Sunday, February 17, 2013

Really awesome lace knitting. Howzawhat now?

 Rambly thought time! Reviews to come later, but this is something I've wanted to write for a LONG time now.

So a couple people pointed out that I said something really obscure the other day. Not the part about where fairy legends come from, but the other things I said come from Scotland--golf, great whiskey (...look. My spelling sucks, okay? Half the time I can't even keep numbers straight, and you expect me to remember that I-before-E shit?) and really awesome lace knitting.

My primary hobby, after art and writing, is lace knitting. Specifically, my undying quest to knit a wedding ring shawl. I do not talk about this much, because a fundamental part of knitting is how freaking boring it is to non-knitters. I also spin, which is even more boring to most people. And that's a crying shame, because the history of yarn is EVERYBODY'S history. If you want to truly understand a culture, don't start by studying its public face. Study how spinning tech developed. Study its yarn.

But if everybody spins, not everybody does lace. As far as I know, there are five places where lace is a part of the culture: the Faroes isles ( not make me spell that right. Please.) the Ukraine, Estonia, Orenburg Russia and the Unst region of the Shetland isles. The latter two are the only ones with a history of making four-foot-by-four foot shawls (or bigger!) that you can pull through a wedding ring.

The history of Russian lace is incredible. You cannot read about it without also reading about the Soviet revolution. Lenin made the shawls a national treasure, but because the same men and women doing the knitting were frequently the kulaks, Stalin immediately began killing them. There is a story of a man who won awards for his work, who was killed because he "couldn't conform". The text of that story strongly implied the man was gay.

Shetland lace doesn't have the same dramatic history, but it does have many of the same patterns. This is incredibly weird to me, because Shetland is a little clump of rock sitting off the end of Scotland, and Orenburg is a city in the middle of the mountains between Russia and Afganistan. The only connection between the two locations during the era when this art-form was developing were the Vikings. And yet many of the patterns are nearly identical--the Orenburg "Strawberry" pattern and the Scottish "Cat's paw" is a good example. Another interesting thing is how the culture of the area "flavors" the knitting. Orenburg knitting has a very Arabic feel to it, whereas Shetland lace is Shetland lace.

FYI, this is shetland lace:

And this is Orenburg lace:'s a really shitty old picture and I gave this shawl away already
One final tidbit before I end this thread of ultra bordom: I also spin, because you can't find laceweight yarn fine enough for wedding ring shawls without epic-level google-fu and a credit card worth its weight in gold. And in order to produce yarn fast enough to get to knit this lifetime ( learn on drop spindles. You can't produce on them) I had to buy a wheel. Wheels, however, are expensive and few of them are actually good for spinning lace weight yarn. Eventually, I settled on a charkha. Which I had to buy from India.

It is my favorite thing in the whole world. And in researching the history of this, I've come to be rather in awe of the tool that I get to own. I came across this site the other day, and if you read abosolutely nothing else today, READ THAT LINK. But just in case you decide not to, here are three quotes from somebody pretty surprising. And I'll save that surprise for the end:

“The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all.”

"Art to be art must soothe.” He said further that the yarn we spin is “capable of mending the broken warp and woof of our life.”

“A plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour. I claim that in losing the spinning wheel we lost our left lung. We are, therefore, suffering from galloping consumption."

Mahatma Gandhi said that. And I know I probably have the wrong context here, and it's probably wrong as fuck for a white woman to quote Gandhi, but you know what? Fuck it. IMHO the west's biggest problem is that we have too much and we don't have to work. Knitting is that thing old ladies do, spindles are what knocked out Sleeping Beauty, and a spinning wheel is a metaphor for doing nothing. The key to a healthy life without the sickness of hubris is Worship and Work--both are a reminder that we are small, frail, faliable humans and none of us, not one of us, is better or worse than any other. Yes. We do need to change. If there's one thing we privelaged white folk need to re-learn, it's humility. And the old, devalued work--spinning, weaving, sewing--might just be the teacher we need.

I'm not saying the world would necessarily be better if everybody got around a big table and played with yarn for a few hours, but it would certainly be a lot softer. And I don't know about you, but there's a lot of broken warp and woof in my life that I definitely need to fix.


  1. Awesome! I have been thinking of learning to spin when I have more space to do it in; I can sew, knit a little, and do a little embroidery, and spinning looks like a lot of fun. I've been researching wheels, and there's a lot to learn.

    1. Oh God. Spinning is so much fun. It's incredibly calming, it occupies your hands when you need to think, and it's satisfying to take all this soft fiber stuff and turn it into actual yarn.

      Starting with a wheel is a little much. I'd recommend you start with a drop spindle. Trying to get the hang of the treadle AND control the amount of fiber going into the spin is hard, and it's not something you'd want to jump into right away. A drop spindle, you can park it while you're learning how to draft, you can travel with it, and you can keep it in a shoebox if you want to.

      You can make a drop spindle out of just about anything--my favorite go-to for a homemade spindle is a long shafted crochet hook and a toy car wheel with paper jammed into the hole. I really recommend you start with something cheap and/or homemade. They call it a "drop" spindle because that's what you do with it while you're learning. You'll know pretty fast if spinning is for you or not. If it's not, you won't have invested a lot of time and money. If it is, welcome to the fiber addicts' club.

  2. Cool, thank you for the advice! I'll look into drop spindle construction- I do like making stuff like that. It's so much more fun if you can make the stuff yourself.
    Still, wheels are *so cool*. My grandmother had a couple when I was small that I was completely fascinated with. Sadly they got sold.

  3. This is a really interesting post! I didn't realize that the history of spinning had so much to do with cultural history itself, and I am all kinds of impressed that you can actually spin AND knit lace. I suspect I would just create a huge, tangled jumble of yarn if I tried to do something like that.

    I know what you mean about keeping your hands occupied when you need to think, though. I tend to do this with a guitar, but it's the same principle...except that when spinning you are actually creating something useful.

    AWESOME quotes from Gandhi! I agree that the western world in general has a major problem with Having Too Much Stuff. We don't know how to be humble, we are always trying to prove that we are better or superior, and we cannot seem to shut up and just exist every once in awhile. The USA in particular needs to get over its superiority complex and realize that people are people, and their worth is not measured in how much Stuff they happen to own.

    Nothing drives this home more than working with the American public every day. -_-

    1. Spinning is easy. Spinning well is hard, but you can actually produce yarn (...lumpy yarn, but yarn) the first time you sit down with a spindle.

      A wheel is another story entirely. Every "how to use your wheel" checklist I've read suggests sitting down and pumping the peddles for about twenty minutes the first time you get one, so that you know what the rhythm is.

      My pet project for the next little while is to read Gandhi's autobiography. Which I probably should have read ages ago, but I haven't.

      I think if we gave up one night of drinking, video games and TV and did something that's actually worthwhile once a week, the world would be a much better place. Especially because, being good humans, we'd donate that cash to something good.

    2. "I think if we gave up one night of drinking, video games and TV and did something that's actually worthwhile once a week, the world would be a much better place. Especially because, being good humans, we'd donate that cash to something good."

      Yes, exactly. If every person in this country could do that, just one night a week, can you imagine what we could accomplish? It would be awesome. :)

    3. One day before I die I want to put a whole bunch of people into a room full of wheels and do some kind of spin-a-thon for a good cause. I have no idea how to do the logistics. Heck, If I had any clue how to even start doing it, I'd spend my entire free time refurbishing spinning wheels and teaching classes and donating the money I make from the selling and the teaching to causes that need it, like women's rights in India.

      ...I've also wanted to buy like fifty dollar gift cards to grocery stores and give them to the cash register manager and tell them every time somebody runs out of cash at the register and has to choose between diapers or food or something for their kid, the store should use the gift cards to make up the difference.