Friday, January 31, 2014


I am a Master Spinner.

What does that mean? Well, on the surface, it means that I took 5 years of classroom teaching and followed each class up with a year of home study. It means that I spent a week of intensive testing, making yarns to specification. I means I wrote an In-Depth Study, examining how to make a yarn and how that yarn will perform in use for socks. It means I fulfilled the requirements of a college continuing education course.

But it also means so much more.

It means that I have taken the time to think not only about how to make yarn, but why to do it that way. It means that I have read and studied the works of others, drawing lessons from their work, then applying it to my own. It means I have made mistakes and learned how to correct them. It means I have learned to think critically and independently.

I do not blindly accept that we do things as spinners because that is "tradition". I do not mindlessly follow gurus or trends. I have the means and the skills to set trends, if I feel the need. I take risks and make yarns that I know I will never use, just to see if I can make them. I read and think and analyze, and I draw my own conclusions. I understand my craft intimately.

There is a school of thought, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of a skill. That, with enough practice, anyone can become great at the task they have set out to learn. While I agree that time and repeated practice will make you more proficient at a task, I do not agree that repetition alone will make you a master.

I recently stumbled across this post about the 10,000 hour rule. I highly suggest you read it, but in a nutshell, it says that new research has shown that it is not only the amount of time that you spend perfecting your skill, but how you use that time to analyze and improve those skills as you practice them. Doing scales, reviewing technique, problem-solving when you make mistakes. It takes an understanding of the skill that you are trying to perfect. It also means that many, no matter how long they practice or how dedicated they are, will become true masters.

My friend Margaret tells of her early spinning experience. She had been merrily spinning yarn for twenty years, but when she took her first level of the Master Spinner Program, she says she realized that she had been "spinning for one year, twenty times". She did not know that she was repeating the same patterns over and over,  doing the same things right and the same things wrong again and again. She was not analyzing her work, understanding only the how, but not the why.

I am often asked what it takes to succeed in the Master Spinner Program, and my answer is always the same. It takes practice and patience and humility. That last one is a big one for most people. Humility, admitting that we do not know everything, the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, are rare commodities today. Modern media makes us all believe that we should be instant experts in everything we try, that we all deserve greatness in our chosen fields.

The terrible reality is that this does not happen in real life. To learn any skill, be it spinning or baking bread or tightrope walking, takes practice, conscious thought, and the horrible realization that you will never be as good as you want to be. A true master is always seeking to improve, to learn more, to understand more deeply. Stopping our practicing after 10,000 hours, assuming that we are now masters, stunts our mastery and limits us. For others, even 10,000 hours of practice will not overcome a hurdle placed by a skill or an assignment.

Instead of assuming that the learning has ended and the practice has made you better, continue to learn and experiment. Guys, we have 40,000 years of spinning history to explore! New fibres, new techniques, new concepts await every one of us. Push out of your comfort zone, take risks, make mistakes. And learn. Always learn.

That is truly the road to mastery.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Back in the Saddle Again

Yep, Pardners, I'm back in the saddle again. Back to teaching for the Olds College Master Spinner Program, back to good ole Level 3.

I spent last weekend in Las Cruces, New Mexico, teaching TPI formulas and the spinning of cotton and silk. I had had the pleasure of teaching a lot of the people in this class their Level 1 as well, so going back to Las Cruces was a lot like going home.

The city of Las Cruces is beautiful, and while it is in the desert, it is not hot-hot this time of year. In fact, there were a couple of mornings where the temperature was warmer in Edmonton, Alberta that in Las Cruces. However, once that bright sun started to shine, Las Cruces warmed up and it was glorious in the afternoons. Most of my too-short visit was spent in the classroom space at My Place Jewell, but I did get out for a few walks in the area.

The classroom was a busy place. We did the math, we counted our treadles, we spun the cotton, we made silk mawatas, we dyed. We managed to get the 25 colours from 1 dye bath exercise done with minimal confusion, in spite of the fact that we had 250 skeins on the go all day long!

We also had the luxury of spinning locally-grown cotton from Ric's garden. Ric is the MSP coordinator for the Las Cruces class, along with being very active in the local arts community. And, he grew cotton in his backyard garden!

(This is very exciting and exotic to someone who lives in the land of ice and snow! Not only that, but it turns out there was an experimental cotton field right across the road from my hotel. Good thing I didn't find out about that until I was leaving, or I may have been shot for trespassing. Fortunately for me, Ric used his connections in the community to get a bag of the cotton from that field to share with us!)

It was a long, hectic 5-day weekend, and by the end, the students seemed brain-weary but satisfied, and I felt the same way.

I will confess that I had had my moments of trepidation about getting back into teaching before I had my RA fully under control, and I will also confess that I was in bed, sound asleep, by 8 p.m. each night. I think that I managed rather well, though. By the end of the week, I was feeling pretty battered and my hands refused to cooperate with me on our last day of class, but all in all, it was good. It felt like stepping back into a comfortable pair of shoes, and I am happy to be back.

And, as a wee reward to myself for getting back into the saddle again, I made a slight detour on my way home. I went to Disneyland, where, to carry on the cowboy metaphor, I met up with Woody and Jessie from the Toy Story movies…

I am home now, weary and aching, but happy to be back teaching. I have another class for the Master Spinner Program coming up at Fibre Week in June, and I am looking forward to it more than I can say.


Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Power of Negative Thinking

Happy New Year!

Yes, it's a new year, full of hope and promise, as every new year is. And we are all making resolutions to be better people and do better things. Because that's what you do in the new year. And, to that end, my social media feeds have filled up with all sorts of diet ads and inspirational memes.

You know, those little memes that show up every day on social media, telling you to embrace the joy. Positive thinking leads to positive results. Love yourself and the world will love you. Chirpy little cliches in a swirly font over a background of hearts or "nature". You know the ones.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a positive outlook. I have one myself. I believe that the world is good and kind and generous, and that things will always work out in the end (though not always the way I want). I see beauty in every day, no matter how grey and bleak.  I encourage those around me to stay positive, because I really do believe that we make our own reality with our perceptions. If we perceive goodness and abundance, we see it in our lives. It's just there.

 I also believe that there are a lot of people out there who need to be reminded of the good in the world. That there is kindness and joy and sunshine. Depression is a real thing, and so are fear and loneliness and pain. Sometimes those things are huge and overwhelming to the point where the person loses perspective and they become the only reality they know. I have been there myself over the last few months, when the pain in my joints has been the only thing that I was aware of. Food doesn't taste the same, colours look different, sound hurts.

Most of the time, I think those chirpy little cliches are a way to remind ourselves that the sun will come out tomorrow, that we are stronger than we think we are, that others have recovered and we can, too. But, when they are flung around carelessly in place of active concern and the acknowledgement of the reality of suffering, they are more like a slap in the face to those who hurt.

 I have looked at life very long and very hard lately, as one does when one is facing some enormous changes, and I have come to this conclusion: Stop accentuating the positive.

Because there is a dark side to life. Everybody has bad days. Flat tires, the stomach flu, a car accident, a death, a cheating spouse, a scary medical diagnosis. Shit happens. To all of us. Laying a veneer of false cheerfulness over the way that that crap makes us feel is denying our natural response to crisis. And to deny us our natural response to crisis is wrong.

When something terrible happens, big or small, we need to accept our rage, our pain, our frustration, our disappointment. We need to name it and to release it, vent it out. If we do not vent it, it builds up inside us, like steam, until something breaks. Yet we are taught from infancy that it is not appropriate to be openly angry or frustrated or disappointed. Those are negative behaviours and nobody wants to see them. Be nice, smile, stay positive and it will all go away. Everything happens for a reason. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Painters understand the importance of the negative. The space around the focus of any visual artwork is called negative space and is as vital as the actual subject itself. It is the negative space that focuses the viewer's eye on what they really need to see. It is the negative space that highlights the beauty of the subject of the work. It is the negative space that gives the work meaning.

As knitters, we know the power of negative space, too. The holes and loops me make when we knit lace are what makes the fabric special. Without the holes, all we have cloth. When we add holes, emptiness, negative space, we make a thing of beauty.

When we look into the negative space, it helps us illuminate what is good and beautiful and positive. We see life from a different perspective again. We accept the darkness and the emptiness and the pain, because it shows us what is real, and what is good. We become more positive when we embrace the negative.

When we live our lives by those chirpy cliches, when we lay them over our darkness to hide it from ourselves and others, we deny the balance of art, of life. We need to visit our dark places, our negative space, from time to time. Oh, I'm not saying move in and live there, just drop by every now and then. Acknowledge the negative space and the role it has in making our lives beautiful.

So, though I do not make resolutions, I am going to state an intent for 2014. I am going to embrace the Power of Negative Thinking. And I am going to continue to love my life and find beauty in every day because of it.