Spinning Philosophy Continued

So, last week I talked about The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind

A couple people have asked about this, mostly a form of, “But if you’re always starting as a beginner, how do you improve? Don’t you want to make better stuff?”

I am not a philosopher. I can’t tell you that this is the “right” way to interpret these concepts, but this is how I see them and use them.

The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind aren’t about not moving, in fact, quite the opposite. They’re about being where you are, now, SO THAT you can move. It is very easy to get bogged down with where we “should” be, how skilled we “should” be, what we “should” be able to make. In fact, it’s easy to get so bogged down, so frustrated at the “should” that you can’t make anything at all.

Those are thoughts antithetical to the both the Uncarved Block and the Beginner’s Mind. The block doesn’t think about what it should be, it is pure potential. The true beginner doesn’t think about what they SHOULD be able to make, they are a beginner, so they start at the beginning.

I have been spinning for years now. My hands mostly know the motions. I can walk while spindle spinning. When I sit down at the wheel, I don’t forget all that! What I DO do, though, is sit down and say, “This IS where I am, THIS is my starting point, TODAY’S beginning.”

I mentioned in the last post that I often take on hard projects to help me with this mindset. Basically, I’m deliberately pushing the “should” toward where I am. If I can tell myself “this SHOULD be hard, it’s a hard project” then it’s a lot easier for me to let go of that voice in the back of my head that says, “You SHOULD be perfect at this, you SHOULD be better at this, WHY aren’t you?” I think of it as artificial Beginner’s Mind.

It’s also why I keep my first yarn. I can hold up that yarn in front of that mean little voice in the back of my head and say, “This is where I started. Look where I am today! So screw off with your should’s!”

Which brings us to improvement. These ideas aren’t about not improving, they’re about giving yourself the space to improve at the pace you improve. If you can start a project with a beginner’s mind, an uncarved block, aware of where you actually are, not where you “should” be, then you can also accurately evaluate your progress from that point. You can say, “Ok, my hands know how to make a thin yarn now, but my consistency is still struggling a little, maybe next time I’ll try a reference card.” Without that mindset, it’s far too easy to look and see all the faults at once, think you’re not improving, and thus not know where to focus your efforts. It’s also easy to get frustrated that your yarn isn’t perfect and just stop.

And I’ll tell you a secret. Shh, don’t tell anyone but… your yarn will never be perfect.

Never. Mine isn’t. No one’s is! The more you learn, the more you can see every flaw, and the more you know what’s possible. I know people who’ve been spinning for 40 years and make AMAZING yarn… they still can see improvements to be made. Each day they start where they are, and move forward from there.

The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind are not about perfection, they are about improvement. Start where you are, and move forward. If you believe you “should” be “perfect” then you’ve already lost the battle, because no yarn is perfect, even the yarns spun by the Moerae* have snags.

So get spinning. Wherever you are in the journey, start there, every time.

That’s all for now!

*Moerae: Greek Fates – Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos who spun the lives/destinies of humanity

~The Gnome

Spinning: Romney and The Uncarved Block

It has been a long time since I spun. I mean a LONG time.

I recently plied a rideau arcotte two-ply that had been sitting, completely spun, on my wheel for at least 5 years, and maybe more.

So, I decided it was time to get back into it. I love it, and it’s good to know the fiber I’m dyeing in a more intimate fashion than just how it behaves in the pot. So, a taste for the future, I plan to do more of these blog posts. We’ll see if I succeed.

I have this lovely soft lofty romney I got from a local breeder and got processed by my favorite processor into roving (the same romney that’s in the shop). Romney is a medium wool that’s used all over the country for a lot of different purposes, leading to a significantly variant fiber characteristic. It can be SUPER long, or only moderately. It can be pretty coarse (think 70’s wool sweater prickly) or downright silky. This particular batch of small farm Romney was on the average length, extra fine ends of the spectrum, and quite clean. Once back from the processor, it begged to be spun into a nice lofty, fuzzy yarn. This made it perfect for my purposes of getting back into spinning. And along with getting back into spinning, a dose of spinning philosophy.

Why, you ask?

Because I am not very good at longdraw, and that would be a great way to spin this.

Wait, you’re saying, it’s perfect because you need to spin it a way you’re bad at?

Exactly! Using a technique I know I’m not an expert in lets me more easily hang onto a concept known as “P’u” or “The Uncarved Block” from Taoism. There is what I think of as an outgrowth of this idea, though it’s technically a separate Buddhist one, referred to as “Shoshin” or “the Beginner’s Mind.” Which is all a very long lead-in to say that when I am learning something, or RElearning something, I work very hard to be Pooh, and not Rabbit.

You’re giving me that look again. Ah, yes, I learned about the idea of P’u from the fabulous book, “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, and the idea has stuck with me for my whole life as I’ve struggled, or not, to learn things. Basically, the idea is that you can’t overcomplicate things with expectations and assumptions and all the things something “should” be and how it “should” work. You have to approach each thing with a fresh mind, an uncarved block, and each task with a mind open to learning and working to learn new things, a beginner’s mind. In a word, be like Winnie the Pooh.

By default, I want to be perfect. I am very definitively… not. What this means, practically speaking, is that I don’t like it when things I make aren’t perfect or I am not skilled at things. I have figured out a way around this, purposefully make things hard for myself. By making things hard, I then can convince myself it SHOULD be hard, and therefor that it’s ok to struggle. Which brings us back to the Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind. (All pictures can be clicked to embiggen)

This is the first yarn I spun. It is three-ply, corriedale, spun on my Ashford Traditional. It is thick as my thumb in some places, so large that when spinning it I often had to literally shove it through the orifice to wind it on the bobbin. There are a thousand things wrong with this yarn, and if I wanted to, I could go through them all. But I don’t. I’ve been spinning (with obvious breaks) for 10 years, and I have never sat down and critiqued this yarn.

Because this is the first yarn I spun. The first fiber I took from a fluffy cloud, spun, and plied into an actual yarn that could, theoretically, be crocheted or knit with (given large enough hooks/needles). It is just over 2 ounces, and I MADE it. When I had almost no idea what I was doing, I made this thing.

I LOVE this ridiculous skein of yarn.

It’s soft, it’s squishy, and I MADE IT.

When I spin, I try (and often fail) to catch that sense of wonder and acceptance that things won’t be perfect. A great spinner and talented woman, Abby Franquemont, put it this way, “Let yourself suck.” Which is, of course, a restatement of the Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind mantras. When I spun that first skein, I was DELIGHTED. Whatever else was wrong with it, it looked recognizably like yarn, and it was magic. I wasn’t concerned with making it perfect, I was “letting myself suck” because I knew I was learning. There’s a bit of magic every time you make something, and by the time I broke off regular spinning, I could pretty easily spin super fine yarn on a wheel or on a spindle while walking.

But that first skein will always be special, which is why I keep it. As a reminder of where I came from, and the magic of that first moment of “OMG It’s working!” Which all finally brings us back to the Romney and my relearning to spin. I knew that my hands and muscles would be out of practice. So I purposefully picked a fiber that was well suited to a skill I had only been passable at when I went on break. The idea being that I could be patient with myself, get myself into the beginner’s mind and let myself suck a little. I also didn’t make plans on use or much in the way of an idea of fineness. Long draw would help keep the fluff in the Romney, and not compact it, since I really wanted to preserve its rare softness.

So I dyed up some muddy green/brown colors I loved and got down to business. I’ll do another post (or series of posts) later about how exactly I control colors, but that would be a bit much for this post.

I decided on a three-ply because… because. No particular reason besides I felt like it and three-ply with multicolor tends to maximize tweediness if I wanted to use it for something later. And then I finally started spinning!

It came back fairly quickly. Main challenges were getting enough tension on my Schact-Reeves 30 inch. If I was doing this more often, I would likely switch to a heavier drive band. But it mostly worked, and I did some experiments on compensating with additives that I’ll post about later as well. I still tended to default to a supported long draw, which gave me a little more control. I also quickly relearned that longdraw is WAY easier if you open up the fibers first, and that it was way easier to spin from one end of the roving (though by no means impossible).

Then it was time for plying, which is always fun! I tension with my plying hand, because I’ve never gotten a braking lazy-kate. It works for me, and resulted in… yarn!

4oz fits just about exactly plied on these Schact bobbins, which is always a bonus. And it measured up to… 134yds.

With some left over. I knew there would be left overs because I was carefully not worrying about that, choosing to focus on the technique to the exclusion of other things. This meant more leftover than usual.

Leftovers were plied into a two ply. STILL remaining leftovers (you’ll notice the leftover bobbins aren’t the same either) were plied back with themselves. All the yarns were measured, given a warm bath, snap, and light thwack to even out the plying. Much to my surprise, they’re pretty balanced (another thing I didn’t plan, I just plyed until I liked the look).

134 yds of three-ply
38 yds of two-ply
12 yds of two-plied back on itself

And the final yarn?

A surprisingly even dk/worstedish yarn, with plenty of flaws, but no monumental ones that would prevent its use. Which is pretty neat, since I was not worrying at all about those things. But when I let myself have an empty mind about it, I didn’t worry and overanalyze. So I guess I naturally evened it out instead of ending up trying too hard to control it and ending up with a thick-thin monstrosity. Yay!

And my goals? Definitely got better at supported long draw. Definitely remembered how much I love spinning. Definitely saved the softness and loft of the original fiber. It’s very squishy and enjoyable.

I call that a win.

Next up on the wheel is some Manx Loaghtan

And, as a bonus for reading this far… a sneak peek of a current Gnomespun project:

That’s all for now!
~The Gnome


Shop Update: Manx Loaghtan, Targhee, BFL/Silk, Gotland

Shop is here

Fibers: Manx Loaghtan, BFL/Silk, Gotland, Targhee, Shetland, Corriedale

Colorways: Azurite and Malachite, Blue Tits, Deep Clementine, Deep Paprika, Edge of the Sea, Eye of the Storm, Gazania, Heart of the Green, Heart’s Blood, Lion’s Mane, Low Tide, Marigold, Moose Tracks, Nereid, Northwest Passage, Rose Red, Corriedale, Smoked Ruby, Swampy, Three-Toed Sloth, Umbral, Whirlpool, Zinnia

That’s all for now!
~The Gnome

Gardening: Raised Beds

During the haze of last summer, I never got a blog post done about this, but now spring is coming again and as I’m getting ready to prepare next year’s gardens, I thought I’d post about how we got here with this year’s garden!

I’m living in Northern VA. The ground here is garbage. Compressed clay that never ever drains, with very little to feed plants. Our roses required multiple-foot-deep (and wide) holes in order to not behave like we’d planted them in too-small pots. The drainage is an especial problem because water where we are is very… spotty. So if you plant dry plants they drown, and wet plants dry out (or drown too).

The solution, we decided, was raised beds.

I’ve got a little experience with these, as my parents built and then modified a set of them while I was living with them. So I sat down and figured out a good size and sketched it out on graph paper to make sure that made sense in terms of the yard.

And “roughly” what I was going to put in.

Then… the work started.

We had to buy a bunch of lumber, untreated since we didn’t want to leech the stuff they use for pressure treatment into my veggies. And other materials, like nifty slotted bricks for the corners and joints…

Since it was going to be in the middle of the yard, I didn’t really want it to be pasty white, so we stained the outside surfaces.

Since the boards were untreated and they were going to be outside and against wet soil, we had to seal them. We used a “spar varnish” which is specifically meant for use on outside stuff, sprayed onto the boards.

Then, of course, they had to dry, and we repeated with the back side!

Once it was all dry (for a third time) it was time to put it together.

Which took some time, but I got it done! The slotted blocks are totally cool.

Our ground is NOT very diggable. At all. BUT just in case, I lined the bottom with small gauge fencing. Because I really don’t want ot lose stuff to voles and gophers.

Now, as an added layer of protection to keep the soil in and as much moisture away from the wood as popular (I don’t really wanna have to rebuild this thing every other year) we lined the sides with Tyvek. This also helps keep the water from running out the sides too badly.

Finally, along the back, I put up trellis made from a section of goat fence cut in half. For those who haven’t heard of that before, it’s the same idea as hog or cow fence, just with different holes. Cow and hog have more at the bottom and large spaces at the top, goat has even smallish holes all over, perfect for beans and peas. Held up with standard fence posts.

And so, the structure was done!

Which meant… time to fill it up. We got some lovely compost from a local landscaping company for… not too expensive, because we were also regrading our yard at the time and working on several other projects so I got about 7 yards of compost, plus a big pile of topsoil. The compost (or rather, much of it) went into the garden.

Woohoo! We’ve got a garden! It’s got dirt and everything! And steps!

Ok, now plants… which… sort of went as planned. Quick, change the plan, no one will notice, right? Right?

And pretty soon, OMG IT’S GROWING. It’s funny, it’s not like plants that are planted in good dirt and cared for, are unlikely to grow. They may not flower, or bear fruit, but still when stuff started coming up from seed I was both overjoyed and relieved that it had “worked.” Brains are funny things.

And grow it did, fast!

Lettuce, beans, peas, and carrots

And by the end of summer… (yes, we also put down 2400 sq feet of sod, by ourselves, in this time)

Definitely had some flaws, but mostly in my planning on how close things could or couldn’t be and what would run over other things. Also discovered after the fact that the compost is low in calcium, so I fought blossom end rot a fair amount, though it only reduced my yields. Had some bug challenges, mostly arising from the fact that almost no one else in the area has a serious garden, especially a vegetable garden. That’ll be the biggest challenge with the upcoming year, keeping the squash bugs and cucumber beetles backed off enough they don’t kill stuff. I lost almost all my melons, a third of my squash vines, and all my cucumber plants to them this year. Sadness. Hopefully better luck with those this coming year!

More dirt coming to refill the raised bed early next month, and the peas will go in on the 20th of March, as will the early in-house seeding of things like tomatoes. I can’t wait!

That’s all for now!

~The Gnome