Crafts at Scale

I've been kntting off and on since 2002 or 2003 (or so) but have been particularly "on" in the last couple of years. When I started working as a computer programmer (without formal training as such,) I quipped that I learned how to program from hand knitting. This is a simplification--of course--but it's not that incorrect. Knitting is a system with some basic fundamentals (stitches, yarn, needle), a lot of variables (gauge, tension), repeated procedures, and a hell of a lot of prior art. This is a lot like programming.

Spinning too, has many of the same properties, but similarities aside they feel like different kinds of crafts: where knitting feels like you're applying a set of understood procedures to produce something that's unique, spinning is often about figuring out how to apply the same procedures in a way that prodcues consistent result. This makes sense you want to produce a quantity of yarn that's on average similar enough that when you knit (or I suppose weave,) you have good consistent results. In many ways, spinning leads naturally to an idea of "production" or "scale" as an aspect of craft.

Just to be clear, these kinds of crafts should be fun and rewarding on their own merits. If you want to spin and are excited and happy to make and have yarn with variable thickness, or where every skein is unique, then do that. For me, particularly now, I find the problem of figuring out how to be consistent while spinning a couple of pounds of wool over the course of a few weeks to be really exciting and entrancing.

The kind of knitting that I've been doing recently has had some of these production/scale aspects as well: knitting with very similar white yarns removes color and minimizes texture as a variable. While I've been knitting roughly the same sock at production scale, the sweater's I've been working on have some bespoke aspects, though the process is broadly similar. There's something so compelling about being able to understand my craft and procedure so thoroughly that I can make things that aren't wonky with confidence.

Programming is also very much like thsi for me these days. I spent years as a programmer trying to figure out how code worked, and how basic fundamental systems and protocols worked (e.g. webservers, Linux, databases,) and now I know how to build most things, or feel confident in my ability to figure out how to build a new thing when needed. The exciting things about software engineering is more about making the software work at large scale, the processes that allow increasingly large teams of engineers work together effectively, and being able to figure out the right solution for the problem users have.

I'm currently somewhere on the 7th 100 gram skein of approximately worsted weight, 3-ply merino yarn. My consistency isn't quite where I want it, but if you look at all of the skeins they seem roughly related, so I think I'll be able to make a sweater easily from it. I have two more skeins after this one. My plan from here is to alternate spinning batches of white yarn with spinning batches of not-white/natural colored wool for variety. Probably mostly 3 ply for now, though I may give 2 ply a go for one of them.

I'm knitting a white seamless style sweater, using Elizabeth Zimmerman's method for bottom up sweaters. I've changed many of the numbers and some of the proportions, but nothing particularly fundamental about the process. I've knit 3 sweaters back to back with this same process, though this is the first with this specific yarn. I do have enough of this yarn to knit 3 or 4 sweaters, which I find both daunting and exciting, taken as a whole. With the sleeves done, I'm about halfway to the underarms on the body. I want to try knitting a saddle shouldered garment for this one.

Why Spinning?

A few years ago, I sent my spinning wheel away because I was living in a very small apartment with two very attentive cats. While I've been living in an apartment with more room (and doors!) for a few years now, only this week has my wheel returned: I realized that I missed spinning, and it's not like soothing hobbies are unwelcome these days.

I started spinning about 15 years ago, and did it a bunch for a few years and then more or less stopped for a long time. It's been interesting to start up again, and discover that my hands/body more or less remembered exactly how to do it. I had a few hours and about 200g of yarn to spin before some of the finer points came back and now I've spun a couple more skeins closer to my intention.

The other human asked "What do you like about spinning?"--well the question was phrased more like "is handspun yarn better?", but I will paraphrase to better capture intent. There are, of course, a few answers:

  • the act of spinning is quite satisfying. Sometimes it's enough for things to be fun and satisfying even if they aren't productive.
  • the yarn can be sort of nifty, and although I've spun a lot of yarn, I have mostly not knit much with handspun yarn. I tend to like consistent and fine (fingering) yarns in my own knitting, and machines just do better at making this kind of yarn, so I end up giving a lot of handspun away to friends who I know will knit it better.
  • spinning gives you a lot of control over the wool (and kind of sheep) that go into the yarn you get, in a way that just doesn't scale up to larger production schemes. I quite enjoy being able to first select what kind of sheep the wool I use comes from and then decide what kind of yarn I want from it. When other people spin, you can usually only pick one of these variables.

I'm currently spinning some white merino roving that I've (apparently had for years.) There's a piece of paper in the bag that says "2 lbs" but between my practice skeins and whatever I did before I stopped, there's probably only about a pound and a half left: this is fine. Merino is great, but it's quite common and I knit a lot of merino. I've been working on getting a pretty stable 3-ply worsted weight yarn, and I'm roughly there. I like 3-ply because of the round construction, and worsted weight is about the heaviest yarn I'm really interested in knitting with or using (and it's easy to design with/for!)

My next few spinning projects are with wool from different breeds of sheep (BFL! Targhee! Rambouillet!) though mostly undyed (and largly white), and mostly in larger batches (a pound or two.) I've never really gotten into hand-dyed roving, and mostly really enjoy spinning undyed wool: in most cases dying the finished garment or the yarn before knitting leads to the best result anyway. I guess one of the most The thing I like about spinning, in a lot of ways, is that it lets me focus on the wool and the sheep.

As a spinner, I'm far more interested in the wool and the sheep, in much the same way that as a knitter I've become far more interested in the structure of what I'm knitting than the color or the yarn. This feels entirely consistent to me: as a spinner I'm far more interested in the process and the wool than I am in yarn, and as a knitter I'm far more interested in using the yarn to explore the structure. Somehow, the yarn itself isn't the thing that compells me, despite being kind of at the center of the process.

Anyway, back to the wheel!