the satisfaction you get from doing a project from the fuzz to the finished object –adding to the ranks of new spinners is always fun.
But the next questions were about the high price of natural fiber yarn, and why acrylics weren’t considered to be superior to any natural fibers. I mentally threw up my hands at this point, consigning all my carefully-prepared yarn labels and handspun natural fiber and yarn samples to the storage bin in which they normally live. I then spoke passionately about the feel, breathability, insulating properties and environmental friendliness of natural fibers; the ease of finding a perfect natural fiber for any project and the satisfaction of using natural fibers. I tried to explain a bit of the cost factor as a return on the investments in land, equipment, livestock, feed and health care needed to produce those fibers. I’m not sure anyone bought the message.
I suppose what I’m asking is whether I’m completely outmoded in my liking for natural fibers? Are most knitters these days primarily interested in manufactured fibers, or was that strictly this particular group of relatively-new knitters? And is there a correlation between the length of time you’ve been knitting and your fiber preferences? I’d like to have some feedback on this, gentle fiberpeople, before my next “Fiber 101” presentation. Which is set up for early June…to a local group of museum curators…who are probably going to be primarily interested in the pre-polyester era… Do I sound as confused as I am at this particular moment in time?