A Failed Attempt

 

It’s so tempting for our online lives to show only the bright side; just our beautiful finished projects (neatly ironed), our best ideas translated fluidly into tangible objects. I’ve definitely swept my share of failed makes under the rug, never to see the digital light of day. And actually I think that’s fine too—some things we learn from, and some we just don’t want to talk about. I’m going to talk a little bit about this one though, and see how it goes.

 

failed refashioned sweater 2

 

I had so many reasons to love this sweater and try to save it. My mom knit it for my grandma, and after my grandma passed on I took it, thinking I could turn it into something I would wear. It started out as your classic grandma Aran cardigan; white and long and covered in cables and textures, slightly too big for me, with a high neckline and little pearly buttons. Although I’m sure it could have fit right into some people’s wardrobes with minor adjustments, it made me look ridiculous. Maybe I should have stopped right there, but I have a lot of faith that things can be refashioned to work in a new wardrobe (built on a solid foundation of makes that have worked out).

My first attempt to refashion the sweater was a few years ago, and included: shrinking/felting it slightly, dyeing it with tea, widening the neckline, and knitting new bands for the bottom and cuffs. It was a fair amount of effort, and I still didn’t wear it much. It felt strange, and the strain on the neckline proved too much, the yarn started to pop in several places. Not sure what to do next, I put it in a plastic bin in the garage, and there it sat, occasionally nagging at the back of my mind.

I got it out again last fall at the start of Slow Fashion October. What could be a more appropriate project? And I had a plan, in several steps, thought out beforehand, which looked good in my head. I trust those plans and my ability to envision how they will come out.

I dyed more yarn and ribbon in tea. I stitched the ribbon in to reinforce the neckline. I shorted the body and used the extra to add a collar onto the (ridiculously wide) neck. I figured out what stitch pattern I had used before, and knit another piece for the collar, and then another one because the first one didn’t work (actually I think there were three attempts at the collar). I wasn’t convinced it was great, but I also wasn’t able to take a step back from all I had invested, and I went ahead and overdyed the whole thing  with madder, hoping for some kind of warm soft brown. It came out, well, salmon, and that’s when I was forced to take a step back.

It wasn’t just the color, it was the spottiness of the color that really got me down. I knew this could be an issue dyeing garments (even though I haven’t had many problems using tea) and I had tried to strategize against splotches, but evidently not well enough. On top of all that, it was inescapably not my style—particularly that blasted collar.

 

failed refashioned sweater 3

 

I put it down, knowing it was no good, but not emotionally ready to let it go. It’s been a while since I had a downright project failure, particularly of something that I put this much effort and planning into. I still have plenty of “um, well, I won’t do that again,” learning moments, but at this point in my creating life, the results are usually fixable, or cause just a minor inconvenience in the finished garment. I had kind of forgotten what it feels like to have to give up completely on something that I’d worked so hard on, and how it takes the wind out of your making sails for a while. I definitely felt a little intimidated to start another project after this one.

The best silver lining I can come up with so far is this: that remembering this feeling is good for me as a teacher, in the same way that remembering what it’s like to be a beginner is good for me. There’s one big difference though: being a beginner is super fun if you have confidence you’ll get there in the end, but making a failed project is still no fun at all. I do know that my present confidence and skill is built on a whole bunch of projects that didn’t go very well (to one degree or another). And I’ve reminded myself that no time is ever wasted, as long as you’re making and learning, and enjoying the process. I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one of my favorite things about that book is how much she is reassuringly down-to-earth about stuff like this: everyone fails, everyone has droughts of creativity, and crises of confidence (even highly successful authors). What makes the difference is whether we can use the good parts of a bad experience to move forward, or we get so bogged down in the bad parts that we give up on this path entirely and look for another one.

Needless to say, one crummy sweater will not derail me from the path of any of the fiber arts I love. Thinking about this one still stings a bit, mostly because I can still see the potential in some parts of it … but I’ve accepted that I cannot make it into what I want, and I’m ready to put it in the charity pile, and let it go to meet its future, which whatever that may be, is not my responsibility any more. It took a couple months of the sweater sitting in the corner in our bedroom for me to get to this point. To tell the truth I think, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that the whole second attempt was doomed, because the neckline from the first attempt was beyond saving.

But now, I’m ready to take what I learned, leave the sweater behind, and move on. I still trust my instincts, and my ability to plan a project in my head before I start. These skills are built on years of experience, and usually the plan works. Even when it doesn’t, it’s another step moving me forward on a path which I believe in with my whole heart.

 

Advertisements

Our Relationship with the Tangible World, or How I Learned to Spin

 

first handspun yarn 1

You may be able to guess what this is … yeah baby, my first bobbin of handspun yarn!

 

So it’s like this: My beautiful, wonderful cousin came to visit me (with my beautiful wonderful auntie) and when she went back home, she left her spinning wheel here for me to borrow while she’s at college this spring. Amazing!

I’ve been thinking vaguely about learning to spin for, um, the past two decades give or take, ever since I first practiced weaving with my grandmother. But it just seemed to take so long, like it would add so much time to my whole knitting/weaving process, so I wasn’t ready to commit. Needless to say, that was before the infinite list.

In my new post-infinite-list world, starting to spin seems like the perfect choice; an expression of surrender and adventure all at the same time. Since there’s no way to ever finish all the knitting I’d like to (or weaving for that matter), I might as well make some frickin’ yarn!

 

first handspun yarn 3

 

Spinning is pretty amazing (I’ll talk more about that in a minute), but one of the best parts about it so far is an accidental discovery. In an effort to keep my immediate-onset spinning obsession from taking over my whole life (remember, I’m supposed to be focusing this year), I decided on some rules: I wouldn’t read about spinning except during times when I would normally read something else, and I wouldn’t sit down to spin at odd times during the day. Instead, I would wait until just before bed. So every night at 10 pm, I give myself permission to stop whatever I’m doing, shut off the computer, and spin for up to half an hour before getting ready to sleep.

Oh people, this has been life-altering. A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been very abstract: putting my ideas out there to various people and institutions, basically a whole lot of online research and laboring for hours composing messages, many of which are never answered at all. I do hope that good things will come of it, but it’s basically a frustrating process that leaves me floating in inconclusiveness, and for the most part, kind of grouchy.

Then at the end of the day, I put all that aside and sit down to learn, to make something real, to interact with the tangible universe. I’m reminded of this quote from Anaïs Nin about letterpress printing (which I found, like a lot of my deep-thought quotes these days, via Brain Pickings):

 

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.
You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

 

Although later this spring I will return this wheel to its rightful owner, I fully intend to keep this night practice going with knitting, or drawing, or something else. At 10 pm the computer shuts off, and I make something real for a little while before bed.

Some things you may be wondering: yes, the spinning wheel tempts me all day when I look at it, but in a sweet way of something to look forward to. And yes, if we’re going out at night or I think we’ll have guests staying late (I’m not really a late-night person and tend to crash hard if kept up past my bedtime) I find a half an hour earlier in the day to spin. Yes, this is in addition to the hour I still try my best to find every day for personal projects. I’m discovering that the more up-in-the-air my day’s work is, the more real-world-project time I need to stay happy.  I’m also a firm believer in taking the time your life will allow for the things that are really important to you. And yes, when I wake up at night lately I find myself thinking about twist in fiber, which I like much better than mulling over my worries!

 

first handspun yarn 2

 

Another thing that’s been beautiful about this process (although it sounds funny) is watching myself learn. I suppose I’ve absorbed the mantra I’ve told all my beginning knitting students: “You can do this! Anyone can do it if they just decide to practice it.” I do absolutely believe that this is true, that skill in handcraft is available to anyone who’s willing to start where they are (which a lot of times means training your hands from scratch) and keep practicing. It’s a gift we get just for being human, but it does take work.

Anyway, I’m cheating at learning spinning—the process is brand new to me but the feel of fibers and their qualities, the look and feel of yarn I’d like achieve, these things I already know. Not that I didn’t have lumps and bumps (you can see them!) and moments of beginner’s frustration which I had to push past, of course I did, and do still. But it’s been a long time since I learned something truly new to me, and maybe because of my teaching experience, but this time I’ve been able to let go of the outcome (a really healthy attitude for a first project in any material, I feel) and enjoy it. I’m a little surprised and pleased every time I sit at the wheel and notice that my technique is a little bit better, the yarn is coming out a little more even, or I just figured out some tiny thing that no one told me, it’s there in the materials and my hands to be discovered. When I first started I couldn’t spin from the imperfectly-carded batts of wool leftover from my early felting days, or treadle with one foot, but now I can do both.

 

first handspun yarn 4

 

If you’re not interested in being seduced into the wild world of spinning, stop reading now.

Three compelling reasons to spin:

Spinning is fast! For some reason I always assumed it was the slowest part of the fiber-to-garment process, but it’s clearly not, due to being a more-or-less continuous flow, rather than a stitch-by-stitch motion. It’s fairly shocking how quickly a newbie like me can make enough yarn to knit something out of.

You can make yarn that you can’t buy, and the other people doing so are interesting folks!  This, realized while reading Ply Magazine, was one of the final straws for me: I could see myself wanting just such a yarn for such a project, but it wouldn’t exist commercially … I started reading Ply because of an article about how twist protects the fibers in yarn from wear (by Deborah Robson), and ended up reading every. single. thing. in the Twist Issue, even though at that time I had no plan to become a spinner. The way the articles are presented; with differing opinions, and explorations by people digging around the fundamentals of their craft, captivated me. The intricacies of how yarn is made are interesting even if you’re working with the yarn and not making it … but as I read I also became more and more convinced that if this is how spinners think, they are my people, and I must become one.

Spinning is amazing! There’s something very fundamental about it, an immediate sense of how old and how intrinsic this process is, which draws me in. The rhythm is soothing, and at this point in my learning anyway, it works best if I can concentrate on what’s happening and be present without many words in my head—a lot like meditating, or dancing with someone. Plus you make real yarn from a pile of wool! If that doesn’t seem amazing, then you’re just not paying enough attention.

I have just two tips so far for other would-be beginning spinners:

Read the book The Intentional Spinner by Judith MacKenzie McCuin. Although it doesn’t have the variety of perspective you get from reading Ply, she lays out answers to a lot of the basic questions I had with clear photos, fascinating descriptions of fiber, and even ideas for making tools you need using a cardboard box and old knitting needles!

Try not looking for a second while you’re spinning. I know it sounds crazy, but I tried it after reading an article by Carson Demers in which he said (among other things) that looking up at least part of the time you’re spinning (or knitting!) is much better for your body. And it turns out that (also like dancing with someone) if you take your eyes off what you’re trying to do, even for a couple of seconds, you become instantly so much more aware of all the other information available to your body—in this case what your fingers can tell about the twist and diameter of the yarn you’re making by feel.

Ok three tips: just try it! Or try something else you’ve been meaning to do, and save it as a treat until the end of the day. I really can’t recommend it enough.