What Option Did I have?

So Erika left me a comment which brings me to my next subject:

“I finished the red Ashland Bay roving, plied it, and washed it yesterday. Swatched it last night. Best EVER! It’s smooth and even, and when knitted almost looks store-bought! (Which does bring up the thought of why spin by hand to make yarn that looks store-bought, but that’s a totally different conversation…)”

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few weeks now, so what a coincidence that she would mention it. I was reading Peter Teal’s book “Hand Woolcombing and Spinning” (You know I’m a big fan of the combing of wool.)

Here’s a portion of the introduction to his book.

“Every would-be spinner should suspend from her distaff a length of machine-spun thread, the perfection of which should be the goal at which to aim.

So often the cry is, ‘But it is the very perfection, the very uniformity of machine-spun thread from which we strive to get away’; but is it? Is it not more truthful to say that the yarns produced, instantly recognizeable as ‘home spun’, are that way because spinners cannot do any better?

‘But we want yarns of character’, they cry! Of course we do, all of us, but let it be a good character we give them. Let us first produce a plain yarn perfectly, and then doctor it in some way to produce the ‘character’, if you must. But you know, I am most willing to have a bet with you that, by the time you can produce a really perfect plain spun yarn, you will be so proud of it for the beautiful thing it is, you will be extremely loth to adulterate it in any way!

Of course this does pose the question: ‘If we are going to make hand-spun yarns as perfectly as machine-spun products, why bother; why not just buy the yarns of commerce and have done with it?”

Mr Teal goes on to say that by spinning our own yarns we can make the exact yarn we require for the final product we desire. “The hand-spinner who thoroughly understands the trade has complete freedom to design a material conforming to the highest standards.”

I’ve been thinking about this lately. Several people have told me that they only want to make bulky, uneven, novelty yarns and so have no need to learn the techniques and skills I’m trying to teach. They only want to make a yarn “that looks like that” – as they point to a novelty skein I’ve spun.

I have an issue with this but also a little inner turmoil. I feel as their teacher that it is my responsibility to convey my spinning knowledge to the best of my ability. I feel that it is their responsibility as students to learn all the skills necessary to spin a yarn, some may describe as boring, and then adapt those skills to make the yarn they’d like as their final product.

Sure I can teach anyone how to make a lumpy, bumpy yarn in less than 4 lessons. Anyone can then go on and spin that same lumpy bumpy yarn for years and eternity. Acutally, it’s a waste to even pay me. Any beginner can do it. Don’t we like to buy yarns with different textures and characters? Wouldn’t it be better to learn how to change the character of the yarn we are making instead of settling for “the best we can do”?

I had a student tell me this week that she couldn’t do something and I felt annoyed about that and told her to stop saying can’t. This is a woman in her 50s I would guess and I was talking to her like I would my 6 year old. What? You can’t predraft? You can’t treadle in a regular rhythm? You can’t? She’s a knitting teacher for crying out loud.

But I digress.

I belong to a spinning guild. Many of the seasoned spinners there will tell beginners to treasure their first yarns because later they’ll have trouble reproducing it. They’ll learn to spin a fine yarn and then won’t be able to return to the bulky and the lumpy. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a load of crap! If you study the craft, work at it and practice you will get to the point where you can make any yarn you want. You’ll be able to reproduce those mill spun threads and also make that fabulous designery stuff that Adrienne Vitadinni would drool over.

Those first yarns ARE to be cherished – and made into something. Yes, because you can later go back to them and see what progress you’ve made and then later again with your yarn you designed with character and see that was your true goal all along.

The point of this whole post is this. I think we should make some bumpy yarn if we choose to. To be able to make that choice we first need to know how to make the smoothest yarn possible. Learning how to technically make the yarn smooth will teach you the necessary movements and techniques needed to make a true designer yarn. Bumpy yarn by accident is not designer. It’s an accident.

Definitions of choice on the Web:

  • the person or thing chosen or selected; “he was my pick for mayor”
  • the act of choosing or selecting; “your choice of colors was unfortunate”; “you can take your pick”
  • of superior grade; “choice wines”; “prime beef”; “prize carnations”; “quality paper”; “select peaches”
  • appealing to refined taste; “choice wine”
  • option: one of a number of things from which only one can be chosen; “what option did I have?”; “there no other alternative”; “my only choice is to refuse”

  • In spinning you can go as far as your curiosity will take you. There is always something to improve or tweak. New things to learn. Watch one spinner spin and take something away with you. Watch another and you have something else to help you. Pick up a new fiber. Try a different wool. Spin your cat’s hair! There are millions of right ways to spin. It is right if the final product is what you were aiming for. Again we’re back to a choice and not an accident.

    So back to Erika. Could she have bought a mill spun yarn in that particular red, blended with silk, in the thickness she chose to spin it? I don’t think so.

    O.K. off my soap box for the day.

    If you are interested in the Peter teal book it has been out of print but it’s back in a revised edition. This revised edition only has one difference that I can see. An additional chapter at the end speaking of spinning related improvements Mr Teal has seen and used over the last 25 years since the first edition was published. The book goes over spinning yarn for weaving, spinning with different kinds of equipment and also, and most importantly, preparation of wool and spinning for a worsted type yarn. The book is not inexpensive – $30 – but it will be an asset to your spinning library.

    Something Else
    Saturday night Lou and I went to see Martin Short at the Whiting in Flint. Four words. Hi Lar I Ous.
    He did all of his most famous characters, told a lot of jokes, and sang a lot of songs. Including this one:

    In case you’re wondering, I don’t blame Canada for anything. I just think it’s a funny song. Reminds me of blaming my brother for everything I ever did wrong=)


    8 thoughts on “What Option Did I have?”

    1. BAAbins

      I read you post today and I could feel your frustration. I think every teacher who is trying to teach something they are passionate about, gets frustrated sometimes with people. I’ve even had friends quit teaching something they are gifted at because they are frustrated that not everyone is going to have that same passion or intensity.

      I learned a long time ago that there are all types of people who have their own agendas or expectations of what they want to learn. Some people just want to relax and not concentrate; some want to continually learn; some are too timid to learn and talk themselves out of it (the “I Can’ts”) and some just want the easy way out…if it’s work, then forget it.

      Years ago, I taught quilting at a store and people always amazed me. I’d have ladies who were constantly pressuring themselves because others were sewing faster; I even had one lady want to quit in the middle of a class because she said sewing a quarter inch seam was too hard! Unbelievable! All she had to do was line it up on her machine and I showed her several times and encouraged her. She did not continue the series of classes. It was too much for her. Then there were the ladies who could afford to but chose not to use quality fabric and were constantly upset when someone’s quilt looked so much better in quality fabric than theirs did from fabric on the remnants table at Walmart. Go figure! There are all kinds.

      I try to take in account that we are all different and we all have our challenges. There have been times in my life when I am too overwhelmed with other things going on that I’ve been an “I Can’t” person, or maybe it is just a time where I don’t have the next step, enough information, or the whole picture. I try to keep things light in my classes; and keep an open mind because we all struggle with something and we all are on a different journey. My philosophy is that “None of us is as great as all of us” We can all learn from each other.

      I always try to do my best when teaching others in hopes that they walk away with something that is valuable to them. I used to tell my handquilting students, “You’ll find out that you are either going to love this or hate this. Either way, it won’t hurt my feelings; it’s just an observation and a new experience for yourself.” “So relax, and let’s try learning something together.”

      As for myself, I always feel that I am a “sponge” while learning. I try to soak up as much as I can at the time. It may be something that I can utilize right away or it may be something that comes in handy later. Either way, if I learn something new or a new way to look at or approach a problem, it is worth it to me.

      So hang in there, Beth. Do what you love and you’ll be doing a great job! There will be people who appreciate learning from your expertise.


    2. Kate A.

      I’ve done cat hair! On to new horizons…like…Wensleydale! I just finished plying it! I *totally* get why you love it now! It’s so shiny it looks like it must be silk or tencel or bamboo or something, and it drafts all by itself!! I swear, I didn’t have to do a thing, and I have all this pretty yarn! I’ll post pictures as soon as I solve my camera issues…

    3. Windyridge

      LOVE your blog title!!! LOL

    4. --Deb

      Hmm, this is probably one of the reasons I don’t try to teach things very often. I tend to be a perfectionist and have a hard time understanding why some people are willing to just settle for “okay.” I don’t expect perfection, mind you, but at least striving for “good,” because otherwise, what’s the point? But sometimes I force myself to accept that if they’re happy, I need to let it go . . . hard though it is! But believe me, I feel your frustration…..

      (Oh, and I have that book–excellent, if perhaps a little more perfectionist-detailed than even I think is strictly necessary.)

    5. Pam the Yarn Goddess

      I’m with baabins. I’m a knitting teacher, and I get so frustrated at my students that I want to stab them with their Addis. I always get a few who whine, “But I can’t do it! It’s to haaaaaaard!”

      I’ve had to back off a little on my perfectionism when teaching and realize that not everybody knits like I do, nor do they want to. I knit like a machine; if every stitch doesn’t look the same as the next, then it’s not right. Teaching a variety of people with a wide range of skills has taught me some measure of flexibility (even if I want to tear my hair out… oh wait… I don’t have any).

      I think it’s important to have a good basis from which to learn future skills whether it be knitting, spinning, quilting, etc. That’s what I strive to teach. I insist that certain things be done a certain way, and then I tell them that once they master what I’m laying down, they’re free to find what way suits them best. With spinning, I insist that people learn how to spin smooth, even yarn. If they can do that, then they can spin lumpy, uneven yarn if that’s their bag. Personally, I find it an insult to the roving or top to maim it in such a fashion, but that’s just my anal self talking.

      As deb said, it’s difficult to understand why people would want to settle for “just okay”. Even though I’ve become a little more flexible, there are certain things that I don’t allow in my sock class, for instance. They have to use a certain type of yarn. They have to use a certain type and size of needle. They have to use a certain type of cast-on. Once they’ve mastered these skills, the world opens up to them. I’ve had students go both ways- some of them just quit the class, and others go nuts and push themselves to dizzying heights of achievement. Everybody is different, and even though I might not ultimately do something the same way they do, at least they have the skills to do something any way they want.

      In the end, I’m willing to compromise on some things; others, I am not. I believe that it’s my job as a teacher of any of the fiber arts to show my students the nuts and bolts of how to do something, but I don’t insist, for instance, that they hold a crochet hook the same way I do. I tell them that I’m teaching them the way I do things, and then they’ll find the way they like as they become more skilled. But they have to start somewhere, and I’m bound and determined to show them the best way I know how.

      Excuse me while I have myself a little cocktail. The mere thought of teaching that damn sock class next week does that to me.

    6. historicstitcher

      You know, Beth, I’ve been teaching for a long time. If I wasn’t teaching other kids to make friendship bracelets out on the playground in elementary school, I was helping a classmate ‘get’ the classwork. And I totally ‘get’ what you’re saying. I’ve said it before – you’re a great teacher.

      In graduate school, I taught Rocks for Jocks, aka introductory, non-major, never-going-to-take-another science-class-again environmental geology. (RfJ was the well-known nickname around campus, not the official title!) In the multiple semesters I taught that class, I found that there are so many, many different ways people learn and understand things. When I taught an upper-level lab course for majors only, the majority of the students thought in a particular way, because they’d been trained to think that way. In the non-major class I found such an enormous range of learning styles, I had to adapt my teaching to aaccomodate. I found at least five different analogies for describing geologic processes to the stumped or indifferent students, and found it to be a challenge to find the sixth, when none of my descriptions helped a particular student. Explaining the convection of the mantle, plate tectonics, plasticity of rocks, or even just the flow of groundwater could baffle some of the brightest and smartest business students!

      The hardest part for me to accept when teaching that class was the fact that most of them didn’t really care, and would never share my enthusiasm. Ever. I rejoiced at the one student in a semester who decided to take another geology class because they enjoyed mine. One student. Out of 100.

      I did make them do the work, though, and learn the minimum required for the course. They didn’t always like it, and I even had a senior get into my face and scream at me that beacuse he was a senior business major and top of his class that he should get an ‘A’ just for showing up.

      I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes you need to convince your student that there is value in what you have to teach. Just because they came to you doesn’t mean they’re ready for graduate-level work. They might just be exploring a little. And they might not want to do more than dabble right now.

      Rejoice in the 1 in 100 that takes to the craft with your passion and enthusiasm. Find more and different ways to address the various thinking styles of your students. And don’t take it personally when someone doesn’t love it or want to pursue it to a higher level. Be content with what they are willing and able to absorb, and in the knowledge that when (and if) they’re ready to learn more, they’ll know where you are.

      The fastest way to turn someone off of something is to insist that they _have_ to do it. On the other hand, you have every right to insist on them producing a paticular product when enrolled in your class. Would I give an ‘A’ for simply attending? Never! He had to do the same tests, quizzes, and experiments as everyone else. What he didn’t have to do was come back for another class.

      You are a fabulous teacher. I’ve watched you, I’ve listened from the other room, pretending to do my own thing, or cleaning something. Not everyone will like you or your craft, though. That’s life, and its idiosyncrasies. If they’re ready, they’ll learn an understand. And if they’re not – well – it’s their loss.

    7. Alpaca Granny

      Beth, you have put into words so well my feelings about spinning yarn – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thank you.

    8. jae

      I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Well written and relatable. I suspect that any good and passionate teacher of any subject has these similar frustrations. The “I cant…”, the “I’ll never be as good as [insert name here]…”, the “I already know everything…” and the “I’m only here because I have to be not because I want to be…” are far greater in number than the “Ah ha, I get it…” and the “Teach me more…” students. Unfortunately, one has to kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince. However, according to the stories, the prince is always worth it. Just try and think of the inspiriational students you’ve met when dealing with the frustrating ones. 🙂

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