Friday, June 25, 2010

Our Fiber Toolboxes

We have many tools in our boxes as knitters and spinners – some even duplicate each other! Let’s take a look at some of those tools, and talk about the possibilities of adding to our toolboxes.

As spinners, we have many tools. Fiber itself is our weightiest (pun intended) tool, of course. Most spinners collect fibers like any other collector – gleefully and with some measure of abandon – worrying about storage later. Fibers are definitely a fun tool, but one we should collect carefully; look for the best quality fiber and best preparation you can afford or find. It will pay off when you start spinning!

Other tools include our spindles and wheels, of course. Many of us are avid spindle collectors, with those collections second only to fiber to spin on them! Spindles come in myriad shapes, sizes, weights and configurations, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. I would be the wrong person to recommend restraint in acquiring additional examples of this particular tool – but I have become choosier about the spindles I collect. I now insist on a certain level of craftsmanship in the construction of my spindles; hooks must be well-seated, wood or metal smooth and free of any roughness that might catch fine fibers. I also will spend more willingly on artistic spindles - those that display not only excellent craftsmanship but beautiful use of materials.

Wheels…most of us have financial limitations that come into play, or wheels would be as much of an obsession as spindles! I know many spinners who have only one wheel – but that wheel is generally an all-purpose machine that can spin almost anything the spinner might want. Single-purpose wheels, although they show up from time to time, are generally short-lived in the spinning market. Our fiber obsession demands a versatile wheel that is capable of ratios or speeds of anywhere between 5:1 and 20:1.

Spinners are, however, rather traditional about their wheel choices. While wheels from materials other than wood are available, and many are perfectly functional, we still gravitate toward our beautiful, warm and graceful wood. Finishes are more individual, of course. I tend to gravitate toward maple and other light wood finishes, but also own two wheels that are walnut-finished.

Other spinning tools are carders, drum carders, combs, wpi tools, dizzes, lap covers, orifice hooks, drive band material, small screwdrivers and allen wrenches, oil bottles, water holders for spinning bast fibers, high-speed, low-speed or plying flyers, bobbins, and such, extra whorls for multiple speeds…the list goes on and becomes highly individualized to a particular spinner. For example, my own carding tools are minimal; I prefer combed fibers. So I have two or three sets of combs and only one half-size set of cotton cards. I sold my drum carder years ago after it had sat unused for more than two years.

A frequent, although sometimes overlooked, set of tools for a spinner is their dyeing equipment. We tend to keep dyes, mordants, masks, brushes, plastic sheeting and various containers corralled somewhere out of reach of anyone who shares our living space in order to avoid any inadvertent use in food preparation. So we forget about them until we need them. They are nonetheless essential tools, both for spinners and for knitters who like to play with dyeing their own yarns.

A related collection for many of us is spinning containers. I love baskets, and have many, in different materials and shapes, to hold my fiber and spinning tools and spinning projects.

Knitters love to collect tools. First and foremost, of course, is our yarn. We can’t knit without it! Some of our significant others may not quite understand how we can collect pounds and pounds of yarns (or fibers) for which we have no definite purpose in mind; just remember that you chose this person for what seemed good and sufficient reason at some pre-fiber point in your life, and try to have patience with him or her. Eventually a certain numb resignation sets in and questions either cease or become quite infrequent. I haven’t yet heard of a divorce caused solely by yarn and fiber addiction. Of course, if you chose this person post-fiber addiction, you’re on your own… Personally, I’m among the luckiest of fiber addicts – my spouse is not only supportive, he’s a complete and total enabler who knew all about my original sewing and crochet addictions when we married! Everything since (weaving, lace-making, spinning, knitting, etc.) has been given his firm support and prideful announcement to everyone around him.

As an aside: I’ve actually heard non-fiber folks question a spinner’s need for commercial yarn. Their argument is usually along the lines of, “You can make your own yarn; why buy it? Especially since you already have pounds and pounds of wool and wool-blend fiber at home?” See the above statement on the advantage of patience with these individuals if they’re important to you; if they aren’t important to you, it’s none of their business, and you should simply ignore such rude behavior!

A knitter’s secondary tools are, of course, needles. A knitter can’t make fabric without both yarn and needles. Multiple needle materials are necessary in the beginning as an exploration; how do you know what you prefer until you’ve tried all of them? As you continue in your knitting career, your preferred needle materials and types change…needles you wouldn’t have used in the beginning are now your favorites. And multiple needles in the same size are just logical – how can you possibly do multiple projects without needles?

What, work on only a single project until it’s complete?!?!?! While I know a handful of knitters who do this, it’s a scant handful. I can definitely count them on a single hand’s fingers. Most of us have a couple (at least) of pairs of socks on size 1’s, a worsted wool sweater on size 8’s, a fingering sweater on size 3’s, a hat or bag to felt on size 5’s, and a ‘travel project’ for those times when you get stuck somewhere unexpectedly with no knitting project at hand. We work on them in rotation, frequently beginning another project (and sometimes finishing it!) before the others are complete. No, we aren’t all suffering from some odd sort of attention-deficit disorder; we simply prefer to have projects for various mental states. Some knitting projects require the concentration of nuclear physics reaction calculations; others are mindless and perfect for tired or distracted knitters who simply want to relax for a few minutes.

Stitch markers are necessary tools that have been raised by some to an artistic expression. There are very utilitarian stitch markers, of course; but few knitters are able to resist a bit of bling for their projects on occasion! Needle tip protectors can be made in a variety of both practical and pretty (downright adorable, in some cases) shapes. Scissors have been made in a variety of styles that include beautiful decorative elements for at least a century or two. Crochet hooks can be made from sturdy metal, or beautiful woods. Calculators come in an incredible variety of shapes and styles and colors. Even utilitarian measuring tapes can be incased in entertaining, yet practical, packaging.

Tools that are part of both knitters’ and spinners’ boxes are niddy-noddies, some sort of skein-winder, and a ball winder or nostepin. Frequently we have several of each of these, purchased either by whim or necessity. Another practical tool that all fiber artists tend to purchase is a decent scale – preferably one that will weigh in both grams and portions of an ounce, frequently digital.

The final necessary element for knitters is yet another expression of collector’s mania for many. Knitting bags and/or storage containers are a perennial search for some knitters, as they flit from one container to another in search of the perfect knitting bag or organizational container. I must confess to a weakness in this direction myself, although after many years of searching, I do seem to have finally found my perfect carry-along containers.

Other tools, less substantial but just as necessary for our fiber pursuits as any tangible, wood or steel or fluffy tools, are just as much fun to collect. These are the various techniques we use to produce our yarns and knitted masterpieces.

Techniques are fantastic things to collect! You don’t have to store them, or justify their addition to your repertoire; they reside in your head and in your fingers – and anyone can invent (or unvent) a new one or a thousand that can then be passed along to millions of other knitters! Ravelry and the other fiber-related lists are incredible compendia of accumulated knowledge, not to mention books and magazines. Now storage for books and magazines, or a computer and associated hard drive, can require storage space and resources…but the return on the investment is practically endless!

Knitters: think about the number of ways you can discover to do something as simple as make the toe on a sock. There are so many! Shaped, anatomically-correct toes from either the top or toe end; simple round toes with increases spaced in various ways to make a cup; star-shaped toes for a bit of special attention for a very special pair of socks; and the old standby, toes shaped on either side of the top and bottom in a blunted triangular shape. There are even more ways to turn a heel, knit a tube, shape increases and decreases, make darts both decorative and almost invisible…and every technique you learn increases your options and alternatives for every subsequent project you make!

Spinners: how many tricks are in your bag? You probably can’t count them…and spinners are even more prone to unvent their own methods than knitters! Spinners can create dozens of yarns from a single fiber and preparation, mixing worsted, woolen, semi-worsted, short- and long-draw techniques to form yarns for very specific projects. You can use the same roving or top to produce lace-weight singles so fine that they can barely be felt skimming over the body as a spectacular lace shawl - or a sturdy sweater of bulky-weight 4-ply yarn that can keep the wearer warm in the coldest temperatures. Or anything in between…gloves, hats, mittens, socks, scarves, coats, skirts…yarns for all of these can be created from the same fleece or fiber in a array of colors restricted only by the skill of the dyer!

As you can see, our fiber toolboxes are packed with things. Techniques and tricks are added with every project we complete, if we’re the sort of adventurous fiber people that love to try new things and stretch ourselves. Even if you’re only knitting the same scarf pattern you’ve been making for 20+ years, you learn something new every time you change yarn or needle size. Tools (and projects) are tried, added or rejected, according to our perceptions of how they work for us. Knitting, spinning and other fiber pursuits are a pursuit. Like all pursuits, they have their successes and their failures. And the only person who can determine a success or a failure of a project, a technique or a tool is the person practicing the art and craft!

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