November 09, 2010

Scalability - Public Connection

The public makes a connection to handspinning through fairy tales where spinning yarn sounds either onerous or dangerous, through historical reenactment or living history museums where spinning yarn seems to require funny clothes and handy sheep one field over, and through gallery or fair displays where the yarn looks static as though it sprang fully formed from the mind of the impossibly artistic handspinner.

I doubt any of these have ever been the means to make anyone want to learn to spin.  As in, seriously, "hand me a spindle and I'll try it right now" wanting to learn.  Well, maybe the history programs, but in my experience those don't consistently have what marketers term a "call to action."  There doesn't seem to be a organized followup program to take to master handspinning yourself.  The public is just asked to admire and understand.  There's no expectation that once they see the quaint interpreter, they're going to go off and spin yarn themselves regularly on their own steam all next winter.

I am fine with that.  I'm just interested in handspinning having more relevance and a higher adoption rate.

From my personal experience, I can tell you that stories and vignettes didn't do it for me.  I read Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin as a child.  In the late 1990s, I saw a lovely gallery display of handspun objects at the Maritime Museum put on by the Victoria Handweavers & Spinners Guild.  I saw wool carding at Colonial Williamsburg; I saw spinning wheels and flax at Scotchtown and even got the name of a guild from the docent, but did nothing about it.  I took up handspinning after I met a handspinner at an agricultural fair.  She let me try her wheel, told me she was a guild member, and suggested I go to a fiber festival to shop and watch more demonstrations, then join the guild.

I met two handspinners at that fair, actually.  The first handspinner was excellent at telling me about spinning wheels and spinning.  The second handspinner was excellent at telling me how I could get started spinning.

Now that I spin, I try to pass on the favour.  What I do is, be an ordinary person, spin in public, show that handspinning is a useful part of my regular life, invite people to consider spinning yarn themselves, and (as precisely as I can) tell them how to go about it.

Guilds ordinarily meet in community halls where hardly anyone will stumble across them, so members will go out as a group to spin in public.  We've done SIPs at outdoor museums, farmers' markets, festivals, and farm open houses.  I also spin as part of my regular life out and about, combining it with other activities.  The other day I sat at an auction and spun on my spindle.  Fortunately the auctioneer could see what I was doing and didn't mistake my motion for a bid.

Onlookers ask me very pointed questions about what's involved, how much time it takes, how much it costs, and where to get supplies.  I like to think these are not casual questions; they are geared to let an onlooker evaluate the next step and decide whether they want to take that step and spin yarn.

The peer-to-peer method for connecting with the public works admirably, yet has scalability issues.  In the general population, there are few people who can spin yarn.  Fewer still like to spin in public.  Fewer still like to challenge people to try spinning.  Handspinners have only so much time and only get around to connecting with so many non-spinners in a year.

At the fiber festival last month, I demonstrated and taught drop spindling to passers-by for an hour and a half.  Sometimes no one was watching, but more often, I'd be answering questions from one or two people for a good stretch.  At some points I had two or three people sitting in the chairs trying out drop spindles.

Of all those I talked to and helped to try spinning, two went to go buy their own drop spindle and wool, and one or two said they would try again with a drop spindle they already owned and had abandoned to the back of the closet at home.  I don't know if this is a particularly high response rate but I'm happy with it.

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