Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mad Skillz - Part 1

I was thinking the other day that I had managed, over the last 12-18 months or so, to add a number of somewhat odd abilities to myself. It's not that I am searching for a hobby, I don't feel the need for them per say, more I find that I just suddenly become curious and intensely interested in something. I have no idea where this will take me eventually, or what will be next, but I might just take a guess in another part. So, first off there was ....

Spinning. This was the first real skill I learnt, although perhaps the vegi garden was before that but it's so common an affliction it doesn't really count. No, I get a few raised eyebrows when (or if) I tell people that I know how to spin. I know it is not very Australian-male of me, I should be more interested in football or indy car racing or something. Anyway, we were at the markets at Bundanoon in NSW, which is where my mother lives, and there was a lady there spinning wool. I am reasonably mechanically minded, but at first glance the wheel looked impenetrably complex in it's operation. On the other side of this though, she seemed so relaxed and contented converting a bag of raw fleece to what passed at a thread, which was then spun again into a wool. It seemed like a sort of magic, like a raw egg congealing into scrambled mass on the application of a little stir and heat. I liked the fact that I could be part of a small section of a process which involved the raw ingredient of a fleece to the end product of a useful thing to wear, even if it was a wobbly scarf or something. This was empowering, and learning the wheel was a challenge.

I bought my wheel on eBay, and probably paid a bit too much, but it's a nice one. It is an Ashford brand, in a honey coloured pine. When I first got it, I have nothing to spin with it, so I had to then buy a bag of "slivers", which is precombed and dyed fleece. This seemed like a bit of a cheat, but I was already a bit overwhelmed so I was just trying to make it a little easy on myself and I knew I could ramp it up later to something harder, if indeed I ever made it that far. I read a bit, watched a few youtube videos and when I had something to spin, sat down to tried it myself. My wife, I think, probably expected me to give up early. And based on my first attempts, where I seemed to be all thumbs and be simply fighting the machine, it looked to be the logical thing to do. The twist kept getting past my thumb pinch, and this made drawing really hard. However, I paced myself, and took small victories where I could. I had brief moments where it felt to be getting easier. It is a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time at first, but slowly you get used to the motion and controlling the speed of the wheel. In fact, after a while you stop thinking about it, it just more or less does what you want it to. Getting the sliver to draw out evenly was really the concentration point.

Learning the tension of the wheel, and getting a feel for the right amount of twist, took quite a bit of time, and I realised, is where some personality of the spinner comes into play. My wool is reasonably thick and sturdy, because to me this seems right, but my wife who also was trying it out, produced thin and delicate wool.

Plying was also a stage to master, somewhat separate to the spinning, where the two threads are spun together to make the final strong wool. This is where you see how even your work is, as it rapidly passed through your hands. I had piggy tails all over the shop, and huge "slubs" - which are fat bits. After hours of slaving away I had produced my first "skien", which looked like a hoop of old Rastafarian's locks. It twisted up hopelessly, and was more or less a complete disaster. However, even in this first attempt I had improved visibly from the start to the finish, so I was encouraged.

Knitting. The wool I produced was not going to just sit around in pretty balls. I wanted to actually use it. You may congratulate yourself on how well it looks, but there is nothing like using something to really know it's quality. So, I bought some knitting needles and sat down with an excellent beginners book ("Knitting" by Klutz ISBN-10 1-59174-384-2) and tried to become something other than all thumbs again. My first project was a scarf, for myself, in the most basic of all stitches - garter stitch. Like air travel - casting on and casting off is the most dangerous, but the bit in between is lots of the same. Like the spinning though, consistency of tension was the key. My wife kept telling me to loosen up, but I always fell back to a slightly tense line.

The scarf I produced was too wide, had a wobbly thinner bit in the middle and was very heavy. However, I wore it all through our great family European vacation with pride and to great effect - it was warm and gave me comfort. There is something very pleasing about wearing something you have made from (almost!) scratch. You appreciate the effort that has gone into it, as you know exactly how much that was. You look after it. I guess in a word you cherish it, as there is something of you in it.

From there I decided to knit a scarf for my daughter, and chose to use store bought wool so that I could get some colour and also eliminate the still inconsistent quality of the wool I was producing. I knew she would be less tolerant of mistakes. This turned out to be really quite an OK result, she wore this in Europe too. I made some mistakes, and had to get my wife to help backtrack on those and patch them up. I seem to be like a train when I knit, with only a forward momentum. Going backwards is a real problem, I stare at the needles for ages not knowing what to do next.

After this, and back in Oz, I worked on what is the best scarf so far - one for my Sister. This was using my spun wool, which I now had a good handle on the twist tension and got it fairly consistent. I also designed using graph paper a heart shape which I put into the scarf using a change of stitching to stocking stitch. This meant counting rows and stitches at times, and changing from one stitch to the other. It took a lot more concentration than an all garter stitched affair, but looked really nice and quite subtle. I made the scarf not as wide as mine, but still fairly substantial. I added a fringe too, which made it look quite professional I think. Overall, I was very proud of this effort, and happy to give it as a gift to someone I love.

While in Italy, we found on our travels a little quirky shop in a square which had Italian wool for sale. Laura chose three colors and I knitted her a scarf out of this fine wool. It was a lot softer than the Australian wool, and had a lot of ply. She didn't want a pattern or a fringe, so the effect is quite modest, but it looks good on her and she feels the cold so I hope it brings her a warm neck in the years to come. That was finished only a few days ago, so I'm currently without a knitting project on the go - however, I have one lined up.

As I mentioned earlier, I felt cheated by using the Slivers, so I bought a bag of raw fleece, much like the lady I first met who started it all. I also wanted to get away from the white wool, so this was from a brown sheep. This was like starting all over again in terms of spinning. I didn't want to card the wool, but just learn to spin it right out of the bag. Carding looks to take too much time and besides, the carders are expensive and I don't own a set. This meant stopping often while spinning to pluck out grass seeds and knots and little clumps of fluff. The fleece is greasy with lanolin, and smells quite strongly, not surprisingly, of sheep. I want to keep that lanolin in there as a natural waterproofing, and I intend to make another item for myself - a Beanie. This is apparently not too hard, but does involve a lot of careful stitch counting. We'll see. If it turns out well, I'll make another one perhaps for my father.

I find spinning and knitting really therapeutic. I can, and reasonably often do, drink a beer or glass of wine while doing it. Unlike TV, which is passive and largely a time waster, these pursuits build up to a positive physical object. Something to be proud of, and perhaps, cherish. I might one day find a farmer who shears a sheep and learn how to do that too. Then I suppose I'll have to raise my own sheep somewhere. Then, and perhaps only then, will I feel I really know how to make woolen clothes from start to finish by hand. Each step has been deeply satisfying so far, and I imagine if I were to do this it would continue to be so.

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