30 April, 2009

Ain’t Necessarily Historically So

When I spin in public (SIP) and talk to people, I like to tell them about the drop spindle’s place in history. I tell them that before five hundred years ago, all fabric and all clothes started on a drop spindle. People say, “Oooh!” and mentally begin to calculate how long whipping up a toga for themselves would take.

The trouble is, it ain’t necessarily so.

Could spin with a twisty stick, which looks in The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning like a smooth straight stick that’s slightly thick in the top third with a hook on the end. You’re supposed to twirl the stick on your thigh and stretch the strand out as long as you can. Not sure about winding on; I don’t think you can. I’ve heard that nalbinding could have been done with twisty-stick spun yarn, since nalbinding is formed with short lengths spliced together as you go.

Could spin on the thigh, unaided.

Could wear furs, sheepskin, and buckskin. Or hats woven out of rigid fibres.

Could have used a great wheel, which I hear were around much earlier than five hundred years ago, though they were not in widespread use.

Could have used a rakestraw spinner. I got to try one out at Knotty by Nature in Victoria, at the urging of a clerk who could tell I’d be interested in the novelty factor.

Could have fused fibres into fabric. Fusing, I think, is the most interesting pre-industrial alternative to a drop spindle. I read about a method in M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time:
[Miss. B] took us over to a small house to look at some fabric….In the Kwakuitl village of Mamalilaculla, on the west coast of British Columbia, this old, old woman of the tribe was making South Sea Island tapa cloth out of cedar roots. The cloth was spread across a heavy wooden table—a wooden mallet lying on top of it.

I am not quite sure how tapa cloth is made. But I believe they soak the roots in something to soften them—lay them in a rough pattern of dark and light roots, and then pound them with a wooden mallet into paper-thin, quite tough cloth.

I am finding it enjoyable to go back over old books like the 1927 memoir The Curve of Time and read with the new aim of getting practical understanding of spinning. I’m going to have to drag out my copy of Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene and look up that passage where the knights get captured by a girl warrior and are forced to spin, imprisoned.

29 April, 2009

first skein


That’s the very first skein I spun. Isn’t it cute? Came from a Historic Folk Toys drop spindle kit I bought on a visit to Plimoth Plantation. I brought the kit unopened to the December 2008 meeting of my guild, the second meeting I’d attended. Lisa kindly got the leader on the drop spindle, predrafted the roving, and got me going. It was great. I had to park the drop spindle on my lap while I drafted—this lasted for most of the whole ounce of fibre while I got the hang of managing the spin—but I felt that was to be expected. Everyone commented on what nice fibre it was and I left the meeting well pleased, to finish up the rest of the roving at home.

Plying presented some problems. The guild’s copy of Judith MacKenzie McCuin’s Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning showed how to wrap a centre-pull ball on an empty toilet paper tube. Lisa had had me weigh my roving and divide it in half, with the aim of spinning two equal balls of singles.

I made two balls of singles. Equal? No. The balls were not the same yardage, since the gauge of my spinning had changed over time, so I was left with a fair bit of the longer single leftover as waste.

The balls of singles didn’t have a lot of mass to pull again my plying, so I put them in plastic tubs with the lids slightly open. The fix got me going, but wasn’t a great solution.

A tensioned lazy Kate would have solved the second problem. I felt a Kate was more for spinning on a wheel where the singles were already on a bobbin. I was looking for a solution that suited hand spindles. I was looking for the Andean plying method, but didn’t know it yet.

And that is the story of my first skein.

27 April, 2009

sixth skein


80% Polworth wool
20% Tussah silk
25 grams
Fibre from Anna Runnings' Qualicum Bay Fibre Works
spun on the 3/4 oz top whorl rim-weighted maple spindle I bought from someone at my guild

Ah! This post is a typically Canadian mishmash of metric and Imperial measurements.
(Btw, 25 grams is a bit less than 1 oz.)
Now I have to go back and count the skein's yardage. Meterage?

Runnings sells little five gram packets of fibre so spinners can sample and select what they want to buy in quantity. This fibre was sold out, so she was selling the packets at discount at the Mid-Island Weavers and Spinners Guild annual sale. I got all five remaining packets.

My gracious mother spent a little more than double what I did at Runnings' table and got, oh, eighteen times the weight in fibre. But mine is shiny.

Cedar Dreams


One of the fibres I aspire to spin is cedar bark. Weaver Melody Oakroot, in Spin•Off’s September 1986 interview, recommends pounding the inner bark lightly with a mallet before spinning cedar wet on the thigh. She spins two strands, staggering their lengths.

Oakroot finds her cedar bark ready pulverized on logging roads,* but I knew from school that First Nations traditionally harvested cedar bark sustainably from living trees. A quick search on Youtube turned up a video of just that. The bark was stripped vertically, leaving a smooth surface on about a quarter or less of the tree’s circumference. (Never strip bark horizontally: you would girdle the tree and kill it.)

I looked and I looked at that smooth surface. Its height, its width, the edges of bark, they all gave me that same frisson of recognition I got in the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when I rounded a corner and saw a Tsimshian bent-corner box. (Also cedar.)

“You know me,” the tree said, confidently. I mentally added lots of silvery-grey weather-beaten patina on the surface, and agreed that I did know it. I saw trees like that as a teenager living on the North end of the Island. “Hello,” I said, absurdly pleased.

The ‘Namgis First Nations surveys blocks of forest land that local forest companies select for harvest in order to identify and protect culturally modified trees. They list these trees in a database, as evidence of their traditional territory.

To be sensitive to this considerable significance, I’m not going to be out culturally modifying cedar trees.

(Also, harvesting wild materials period should only be done with a mentor to prevent over-harvesting and damage.)

I've noticed similar sensitivity on the Ravelry group Cowichan Inspired, about the Ravelry members' concerns over fair use. They question whether their desire to make a Cowichan sweater could lead them into co-opting traditional Native designs, profiting off a people group's cultural heritage (or doing them out of a sale), treading the thin line between borrowing and exploiting, or simply using something one is not entitled to. If you are not West Coast Salish, can you make an authentic Cowichan sweater?

I am not after anything authentic with cedar bark. I just want to experience and understand its spinning properties.

Again, logging waste means a tree died, whereas removing bark involves less disruption of local ecology. On the other hand, as the lady with the fur coat said, it was dead when I got it, and up-cycling industrial waste can be environmentally virtuous too.

Hmm. At any rate, cedar spinning will have to wait until my next trip back to the Island. Cedar trees in Virginia don’t look anything like what I’m used to.

* My esteemed father knows of a mask maker on Vancouver Island that sources his materials the same way.

26 April, 2009

she spins, too


it's not all books and historical museums.

The top skein is about 2 oz of mill end rovings from the Sheep Shed Studio that I got in swap.

The bottom skein is 2 oz of Gulf Coast Native wool from Meadow Farm museum, which makes it 100 Mile Fibre Diet fibre for me.

The skeins are, respectively, the fourth and fifth skien I have spun, ever. I spun them on a bottom whorl drop spindle.

"On with the Scutching."


Pictured above you can see the flax processing hand tools at the Frontier Culture museum’s German farm. From right to left: flax break, scutching board and knife dangling from the board, and hackles. You can see these tools used, in that order, in the museum’s Youtube video by Dave.

You want your own, don’t you! I intend to go back and take measurements.

Here's a close up of the museum's scutching knife, shown with optional chicken accessory:


You can see, below, the scutching knife my estimable father fashioned for me, with its nifty handle that fits my fingers. If you click to enlarge, you'll see that the curved blade follows the actual grain of the wood, which is arbutus. (Americans call the tree madrona.)

When I requested this scutching knife, I had only seen the Frontier Culture museum’s video and diagrams in Elsie G. Davenport’s Your Handspinning and Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles. Now that I’ve seen one in person, I would go a lot thinner all around, and flatten and bevel the blade.

The museum's German-style scutching knife blade is about two feet long and two inches wide, with a rounded blade edge. There are a couple others at the Irish farm exhibit which are much more hefty and crude looking.

The museum's flax break has metal bars under the handle, but you can just use wood like the flax break in the museum’s Irish farm. The top piece is quite heavy. Dave pointed out to me that the weight takes advantage of the force of gravity in breaking flax stems, but takes effort to operate. He also said that, ergonomically, the height of the scutching board suits him better than the lower board at the Irish farm.

Ergonomics are important because the whole process takes effort. Karen, at the museum, said that one handful of retted flax takes twenty minutes for a quality product, but most people don’t take that long. After seeing Karen’s beautiful result,

I felt my efforts at breaking, scutching, and hackling were pretty shabby.

You don’t get a lot to spin at the end either. Karen recalled ten pounds of stalks that produced just nine ounces of line flax for her, along with the shorter tow fibres and the coarse stuff suitable for rope.

Back to equipment, I was interested to see that Gene Logsdon, in his second edition of Small Scale Grain Raising, describes each tool in his section on flax. It would have been nice if he had mentioned that flax comes in different varieties, some of which grow taller. He does mention seeding close together for the tallest stalks with the fewest side branches.

Tall flax means a longer line, and a longer line gets you closer to recreating the Egyptian splicing method, which would let me skip having to draft from a distaff and that is all to the good since I failed at drafting flax so miserably yesterday. But my obsession with the Egyptian splicing method (as described in Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years and Prehistoric Textiles) and my hopes of getting my multi-talented father to throw and fire me a flax-wetting bowl patterned after archealogical finds, ah, that will be a blog story for another day.

I first found reference to the tall variety of flax on Ravelry, where someone recommended the Landis Valley Museum as a source of seed. Dave told me that the Frontier Culture museum’s fields are planted with seed saved from an original purchase at Landis Valley.

I come from a country that grows flax commercially for oil and seed. The Flax Council of Canada’s Website states that flax stems are used for specialty paper, but could be used for bio-fuel, pulp sweeteners that increase the times wood fibre can be recycled in paper, geotextiles to combat soil erosion, building insulation, and plastic composites such as car dashboards. The Flax Council also mentions flax for textiles, as long line flax and cottonized flax. Cottonized flax is an interesting application because it takes advantage of the common industrial equipment for processing cotton fibres and applies it to flax beaten into its smallest consitutent fibres. Cottonized flax is not a do-it-yourself proposition, though.

Given my attachment to the 100 Mile Fibre Diet concept, I am both optimistic and apprehensive about the possibilities of growing flax for hand spinning on Vancouver Island. The cool climate should be a treat for flax. On the other hand, the only commercial supplier I know of that sells the variety of seed I want is located in the United States, so how am I going to get what I want above the border? Perhaps Agriculture Canada would let the seeds through, I don’t know. I’m also attached to a Vancouver Island free of invasive plants, so I support border restrictions.

25 April, 2009

I Broke the Bast Barrier!


Hurray, I broke the bast barrier today. Karen, at the Frontier Culture Museum sat me down at her low, or Irish, wheel and talked me through spinning flax. I was mortifyingly bad at it.

100 Mile Fibre Diet

Most reasons for being a locavore translate into being a local consumer with fibre—the fibre you wear, not eat. Buy locally-raised wool or alpaca that is processed at a local mill, and you promote local agriculture, business, and industry. Know the shepherd who keeps the flock, know the animal by name, and you can assure yourself how well the fibre was raised. You also get an interesting relationship that most people don’t have with their clothing suppliers. Develop distinct local goods and material culture (think Cowichan sweater), and you increase regional pride and marketing opportunities. Buy direct from a producer and you could get better quality at a better price. A 100 Mile Fibre Diet can greatly reduce the fossil fuel used in transportation from source to end user, lowering your carbon footprint if that’s your goal.

By buying local, you can also reduce another sort of carbon: carbonization, the large wool processors’ technique of using sulfuric acid and heat to reduce burrs in wool to ash so that there are no prickly bits in your woolens. Small, local mills leave vegetable matter in the roving or crush it with rollers into tiny bits. Conceivably, this technique has a more beneficial impact on the environment and on mill operators who don’t have to work on-site with caustic chemicals. Might have less impact on you as well, since wool put through carbonization is scratchier than wool that hasn’t. Barring the burrs, naturally.

The 100 Mile Fibre Diet is a challenge to the established norm, a challenge to your ability to stick to it—and may I say, food is worse because you must have a variety of food but you can get along without that tussah silk that is calling your name—and a challenge to your skills. Yes, skills. Think of those locavores who pick up gardening and cooking and grain grinding and pickling and gleaning and seed saving. If the only wool in your area is on critters destined to give birth to future frozen locker lamb chops (that is, raised for meat and not wool), you may find yourself with a clothespin on your nose hunched over diagrams trying to figure out what exactly “skirting a fleece” and “scouring” mean in real life. Other enthusiasts are planting flax in the garden and talking about harvesting nettles to spin.

You don’t just acquire skills and knowledge, either. Processing a fleece or a hank of retted flax takes specialized tools. I know, I’ve borrowed tools and tried. In my quest for the ultimate local fibre experience, I’ve ventured to get some flax and wool processing hand tools made on Vancouver Island, B.C.. I live in hope of more.

Keep the Fleece and Linda N. Cortright of Wild Fibers magazine


I had the pleasure of meeting Linda N. Cortright, editor of Wild Fibers magazine, at the Cestari Wool Fair 2009. She talked with me about her current passion, Keep the Fleece, that springs out of her desire to engage knitters and other fibre folk in celebrating the U.N. International Year of Natural Fibers by raising funds for Heifer International to build the world’s largest fibre flock.

People in need around the world get training and an animal that supplies fleece for clothing and income. Knitters get to contribute rows to the world’s longest scarf. That opportunity for hands-on contribution—that is, the scarf—is what creates the sense of personal engagement Cortright is seeking from participating donors. She feels that collaboration with Heifer International will put the maximum number of fibre animals into peoples’ hands.

Fibre animals are certainly her love. Her tone was animated, focused, and articulate as she spoke about Keep the Fleece’s aspects and the process she had gone through in determining that this form of fundraising and awareness raising was the best possible.

But then she spoke the names of fibre animals: “camels, and alpacas, and yaks, and goats, and sheep; they’re all important.” Her tone left the whys and the wherefores and slipped into bliss. Those names seemed to mean much more than a taxonomical list to her. I felt each had backstories, statistics, characteristics, and strong associations with all the fibre animals she has known personally in her extensive travels.

Cortright was most recently in Africa and scheduled to go later this year to Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.), Canada. I, as a British Columbian, expressed my delight at hearing she was going to speak in one of my favourite places.

I took the opportunity to mention interest around B.C. in the 100 Mile Fibre Diet, where knitters and spinners confine their fibre selection to locally available material. Inspiration comes from Alicia Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s 100 Mile Diet, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the locavore movement in food. You may have heard of people trying to reduce their “food miles.”

Cortright caught the idea and was interested, so I gave her the names of two groups on the Ravelry Beta Web site, The 100 Mile Fibre Diet group and Van Isle Fibre Lovers group, and a shop in Victoria, Knotty By Nature, that promote local fibre.

While in Vancouver, Cortright will lecture at Maiwa's Textile Symposium 2009.

23 April, 2009

Hello World

Hello World,

I've been spinning wool into yarn on drop spindles since late December, and am just vain enough to think other people might be interested in hearing about my experiences.

What else should you know.

I am an expat living outside my home and native land. Thus, sojourner.

I find the chance to give people useful information irresistible.

People ask me, "Why do you spin?" The short explanation is
1. to understand those parts of the Bible that mention hand-spinning (and also most of history)
2. because spinning might be a useful skill in a dire post-Peak Oil crisis
3. when I tried spinning, people told me I was naturally good at it and I'm a sucker for flattery
4. line flax on the wheel at Scotchtown. Absolutely sensational

I won't be talking much about the Bible or Peak Oil in this blog. Whether you are a pagan-vegan-matriarchal-neohippie or a SUV-driving-atheist or whatever (and I'm sure you are a lovely person), hopefully we can meet over fibre.

The other question I get is, "What are you going to do with the yarn?" The answer right now is, no idea. This is the hobby, people! But weaving, nalbinding, and knitting are probably in my future.