Category Archives: Background

Slow Making

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Slow Making

Stop.

Don’t read ahead yet.

Think.

What did you think when you read the title of this blog post? “Slow Making.”

Save your answer. Write it down if you like. I’d love to hear it.

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Was it a positive or a negative emotion? Or simply neutral?

Did you think ‘This is intriguing,” or

“That sounds depressing,” or

“Time to take pleasure in the process,” or

“Sounds like a long, slow grind,” or

“Boooooring!” Or

“That sounds tedious,” or

“That sounds exciting,” or did you think I was going to tell you about something I was struggling with?

The word “slow” often has negative associations in our culture. Speed, busyness, productivity at all costs is prized. What are the key words in that sentence? At. All. Costs. For me, that isn’t a high enough aspiration for life.

Story Skeins is primarily a vehicle for our shared creative journey, and to facilitate the coming together of our fibre community (something which happens in many ways, through the work of many people.) I also offer yarn and fibre for sale, but I always try to keep in mind that making things to sell is not my primary purpose.

Why not? Well, making purely to sell focuses on the end product and the success criterion becomes whether or not someone else chooses to hand over money for what you’ve made. Now, I’m not saying you can’t run a successful, profitable business from your creative work. But if your only aim is to sell, maybe you will be losing something.

I can make yarn that I absolutely love. But if I’ve not paid attention to the process, if I’ve not been present, if I’ve not engaged with the ‘doing’, but rather focussed on just getting to the end, then instead of a joy the work itself has become a chore. That’s not how I want to live.

So I will never be a production spinner. I will never aim to produce yarn at a fast pace. I won’t make things just because other people like them, if it comes at the expense of the processes I want to try out and the yarn I want to play with. I will stick with slow making. And if you are kind enough to buy from me, you may have to wait a little while, but you will know that my precious time, attention, love and care infuses the product you receive.

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My success criteria are more to do with the question “am I living the life I want?” It has little to do with end results. I’ve made yarn I love (great!). I’ve made yarn I don’t like (great!). I’ve made yarn that others love (great!). I imagine I’ve made yarn that others hate (great!), although so far you’ve all been too polite to tell me. I’ve made yarn that’s sold well (great!). I’ve made yarn that hasn’t sold (great! More for me to play with!).

Why are all these different outcomes great? Because none of them matter to me. By the time I’ve reached the point of having a finished yarn, or a sale, or a non-sale to judge, I’ve already met my success criteria. I’m doing what I want to do, in the way I want to do it. I’m living a creative life and getting the most out of the process. And I’m enjoying, slowly, every bit of it.

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The Story So Far …

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The Story So Far …

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[Quote by Lexi Boeger.]

It’s just over two months since Story Skeins officially launched. I’m feeling reflective tonight, so I thought I’d write a little blog about it.

This time last year I was working my way through The Artist’s Way as part of the training course I started in 2012. It was challenging in lots of ways. I was challenged to explore my creativity (after having been challenged to think of myself as someone capable of creativity in the first place…). I was challenged to identify my dreams. I was challenged to become more authentically, and wholly, myself. I was challenged to drop some of the artifice I thought I was using to protect myself, but was actually trapping me in the small space I had labelled ‘safe’.

How far I have come in just a year. One of the dreams I identified was to become a yarn maker. Why does it fascinate me so? I guess it’s always been how my creativity has snuck out, even whilst I was denying it and safely labelling myself as someone capable of learning practical skills. I still deeply appreciate the practical skill element of the work I do, but it’s not what fires the heart and soul. That fire is fed by the abundance of possibility. The freedom to play with shape and space, twist and angles and geometry, fibres and textures and wacky inclusions, colours and patterns and combinations, and ideas. Every creation is unique. Every moment is unique. As long as I don’t forget that, I have the excitement of a beginner every single day.

I’ve never liked attention. Making my work public has been one of the biggest challenges for me. Because my approach to my work is very experimental (not just in the spinning, but in the writing and the planning and the kind of projects I explore) I rarely have any sense for whether the work I’ve produced is any good or not. Old me finds that very difficult. I have about three decades behind me which are full of trying to be good and trying to get things right. New me thinks a little differently. New me is excited by the uncertainty. (Old me looks on from the sidelines, wondering WTF is going on.) New me has, to a large degree, given up rushing to judge myself as succeeding or failing. New me just wants to play. Old me just wants to play it safe.

So, I took a risk. I decided to show you all my creations. You may love them, you may not. So far I’ve loved most of what I’ve made. Sometimes right from the start. Sometimes a slow burn. Sometimes not until the moment of completion. Some stuff I’m still not sure about. Every bit of it has taught me something. Being brave enough to put it out there has taught me something. Why brave? Because maybe, if you really look at the things I make, and the way I do it … maybe you’ll see the real me.

The Star of the Show

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The Star of the Show

It’s been a busy week of preparation for my first market night, and one thing people have started to ask about is my hard-working spinning wheel.

My wheel is the Ashford Joy. When I first looked at wheels back in 2012 I had some very specific needs. Firstly, I needed my wheel to be small, ideally it would be something I could fold up and put away each evening. The houses and flats we’ve shared as a family have been pretty small, and much as I’d love my own workspace, it’s just not possible for the forseeable future. So I work in our living space and need equipment that can be quickly and easily put away.

Secondly, due to the residential training I am undertaking, I travel a lot. I like the option of taking my wheel as not only do I always take at least one (usually more!) fibre project to my training weekends, but the type of training I do involves studying one’s everyday activities, and bringing more practical intelligence into the way one carries out these activities. Given that I spend a lot of time engaged in fibre-related crafts, it makes sense to study my movements during these activities and put into practice the training that will help me to perform in the most mechanically economical way. So, a light and easily transportable wheel would be ideal.

The Joy ticks all those boxes and more. Starting from the bottom, the Joy comes with the option of either single or double treadle, which seems to depend upon the spinner’s personal preference. The treadle system and the base of the wheel are hinged, fold easily when desired, and can be locked in place in either the folded or unfolded configuration. The built-in drive wheel and whorl system offer four different spinning ratios* – 6:1, 8:1, 11:1 and 14:1, which are easily selected by placing the stretchy drive band in the appropriate grooves around the circumference of drive wheel and whorl. The Joy comes with the standard sliding-hook flyer and 3 bobbins. As an extra it is possible to purchase the jumbo flyer and bobbin for spinning super bulky art yarns. The bobbin is tensioned using a simple scotch tension system which is easily adjusted. There is a built-in orifice hook and built-in holders for two bobbins which, at a pinch, can be used as a lazy kate. Finally, the portability is further enhanced by the built-in carry handle at the top of the wheel, and by the optional carry bag which keeps the Joy protected, dust-free, and ready to transport instantly.

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The only other thing I can say about the Joy is that it is very, very appropriately named!

More information, including videos of the Joy in action, can be found at Ashford and Wingham Wool Work.

* The spinning ratio describes how many revolutions of the flyer occur for each single revolution of the drive wheel.

Neolithic technology stands the test of time

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Neolithic technology stands the test of time

The thought recently occurred to me that I am extremely easily amused. A stick, or sticks, and some fibres will keep me entertained for hours on end. A hooked stick and twisted fibre: crochet. Two pointy sticks and twisted fibre: knitting. Add a weight to the stick and start with raw fibre and you’re ready to spin.

It really is that simple. The drop spindle, made typically from a wooden shaft and a spindle whorl, is an ancient tool which has been in continuous use since at least neolithic times. It is a cheap and easily available way to try spinning your own yarn. You can even make your own spindle (a length of dowel and an old cd will do it).

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The drop spindle is a beautifully modest, stunningly effective tool. When I received my first drop spindle I hit youtube for some guidance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I struck gold. The first video that seemed worthy of investigation was by Abby Franquemont. Her clear tuition got me started, and I didn’t look back.

I did, however, look further into Abby Franquemont’s work, and bought a copy of her book “Respect the Spindle” [1]. I think the title tells you everything you need to know. The drop spindle, humble though it may be, is no poor relation of the spinning wheel (a relative newcomer, not in general use until the 16th century, or thereabouts). I do a lot of spinning on my wheel, but my drop spindles are not neglected. They are fine tools. I especially admire the craftmanship evident in my Schacht Hi-Lo spindle. I love the portability of a drop spindle. I never leave home without some kind of fibre project to hand, and a bag containing fleece and spindle fills that niche perfectly.

But the thing I love most of all, amongst the wide vista of possibilities involved in making your own yarn, is the meditative experience of spinning on a drop spindle. Flicking the spindle to set it in motion, the feel of the whorl spinning, angular momentum in your hands, the balance of drafting fibres through your fingers just in time for the twist to bind them together into a thread strong enough to support the weight of  the spindle. And seeing the classic “cop” of spun fibre build up around the spindle shaft as an undeniable measure of what you have achieved, of what you have made with your own hands, during this day. I lose all sense of time when I spin on a drop spindle, and what flows in is a profound sense of peace.

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[1] Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont. Interweave publications, 2009.

The Birth of Story Skeins

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The Birth of Story Skeins

Would you believe I reached this point in my journey believing that I didn’t have a creative bone in my body? Despite physically creating so much, despite making things with my own hands every day of my life. I was holding onto an idea of myself that didn’t fit the facts. I had written off the idea many years ago that I was creative. That wasn’t the label for people like me. I was systematic, I was methodical. I could learn a skill, could practise a craft. But I didn’t see that as creative. To me “creativity” implied inspiration, talent, freedom and risk. I didn’t want the risk. I didn’t want to try and fail. I didn’t want to expose my ideas to scrutiny. I didn’t want my unacknowledged fear that I just wasn’t good enough to be confirmed.

And then, as part of a training course, I started reading a book called The Artist’s Way [1]. It’s a 12 week course in rediscovering your creativity. (Yes, rediscovering – for what child isn’t creative?) It unblocked the mental barriers I had spent most of my life building. I allowed myself to try new things, to discover, to play. I started creating in all sorts of ways, some familiar, some new. Crucially, I freed myself to explore all these modes of creativity without rushing to judge the end result. It’s a process, not a product. It’s a journey that has given me new life, and which I heartily recommend.

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As part of the course I undertook exercises, some of which involved writing about my dreams for the future. It really forced me to think, hard, about what I wanted from life. One of the dreams that came from those exercises was to be a yarn maker. Thanks to my newfound willingness to explore all manner of creativity, I felt able to experiment with combining my love for the fibre arts with other modes of expression. I was knitting socks from some experimental drop-spindle spun yarn when the connection between crafting with yarn and creating physical memories occurred to me.

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I realised that every single thing I have made for myself or my family is so strongly associated with at least some of the story of our lives. The metaphors we use for story-telling are closely linked to fibre craft: spinning a yarn … weaving the tapestry of life, etc. And throughout history, cloth, clothing and textile art has played an important role in communicating information between individuals and societies. Stories and yarn seem to complement each other in a very profound way.

And that, my friends, is why we are here right now.

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[1] The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self by Julia Cameron. Pan publishing, 1995.

Spinnin’ the Blues

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Spinnin’ the Blues

Finally your confidence rises enough to take on commissioned spinning.

There are more, many more, beautiful yarns out there than you can shake a stick at. But fine fibres come at a price. Super-soft pure merino may cost less than a third of the commercial price if you spin it yourself. And once your skills are honed, you can spin exactly the yarn you want. And in order to hone those skills maybe you could take on spinning for yarny friends!

These beautiful blues were spun for a lovely friend in a win-win arrangement where I gained spinning practice and she gained unique yarn for her crochet creations. I just love the colours in all these different shades of blue. This yarn was created and sent out into the world to become something even better. I can’t wait to see the final product!

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Trying New Things

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Trying New Things

So, the adventure begins. Once you have the basics … Can I make yarn? Yes, I can! (Still thrilled by this.) … then the vista of possibilities opens before you.

Want to preserve the colour changes in your yarn? Try navajo plying.

Prefer the barber’s pole effect? Continue with conventional 2- or 3- or more-plying.

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So you’ve tried merino? how about alpaca, or camel, mohair, or vicuna? How about investigating the abundance of the british sheep breeds?

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Maybe you’d rather work with plant fibres? Yes there’s cotton, there’s flax. There’s also bamboo, banana, nettle and ramie.

Prefer synthetics, or recycled, or something even more off-piste? You can spin acrylic, carded sari silk, milk protein fibre, even kevlar!

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You can spin singles, you can spin coils, thick ‘n’ thin yarn, beads, sequins and feathers!

So many possibilities. So much to play with. Such a landscape of imagination to be explored.

Process

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Process

It’s not just about the spinning, there are a number of stages involved in creating yarn.

Let’s assume we’ve selected and prepared our fibre, which in itself is a whole other set of processes. When I started spinning I took advantage of the fabulous selection of fibres sold by Wingham Wool Work [1] and worked from there.

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1. Spinning the singles. I didn’t know much about the making of yarn when I started. But my years as a knitter taught me that yarn was usually plied from several thinner strands. What I learnt from my early drop spindle experiments, and from resources provided by the marvellous Abby Franquemont [2], was that you spin the fibres in one direction – let’s say clockwise – and then ply two or more of these “singles” together by spinning them in the other direction – anticlockwise.

So spinning the singles involves starting from the prepared fibre, drafting it out into the desired thickness whilst adding the twist that will hold the fibres together.

2. Plying. Now, if you stop at that point it’s likely you’ll end up with yarn that resembles silly string! The singles contain active twist. They want to coil up on themselves. They’re like a taut spring, full of potential energy. It is certainly possible to make useable yarn from singles, but the thinner they are, the more twist is needed to hold the fibres together, and the more likely you’ll have silly-string yarn unless you ply it.

Plying in the opposite direction to that in which the singles were spun balance the twist, so that the yarn no longer wants to coil back up on itself.

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3. Skeining. You now have a bobbin full of plied yarn. To turn it into a skein you use a niddy noddy (the most amusingly named tool in my collection.) Cleverly, you can measure (or look up the manufacturer’s information) the length of one complete wrap on the niddy noddy. My Ashford niddy noddy is 5′ or 60″ per wrap. So, count the wraps, multiply by the length per wrap and Ta Da!! you have the yardage and/or meterage of your skein.

4. Washing. At this stage we really want to turn these plied singles into yarn, so we set the twist. The advice I follow here comes from Jennifer Beamer of Expertly Dyed: Art by Science [3], who publishes excellent blogs and vlogs about yarn-making. To set the twist I like to wash the skein and then soak it in water with a little conditioner, just to pamper the fibres a little bit after all those times they’ve run through my fingers and the flyer on my wheel.

5. Fulling. Fulling is a process of ever so slightly felting the fibres so that the yarn becomes a unified structure. Taking the yarn out of its final rinse I squeeze excess water out, but leave it fairly wet and then it’s time to be a little rough with it. I tend to beat the skein against the side of the bathtub, moving the skein through my hands after each strike. Sounds weird, looks odd, works out great.

6. Hanging. finally I hang my skein to dry, and if my plying hasn’t quite managed to balance the twist – you can see this because any residual active twist means the skein doesn’t quite hang straight – then I hang a little weight from the bottom of the skein, to stretch it out as it dries and finish with a beautiful,  soft, balanced yarn.

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7. Labelling. Any knitter or crocheter wanting to use your skein for a project will need a bit of information about it, so I make sure to record

Composition – what fibres are included, and the percentage of each.

Weight, or WPI – WPI stands for wraps per inch and tells you if your yarn is aran, dk, ‘4ply’, etc.

Meterage – essential for planning your project!

Care instructions – hand wash? machine wash? dry flat?

So, as you can see, there’s a lot that goes into your final skein. And the very last stage is once again to create something beautiful:

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[1] Wingham Wool Work: http://www.winghamwoolwork.co.uk

[2] Respect The Spindle by Abby Franquemont. Interweave publications, 2009.

[3] Expertly Dyed: Art by Science: http://expertlydyed.blogspot.co.uk

Improving

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Improving

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What you see on the left is a skein that I spun for my mum’s birthday in the April of 2013. What you see on the right is the first ever skein I managed to spin on my wheel in January 2013. So, 4 months of improvement in one picture.

It wasn’t an arduous task, I didn’t have to work hard at it. I just kept spinning and learning and spinning some more. When I’d finished my very first skein, I was utterly thrilled. Not because I’d made beautiful yarn – I thought it was a bit of an ugly duckling. It was the pure joy of knowing that I had made something from scratch, just with my own hands and my own tools. It wasn’t beautiful yarn, it wasn’t anything I would have chosen and bought, but it was my yarn that I’d made myself.

I stashed it away and moved onto the next spinning project. But eventually it came out of the drawer and became an infinity cowl. I chose a project to suit the yarn – alternating double and treble crochet stitches to create a bumpy fabric. And now I have my own pure handspun merino cowl to keep me warm, and remind me of my very first adventures at the spinning wheel.

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Early work

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Early work

In the beginning was the yarn.

Yarn has always been a part of my life, though during my childhood we called it “wool”. As I’ve started to work with a wide variety of fibres, “yarn” has become a more useful term. As a small child it was for knitting, and that hobby sustained me for many years.

In 2010 I decided to learn to crochet. I had tried to crochet a few times before, always ending in failure. I found it so different to knitting. I didn’t really understand how it could make the shapes I wanted. But this time was different. I took a massive step forward. I decided that this time I would allow myself to fail.

Instead of failure being a disappointing end result, it became a vital part of the learning process. I’d tried to crochet before, so I knew how it was going to go. I knew I wouldn’t get it straight away. But I decided that this time I would try and then fail, and through that experience I’d learn something to take with me into the next attempt. Frustration was transformed into joy.

I hooked and frogged a few things (and ‘things’ is honestly the most descriptive word I have for them!) until at last, my first success! A granny square. OK, it had 5 sides, but at least it was recognisable. I frogged my 5-sided granny square and started again. This time on a fan stitch square. And this time, it worked! I still have that square. It’s part of my patchwork sampler blanket, worked over two years and a visual record of my learning journey. I can see it and point to it and touch it today. A concrete memory.

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One day a very good friend showed me the drop spindle kit she was considering. It suddenly occurred that I’d like to try that too. And a passion was born. I started on the drop spindle, which is a lovely way to learn, and right at the end of 2012 I was gifted my spinning wheel; the very aptly named Ashford “Joy”.

I took my learning process into my spinning work. Of course, it didn’t go smoothly. I no longer expected it to. No experience was wasted, it all added to my knowledge. By early 2013 I was producing my own yarn. Sure, at first it was lumpy and bumpy. I wasn’t spinning it for a knitting or crochet projet. I was spinning it to learn how to spin. I squirrelled each skein away and sooner or later a project would emerge, for which my thick ‘n’ thin, quirky old yarn was just perfect.

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It’s not about producing a flawless product. It’s about matching the project with the yarn.

It’s not about never making a mistake. It’s about learning what you can from every experience.

It’s not about mindless, mechanical production. It’s about the joy of the creative process.