The knowledge of the hand

“I have a Norwegian crossbred whole-year fleece of excellent quality. Do you want one or two kilos?” The phone call came a year ago from Kia, a wool classifier and the person who has taught me the most about wool. “Well, I really have no room for more wool, but I may be able to squeeze in one kilo” I answered. “Do you want one or two kilos?”, Kia persisted. I realized that she really wanted me to make this fleece justice. What Kia considers a high quality fleece is a high quality fleece, so I replied that I would love two kilos. “Great, I’ll send it straight away!”.

From grease to yes please

So I have two kilos of extra beautiful Norwegian crossbred wool. The staples are around 12 cm and creamy white. More than wavy, less than crimpy.

Raw fleece with greasy and almost solidified tips.
Raw fleece with greasy and almost solidified tips.

When I got the fleece the tips were solidified by greasy lanolin. I imagined the sheep having skipped about in a Norwegian mountain, coastal climate rain pushing the lanolin out into the tips, creating a concentrated paste of grease.

Clean fleece
Clean fleece after a fermented suint bath.

After having admired my new bundle of fluff I soaked it in a fermented suint bath. The grease in the tips disappeared like magic. Apart from the tips the fleece was actually quite clean from the beginning, just the odd seed or piece of grass. I saw no hay or straw so don’t think the sheep had been stabled over the winter.

Two staples of wool, the leftmost white and clean, the rightmost yellow and dirty.
Raw fleece to the right, soaked in fermented suint bath to the left.

The knowledge of the hand

I decided to make this wool a long time spinning project. I got the fleece around the time I started my fascination of Andean spinning and weaving, and I realized the fleece would be perfect for hand teasing and spinning on Andean pushkas. The technique is slow and gives me the opportunity to grasp the knowledge of the hand.

A minimum of tools

All through this project I use a minimum of tools. I tease the wool by hand and spin with a simple hand carved Andean pushka. The method is slow, at least the way I do it.

When I tease the wool I get to know it. I get to know how to tease it to its best advantage, the direction and angle of pulling the fibers apart. I feel the structure of the staples and the individual fibers. When I tease I feel how the fibers stick together and how they separate. I can spot every nepp, tangle and weak fiber. During the teasing phase I get a feeling of how how the wool drafts. My hands learn the length of the fibers and its bounce.

A handful of unprocessed wool, a hand teased top and spindle spun singles.
Three stages – a handful of unprocessed wool, a hand teased top and spindle spun singles.

Time is knowledge

In a project like this the wool goes through my hands many times. One handful of fiber takes between 20 and 30 minutes to hand tease into a top. This is 20 to 30 minutes of opportunity to get to know the fiber, in the preparation phase alone. I open up each staple, arrange the teased wool into a top, draft through the top, double it, draft again and so on until I have a top with decently aligned and fully separated fibers.

Every time my hands interact with the fiber they learn something new about it. The knowledge of the hand is one of my most important tools when I spin.

A suspended spindle with the sea in the background.
With a simple tool you have the opportunity to learn more – through your body and through time. The knowledge of the hand is my most important tool.

You can move lots of mechanics from your body to the tools – processing, speed, tension and twisting of the fiber. In a way it saves you time. But it also takes away time spent with the wool. Time is actually of the essence here – time spent with the wool in all its stages.

A bedtime story

Most of the time I spin this project in bed before I go to sleep. It is a lovely way to end the day. I either tease or spin, let my thoughts come and go and find balance at the end of the day.

A two kilo pile of wool is a lot. To avoid strain from spinning I spin half of it clockwise and half counterclockwise. That way both my hands will learn and get to know the wool and the spinning as spinning hand and as fiber hand.

I spin this wool with a very low twist. The simple reason for this is that that is how I have learned from watching the Andean spinning workshop. The singles for weaving yarns are spun very loosely and given a high ply twist. I haven’t figured out why yet. One reason can be that it is easier to handle the singles when they have a low twist (that is my experience and quite painful lesson).

Spinning with such a low twist requires a slow tool and a slow technique. I don’t think I would have been able to spin with such a low twist on a spinning wheel, or a faster spindle for that matter. And when I spin the low twist singles on the pushka I have time to test the yarn for strength for every stretch of yarn I spin.

A spindle full of plied yarn on a chopping block.
Around 50 grams of plied yarn on a 20 gram spindle

I feel lucky to be able to spend all this time with this wool. There are so many aspects in these evening moments that I am so grateful for. Practicing, learning and finding a peace of mind. When I am done for the night I shake the tiny bits of vegetable matter out of the duvet and go to sleep in balance and at peace. During the night my brain processes what my hands have learned.

Learning by doing

Someone can tell me the dos and don’ts of a craft. I can understand it intellectually. But I won’t truly get it until I feel it – the knowledge of the hand key here.

A recent example is when I took a course in backstrap weaving. The teacher said it was important to use a yarn that wouldn’t stick, preferably cotton. I wanted to learn backstrap weaving to weave with my handspun yarns. I knew some of the yarns I had chosen would be too sticky. But what did too sticky mean? How would it feel? What would too sticky lead to? Where was my stickiness limit?

I tried different yarns in different degrees of stickiness. I learned when it would be too much trouble to manually separate the warp threads for each shed. In some cases I learned that sticky wool would pull fibers out of the yarn, leading to thinning warp threads and eventually breakage. I understood this before, intellectually. But it wasn’t until my hands felt and experienced the effect that I truly understood. The knowledge of the hand teaches me so much more than understanding something I read or hear from someone. My hands need to feel experience and understand the cause and effect.

A skein of creamy white yarn on a flat stone surface.
Slow is my favourite way to quality.

The funny thing is that I can take this knowledge back to my brain again – by writing about this process I can verbalize it and understand it in more depth. So thank you dear readers for encouraging me to write!

Textile plans

I am spinning this yarn into a weaving yarn, half of the skeins z-plied and half s-plied. I plan to dye the skeins in a variety of colours and use in backstrap weaving projects.

One of my first projects will be a case for all the backstrap loom sticks I have carved lately. I suddenly got an urge to carve sticks and couldn’t stop. I carve in maple which is lovely to work with this time of year. The bark comes of and the knife moves through the wood like butter.

Hand carved sticks of different sizes on a pile of wood chips.
Some of the backstrap loom sticks I have been carving lately. Of course they need a backstrap woven case!

It will take a while before I get to that stage, though. I have spun six skeins thus far, around 250 grams. There is a lot of wool left. I will have many hours to deepen the knowledge of the hand.

Five skeins of white yarn and a spindle full of plied yarn.
Six skeins spun, plenty left to learn from.

In the end I did manage to squeeze the two kilo fleece into my fleece storage. I already knew there would be room in my heart for it. A big thank you goes from my heart and my hands to you Kia!


Next weekend I’m going on my annual wool journey with my wool traveling club. A bit more distanced than we are used to, though. I may not find the time to blog, but there will be a new blog post in two weeks, hopefully telling you about the wool journey (which I’ll be getting to by bike this year!).

Stay safe and happy spinning!


You can follow me in several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
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  • I support Centro de textiles tradicionales del Cusco, a group of talented textile artists in Cusco, Peru who dedicate their work to the empowerment of weavers through the revitalization and sustainable practice of Peruvian ancestral textiles in the Cusco region. Please consider supporting their work by donating to their causes.

Learning Andean spinning

A woman walking on a country road while spinning

I have a new video for you today where I’m learning Andean spinning. While I do spin on an Andean Pushka in the video I wouldn’t say the video is about Andean spinning. Rather, it is about coming closer to understand the many dimensions of spinning. If you want to learn more about Andean spinning I have linked to lots of resources at the end of this blog post.

Spinning as a way of living

For many people of the Andes, spinning is a way of life. For me it is a hobby. But it is also more than that. I need to spin. My hands need to feel the structure of the wool and the motion of the spindle. My mind needs the moments of peace and tranquility spinning brings me.

The textile tradition of the Andes is long and strong. Techniques and tools have been handed down in an outdoor life for centuries and are still practiced in the open and on the move. Hands are never idle, spindles are always in motion in caring and experienced hands. I am very humbled by a community where textile arts is such a big part of people’s history, traditions and everyday life. In my part of the world textiles are pretty much seen seen as disposable products, often made far away in poor quality by people who work for less than minimun wages in lousy conditions. But in a textile community the textiles and textile crafts are respected and cherished.

Abby Franquemont has spent a lot of her childhood in the Andes, living in a textile community. She has recently moved there and runs a retreat in the area. Right now, this very second, it dawned on me what the title of her bestselling book Respect the spindle is really about.

I am new to Andean spinning. I have practiced for only a few months. During that time I have learned a bit about the technique. More importantly, I have learned a lot about spinning as a craft and art form. I feel the presence of the talented people who have spun before me. I am grateful for their gifts and that there is still so much to learn.

Crafting needs

Many crafts have been lost or forgotten after the industrial revolution. Why make when you can buy, right? The need to craft decreased. But I think in today’s society we need to craft more than ever, but for different reasons. To me, crafting gives me a deeper sense of presence, a feeling that is much needed in a world where we are flooded by information. I need to spin to find balance and to sort out what’s important to me. I think most of you understand what I mean when I speak of the crafting bubble – when you craft and forget time and space and are just in the moment.

Learning Andean spinning

A skein of white handspun yarn
A finished skein of light fingering weight yarn, hand teased and spun on a Pushka spindle 47 g, 124 m, 2629 m/kg

I have written down some basics of how I understand Andean spinning. I am very new to this I’m still learning Andean spinning. There are so many people who are living this technique and who know this so much better than me. Go to them if you want to learn more about Andean spinning.

Preparation

A woman standing by a field, teasing wool.
Teasing the wool by hand gives me a deeper understanding of the wool.

Spinners of the Andes don’t use any tools to prepare the wool. Instead they tease the wool by hand, usually alpaca or sheep’s wool. I use a Norwegian crossbred. Different fiber types will naturally be different to tease.

The chunk of fleece I teased for the teasing clip took around 35 minutes to prepare. This may seem like a very time consuming activity. And yes, you could argue that. But to me it is also an opportunity to get to know the fiber. When it goes through my hands again and again I get to know its structure, how it drafts and how it behaves. My hands store the information and use it in upcoming steps of the process. No time spent with the fiber or spindle is time wasted.

The spindle and the spinning

A woman spinning on a bottom-whorl spindle
The Pushka is a simple tool consisting of a carved stick and a turned balsa whorl

To go from shorn fleece to a finished skein the Andean way you only need one tool: A Pushka. The Pushka is a simple and lightweight spindle with a straight hand-carved stick and a turned balsa whorl. This tool is easy to bring when you are out and about.

The Pushka has no hook, groove or notch. Two to three half-hitches secure the yarn onto the shaft. You can use the spindle suspended, supported or grasped, depending on the context.

Transferring and skeining

Close-up of a person winding a yarn ball on the beach.
Transferring the singles to pebbles is a slow technique. It gives me time to reflect over the yarn I have spun.

In a life on the move there is no place for unnecessary tools. Usually the finished singles are wound around a pebble with the ground soil as a spindle stand. It is simple – not necessarily easy, though – and it works. I found out – the hard way – that it is a good idea to store the singles on the pebbles for a while before skeining. A newly spun single will tangle and make a big mess in the skeining step.

A woman making a skein between her hands.
Making a figure 8 skein is a good exercise!

Spinners of the Andes usually make a figure 8 skein of the two strands of yarn between the arms. Again: It’s simple and it works.

Plying

A person standing by a lake, plying on a spindle.
I ply the yarn by rolling the spindle between the palms of my hands. Sometimes I succeed.

With a figure 8 skein the spinner can easily ply the yarn straight from the skein hanging from the arm. You can either roll the spindle against your thigh or set it in motion between the palms of your hand. The latter technique takes a bit of practice. I’m lucky if I succeed one time out of ten.

Location

A phone camera on a tripod. A woman walking on a country road in the background
Dan always finds the right light, angle and composition. Photo by Dan Waltin

We shot the video during a week this summer when we rented a cottage at a sheep farm. Dan did most of the camera work. He has an eye for the right light, compositions and angles and I’m always happy when he takes the time to help me with my videos. Even if I’m the only one on camera, the interplay between us makes the video so much better and gives it a feeling of a deeper presence.

Learn from the professionals

Indigenous people have been spinning in the Andes for thousands of years. The textile tradition is long and strong, tracing back to the Incas and earlier. But it wasn’t always like that. During the colonial era the Spanish did their best to stop the making and wearing of traditional textiles. The industrialization made hand-made textiles less popular and new fibers were invented. You can read more about the textile traditions in the Andes here.

In the seventies more modern methods and tools spread and the younger generation didn’t learn the craft from their older relatives. A group of weavers did take matters in their own hands, though. Together with Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez they started a group whose mission was to save the old traditions and techniques and sell their textiles. The goal was also to empower indigenous weavers, especially women.

Resources

If you want to know more about Andean spinning there are several things you can do. There are Youtube videos where talented Andean spinners show the technique. Here is one that I like. There is also an online course you can download, where Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez goes through the technique in more detail. You can watch the YouTube trailer and then buy the course at Long thread media.

I recently bought a beautiful book about Andean spinning and weaving – Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. It takes you through all the steps from fleece to embellished textile in beautiful photos and hands-on instructions.

A book on a tree trunk. Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvare
Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. A good resource for learning Andean spinning.

Support Andean textile artists

I just donated $25 to the Center for traditional textiles of Cusco. If you want to support the textile traditions of the Andes you can donateeither to the center as a whole or to a specific program or project. The center also has an online shop where you can buy beautiful hand made bags, purses, hats, ponchos etc. If you donate, please let me know in the comments how much. It would be nice to see how much we have donated in total.

Happy spinning!

A woman walking on a country road while spinning
Walking and spinning deepens the senses of both the walking and the spinning. Photo by Dan Waltin

Textile heritage

Flemish tapestry weave with a woman spinning on a spinning wheel.

Sometimes I envy spinners who have a textile heritage. Their mothers taught them how to spin, they spin on their grandmother’s spinning wheel, they learned because everybody did it, that kind of heritage. I have no textile heritage. In this post I will reflect over where our spinning genes come from.

Family

I have no spinners in my family. My mother used to sew a lot when I grew up and I inherited that from her, but I know of no one in the family who has had any kind of interest in spinning. My mother may have taught me how to knit (because that is what you did in the -80’s), but I wouldn’t call her a knitter.

Josefin Waltin knitting a pastel purple sweater in a garden chair 1985.
A 12 year old Josefin knitting. The year was 1985 and I was sitting in my aunt’s summer house garden in Austria.

Somepeople are fortunate enough to have a well defined textile heritage. They can point out a person in their life who taught them how to spin or who has in some other way been important to them when they learned how to spin. I have no inherited tools with a personal history, no treasured family textiles, no tales to tell of old hands showing the motions.

Tradition

Some cultures have a strong textile heritage. Perhaps especially cultures where sheep are an important part of the agriculture and the landscape. With the sheep comes crafting that becomes an important part of people’s cultural and personal history. Textile crafting is a natural part of the culture and anyone who doesn’t craft is the odd person.

Shetland textile heritage

In 2015 I visited Shetland with my wool traveling club for Shetland wool week. Sheep are everywhere in Shetland. I think there are about 10 times more sheep than two-legged inhabitants. The treeless landscape is shaped by the sheep and the infrastructure needs to accommodate for sheep and pastures. Shetland looks like a sheep planet with tiny villages scattered in the landscape for people visiting.

Sheep grazing by the Bressay lighthouse, Shetland. East coast of Mainland Shetland in the background.

It was of course a wonderful week that none of us will ever forget. But the one thing that made the biggest impression on me was the textile heritage. Every Shetlander knows their textile heritage. And I do mean everyone. Their mothers and grandmothers have knitted when walking and shepherding and whenever their hands were not occupied with something else. Because they had to. Knitted items were sold and used as an important means for trading.

Every Shetlander knows what a hap stretcher, jumper board or a knitting belt is. There is a beautiful flora of special knitting terminology with influences from the Norse language and Scots. Hentilagets=Tufts of wool found in the pastures. Sprettin=ripping back (Sprätta in Swedish means ripping up a sewn seam). Makkin=knitting.

A person standing behind a stretched Shetland Hap
The Moder Dy hap. Photo by Dan Waltin

The textile heritage is tightly woven into everyone’s cultural and personal history. Since oil happened in Shetland, women haven’t needed to knit to provide for their families anymore, but the heritage is still very strong.

Navajo spinning and weaving

After having read a review of the book Spider woman’s children in the latest issue of Spin-off magazine, I knew I needed to buy the book. I ordered it, and when it arrived it proved to be a beautiful book that warmly told the stories of Navajo women (and a few men) who spin yarn from the Churro sheep.

Spider woman's children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas
Spider woman’s children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas

The wool is spun on Navajo spindles and the yarn is used to weave traditional Navajo tapestry rugs. The tradition is passed down from mother to daughter (or son), as are the textile tools and specific patterns or styles. It is a strong matriarchal culture with a true and genuine respect for the craft and the crafter. Many Navajo have spent a lot of time at trading posts where they have sold their rugs. The rugs are well sought after today and sell for thousands of dollars on auctions.

Master Artist workshop: Navajo weaving

Spinning, knitting and weaving in the Andes

This week I bought the video Andean spinning from Interweave. It features the talented Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz in a gentle conversation with Linda Ligon. Nilda shows how the women of the Andes spin sheep’s wool, alpaca and llama on bottom whorl spindles, pushkas. They spin constantly, and usually very thin yarn for weaving. Hands are never idle and there is always some textile crafting going on. The women spin, ply, dye and weave together and create a textile treasure to take great pride in. Men spin bulkier yarn and often in llama wool for weaving potato sacks. Imagine that, storing your potatoes in handspun, hand woven llama sacks. What a potato feast!

Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz tells Linda Ligon about Andean spinning. Short clip from the downloadable video Andean spinning.

They spin the wool on simple hand-carved and very lightweight bottom whorl spindles. Just a stick and a whorl. No hook, you just secure the yarn with a couple of half-hitches and you are good to go. They don’t prepare the wool with any tools other than your hands. They just separate the fibers with their hands and turn them into clouds that they drafts from.

Another video that shows Andean spinning from unprocessed wool.

The process is mesmerizing and my heart was singing when I watched the video. The simplest of tools make the most beautiful, yet sturdy and useful textiles. I instantly felt a need for a pushka spindle. Even as we speak, two pushkas are on the way to me. I intend to get myself a fleece that I can tease and draft directly from without tools. I don’t know what breed they use, but since the Spanish brought the sheep, chances are that there is at least some amount of merino in today’s sheep grazing the Andean slopes. I’m thinking some Jämtland wool or Norwegian crossbred, NKS, will do the trick.

Abby Franquemont who grew up in the Andes as a daughter of anthropologists learned the technique from an early age (but shockingly late in the eyes of the locals). She is currently back in Cusco, Peru, and sends daily sweets in the shape of videos from her visit. It makes me want to go to Peru right now and spin with them. Anyone know of a decent train line from Europe to South America?

A Swedish textile community

There are places in Sweden with a cultural textile heritage. The county of Dalarna for example is a region where twined knitting has been the dominant textile technique for centuries. Women were knitting whenever their hands were free to knit. Idle hands were a sin. Many people in this region today can show a treasured vadmal jacket with twined knitted sleeves, safely stored in the attic. And they treasure it.

Future textile heritage

Next generation

My children don’t know how to spin and they don’t share my passion for textiles. But they do have a passive knowledge of spinning and wool. They can tell the difference between a Texel sheep and a Finewool sheep. Probably Rya and Gotland too. They know the names of quite a few of the spindle types I have and they enjoy the sound of the spinning wheel. How many city kids have this knowledge today? Every time I see a sign of this passive knowledge my heart smiles. I know that I have passed a treasured knowledge to them, even if they don’t share my passion.

Urban spinning

Recently I got a new supported spindle and bowl. The bowl had a metal piece underneath to fit a magnet so that the bowl doesn’t slide off my lap when I spin. The other day I went to the hardware store to get a strong magnet. I had brought the bowl to check if the magnet would be strong enough. When I waited in line I imagined what I would answer if the sales person would ask what the bowl was used for. I imagined answering “the line is too long for me to tell you what the bowl is used for”. I was a bit disappointed when he didn’t ask me. Not even after testing the function with my handspun hat between the magnet and the bowl! But he did get me a decent magnet.

Supported spindle and bowl by Björn Peck
Supported spindle and bowl by Björn Peck. Few people outside the spinning community know what they are used for, let alone why I would want a magnet for it.

In a culture with a strong textile heritage this situation wouldn’t have occurred. The hardware store would have exposed the magnets in the shop with a sign saying “Get your spindle bowl magnets for safe commuter spinning here!”. Wouldn’t that be something?

Metro crafting

I wouldn’t say that Stockholm has a textile heritage, at least not one that I know of. I don’t often see textile crafting in Stockholm. Whenever I see a person trying to untangle their earphones on the metro my heart jumps because I instantly think they are knitting. But they are not. The irony of this is that they wouldn’t have had to untangle their earphones in the first place had they only had the knowledge to knit them in!

No untangling necessary with knit-in headphones.
No untangling necessary with knit-in earphones. Picture from 2012. Photo by Dan Waltin.

The few times I don’t get around by bike I spin or knit on the metro. First and foremost because I want to, but also to make textile crafting visible. I want people to know that spinning exist. I want people to reflect over what it is that I do, perhaps dig out threads of memories of knitting grandmothers, weaving aunts or just old hands showing how it’s done. Some people are brave enough to ask me what I’m doing, or just seek eye contact and smile. Once I was standing in the metro, nalbinding away. A man in his 60’s was watching what I was doing. After a while he smiled at me and asked “Isn’t that that nalbinding?” I was so shocked I nearly forgot to get off at the next stop. Never have I experienced anyone outside the textile community recognizing nalbinding, let alone a man.

A pair of striped socks in backlight
Nalbinding socks. Photo by Dan Waltin

I treasure moments like these. They give me hope that I can be a part of passing at least a passive knowledge of textile tradition on.

Online heritage

Most of my you who follow me on my blog and YouTube channel are spinners. A few just appreciate the serenity of my videos and another group is fascinated by the textile techniques without an intention of crafting themselves. Recently one of my videos was spread in a non-spinning context. In one week the amount of viewers grew from 600 to 21000 (!) and is now up in around 36000 views. Spinners are my target group, but seeing so many other people appreciating my textile heritage makes my toes dance of joy.

Making my own history

I may not have a textile heritage. But I have made my own. The positive side of not having a textile heritage is that I don’t have a given thread to follow. I’m not expected to follow a pre-destined tradition. I make my own thread and my own discoveries based on my curiosity and love for the craft. That is a heritage I am proud of.

What is your textile heritage?


The featured image I chose for this post is a Flemish tapestry weave made by my sister-in-law’s grandmother Birgit. Birgit was a weaver and left tons of hand woven pieces when she passed away. My sister-in-law does have a textile heritage is by her grandmother and mother, but she is not a textile crafter herself. When she was sorting out her grandmother Birgit’s belongings she thought of me and gave me a whole bag with beautiful handwoven kitchen towels and a few tapestry weaves. This way I can say that I have adopted my sister-in-law’s textile heritage.


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • I run an online spinning school, welcome to join a course!
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. Shooting and editing a 3 minute video takes about 5 hours. Writing a blog post around 3. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
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    If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!