FrenzyKnits

life in an artisanal world

Statement of Work

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.

Spin-Off: You Asked, I’m Tellin’

fair isle yarnSpin-Off Magazine recently sent out a survey to its subscribers.  One of the things the editors wanted was ideas for articles.  Here’s a few thoughts:

Fibersheds and the Work of Rebecca Burgess.  To use her words, a fibershed is a “geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base.”  Burgess founded the first such network in California after she spent a year of seeking out, making, and wearing only clothes made from natural fibers and dyes grown and made within 150 mile radius of where she lives.  Think about that!  Her work has inspired new fibershed networks around the country and even internationally–all with clearly established boundaries from which all labor and materials must originate.  Read her blog or visit her profile in the August/September 2013 issue of American Craft.  As spinners, we need to think more about this concept.

American Sheep Industry Overview.  Not enough spinners know about the state of the American sheep and wool industry.  They don’t know, for instance, that flock numbers are in slow decline.  They don’t know how hard it is to raise sheep, that the flockmaster often struggles in times of drought or flood, and that these conditions impact the price of the wool (or even the lives of the sheep).  They don’t know what goes into raising bummer lambs or keeping the sheep away from thistle or pooping pigeons in the barn.  However, if we’re serious about sustainability and buying local, this is exactly what the spinner should know about the wool she spins.

Two Sheep

Spinning in the Grease.  I love this technique, but it makes most spinners go eew.  They think it’s messy (yes!) and greasy (yes!).  Many spinners think you can’t get beautiful results (wrong!) or that you can’t wash out all the grease (wrong!).  Spinning in the grease yields beautiful, wearable, soft yarn.  It’s an especially nice technique for anyone who lives in an apartment or simply doesn’t have the space to wash and dry a whole fleece.  It’s my preferred spinning method and I’d like to see more spinners use it.

How to Pick a Fleece.  Most spinners pick a fleece based on the ooh factor.  We react to color, softness, and price and that’s about it.  But go to any fleece judging contest with a knowledgeable judge and you’ll quickly learn there’s a lot more to it.  A lot.  Handle, staple length, second cuts, skirting, luster, crimp, breaks–all these factors should go into your evaluation before you buy.  I was lucky with my first fleece purchase.  I didn’t know a thing: I simply purchased one that looked nice and was affordable.  Thankfully, it made beautiful yarn.  But my second and third fleeces weren’t so wonderful because I was still buying based on emotion, not evaluation.  Once I began my fleece education, I based my purchasing on data, bought better fleeces, and my spinning improved as a result.

The Hackle and Diz.  Drum carders are great if you can afford them.  A good hackle and a strong diz will do the same job at a much more affordable price–and they’re a lot more fun to use.  Why doesn’t anyone use these tools?

Just some ideas, Spin-Off.   Take ’em or leave ’em.

The Hand Spinner’s Responsibility

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!.

Do Knitters Dream of Electric 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!

Braided Roving for Spinning

Braided Roving

hanging yarns

Long Skeins for Big Projects

dyed locks

Dyed Locks

Colorful Batts

Hot Off the Drum Carder

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