Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And The Wheel Spins ‘Round

It’s funny how our fiber journeys wind around and around. I started, 40-plus years ago, as a seamstress, quilter and crocheter. Give or take a couple of years, I added other types of sewing and pattern-making in my 20’s; tatting and four-harness weaving and needle lace in my 30’s; spinning, knitting, and multiple-harness weaving in my 40’s. Now I’m in my 50’s and teaching almost all of these things in turn to a whole new group – and not a few members of my own generation!

Teaching is something I’ve always done. As a girl, I was the oldest – so I taught my younger cousins the same things my great-grandmother and grandmother had taught me. As a teen in the 1960’s, I taught the other young people around me to crochet and sew the stuff we wanted. In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s I taught sewing and other crafting techniques as an income supplement – and I’m still doing the same today. I’ve never really expanded my teaching focus beyond the local area, and have yet to write that book I keep thinking about. I don’t yet feel an overwhelming need to do those things; I’m happy with my local teaching gigs. They’re fun, fulfilling, and I’m always learning something new from my students.

And learning is also something I’ve always done. Most of my fiber arts techniques were learned pre-internet, largely from books and magazines and other artists. Learning intermediate weaving techniques and re-learning to knit more or less coincided with the surge in internet use, and I’ve learned a lot on-line. Ravelry and the Knitters’ Review Forums have taken on a life quite unlike the weaving bulletin boards and lists of the 1990’s! Regardless of the resources available online, however, I’m still a bibliophile – I collect books on all the arts I practice. When I die my children are going to have quite a chore just sorting through all the books in the house! Then they’ll need to decide what to do with them… Luckily I’ll no longer be around to see the long-suffering looks and hear the sighs!

You’d think that after years of practicing various fiber arts I’d have stopped purchasing new books. Nope! I have become more choosey about what I buy, though. My focus has never been on pattern books (I like to make up my own patterns!), but I’m still a sucker for design books. Take knitting, for example: I’ve got stitch dictionaries galore, all the “must-have” design books (Righetti, Zimmerman, Walker, Gibson-Roberts), including some of the newcomers like Wendy Barnard, and most of the lace design books out there. I have fewer spinning books per se (Alden Amos, Judith McKenzie McCuin, etc.), but literally decades worth of Spin-Off magazines.

I’ve always found books a wonderful repository of wisdom. They let you see what other people have done and how – and more importantly, why – and give you a starting point for your own explorations. I’d never have become much of a knitter if I hadn’t stumbled across EZ’s Knitting Without Tears in my local library. I would have drowned in knitting patterns and never gathered the knowledge and courage to strike out with my own designs! Ditto Spin-Off, which held my hand between spinning guild meetings and led me gently down the path to trusting my own instincts about fiber.

Creativity spawns more creativity. I think that’s why so many of us gather together within our chosen disciplines, and within related ones as well. Ideas come from so many sources, and one idea may generate another that bears little or no relationship to the first! Each of us brings our own experiences to bear on our art; but we borrow from the experiences of others, as well.

Fiber people are amazingly generous. They’re willing to share their knowledge, experiences, tips, tricks and failures with fellow travelers. As artists, we do learn from someone else’s failure; sometimes we try to do something similar while avoiding the things that made them fail. Many times this leads to a success; sometimes it leads to another failure – but from a different cause! And we get back together and share those stories, which leads to more experimentation, which leads to more successes or failures, which leads to more stories…you get the idea.

Books take this wealth or experience and distill it. Yes, you have only one voice in a book – but that one voice, if you’re lucky, brings decades of experience along with it, both the writer’s and that of those around her. I think the books that become classics in a given field do this particularly well. They generally have something else in common as well; they’re written in a very human fashion. We become friends with the author. Elizabeth Zimmerman is probably the quintessential example of this, but there are numerous others.

One of the things I hope I teach my students is that the knowledge they need is in many different places – not only online. Yes, the online community is a wonderful resource. But internet connections go down; computers break; cell phones are terrible web browsers. Besides, you may not have the leisure to wade through 3,000 links to find the one with the information you need. A book lives silently on a shelf until you need it, and it won’t disappear like the link you bookmarked five years ago. A fiber friend is a phone call or a short distance away. Inspiration is found in unlikely places; it works best coupled with a bit of perspiration. But it can be lost or diluted while you’re clicking on links – focus is necessary for fruition.

And the wheel turns around…From being a student, I’ve become one of the older practitioners – I’m now the “go to” person. Yet I’m still a student myself. I’ve signed up for a quilting class next month. Except for minor projects, I haven’t quilted in 20 years. But I have this idea for taking some of my wool hand-woven and hand-knit fabrics…

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