This blog started as a rage against the misuse of the word artisanal. As anyone interested in American craft knows, this word has been bastardized by corporations to the detriment of true artisans honing real skills. It should only be used for handcrafted items, and I thought this blog was a way to protect that usage.
Wrong. That ship has sailed. Long ago.
I found I had more to say as a practitioner of craft than as a gadfly of language. I’m an urbanite practicing a craft that depends largely on rural capacity to raise, produce, and market my raw materials. I can’t even find most of what I need in the Chicago area. I must go rural. And much like the city kid who suddenly realizes where her food comes from, I’ve found great benefit in knowing what makes my yarn possible.
The Internet makes this rural dependency easy to ignore. What can’t you buy online? I could easily purchase everything I need in a few faceless transactions every year.
But spinning is tactile. It’s present. It’s immediate. It’s not a craft of intangibles. I could buy my fleece online or I could go out and get my boots dirty. I could–gasp–leave the city.
While this flipped dichotomy is not wholly unique (again, think of food production), it is unusual in a modern landscape that provides almost everything for the urban consumer within a few minutes.
The intersections of these flipped worlds–the urban handspinner and the rural materials producer–is what interests me. Towards that end, this blog will never be about my latest project. You won’t read details about why I only knit 8 rows last night. You won’t get updates on my latest random thoughts. What you will get are articles that touch on and around the relationship between urban practitioners of an ancient craft and rural producers of the raw materials we use.
It seems to me this is a largely contemporary phenomenon worth thinking and writing about. I hope you’ll join me.
Have you ever noticed how most American hand spinners are not outspoken advocates of the American sheep industry?
We love working with wool but we don’t support the wool industry in our own country.
Many American flockmasters are struggling to keep their sheep, especially since last summer’s drought. The special care required to keep a spinning flock producing top quality fleece can add up in dollars, sometimes costing more to care for the sheep than the price of the fleece. Since summer, the cost of feed has fluctuated, making it difficult for flockmasters to project their spending. As a result, some farmers have had to sell their sheep as market lambs, their fine fleeces of little value when times are tough.
With the Internet, it’s easy to buy wool from overseas, but great wool is being produced right here at affordable prices. We don’t have to send away to Canada or Australia to discover the world of sheep.
Many American flockmasters are working to preserve rare breeds or different breeds, a treat for any hand spinner who knows sheep and wants to work with great fiber. These fibers are not hard to come by: you can find them at festivals around the country or over the Internet. I buy my fleeces direct from sheep farmers because I value what they do and I don’t want a middleman to get money that could go directly back to the farm. Wary of buying a fleece you haven’t seen or inspected yourself? Most producers are happy to send a sample.
I’ve spun Coopworth, Romney, Corriedale, Jacob and East Fresian-Polypay Cross. Each fleece taught me more about spinning long wools. And I’ll tell you this: once you connect directly with the flockmaster who cared for the sheep you’re spinning, you learn so much about your place in the production chain and how much we owe the people who tend these animals.
As I happily spin up my fleeces, I’m reminded that I’m lucky to have them at all this year. Whenever I see cheap lamb for sale from Australia or a hand spinner who’s willing to get a Merino fleece from New Zealand, I think of all the struggling American flockmasters I’ve met. There’s not a one who wanted to sell a sheep due to hard times. It’s tough out there and American hand spinners have a duty to support the industry that supports them.
If you want to learn more about the American sheep industry, read Sheep!.
Images of yarns and fiber from Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival last week in Jefferson. This fiber fest has everything a spinner or knitter could want: a fleece show and sale, two barns of vendors, three days of classes, and plenty of sheep. Oh, and inspiration!
If you really get into hand spinning–if it becomes more than a means to an end (cheap yarn!), if you find yourself at summer parties wishing you had brought your wheel instead of potato salad–if this is you, then at some point you’ve probably fantasized about owning sheep. I sure did.
The desire to own sheep is something I’ve heard a lot lately, even among people who admire spinning but don’t actually spin themselves. Some of them don’t even knit or crochet or weave. They just want sheep.
I understand. Once I spun my first fleece, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a small spinning flock of one or two breeds, maybe even rare breeds. Sure, we lived in a condo, but I saw this as a surmountable problem. We wouldn’t always be living in the city. Someday, we would move to the country. We would buy land, maybe a small hobby farm where I could live out my dream of raising sheep, spinning, and knitting and–apparently–living off my husband’s job, whatever that was going to be in this new rural landscape.
Yes, I would raise sheep. I knew it was a big job, that you couldn’t just leave for days on the spur of the moment, that you needed to give yourself over to hard, physical work. Inside, I knew I was tough; I could do it. In anticipation of this future move, I decided to study up. I devoured Sheep! magazine. I learned what I could from books, the basics of feeding, fencing, sheering, even birthing and predator control. I learned about breed characteristics and talked to breeders about the breeds that grew wool I liked to spin. I knew I’d need a lot of hands-on training before I could handle a flock of my own. And then I learned the biggie: sheep die.
It’s true. They die from all sorts of things and once they die what you have is a big dead sheep. I was ready to run out in the middle of a cold spring morning to help a ewe give birth. I knew about parasites and scrapie and bluetongue and foot rot. Actually, there’s a host of horrible sheep diseases that I won’t mention here, but I figured I could deal with them with the help of a good vet and vigilance.
What I’m saying is this: of course I knew all along that sheep die. What I realized was that I really wanted a flock of pet sheep that lived in my barn. Flockmasters who are close to their sheep talk about how hard it is to lose them. No one wants to lose an animal. You can tell how much it matters when you get a fleece from the bloodline of one they really loved. They want you to make something wonderful from the wool because it contains the legacy of a special animal. If you ask, they offer you fond memories, and I treasure these fleeces because I’ve been made a steward of the legacy they carry.
As great as it would be to have a spinning flock, I know I just couldn’t do it. Listen, I’m still haunted by the death of my cat Pheefers and she died three years ago. She got the best possible veterinary care and she still died too young. She endured like a little saint. Every night, my husband and I light a candle in her memory and for all the pets our friends have lost. Can you image what I’d be like at the death of my first sheep? Better to leave the shepherding to others. I don’t know how they do it. But they can do it, and I know I can’t.
Not long ago, I was at a llama 4H event with my cousin. Llamas are stately, elegant, beautiful and the spinning is fine. Unlike me, my cousin lives in a rural area and could probably have farm animals. She had never seen a llama up close. “Wow,” she said, “wouldn’t it be great. . . ?” She trailed off. I knew what she was thinking. “Yep,” I agreed. “It sure would.” Except for one thing.
As soon as you walk in the door of Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair, you see the colors just beyond the gate and hear the noise. You realize that this is a big show and that it’s probably going to overwhelm you and that you don’t care. It’s exuberating when you set out into the vendor booths because you know it’s all ahead of you: hours of joy. The more you lose yourself in this world, the better. This is why you work hard all week.
I had the pleasure of attending the MFFAF this past weekend with my cousin and her daughter, a beginning knitter (and as of Saturday, a spindler, too). Not having children myself, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing a young person take an interest in a craft I love. I had little to do with her taking up knitting, but it was a singular treat to be present as she discovered firsthand what the world of fiber arts has to offer.
The MFFAF is a good show to make your first because it showcases fiber artists along with musicians and knitters, crocheters, quilters, spinners, and rug hookers. As I’ve said before on this blog, we can’t lose sight of the artists. They inspire us and–I firmly believe–we inspire them. Just like my cousin’s daughter who has newly taken up her needles, I, a knitter of some twenty-two years’ experience, draw inspiration from her excitement over the new world she’s entered. As she discovered that she already knows all the stitches it takes to make a sweater, I was reminded that there are still many ways to push my own skills. No doubt the fiber artists who entered their work at the exhibits felt the same way when they saw so many hundreds of fair goers crowding the booths, enjoying their work, thinking up new projects.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Cynthia Boudreau fashioned this Felted Tunic from Nuno silk and merino wool. She used the wet felting technique to mesh the wool to the silk and then added beads. Besides the design, which reminds me a little of Monet’s waterlily paintings, I love the shape and presentation, which reminds me of Japanese kimonos. I wish you could see firsthand how light and refreshing this piece is–like a breeze. Here’s more about Cynthia:
Two entries in the handbag exhibit caught my eye. To gain entry, artists had to construct a handbag by riffing off an older pattern–this year’s pattern was from 1945. Click the link for a picture of the pattern and exhibit details. You’ll be astonished at how different these entries are from the original. But believe me: all the entries were wildly different. In fact, in all the years I’ve been attending, no two bags are ever alike, like–not even close.
The beaded purse (below), entitled Dancing Abundance, by Marianne Biagi, was made using an altered peyote stitch. Biagi describes, “I don’t have a plan. I design as I go, letting the colors and shapes of beads guild me.” And this I love: “I finish when the art tells me to stop.”
The reverse of this bag is in a different color scheme, which is equally beautiful.
Beyond color, texture plays an important part in Biagi’s work. Her beaded art deserves a more careful look. Here’s an article I found that provides more pictures and background information on this artist from thecity1.com.
Another piece that needs mention is Boa Bag by Judith Reilly. It’s a knitted and crocheted piece that uses Reilly’s own handspun wool along with commercial novelty yarn. I love the colors as well as the creative use of mitered squares. (Modular knitting is great for free-form knitters and satisfying for anyone who only has a small amount of time to knit each day.) Equally inspiring is Reilly’s description of how she created it: she started with the beads. In her words, “I thought they’d be a nice echo of the diamonds on the top of the bag. Then I found the perfect colors in the roving. . . and the rest is history.”
Just like Biagi, Reilly’s approach reminds us that we don’t always need a pattern or plan. What we need is to be open to inspiration. Fairs like the Midwest Fiber & Folk Arts Fair help us all–hobbyist and artist alike–find ways of pushing our craft and our skills. As important as it was for my cousin’s daughter to attend as a new knitter, so it is equally important for longtime practitioners to refresh ourselves, see the latest trends, and connect with the vibrant community that makes up the fiber arts.
Artisanal Flowchart Postscript:
Incidentally, all four of these pieces featured above are artisanal (did you expect anything else coming from me?). They all express the artistic vision of the fiber artists who made them and they all possess utility: they can be used. Will they be used is another question. Sometimes the potential for use is enough.