At the moment I’m teaching a digital course in wool knowledge to a spinning group in Sweden. At last week’s lecture I talked about analyzing the wool characteristics of a fleece. One student , E, said she was a beginner and didn’t know what can be expected by a characteristic. Her question gave me a lot to think about. I want to turn her concern around and highlight the superpowers of working in a new field. Today I want you to embrace your mistakes.
Sometimes it can be frustrating to be a beginner. For me just as for anyone else. The feeling of shortcomings in a group where you feel everybody else knows way more than you do can be discouraging. In moments like these I choose to flip the whole thing around and see the superpowers in being a beginner.
Embrace your mistakes
To understand something craft related I need to feel it. If there is a rule, like “don’t use a woolen spun yarn for warp” or “a two-end knitting yarn needs to be firm” I need to experience the consequences. When I have lived it and learned it I can make progress with that lesson in the back of my head and, most importantly, in the memory of my hands. I can also experiment with the boundaries of that rule. Can I use a woolen spun yarn for a very loose sett? What is too soft in a two-end knitting yarn?
Deriving the rules
One of the superpowers of being a beginner is that I don’t know the rules. Or, perhaps I have heard of the rules, but mostly in the terms of “Don’t do this, or that will happen”. I need to see and feel for myself to understand why it is wise to go one way instead of the other. I need to learn the mistakes through my hands. Sort of like deriving pythagoras’ theorem to understand why it works. When I don’t know the rules I am most likely to break them and learn something along the way.
Too soft two-end knitting yarn
When I held a spindle in my hand for the first time, on my first spinning lesson, I wanted to spin a Z-plied yarn for two-end knitting. There’s an optimistic attitude for ya! Two-end knitting didn’t happen with that first yarn, but a while later I did make a Z-plied yarn. From the softest finull lamb’s fleece (first beginner’s mistake). Way underspun (second beginner’s mistake). But I didn’t realize that until I had started my two-end knitting project. The yarn broke over and over, but I kept knitting. I did end up with a pair of mittens (fulled, I might add) that I used daily for many winters. When the thumbs needed mending I mended. I am still proud of the mittens and I embrace the mistakes I made.
The opposite happened with my recent sock yarn. I wanted to make the yarn durable but ended up with string in my first try. But I learned from that, tried again, and succeeded with a softer, but still strong sock yarn. I don’t want to unlearn that lesson.
I am knitting a pair of socks for Dan in this yarn as we speak. They should be strong enough, but I don’t know yet. The yarn makes a clear dent across my left index finger as I knit. I hope they aren’t too scratchy to wear. This proves that my sock project still has lots of potential mistakes to embrace!
Freedom of creation
Sometimes I don’t even know rules exist. That way I can be free in my expression and create from my core. I can follow an idea straight from my heart all the way to a finished project. I will definitely meet challenges and make lots of mistakes. However, when it comes to my handspun I know how much time and love I have invested in it and I just have to make it work. I owe it to the sheep, the sheep farmer and the craft. Making something work despite a big blob of a challenge forces me to use more creativity to work around it. And that is definitely a superpower.
A few years ago I got a beautiful fleece with a lot of lanolin in the tips. I stored it for about a year and decided to start working with it. By then the grease had solidified and was very difficult to work through. Combing it was tough and left my shoulders and arms strained and the wool lumpy. After having experimented for a while I decided to tease the locks with a flicker before loading them to the comb (check out this post about the fleece and watch the two videos in it, showing the difference between combing with unflicked and flicked tips). The combing was easier on my back and resulted in less lumps and less waste.
A map of what I have learned
When I learn something the hard way I will remember what I have learned. My hands will remember. Especially when I look at what I have created. I say this all the time to my students and I mean it from the bottom of my heart: My mistakes are a map of what I have learned. I can look at a finished fabric and see the mistakes. At that instant I know what went wrong, why, what I did to fix it and how I can put that new knowledge to use in following projects.
One of my first weaving projects was the Blanka pillowcase. I spun the warp on a supported spindle from the cut ends of flicked locks and the weft on a floor supported Navajo style spindle. I wove the pillowcase as a tube, with two layers of warp on top of each other. The warp ends were very sticky and I had to separate them manually. I think over 30 warp threads broke, on the top layer as well as the bottom layer. I had spent so many hours spinning this yarn, from a prize winning fleece, and I just had to finish it. Eventually I did. I mended the weave by threading a needle with the warp yarn and sewing up and down in the space where the warp thread had broken. I am not afraid of broken warp threads anymore and I know how to fix them.
Another lesson in the Blanka pillowcase project was that spinning from individual staples creates lots of joins that are sensitive to abrasion and easily break. I avoid that in weaving nowadays and find other ways to spin the yarn without moving too far away from my creative needs. The pillow lives in our sofa, I wear the bag and I use the stick wrap when I weave. I see the mistakes every day. And I embrace them.
Exploring the boundaries
Some of the times that I have revisited a mistake it has been as an experiment to find out where the limits are. By exploring the boundaries I can find out how much I can bend the rules. If a warp yarn is sticky but still strong enough it will take a lot more time and disrupt the flow. But nothing bad will happen. If the warp threads are strong they will just cling, not break. The worst case scenario is that I will spend more time with the weaving. I don’t see that as a problem.
The joy of the heterogenous fleece
I work with handspun yarn in general and Swedish breeds in particular. More often than not they are unique and heterogenous. I need to compromise with the rules to make the textile work with the unique yarn that I spin. By learning – the hard way – how different yarns work in different kinds of weaves I can explore the boundaries.
During the fall I have spun a Gute warp yarn. The Gute wool is very prone to felting, very variegated in staple length, staple type and fiber type. Fibers are sticking out of the yarn and are just waiting for a neighbouring fiber to hold on to. But I still want to fulfill my goal of a light, fulled textile made of my handspun Gute wool. So despite all the rules and recommendations I made a woolen spun Gute warp yarn. The yarn has quite a high twist and the sett is very loose (so that I can full it). And it works. If it doesn’t, I will mend broken warp threads. I know how to do that now.
There will be more wool
Working with your mistakes instead of dreading them is a valuable way to learn more about how your fiber works. Without the mistakes I have made – from the very first blobby skein, through he recent sock string and to all future projects – I wouldn’t have been able to understand the wool I am working with.
The saddest mistakes I have made have been with fleeces that have grown too old and brittle and I have had to use them as mulching in the garden. But even then they come into use. And there will always be more wool. If you lose one unique fleece there will be another equally unique fleece just around the corner of the pasture.
So thank you, E, for your important question. Play, explore and learn. Embrace your mistakes. They will make out a beautiful map of what you have learned.
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