Monday, November 23, 2009

New Spinners...are wonderful!

The spindling class ended Saturday at lunchtime. I'm quite pleased - out of six students, I had three total fiberholic spinners! The remaining three students learned what they wanted from the class - a lot more about how yarns are formed and how to choose them for their projects. So I can call this one a success, I think.

New spinners are full of enthusiasm! They find everything about spinning fascinating, want to produce enormous amounts of various yarns in various weights as quickly as possible, and want to push the envelope as far as it will go. After learning spindling basics, dyeing is the next possibility, and the final class included quite a bit of information on that.

Spinning wheels are probably in the near future for all three of these students, although each is loving spinning on spindles. We talked about the way spindles can be stored, since they're already interested in spinning different weights. We have one crocheter and two who both knit and crochet; one wants to learn weaving immediately.

It was a good class, with lively discussions and lots of input from very bright folks who already knew a good bit about fibers. They'll challenge each other and themselves, and expand the frontiers of spinning knowledge a bit further during our fourth Saturday afternoon gatherings, which will be held at Clinch River Yarn Company beginning about 2:00 pm.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rant Warning! In Defense of Designers!

All of you are well aware that I'm a total fiber junkie who explores odd nooks and crannies that might hold yarn and fiber wherever I happen to be. Most of you know that I teach various fiber-related classes. Some of you also know that I design knitting, weaving, tatting and crochet patterns, although I keep that fairly quiet. I prefer to help others design rather than have people making my designs.

Yesterday afternoon I was indulging my fiber junkie in a most unexpected way. I actually found a small local store that carries some basic (and decent!) yarns and was happily poking around in a back corner. This place does not advertise itself as a yarn store, and the only reason they carry yarn is that the owner's wife crochets and knits. I was there for a completely un-fiber-related reason, and the yarn was a lovely bonus.

So I'm poking around behind a pillar, happily fondling some skeins, when another customer enters. I carefully put down the skein I was currently cuddling to my cheek (some people simply don't understand yarn etiquette) and prepared to act like a normal person until she had concluded her business and left. The other customer seemed like a nice lady, probably a little older than I, and from her conversation an equally- doting grandmother. But then she made three comments that revealed her as a complete fiend! "I DID follow the pattern - and the sweater didn't fit at all!" To compound matters, she then commented that she never did get gauge with the recommended needles, although she used them for the entire sweater! Her final comment was "If I couldn't do any better than that, I wouldn't have the nerve to make people pay for the pattern!"

You would be so proud of me! I didn't know her, it wasn't my LYS, she wasn't a student of mine, and so I kept my mouth shut. I made none of the snarky comments that were clamoring for release, biting my tongue instead. But this overheard encounter festered through yesterday evening's sit and knit at my LYS; I actually dreamed about it last night; and this morning I've decided to have my say.

First is a sore point of long standing. Patterns are a record of how one (or perhaps two or three) knitters made a certain design to specified measurements. They aren't edicts from a higher power, and you can't leave your brain and common sense behind when you decide to knit that pattern. If all you want to do is completely mindless knitting, stick to knitting items where size doesn't matter. Scarves, shawls, dishcloths, bags, items to be felted later...there are many items at myriad skill levels that don't require fitting. They can keep a knitter happy for decades.

Second, if your actual measurements don't match those stated in the pattern, the resulting garment won't fit you. Don't whine about it and don't blame the designer. You are as your genes and your life choices have made you, and if those have culminated in a 5-foot nothing, 150-pound top-heavy grandmother, you can't logically expect a design created for a 5-foot 8-inch, 135 pound woman with a B cup size to fit!

Finally, if you DO choose to make a knitted item following a pattern marketed by a designer who (I guarantee!) sweated for hours over the details you love, engage your brain and common sense BEFORE you pick up your needles! Do a large gauge swatch in the same knitting technique (back and forth or in the round, in stockinette or in pattern, as specified by the designer) in a yarn identical to or as close as possible to the fiber and weight of the original design. (No, I didn't say color - color doesn't matter - only fiber type and yarn weight!)

Measure, then wash that swatch, let it dry, then measure it again. If your measurements differ from the gauge specified in the pattern, change needles appropriately, make another swatch in the same knitting technique (back and forth or in the round, in stockinette or in pattern, as specified by the designer) in a yarn identical to or as close as possible to the fiber and weight of the original design. Measure, wash the second swatch, let it dry, then measure it again. If your measurements still differ from those specified by the designer, change needles appropriately and do it a third time. Continue as required until your gauge matches the one in the pattern!

If you can't be bothered to perform this step as many times as it takes, don't whine about it when the garment doesn't drape or fit like the one in the photo! The fault isn't with the designer - it's with you! Ditto if you decide to use worsted weight cotton yarn for a design that was made with fingering-weight wool-silk blend. Don't blame the designer for your own choices!

All right, you did five gauge swatches in a fingering-weight wool-silk blend until you got gauge with a needle three sizes smaller than the designer recommended for that same yarn. You chose the bust measurement closest to your own, cast on and knitted as directed, decreasing, increasing, binding off, etc., as specified. The garment STILL doesn't fit. That can't be my fault - it's got to be a bad design!

When and where did you leave your brain, may I ask? There is more to a body than a bust measurement! Some of us are short-waisted, some are long-waisted. Some have hourglass figures, some are straight from hips to shoulders. Remember my second point above? "If your actual measurements don't match those stated in the pattern, the resulting garment won't fit you."

Before you cast on (while your gauge swatch(es) are drying?) sit down with the pattern, a (gasp!) calculator and a list of your own measurements. If the pattern has 6 inches (at the row gauge given) between the hip and the waist, and you have 4.5, make the necessary adjustments to the pattern! If the pattern calls for an 8-inch armhole and you need 9.5, make the necessary adjustments to the pattern! If you need short-rows to accommodate your bust, plan them out before you cast on - decide how many rows you need, how you'll incorporate them into the stitch pattern, and how far above the hem and below the armholes you need to place them.

Do this and any other planning before you cast on. Then knit, trying on as you go. If your plan isn't working, as demonstrated by trying the in-progress garment on your actual body, analyze why and fix it! Don't ever be afraid to rip out knitting - you like to knit, remember? If you rip out, you'll simply have more knitting to do!

All this ranting boils down to two simple points. Every single body is different. Every single knitter must learn how to make a plan for their own knitting.

Of course you can start with a pattern - designers themselves start with a general idea of what they want. Just don't leave your brain behind and allow someone else to make all the decisions for you! It doesn't work in knitting any better than it works in life.

Rant is now complete!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm So Proud...

My spinning class on Saturday got off to a great start! Of course there were the usual beginning bobbles and fluffs, but by the end of the class everyone was making yarn! I'm so proud of these ladies - they're truly wonderful and such good sports!

My ramblings last week appear to have borne something or other. I did indeed break down the spindling process to minimal bits, starting with fondling and dissecting the spindles, then moving on to the fiber itself. We pulled a single fiber to check length, pulled a couple more to check how easy it was to break them, pulled and twisted a few to see what difference that made, etc., etc., etc. Baby steps? Sure! But everybody learns to walk with baby steps!

We stopped with park and draft, and everyone promised at least 15 minutes of practice each day. For those who emailed me directly to ask, we're using Louet Octo spindles and Louet's BFL top. This is a nice top, with enough tooth to help beginners along, yet enough sheen and softness to keep knitters' fingers happy.

I do like Louet's fibers, although I'm not as crazy about their spindles, and the Octo spindles are a perfect example of why. These spindles came in very rough. Careful sanding was required before they could be used, so as to smooth the many rough spots without affecting the balance. Luckily, the spindles arrived enough in advance of the first class to allow this to be done.

On the plus side, the spindles could be individualized with permanent markers in various colors and a couple of coats of beeswax and lemon oil made the sanded wood feel warmer and much more pleasant in the hands. The spindles function well, with excellent balance and a long spin time. Also on the plus side, the hooks are very sturdy and seem to travel well. However, it makes me a bit unhappy to purchase a fixer-upper that isn't labeled as such.

Saturday we'll travel a bit further along the road to fiber addiction, taking a look at the various ways to wind a cop, plying options, and moving from park and draft to drop spindling. We'll talk about finishing yarn - washing, weighting to dry (or not) and some of the commercial fiber options out there. Creating new fiber addicts is so much fun!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Spindling Class Begins Saturday!

A note to any of my students who read this prior to the class: you WILL succeed in learning to spindle - as long as you're willing to give yourself time to learn. Muscle memory isn't built in a single two-hour class, or even in three. It's built with patient practice, a little bit every day. It's akin to learning to play a musical instrument; in order to become proficient you must not only study theory (learn about fiber), but practice playing (spindling). Everyone knows that learning to play an instrument takes some time. So be gentle with yourself, and grant yourself the time needed to learn. The reward, as with music, is a lifetime of pleasure.

Now to the blog entry! I'm teaching a spindling class beginning on Saturday. My LYS is offering it because there's a lot of interest - partially engendered by my sitting and spindling or wheel spinning at Thursday evening work sessions and before or after my knitting classes. Not to mention showing off fiber purchases!

I'm looking forward to the class, especially since all the students have become fiber buddies, either through taking a previous class or sharing time at the shop. While I teach spinning one-on-one on a regular basis, it's been a couple of years since I taught multiple students simultaneously, and those classes are always fun. (I work hard to make them fun!)

I've been thinking a lot as I go about the studio and house getting everything ready. Not about the tools or the fibers, or even the instructional materials - I've been thinking about spinning itself. Turning it around in my mind, so to speak. Since I already know and like these folks, I'm investing a lot of myself in this class (even more so than usual). I truly want them all to succeed in learning this new skill so we can share that as well as our knitting and crochet. My thoughts have ranged widely, dissecting past classes and trying to incorporate lessons I've learned from teaching so many through the past fifteen-plus years. Since writing things out helps my thought processes, here goes!

The basis of spinning is deceptively simple - start the spindle going, pinch, pull, release the prepared fiber until the spindle is at the floor, then gather that make on your hand and transfer it to the spindle shaft; begin again. Children get it in no time - my grandchildren could spin usable yarn by the age of five, and my then pre-teen children were spinning wonderful yarn well before I was. Adults, on the other hand, find it more challenging. Perhaps because we've already built long-standing muscle memories for other skills; perhaps because we're not as tuned to our bodies as children. I have no idea. I simply offer it as an observed fact.

I've tried in several ways to communicate that to my students, with less success than I would like. They watch me demonstrate, listen to the steps, then many get discouraged when their muscles don't perform perfectly the first time - or even the tenth. Reminders that spinning requires muscle memory and practice to build that memory fall on already-discouraged ears. And at least one or two decide that they 'can't' spindle. (These are usually the same ones who want to spin enough to go ahead and invest in a wheel, practice even more steps on that until they have the muscle memory built, then come back to spindling a couple of years later to find that it isn't nearly as difficult as they thought. More on these students later.)

Perhaps it has to do with our initial monetary investment. A good spindle costs $20 to $60 - a couple or three of hours of work at most local jobs. So we expect to learn in a similar proportion of our time. A good wheel runs several hundred dollars or our salary for a week or more of work. So we work longer at mastering the instrument in which we've invested more hard-earned dollars. We have to justify the spending. I'm not sure this explains the motivations of everyone who gives up on spindling and goes on to wheel spinning, but I have seen it happen in about half of the cases of people who decide they 'can't' spindle.

Some students do spend the time to develop the muscle memory for the basic steps, but are unhappy with their beginner yarn. After they learn to spin, shouldn't they be producing perfectly even singles within a few hours at most? Explanations that practice is the only medium by which a beginner reaches intermediate or master status again fall on ears un-tuned to that wavelength. The spindle they bought gathers dust for a while, then gets put into a yard sale or tossed out with the trash during spring cleaning. Such a shame.

Still other students decide that spindling is too slow. They master the muscle memory, and make good yarn. But they don't comprehend the contemplative nature of the dance. The meditative pace of preparing fiber and then spinning, dyeing and finishing yarn distresses them rather than providing a sanctuary. Sometimes these students persist and eventually tune into the melody of history and nature, becoming dedicated spinners and even teachers themselves; sometimes they go back to buying all their yarns because spinning is 'just too slow.' Again, a shame.

The students who come to learn the dance, on the other hand, are frequently the ones who stay with spindling. Their expectations are simple and varied - to learn something new, to learn to use a tool they find fascinating, to make a connection with history or to make their own yarns from their own sheep. Or perhaps just to inject some calm and a semblance of control into their life. These students aren't always the ones who learn the fastest - sometimes they struggle long after the class ends. But they see something in spindling that appeals to them at a level they can't always express. They are the students who start out as spinners, requiring only the skills and practice to succeed.

Of course, there are the occasional students who pick up a spindle, hook it into fiber they've instinctively pre-drafted, give it a twirl, and begin to spin perfect lace-weight singles immediately. It truly is instinct for these lucky few - they seem to channel the spirits of spinners who have come before them. They make a teacher look good, and tend to earn the envy (at least) of their fellow students (grin).

I tend to feel for the other students when a student like this appears in a class. I struggled a bit myself in the beginning. And didn't have the luxury of doing so in private - I learned to spindle at a public demonstration, by demonstrating for the public! So all my first over-twisted singles, dropped spindles when I compensated by under-twisting, and lumpy, misshapen beginner yarn were observed by a couple of hundred strangers who all felt free to comment on my mistakes. After that sort of public humiliation, I simply HAD to learn to spin. So I practiced doggedly, learning mostly on my own, but watching other spinners at every opportunity. I was one of those spinners who 'couldn't' learn on a spindle, by the way. But when I invested a week's salary in a used wheel, I forced myself to practice until I mastered it all.

Upon coming back to spindling, I found something I had missed in wheel spinning - a level of contemplation and calm I found essential to my well-being. Now I spindle and wheel spin, and love both for different reasons, even though the final product, yarn, is identical in both cases. So identical that I frequently can't tell later which way I originally spun the yarn!

Hoping for a high level of student success as well as even more fun, this time I've broken the instruction down into the most basic single components. We'll complete one stage before we move to the next. We'll begin with fondling, investigating, and tearing apart a little fiber, then move on to basic drafting. We'll add finger-twisting, then hooked-stick twisting, and then team spindling. Only after we've done all those will we actually tie a leader onto a spindle, loop prepared fibers through, and begin park and draft spindling one at a time. This may not (probably won't) all happen the first week, but hopefully by the end of the third week I'll have seven new spinners to add to the fold, and three weeks of happy memories on which we can all build!