15 November, 2010

Two Years Learning Summed Up

The other week I wrote to an organization asking them to consider asking their members to visit local handspinning and weaving guilds in order to learn the skills and develop useful contacts.  The leadership plans to get a local workshop presenter to bring handspinning and weaving to their national conference, so I am very pleased.

I wrote them a sample workshop outline, in case its content might help them evaluate workshop proposals or group projects.  The outline is a summation, in a way, of my last two years of study and practice.  The points are as clear and accurate as I could get them, and took into account the constraints the group is likely to work within.  Hopefully what I wrote would be enough for beginners to go on, at least to start, and wouldn't get them too far off into the rhubarb patch.  I don't know if what I wrote will actually get used at all.  Whoever they get for the workshop will likely have their own ideas of what to present.

The outline follows, with a few more comments afterward.  I tried to give an overview of essential facts along with practical suggestions.

Fibre holds together and becomes strong when you twist it.  A drop spindle or spinning wheel twists and stores fibre.

If you set aside materials such as skins, hides, woven cedar bark, kudzu vine, rabbit fur, yak hair, nettles, wooden shoes, etc, and narrow your focus to materials that have been under cultivation to clothe the majority of humankind for thousands of years, the big four are wool, linen, cotton, and silk.

Fibre sources that can be raised locally in the UK are sheep, goats, and flax.  These can be raised in small-scale amounts on marginal and moderately fertile land.  Cotton cannot because it matures at lower latitudes and silkworms cannot because they need a lot of mulberry leaves.

There are two materials suitable for hand processing: wool and flax.  Wool can be sheared by hand then washed and combed or carded to prepare it for spinning.  Flax can be harvested by hand by pulling it up by the roots.  Flax is then retted, broken, scutched, and hackled to prepare it.  You want sheep breeds that are raised specifically for fibre and not meat or dairy.  Good wool sheep are well-fed and not stressed so they have strong fibres, and their fleeces are kept clean of vegetable matter like burrs.  You want flax plant varieties meant for linen fiber production and not oilseed production.

Not all wool and flax make materials suitable for clothing.  Some breeds of sheep give wool good for rugs, not clothes.  You have to process flax very fine to get linen you'd want to wear.

There is a great variety of tools in common use by handspinners and weavers.  There are many models of spindles, spinning wheels, looms, and other equipment used to skein the yarn, etc..  For example, a walking wheel also known as a great wheel, wool wheel, or muckle wheel looks and functions differently from the portable charkha Gandhi used to spin cotton.  Both a walking wheel and a charkha are very different from Saxony and castle wheels which have flyers.  You can get wooden wheels beautifully turned on a lathe, or a wheel made out of bicycle parts or PVC pipe.  You can get custom models or production models or plans with dimensional drawings to make your own.

Certain tools are low-cost and basic but functional.  These include the drop spindle, supported spindle, twisty sticks, card weaving also known as tablet weaving, backstrap loom, horizontal ground loom, warp-weighted loom, tape loom, sprang frame, and nalbinding needles.  You don't even have to have great woodworking or pottery skills to make these.  They are mechanically simple so you won't be stuck with a broken tool you can't fix.  They are versatile, lending themselves to a broad range of gauge (yarn) and patterns (weaving).  Although they produce less than more sophisticated equipment, their cost and simplicity mean more people can be producing.  They have been used for millennia.  You may find them better suited to a re-skilling movement than industrially-produced tools commonly used by contemporary spinners, weavers, and knitters.

The minimum equipment needed to process wool at the cottage industry level to get it ready for spinning is hot water, basins, detergent or ammonia, drying racks, wool combs or wool cards, and a mechanical balance scale.  To process flax, you need a stream or tanks for water retting assuming you don't do dew retting, a flax break, a scutching board and knife, coarse and fine flax hackles, and possibly an airing cupboard to store the flax.

Retting flax is a microbial process that takes a high level of skill, like brewing or making cheese.  This is an area where contemporary handspinners have very little practical knowledge.  This knowledge used to be very commonly held and practiced by ordinary people.

Short, soft fibres must be spun with a lot of twist compared to long, strong fibres so they hold together and don't pill.  This has implications for what tools you select and how much work is involved, for example when spinning short, soft merino wool, cashmere, or cotton compared to a Leicester longwool or flax stricks also known as longline flax.

There is a lot of twist in spun fibre.  A single strand is plied with one or more additional strands to balance out the twist and make it stable, as well as stronger.  Some woven fabrics use a loosely spun single strand.

Traditional clothing (the sort made of local materials by the people who wore it) makes full use of the material, makes use of narrow-width weaving, is cut and assembled using proportions rather than complicated patterns, is cut to allow for a range of sizes and for changes such as pregnancy or children's growth, and is fastened with locally available materials such as toggles.  It is adapted to local weather conditions.  For example, mittens of nalbinding in Finland were much warmer than knitted mittens and the hairy wool made a moisture-wicking fabric.  Wool spun in the original grease or with oil added during combing makes a water-resistant fisherman's jersey.

Tools and supplies are available to purchase, sometimes locally.  There are new tools, it's not all antiques.

In your garden, you can grow a patch of long-stemmed flax suitable for linen, even if you don't use it, in order to preserve a local source of seed.

Useful sheep breeds need conservation.  Different sheep breeds produce wool with comparatively different properties.

You can follow up by going to your local handspinners and weavers guild.  Ask where you can get lessons, supplies, and tools.

Children can be given spinning and weaving tools with lessons, the way they are given musical instruments and sports equipment.

It is most economical to learn to spin and weave yourself, rather than commissioning local work, because local clothes mean labour-intensive processes and are thus expensive to buy compared to doing it yourself.  And anyway, most handspinners, knitters, etc. produce for their own use and not for sale.

Once you learn how, handspinning is a soothing process that may help people cope with the stress of needing to change and do Transition projects.

Handspinning and weaving take as much practice to learn as learning to type, drive, or skate.  Most everyone is capable of spinning and weaving.

So those are the facts and the advice I would give.  I could go back over it all, and correct "longline flax" with "line flax," and brood over everything I wrote.  There are a couple of broad generalizations in there which I hope would stand up to fact-checking, such as the one about what fibers clothed the majority of humankind.  I really hope polyester hasn't clothed more people than wool, silk, etc.  At least I know for certain that polyester hasn't clothed folks for thousands of years.

I had to leave out a lot of my reasoning and information for the sake of brevity.  There is more I'd like to explain; for example, my basis for leaving out dyeing and knitting.  I left them out because if you need to whip up local clothes quickly from scratch, you'll do best weaving naturally-coloured fiber.  Dyeing is an extra step you can dispense with yet still be clothed, and knitting takes longer than weaving.  Also, knitting requires knitting needles that are formed with precise diameters, so you can't just whittle yourself a set the way you can whittle a backstrap loom or a nalbinding needle.

I left out the ways renewable energy can be used with handspinning, weaving, and fiber preparation.  They are mechanically complicated, expensive, and in the case of a water-driven scutching machine, historically prone to causing workplace injuries.  But solar thermal power, such as from a solar cooker, could certainly warm up the wash water to clean wool.  I've seen video of a windmill hooked up to a crank-powered sock machine.  Kevin Hansen tells me his electric spinning machine, the HansenCraft miniSpinner, can run directly on power from a photovoltaic panel, though he recommends a battery pack.

I forgot to put in an additional point about the list of basic but functional tools, the tools that can be made without great woodworking or pottery skills.  Those can be made from coppiced branches or saplings which means they are an efficient use of natural resources and readily attainable.  That is, the materials can be cultivated or gleaned rather than bought, which is significant.  I also should have left the tape loom off the list since it requires some precise sawing and drilling.  Ah, well.  At some point you have to stop and let the other person have what you wrote.

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