Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Technology and Fiber

Generally speaking, folks don’t associate spinners, weavers and knitters with any technology more sophisticated than a small calculator – and indeed, you can easily practice these crafts with merely a piece of paper and a pencil as long as you possess arithmetic proficiency on a par with that of a third-grader. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will get you through.

But the deeper you delve into designing your own weaving patterns, knitting patterns and yarns the more useful you will find various mathematical tools and concepts – and the more sophisticated your tools for manipulating the variables involved become. This is where computers came in handy.

That’s the most common reason given for the early presence on what is sometimes called the ‘pre-internet’ of the weaving and knitting lists, bulletin boards and discussion forums. It’s also a common reason given for the relative sophistication of fiber artists’ usage of computer-assisted or computer-driven tools like computer-dobby looms and computer-assisted knitting machines.

Fiber folks entered the computer age early on. I’ve never thought of myself as a mathematician, and if I had any early urges or talents in that direction Mrs. Grubb, my sixth, seventh and eighth-grade math teacher back in the late 1960’s, quickly dissuaded me. She implanted quite a math phobia in at least two generations of female students! Yet I unhesitatingly utilize mathematical concepts in my weaving and knitting as well as my spinning. Fibonacci series for stripes both vertical and horizontal, undulating curve design, color progressions according to mathematical calculations of hue and shade – I don’t think twice if I want to use these and other concepts, happily utilizing algebra and calculus to help me design. Computers seem at first glance to have little to do with the ‘fuzzy’ arts. But look a bit deeper. We have programs to help us plan colorways, design three-dimensional constructs, determine warp and weft patterning and more.

We also have helped to drive the social networking parts of the modern world-wide web with our inclusive tendencies toward other fiber artists. We like to learn; we take classes within our geographic regions, but we also take classes virtually – and we discuss them! We discuss the classes, what we’ve learned from the classes, how we think we might modify what we learned, and where we think the teacher is full of baloney. We also travel the world for classes and frequently post photos, descriptions and videos of what we’ve learned – both about fiber arts and about the culture in which those arts originated.

Today the necessary computing power for much of our design work and social networking can be held easily in one hand. My current smartphone has more processor power than did any two of my first four computers. And thanks to the fact that only an extremely small percentage of the population had Mrs. Grubb for math, even over the 25+ years she taught, there are more and more applications (we seldom use the word “program” for these gems) available for these hand-held processors. I no longer need to sit at a desk, lug around a notebook or laptop computer – I can simply use my phone as a design tool!

Given that all of this has occurred within the last generation (counting a generation as 25 years), I’m awaiting the next 25 years with bated breath! As a long-time fan of Star Trek, I can easily visualize myself, within the next 5-10 years, simply talking to or showing my smartphone/pad (which in my imagination now looks something like the pads from Next Generation) to get a weave pattern, curve calculation, or knitted sample gauge and knitting directions for a specific garment to size. Is there a connection between fiber artists and computers? You bet there is! And this connection will only become more pronounced as time goes on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Modifying Our Tools As We Age

Rather depressing title, this one – although modifying the way we do things does indeed come at some point in our lives. My modification stage has hit a bit early, based on a combination of heredity and environmental factors, and I’ve been receiving quite a few questions lately about how I’m managing to continue doing the things I do. So I’ve decided to document it here, in hopes my experiences will keep someone else happily working away at the things they love to do.

I’ve modified my knitting tools quite a lot this last year. My hands don’t work as well as they did; arthritis and overuse have begun to take a toll, as have some other physical ailments. I have no intention of ceasing to knit at this point in my life – my children are beginning to hatch grandchildren, and what knitter doesn’t love to knit for babies! But in order to do that, changes have been necessary.

My knitting tools are now well-organized – mostly because nobody raids them for art supplies these days. The stuff I carry along with me for classes or knit nights all fits into a Nantucket bag. That includes pens, pins, markers, stitch counters, measuring tapes, needle and stitch gauges, scissors, a laminated “how much yardage” chart, one large and one small crochet hook, yarn needles in a case, a set of fairly small DPN’s in a 6-inch length and several other handy tools. The pockets and a couple of small plastic fishing tackle cases hold these things nicely, leaving plenty of room for a small knitting manual, a couple of project bags and a tatting case.

Those project bags are of various sizes and contain the yarn, instructions, needles and anything else I need for a specific project. I love pretty project bags, and have several in small, medium and even one large-sized bag for sweaters or shawls. I need to get another large bag…but I’m fine on the other sizes.

I’ve recently switched needles again – or at least the type of needle I use. For years I used nothing but bamboo or wood needles – I loved the feel and they didn’t slip out of the stitches. Then I moved slowly to metal needles for wool yarns, finally becoming an expert-enough knitter to worry more about yarn slipping easily than about needles slipping out of stitches. But recently my metal KnitPicks, Hiyahiya, Addi or other brands have begun to hurt my hands when used for more than a half-hour or so. Switching back to my stash of wood and bamboo only gave me a few extra minutes of pain-free knitting. But then I tried the Kollage square needles, and I can knit for ages again (with appropriate breaks) without pain!

Luckily for my budget, I’ve also picked up a few other tricks throughout the years, and find that 32-inch circular needles suffice for most of my knitting needs these days, with an occasional pair of DPNs in sock sizes just for the sake of variety. Of course I magic-loop socks – but I don’t always TEACH magic-loop in a beginning sock class! So I’m slowly building a stash of 32-inch Kollage needles in sizes from 0 to 8. Because heaven forbid I should have only a single project going in a given needle size at one time!

My spinning tools have also shifted a bit. I seldom process raw fleece anymore, so I can manage with a single set of cotton cards and a set of mini-combs for almost all my processing needs. These live happily in a bin on a bookcase near my spinning wheel. I still own a pair of double-row Viking combs, but seldom use them. It’s easier on my body to send raw fleece out for processing – the cost in cash is less than the cost in pain of doing it at home.

So instead of large quantities of raw fleece, my spinning stash these days tends to consist of a great deal of top from various breeds and a bit of roving for those applications when carded fleece is preferable. Space for dyestuff is also well-organized and accessible – no longer is it necessary to bury my dyeing tools in a box in the basement in case the children should pick something up and take it in for kitchen use.

A fairly small cats-head basket made by a friend carries my spinning tools – oil, Vaseline, spare drive and tensioning bands, Allen wrench and wpi gauge as well as a niddy-noddy. But most of my skein-winding is done at home these days, thanks to a fair number of bobbins that I can actually locate! A skein-winder that I can crank and a new, tensioned ball-winder make winding skeins and balls relatively pain-free.

After years and years of very fine thread-work and lace crochet, I’m again taking pleasure in yarn-weight crocheted fabric. The fabrics are heavy and solid in wool, fluid and textured in many other fibers like silk and cotton-silk blends. There is no substitute for a well-crocheted table mat or potholder, for example – and nothing similar that can be purchased! But my hooks have become...let's say ergonomic. Much bigger around than my old steel hooks!

My large Toika has officially been retired. I simply can’t use it comfortably any longer. My primary loom these days is my 8-harness Schacht Baby Wolf. Not only is it a lovely piece of equipment that functions perfectly, even after more than 20 years of hard use – it’s relatively gentle to my aging shoulders and back. I can use a regular office chair to weave from, with all the support and padding my body requires these days. And I can warp and thread it by scooting a child’s chair left over from my children right up next to the warp beam or castle. I modified it for sectional warping years ago – also easier on my body these days, since it gives me a built-in ‘break’ period timer. Beam or thread 1-2 sections and then take a break. What can I say – it works and I weave fairly pain-free.
I haven’t yet moved to a dobby attachment for the Baby, but I’m fairly sure it will come eventually – or a small compu-dobby loom will move into the studio. I haven’t decided yet just which option will suit me best. For now, I can still treadle, and enjoy the rhythm of the dance between the treadling and shuttle throw.

I’ve also begun to weave more and more on small looms that fit on my lap. It’s amazing how many uses you find for inkle bands, and how beautiful inkle-band shoelaces look on my tennis. My family enjoys them in bright colors, too! Mug rugs that are actually small tapestries are welcome gifts, and can be done easily on small 4 x 6-inch looms. Small shed sticks let me do quite complicated weave structures on these small looms, and the weaving is quite satisfactory.

Let’s face it – tatting is fairly simple just as-is. Modification isn’t really necessary – as long as your hands will function to move the shuttle, you can tat. But I’ve discovered a new pleasure in some of the very old, very simple tatted motifs and patterns. I seldom use more than a shuttle and ball these days, although I’m still quite capable of multiple-shuttle work when I want to do it. There’s just something very soothing in constructing these simple patterns that have spanned generations of my family. I’m using different threads these days – I’m starting to gravitate toward the actual tatting cottons in size 50 and smaller and enjoying the beauty these simple patterns show in fine threads.

Bobbin Lace
My pillow is smaller, my tabletop is a bit larger and shorter so as to get closer to my body, and I’ve finally moved to a rotary-insert on one pillow. Again, I’m finding myself gravitating toward old Torchon lace patterns, with their simple, strong lines – but done in very delicate linen and silk threads!

I’ve finally reached the stage of my craft where I can actually make any type of fabric I can visualize from any thread or yarn I can spin or purchase. This is wonderful! I now have the skills and equipment – and patience – to create whatever vision I see. If I see a hand-embroidered light-weight blouse, I can make the fabric and do the embroidery. If I want a light, delicate sweater, I can knit it – exactly to my measure! Tatted edgings on small cloths for accent pieces or place-mats are a pleasure to make – usually from the same thread I’ve used to weave the cloths!

I enjoy doing these things, and I enjoy it even more now that I’ve figured out ways to do it without pain. So if you’re finding the things you like to do a bit difficult these days, or you’re avoiding things you enjoy because you don’t want to pay the price, stop just a minute. Step back, take another look and see what modifications you can make to existing equipment, or what new equipment is out there that might work better for you. Figure out a way to pay for it – not a trivial part of the equation. Then go back to doing the things you love!