27 September, 2010

Jiggety Jig

So I went to the farmers' market and came home again, pleased with the way the handspinning demonstration went.

It was me and another member of our guild, who brought lovely samples of fiber and knitted handspun articles.  The samples, set out on the table kindly provided by the market, worked very well to promote interaction with shoppers: they would linger, touch the items, take a brochure, and ask questions.  I put half the festival brochures on the empty seat of my folding chair and put half the brochures on the table; the brochures on the table got taken.  Best to put things right at peoples' fingertips.

I think it helped to have the table off to the side.  People could get close to the display without feeling they were under scrutiny, and they could also get close to us because we weren't behind a table.  Not that any spinner doing a demonstration would sit behind a table, that would obscure the wheel or spindle.

The amount of discussion, counting both the number of people who talked to us and the length of time they spent, was easily more than that of the last three demonstrations I've done combined.  

It's always the uncomfortable moments you remember.  There were some questions for which I would have liked to have better answers.   For example, do we sell handspun, and what advantage does handspun have over commercial yarn.

We don't sell handspun.  Like most handspinners we know, we spin for our own use.  In general the amount of labour embodied in a skein of handspun makes their sale rare.  You're much more likely to see sales of commercially prepared roving or commercially spun yarn dyed by indie dyers where the profit margin (we assume) is better.  I'm sure this is a rather unsatisfactory answer to someone who knits and hopes to pick up a bit of yarn at a market.  And I feel bad for alarming someone by telling them how high a measly 3 ounce skein of handspun gets priced on consignment at a local yarn store.  I should have made sure to say we handspinners can buy a pound of undyed wool to spin for the same price; the difference is labour and overhead.

We talked about handspun giving us yarn with superior properties, for example the way long-staple wool gives yarn that doesn't pill as readily as short staple wool does.  I remembered afterward that you can buy long-staple commercial yarn such as Blue Face Leicester, so perhaps we overstressed that aspect of handspun.  I forgot to mention a handspinner's ability to create structure in yarn that isn't available in commercial yarn, such as energized singles for woven collapse fabrics and knitted bias fabrics or yarn made with five strands of singles for knitting high-relief cables.

The question kind of stymied me because there are so many benefits of handspun that have nothing to do with the structural properties of the yarn.  In the few days before the demonstration, I wrote a pamphlet about handspinning's benefits and how to learn to spin yarn.  I never did distribute it, because my computer printer broke a while back and never got replaced, and I didn't get out to a shop to get copies done in time.  Fortunately writing and rewriting the pamphlet's points helped me rehearse what I wanted to say at the demonstration.  Talking to someone who only wanted to know how knitting with handspun would be better, I went blank and felt it would be trite and irrelevant to speak of handspun's environmental or sustainable virtues, or handspun's traditional role in resiliency and independence movements, or the pleasure of handspinning as an end in itself.

I felt a bit at sea when thinking about the vendors at the market and what I could tell them about the incredible market handspinners represent.  (A beef vendor asked for recommendations about sheep.  Shoppers asked if we had sheep.  Regrettably, we are not the people to ask about shepherding, though some of our guild members are.)  We handspinners buy fiber, dyestuffs, and tools.  We are used to buying our equipment and supplies directly, locally, and seasonally so we are probably the kind of customers a market vendor would like.  I would like to promote local production of handspinning supplies on the vendors' side as well as local production of clothes on the handspinners' side, but I hesitate.  I cannot promise that we handspinners would buy if the vendors bought sheep to shear or planted woad.  We source from all over, we have high standards, and a lot of us have enough supplies to keep us spinning yarn for a long time without buying more.

I almost ran through the whole 2 1/3 ounces of local wool I brought with me to spin at the farmers' market.  That really caught me off guard.  I'm used to estimating the rate at which I go through fiber based on how I spin for thinner yarn, but thicker yarn uses up fiber more quickly.  On a related note, one more question I think I answered incompletely was how long handspinning takes.  That is a very common question, and the proper answer is the time you spend spinning depends on what you are making and how, but I should have held up my drop spindle and showed how much I had spun since the market opened.

The best question we got was, "I want to spin yarn, what do I do?"  We got asked this quite a lot, which was great.  We answered, come to the fiber festival next weekend, come to our guild, ask this local yarn shop and that parks and recreation department about lessons, and search for handspinning videos online.  A couple of people told us they had a wheel or spindles at home but hadn't gained proficiency yet on their own.

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