This is a letter I wrote to someone recently, about what I'd want people to know about yarn and the fibre arts.
There are many benefits to having a hand in the production of textiles, whether it's knitting, weaving, handspinning, dyeing, processing fiber, or raising fiber. You can know your clothes were produced with fair labour. You can boost small-scale independent producers and family companies. You can increase biodiversity and conserve endangered breeds and species of plants and animals that give fiber and dyes. You can reduce pollution such as carbon from shipping or dye runoff in rivers from factories. You can get more excellent technical qualities such as glossiness or reduced pilling, and more variety of colours and textures, and a better fit than you get in ready-made. You understand more of the world's cultural heritage. You can tinker and experiment. You can take a project from plan to finished object, and have it just the way you want it. You can stimulate or soothe your mind and body through the rhythmical motions of using the wheel or loom or needles. You can repair a landscape by harvesting invasive species for dye.
But most people don't have the skills, don't even have the vocabulary to describe what they know from seeing textiles all their lives, and don't know where to start and who to ask.
Therefore, I recommend two routes.
The first route is for people who want the benefits but don't want to do the work. You can find and buy from shepherds and knitters and weavers who sell finished goods to the public and who make things to order. (But don't ask a hobby knitter to make you anything!) You can find such folks in business by asking at yarn stores, art galleries, shepherds associations, and living history museums, or you can search online on places like Etsy and Local Harvest. Ask for features like naturally green cotton and wool from black sheep. Ask for real wool, linen, and cotton. Moreover, you can give so others can do the work. Give gifts of equipment, materials, and lessons to children in your extended families and local school classrooms. You can donate to places dedicated to preservation and education such as The Livestock Conservancy, or any local arts education center that offers weaving, or therapeutic arts programs in prisons and hospitals. You can do microloans or contribute to fundraising campaigns for local wool mills to buy new equipment. You can pay for young people to learn how to shear sheep or keep sheep or build a spinning wheel. Your vacation can be spent touring studios and farms in Peru or the Shetland Islands or New Zealand or your own region. You can go talk to elderly people to see what they remember about their mothers' knitting. You can let a dyer come pick your marigolds or gather your black walnut hulls. There are guilds, which are groups or non-profit organizations that promote weaving, handspinning, or knitting, and you can volunteer your time to help these guilds apply for grants to educate the public. Or you can provide public space for exhibits and demonstrations of a guild's work. You can also challenge ready-to-wear companies to produce factory-made goods with integrity rather than stuff that rips off and poorly imitates the qualities of beautiful, labour-intensive, traditional handmade goods. For example, recently a printed fabric has been widely sold that imitates the look of ikat and is sold as being ikat. This is a deceptive practice. Ikat is a type of hand-dyed and handwoven cloth.
The second route is to learn the skills and make stuff with yarn yourself. You can, you really can. There are how-to books and videos and blogs and the highly useful website Ravelry, there are suppliers out there, there are teachers and workshops and festivals, and there are many local guilds for handspinners, weavers, and knitters where you can go, get mentored, and see what's possible. Look hard and you will find them. Getting the skills will take time, money, effort, and grit. Getting the tools and supplies will take up room and impact your family or housemates. It will be as much effort as learning to drive or read. It is worth it.
I should say, after they ask me how to spin basic yarn, almost all fibre arts newbies have the same two questions: where to buy fibre to spin and how to pick a spinning wheel. The answer is, it depends on your goals and tastes.
I hardly ever advise knitter newbies or weaver newbies. Interestingly, compared to finding materials and choosing tools for handspinning, with knitting it is much easier and usually cheaper and with weaving it is harder and usually more expensive, for a number of reasons.
When I knit or spin in public in front of non-fiber artists, after they ask me what I'm doing, their question is almost always, do I keep sheep. Most handspinners I know don't. I should start asking why they want to know.
So, that was the letter.
It's funny how newbies want to know where to find fibre and how to pick a spinning wheel. They always ask the questions in that order. They rarely ask me the reverse, how to pick fibre and find a spinning wheel. I think that once they find fibre for sale, they find spinning wheels, and they are more confident about picking a fibre on their own. There is more information published to follow about picking fibre. Fibre is cheaper and simpler than spinning wheels are, so it feels like less of a risk. Actually, a bad fibre choice can cost you a lot in lost time, wasted materials, and regret. A spinning wheel can be reasonably easy to resell.
One additional way people can be a patron of the fibre arts is to rent meeting space to a guild at an affordable rate. You'd be surprised how much this is needed. Even better, rent space and provide secure and accessible storage space for the guild library and equipment. For a meeting space in a commercial or religious building, expect nothing of the guild beyond the rental fee; that is, no expectation members will buy or buy in. Let the guild secure their dates in advance, and do not mess with the schedule once set.
From my position of observing the fibre arts for years, it has been fun to draw conclusions in terms of sets and subsets.
For example, some knitters spin yarn.
Some knitters aspire to spin yarn and see that as the next logical step.
Some knitters see handspinning as the path to doom and getting overwhelmed.
Almost all handspinners knit; a few of them don't really like to knit but will do it, more for the product than the process.
Some handspinners weave.
Some weavers spin yarn but they weave far more with commercial yarn than they do handspun.
Handspinners buy a surprising amount of commercial yarn.
Handspinners usually know how to process fibre, that is, wash a fleece and comb or card it; however, most of the time they start with commercially-prepared fibre.
A lot of handspinners have tried dyeing yarn or fibre; a small number dye often but also work with commercially-dyed or un-dyed materials.
Some weavers dye their yarn after they wind the warp and before they dress the loom.
Most handspinners use a spinning wheel, many of them can use a spindle but see the wheel as primary, some use both, and a few use spindles only.
Handspinners who use spindles have usually tried most of the different types and have a clear preference for one of them.
A small number of handspinners own (or are owned) by great wheels. A great wheels is about six feet long. These handspinners find that getting a great wheel is sort of like catching an alligator.
Owning two or more Saxony or castle spinning wheels is common, and it's often because the wheels function differently.
It would be highly unusual for a handspinner in a Western country to spin yarn only on a charka or electronically-powered spinning machine; these usually go along with a collection of wheels.
Knitters often get leftover supplies dumped on them, handspinners do somewhat, and experienced handspinners often give samples of fibre to newbies for experimentation.
Weavers from time to time buy yarn and looms secondhand from elderly weavers who call it quits.
The average age of a weaver is older than a handspinner, comparatively few people start weaving, and succession planning is getting to be a concern.
The typical longtime weaver has a large, heavy floor loom and one of every other type of loom too. When I say large, I mean the size of a small car.
The trend has been to smaller floor looms that can fold up even though it sacrifices some functionality.
Most weavers prefer using a floor loom over all other types and like 4 to 8 harness, though a few, the complex weavers, want far more harnesses.
A small but hardy band of fibre artists are fibre artists because they are doing experimental archaeology or historical re-enactment.
Some fibre artists raise fibre animals; some of them dream about doing that. Many shepherds are not fibre artists.
The re-enactors want to raise fibre animals because they could have historically-accurate breeds and that would be cool.
Some fibre artists are gardeners or gleaners of materials for dyeing and spinning.
I was going to write that it is more common to see small finished objects at show and tell than large objects because the greater amount of necessary grit makes larger items more rare, but actually the numbers might be more even than that.
Small finished objects get admiration, large objects get admiration and respect.
Some fibre artists teach.
Some fibre artists go away to workshops, retreats, and festivals, even in other countries, and some (probably more of them) stay home.
Most fibre artists are curious, add to their knowledge and skills, and have goals for what they'd like to try. Breadth of knowledge is admired.
Knitters in the past often made things according to standard rules of thumb and a cultural bank of combinations and arrangements of line and colour. Now they are adapting and modifying patterns, trying patterns from many sources, grafting aspects of one pattern onto another, and trying to figure out handknit styles that no one does anymore.
Some knitters design and publish patterns, and work with other knitters to test the patterns.
Some knitters sell their knitted items and will take on commission work. The first tend to be one-size-fits-all accessories, and the second tend to be customized.
Some weavers sell their items. These tend to be either one extreme or the other, either art pieces or cotton towels.
Some handspinners sell their knitted or woven items but rarely sell handspun yarn or items made with handspun yarn. If they do, the items tend to be things that only a handspinner could do, incorporating slubby yarn, tailspun yarn, or colour-blending.
Hand-dyers are much more likely to sell their items than knitters, handspinners, and weavers. Usually a hand-dyer will either do fibre and yarn or they will do finished goods like cloth bags and pillow slips. The techniques are different and the markets are different.
There are those that prefer natural dyes, those that prefer synthetic dyes, and those that prefer to go to a workshop where someone else sets up the pots and they take whichever is on offer.
Some guilds can mount a sale of members' works but in other guilds, members sell on their own or not at all.
Many fibre artists will give finished items as gifts to family for special occasions. This is in contrast to generations ago where, I hear, getting a finished knitted item was rather expected and on the level with getting a packed lunch box.
A knitter of the past would have knitted for direct descendants. Today, knitters feel the urge to knit for extended family, because their nieces, nephews, cousins, and whatnot might lead lives blighted by feckless parents who do not supply them with handknits.
Knitters label people as knit-worthy or not; that is, worthy of getting a knitted gift. The key qualities to maintaining knit-worthy status are saying thank you, using the item, and washing it by hand; I'm not sure which is most important. Some gift-giving knitters go to a lot of trouble to study a person's tastes and will knit with an easy-care yarn they dislike.
Of all the lofty benefits I listed in the first paragraph, most fibre artists go after about half of those benefits. Mostly we mess with yarn because it's cool and makes us happy. We like doing it and we like the result. I'm not sure there is a number one reason why people do it. A lot of them gush about the colours and softness of the materials.
For the people who look but never enter Yarnia and the fibre arts, the feeling I get from them is that they don't trust it would work out for them if they got into it. This is probably why I like to make maps, as it were, and do public demos.