Posts tagged ‘teaching’

This weekend I kinda got volunteered to host a fiber get-together, but that’s ok because it’s why the studio is the studio and doesn’t have a tv and other things usually found in a room of that sort. (Just because there’s a sofa doesn’t mean it’s the living room.)

I had good intentions to actually get a bit of spinning done, but instead did some sewing (and laundry) and hauled out the drum carder for a lesson. Unfortunately I managed to not get rid of the proffered junk fiber, my guests having better taste than mystery wool. (I still don’t know what some of it is, but I sure did end up with a lot of it.)

So fiber was carded and weavings were passed around and stuff like that. One person is a novice spinner and she was quite taken with the drum carder. It isn’t actually mine, being on semi-permanent loan, but its owner has expressed some interest in selling it. I need one that can handle finer fiber so although it’s been living at our place I have only used it on occasion. Now as it turns out, my other guest has a drum carder she never uses that is better with fine fiber, so I may well end up buying that one.

This is pretty much how things go, equipment wanders around here and there, settling in where it’s needed at the time. Although my textile closet has lately been hard to escape and many of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” items are still lurking. I keep thinking something would be good to have around for students, but when was the last time I had one of those? For someone who hates hand carding I have rather a lot of sets of them, along with various “gift” yarns and fabrics that are probably worth about what I paid for them.

I took a workshop this weekend, with one of my favorite teachers. I think this is my third or fourth? I don’t remember. There’s another next weekend, too. If I were a better in-person teacher, I’d probably be teaching some of the things that are the topic of these workshops. Sometimes I go to watch how other people learn, sometimes to get a different perspective on a familiar subject, occasionally because I know little about the topic and want to learn and sometimes just for fun. This one was mostly just for fun, I’d say.

I pretty much assume I get very different things out of spinning workshops. Some people go to spin and learn how to spin from the instructor. I generally go to see how other people spin. I try a few things but I know my best learning comes from playing with an idea over an extended period of time. What I don’t get at home is watching what things other people think up. I’m lousy at coming up with genuinely new ideas, but I can run with something once it’s been introduced. I have a little pile of samples, some from the spindle and some from the wheel, and a collection of fiber to mess around with. I have new interesting tidbits from others, about fibers or fiber animals or textile techniques or whatnot, and not always only from the instructor. Sometimes I hear the same story several times over the years, but maybe there is some new detail this time around. I try to not trot out my own stories too often, lest they get dull.

I don’t think I will ever be a great teacher, written not spoken word is my thing when it comes to communicating with more than one or two people at a time. What I really want is to have a conversation about the why of technique and not so much the how. For most things in spinning, the how I’ve got a good handle on (not all, mind you) and the key to better execution is understanding the why. Sometimes this can only come from a roundabout discussion with someone at a similar skill level. But this doesn’t just casually happen, there usually isn’t enough time even in a multi-day workshop unless it is very small. But over time, it comes in bits and pieces: new things tried and reported on, old ideas revisited and samples passed around.

This has been the best part of taking workshops many times with the same instructor.

Yesterday I got the package of yarn back from my Learning Exchange group. It was just yarn, the evaluations will come later apparently. So now I have a sample from everyone in the group who finished. Some did not, so there are only ten samples out of the original thirteen members. The coordinator wrapped everything up nicely in tissue and a lace ribbon and included a handwritten note. The entire package was lovely, and it was great fun to go through it all and see what everyone had done.

I like to see other people’s yarn. I want to see not only what other people are up to, but how they approach yarn design. This group had a range of spinners, from two to twenty-five years of experience, and the yarns were of all sorts of kinds of Merino. Raw fleece (some from personal flocks,) small-lot mill carded and the ever-present Ashland Bay. There were blends with silk, angora and mohair and yarns both fluffy and smooth. Most were two or three ply, but there was a single and my 4-ply. Some spinners measured angle of twist but most didn’t, one participant included an extra sheet describing the different scouring methods she tried. Scouring is important for Merino, because it has way more grease than pretty much anything else.

I don’t know how long it will be to get the evaluations, but the group leader has all the materials so things should be coming along. I’ll post more later.

Something we went over in class last weekend was the short forward draft and how to adjust the wheel and spin one’s “default” size yarn. I usually spin worsted with the short backward draft and I could never quite tell just what various teachers were talking about in short forward draft. Obviously, you move your hands differently, but there’s more to it than that.

In with all the various discussions of worsted I’ve heard or read, there is usually this idea that one is pushing all the air out of the yarn with your forward hand. That is, your fingers are most definitely pinching. This is how it has to work with a spindle, otherwise everything will fall apart. Only fully-formed yarn can support the weight of the spindle. So you slide your fingers up after pulling out the next bit of fiber, with untwisted fiber above and yarn below. So far, so good.

With a spinning wheel, you don’t have to be as concerned that the wheel is going to yank the yarn away from you before you are done with it. It could, of course, but you can adjust the tension so it doesn’t. The death-grip pinch isn’t necessary. Still, everybody talks about short forward draft as pinching and pulling out bits of fiber. I’ve tried this, and I can’t get close to an even yarn. It’s just not possible to pull the same amount each time. The short backward draft I use is something like pulling out a larger bit of fiber to thin it out and then slide my fingers back. It appears to happen all at once, but really it’s two parts, and I can even out the amount of fiber by pulling in either direction since I’m working with an amount near the staple length. This is why I look at the fiber while I spin. It works well for crimpy wool that tends to stay together, but not so well for smooth stuff.

While I was researching different spinning techniques I read something interesting in The Ashford Book of Spinning. Most people start off with short forward draft because it feels like you have more control. This book talks about it, but says that it is something of a dead-end technique because conceptually it doesn’t lead to using the long draw. The author seems to prefer the short backward draft because it does. But if you want to spin smooth yarn from combed fiber, you don’t care about long draw. So why the distinction? I suppose the author likes woolen spinning. Ok, fine.

I never really worried much about spinning the “right” way, but I try to experiment with different ideas to find one that works best for me. And the short backward draft is serious trouble for my wrists on an upright wheel, one with the orifice directly in front of me. My left hand, the one that holds the fiber, bends to the side while I’m drafting. It’s because I’m trying to compensate for the location of the orifice and keep the fiber flowing in as much of a straight line as possible. I can’t control the twist as easily with my forward hand if I’m both pinching and changing direction at the same time. I’ve tried some other wheels and found that the orifice on the right, a “lefty” wheel, is what I need. I’ll get one of those next, but it will be a while before I’m wheel shopping again. I’ve had some success with wearing wrist braces to remind me to not do bad things with my hands. The short forward draft doesn’t give me this problem, but there is the trouble with not being able to pull out the fiber uniformly.

I couldn’t figure out whatever is the trick to pulling out the fiber evenly, so I assumed I was just a failure at short forward draft. Since everything I’d read about spinning worsted said no twist ever in the drafting zone and indeed describes it as drafting without twist, I figured the pinch and slide was considered integral to the technique. So, here I am in this workshop, where the teacher is trying to get across the concept of the “default yarn,” what you spin automatically for a particular set of wheel adjustments. It’s like you aren’t pulling the fiber out, the wheel is doing it for you and you are just overseeing the process. But it doesn’t use the death grip pinch. And it’s worsted. “How can this be?” I think.

I watch closely and I see fingers sliding back but hardly pinching at all. No worrying about the dreaded twist-in-drafting-zone business. The drafted fiber twists, down to the edge of the fiber supply, but at that point it’s done being drafted so it’s not the drafting zone anymore. A little pinch to pull the twisted yarn forward about a half a staple length and the process starts again. The other hand, the one holding the fiber, doesn’t move at all. Aha! The wheel is adjusted so the twist doesn’t fight to get past your fingers and pulls it on the bobbin at the same rate you are drafting. You aren’t pulling out the fibers, the twisted yarn is pulling out the fibers and their neighbors are coming along for the ride.

I understood this process from spinning really long fibers like flax, where there isn’t this angst about whether or not it’s “true worsted.” The twist goes right up to the edge of the fiber supply, and then you pull the finished yarn forward. Fibers that are half in your yarn and half in the fiber supply pull others out with them. You slide your fingers down at the same rate the twist is moving into the yarn, so no death-grip pinch is required.

Judith insists you shouldn’t look at the fiber but just do it by feel. If you are fighting the twist or the yarn is getting yanked away from you, adjust your wheel or let it go and spin a different size yarn. I could use some more practice, but it does work. And it doesn’t kill my hands. The one thing that bugs me is it is a lot slower.

I took a workshop this weekend, spinning for socks from Judith MacKenzie McCuin, and as usual Judith is a blast to hang out with for a fiber geek. She has an interest in traditional textiles and primitive sheep, two things I’m rather fond of. But she also knows industrial textiles and judges competitions, two things I am still trying to figure out. In class we talked a lot about what makes a good sock yarn. I’d like to do more socks, and I might yet get around to that, but mostly I wanted to take this class to learn more about yarn structure. Most of what I knit is with sock-like yarns.

I always come away with something to think about, and some of it seems to have little to do with the topic under discussion. Because I’m mostly self-taught, I don’t know that I’m not supposed to see the gaps between the so-called conventional wisdom and my own experience. Sometimes they are quite wide chasms and I’m baffled as to why. For as much as everybody likes my knitting, my range is rather limited. I know the basics of textile history concerning knitting but it’s more recent than my primary areas of study. So I don’t really understand why knitting yarns are the way they are. I had my suspicions on this point but after conversations with Judith apparently neither do all that many other people. Including nearly all yarn manufacturers. She says that the things we find in the stores are really yarns designed for weaving. I’m not entirely clear on why, exactly, but I’ll work on that.

We threw away some much-trumpeted beliefs about sock yarns, the major one for me is that fine wool does indeed make great sock yarn and you don’t have to blend it with nylon. My own commercial Merino blend socks end up with huge patches of nylon as the wool wears away. I’ve heard that so many times that it makes me wonder if it’s been pushed by the nylon manufacturers. (Things like this have happened, in textiles and elsewhere. DuPont didn’t have much interest in encouraging natural fibers just like General Motors didn’t have anything good to say about urban rail transit.) You can blend all you like, and nylon is a rational choice for blending with short wools, but it’s not by any means required. The important point is that longer fibers make better sock yarn and to get smooth and even yarn it should be spun worsted. Lumps and bumps have their interesting uses, but you don’t want them on the bottom of your feet.

Wool has many useful properties that make it a good option. Wool for socks should have a lot of crimp, to make elastic yarn. Elastic yarn makes elastic fabric. Elastic fabric doesn’t sag or wrinkle. If it isn’t moving around inside your boot, it isn’t causing blisters on your feet. As one who wears boots a lot, this is a big deal.

Another important feature about sock yarns, and also knitting yarns in general, is that they be three-ply or more. This makes a round yarn and produces a smoother knit fabric, something I already knew. But I wanted to know about twist. There is this huge fuss about balanced plied yarns but all over the place there is traditional knitting that has never heard of the balanced yarn. Balanced yarn is very pretty, but it leaves the individual fibers more prone to snagging and wear. It’s entirely possible to make successful socks with less than three plies. But you have to think carefully about the construction. We passed around some socks from various countries and they were quite different from the modern American idea of what a sock should look like. Some were very stiff, from strongly twisted yarns knit very firmly. They would most compare to slippers rather than something that goes inside one’s tennis shoe. One was knit of singles from a horrid scratchy goat fiber that seems like it would be impossibly uncomfortable. But it fit so closely and so well that it is very wearable, something Judith didn’t discover until some time later. If they don’t move around, they don’t scratch.

The reason I make knitting yarns with a firm twist in the single and 3-ply is to get a finished product that is dense and hard-wearing. More twist in the single means a more tightly twisted plied yarn, so the fiber is held in place more securely. Better still is to add a little more twist in the plying, so there is not the chance of loose fibers hanging about, they are all held in place with twist. But that violates the fundamental tenet of the balanced yarn. I’ve never really understood that, so I asked. After all, in a previous workshop Judith talked about how woolen yarns are best with a low twist in the single and more twist in the plying (and nearly useless as singles alone.) Those pretty balanced yarns look great hanging up for display at wool shows, but she has her doubts about their practical applications.

So there it is, I’m not crazy. This has been bugging me for years, with all the books, teachers and yarn judges that go on about balanced yarns. I was very careful about what I said about plying as to not be immediately branded apostate. I spent hours finishing plied yarns wet with a spindle for the COE because I knew that was the first thing a judge was going to look at. And the one yarn that wasn’t, intentionally and for a specific purpose, was marked off for exactly that. I understand the mechanics and I entirely don’t get why it is such a big deal. Slightly unbalanced yarns work fine in normal modern knitting and highly twisted yarns make fabrics that wear forever. So if unbalanced plied yarn is indeed heresy, at least I know I will have good company in Spinner Hell.

There are many other things from this weekend, ideas to contemplate and techniques to practice. I think I may now finally really understand the difference between short forward draft and short backward draft and why it matters. I’ll write more on these things as I work through what I learned and discover how to apply it to my own spinning.

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