Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The great disconnect

The best weavers in history were the professional hand weavers.
The best knitters in history were the professional knitters.
The best spinners in history were the professional spinners.

There are still a few professional hand weavers around, and they are very good, but we no longer have whole guilds of them where they can exchange ideas and compete.  And, they no longer have sources of fine hand spun yarns.  It is only by doing something everyday, in the company of other talented professionals, and in competition with those talented professionals that one can become the best. And, one produces the best product by working with the best materials.  Modern weavers are very limited by the lack of fine hand spun yarns.  Spinning has disconnected from its heritage of providing fine yarns for fine weaving.

First, the professional needs professional tools.  Tools used by professionals are different than the tools used by amateurs.   Professionals are always concerned about production rates and capital cost. Whatever else they are, a professional's tools are always cost effective.

Consider spinning. Good spinning is at the heart of any superior textile.  What modern spinning wheel is cost effective?  Babe - not expensive, but not highly productive.  Alden Amos's wheels are easy to spin on; but as built are limited to ~ around 2,400 rpm -- that imposes an absolute limit on how fast one can spin fine yarn.
If I am a good spinner, then I can draft fine yarns at 5 or 6 yards per minute, and I do not want a wheel that limits me to 3 or 4 yards per minute. No, because then I am only making half as much as I am capable, and that half capacity is likely the difference between possible and not possible projects.

I have been reading about weaving in the old days and the loom's web for a bolt (80 yd) of fine cloth required about 800 hanks of yarn, supplied by ~10 hand spinners.   That means the spinners averaged 80 hanks every 6 weeks or something over 2 hanks per day of  22,400 ypp singles.  Modern spinners cannot conceive of spinning that much yarn because they have been trained to spin slowly. And, they have been trained to use spinning wheels that spin slowly.

It has taken me 5 years to learn how to spin fine yarns fast. Why so long?  Because there were not other spinners that that spun fine yarns, fast.  Another reason is that there are no longer commercially available hand spinning wheels that will spin fast.

On paper, some wheels have a drive ratio that suggests that they are designed to insert twist at 4 or 5 thousand revolutions per minute.  Do they?  Check with your tachometer.  You don't have a tachometer? Then, get one!  Every serious spinner needs a tachometer and a small microscope.  Sell one of your wheels and buy some serious tools.  You can buy a tachometer mail order and have it in your hands in less than a week for less than $50.  Or, sit down at one of those fast wheels and see if the wheel will spin 140 yards of 40s (22,400 ypp)  in 48 minutes, because that is a minimum of how fast it must be to spin 80 hanks in 6 weeks.  That means those wheels were averaging 2,100 rpm, and sometimes they were going faster.   And, this is just for 40s. Fines require a third more twist.  If you are spinning fines, you will want a spinning wheel that goes a third faster.  If you want to average 2.4 hanks of  fines per day, you will want a wheel that will average 3,000 rpm. Such a wheel will let you spin 10s (5,600 ypp) pretty much as fast as you can draft. That is nice.  It is better than a video game. Suddenly, spinning is less boring.

All of a sudden the virtues of an accelerator wheel become very, very apparent.  In the old days when a spinner's income was depended on how fast the spinner could spin, accelerator wheels were more common.  In my case, where I spin because I want the yarn, the advantages of an accelerator wheel are obvious. An accelerator wheel lets me spin as fast as I can draft.

The great disconnect is that the best spinners were talented professionals that both exchanged ideas and competed. They produced quality yarns, and they worked fast.  Fine woven textiles require fine yarns. And fine woven textiles are more valuable than coarse textiles.  The coarse textiles of traditional subsistence cultures have their virtues, but these virtues are very different from the virtues of  luxury textiles made by professionals for an export market.

A professional spinner with the requisite skill, could make more more income by spinning finer yarns. A professional with the requisite skill, could make more more income by spinning faster.   The best spinners had faster wheels. And that was true from the first introduction of driven spindles.  Ok, you claim to be a better spinner with a faster wheel, can you spin 2 or 3 hanks of worsted shirting per day?  You want to earn my respect?  Spin  an ounce of shirting yarn in a day.  Look at that little bobbin of yarn. To somebody that has never spun such a bobbin of yarn, it is not very impressive. Wind that little single into a skein, and you will understand why I like little bobbins, tension boxes,  and sectional beams.  Spinners have disconnected from all of this, and no longer understand little bobbins, tension boxes, and sectional beams.

To say that one is a competent spinner is say that one can produce the yarn required for high-quality textiles. - including fine woven textiles.  And yet, spinning fine and fast has been lost from the definition of what is a competent spinner.  Many fiber festivals have spinning contests - who can spin with gloves on, who can spin while blind folded and etc.  Very few fiber festivals have contests on who can just spin fine and fast, e.g., how many hanks can you spin from 10 grams of fiber in an afternoon?  My  original definition of a competent spinner was someone that could spin wool at its spin count.  As a weaver, I have to add, that a competent spinner can spin wool at its spin count at a good commercial pace - otherwise I will never finish the yarn for my next weaving project.  Only being able to spin fine and fast makes that project remotely feasible.

Consider a master's spinning program (e.g., http://www.oldscollege.ca/continuing-education/special-interest/fibre/master-spinner-off-campus-course-offerings/index) and they are talking about 6:1 ratio wheels.  If the student has a  - cadence of 90 treadles/minute, then the twist inserted is 540 rpm. If one is spinning yarn for weaving shirting, then that is less than 40 yards per hour - not what I would call the output of a master spinner. And, in the context of weaving project requiring half a million yards (800 hanks), not a useful yarn output at all. Their tpi chart goes up to 12 tpi, that will get you to 11,200 ypp worsted or 5,600 ypp woolen, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of what can be spun.  Shirting is 22,400 ypp, and wants about 20 tpi for warp and ~ 24 tpi for the woolen weft, so they are not even thinking about fine yarns for fine cloth. One expects a master spinner to be able to spin anything that a weaver might need, including fines for a lady's shawl. There is nothing in the syllabus that says, "Oh by the way, a master spinner can spin fine and fast."  The syllabus suggests that the mark of a master spinner is the ability to do a workbook.

No! No! No! The mark of a master spinner is ability and elan to make the yarns used to make great textiles. Competent spinners can make the yarns necessary to making any ordinary textile including shirting, suiting, underwear, and household linens. The competent spinner spins all of these with excellent quality, and spins them fast enough to make useful quantities.  The master spinner goes a step farther and finds a way to make their yarn exceptional.  The master spinner teaches, so that the next generation of competent spinners spin better yarn.  Then, the next generation of master spinners, must find some way to make their yarn exceptional. Being a master spinner is about always finding a way to spin better.

The  master spinner enables the master weaver.

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