Crafty Magazine and Drop Spindles

31 October 2013

A drop spindle with some pastel-hued yarn wot I have made.
Huzzah! Another publication in print! In this instance it's a short piece in Crafty Magazine (Issue 7, p. 14).

Crafty Magazine, Issue 7. Turn to page 14...

... and ta da! There's my article.

The topic? The drop spindle classes that Rachael Matthews teaches at her shop, Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green.

Rachael Matthews

But what's a drop spindle? It's a pretty simple bit of kit that involves a couple of bits of wood and a hook or two. It turns fleece into yarn by a combination of gravity, rotation and a fair bit of hand-eye coordination. Here's a picture of a spindle doing its thing.

A drop spindle in action.
These beauties have been around for millenia and the yarn that women have produced has been woven, knitted and crocheted into all sorts of things.

On an aside, of course it's been women making the yarn. The drop spindle is the ideal thingamybob to pick up and put down in and amongst other responsibilities like children. Or cooking dinner. Or chatting with your chums. Or tending the sheep. It's about feel, technique and muscle memory rather than linear thought and intense focus. It's the perfect tool for a multitasker.

For the chaps who defined Antiquity, the drop spindle was probably not so useful a tool when out hunting things or doing battle with the neighbours. I mean, could you imagine Leonidas, king of Sparta - or even Gerard Butler for that matter - drafting a laceweight yarn in a manly way whilst glaring down the roaring hoards of yet another set of foes?

Nope. I didn't think so.

But back to the textiles made of these yarns. For centuries these textiles drove economies, created markets and forged transport networks that stretched across the Mediterranean world, Northern Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. And may even have been amongst the economic and political factors that caused the wars in which the chaps were too busy to be drop spindling. 

And imagine how these yarns helped define agricultural practices - "Whut? They want more woolly jumpers in a part of the Antique world that I've never heard of? We'd better farm a few more sheep then" - with the resulting effect upon landscapes and the environment.

However, shuffling on from scantily-clad and worryingly oiled-up chaps of Antiquity, let's hop along to the Medieval period. This was when someone clever in China or maybe Iran or Iraq got all technical and created the spinning wheel. The wheel resulted in a considerable speeding up of the spinning process, a leap in efficiency that wouldn't find compare until the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the Spinning Jenny.

The Spinning Wheel. A technological leap in the production of yarn and a useful narrative tool for many a fairy tale.
From 1764 onwards spinning became more and more of a hobby with yarn and textile production turning into the preserve of factory production lines. The craft faded but was not entirely snuffed out. Today cool, hip groovy and arty types like Rachael are leading a revival. Look around and you'll find the most amazing range of dyed fleeces - have a peep at Porpoise Fur for some magnificent neon combos - to create bespoke yarns in any weight you desire. There's also something very therapeutic about the spinning wheel, for both body and soul. I'm not sure if it's the whirring of the wheel, the rhythm of your foot combined with the teasing out of the fleece but when it all comes together, you quickly find yourself reaching a meditative and contemplative space.

Oh, and you're making something. Which is always satisfying.

What is interesting is that spinners today encourage beginners to get to grips with a drop spindle first. If you can tease out the fleece - a technique known as "the draft" - at a decent enough pace to keep up with your rotating spindle and create an even yarn then you're set for a real spinning wheel.

So, a pretty simple bit of kit. But with profound economic and social impact.

Simple bit of kit. Profound implications for humanity.
The more I write about this woolly, textiley malarky the more worried I get that someday I might have to write another thesis about it all. A very interdisciplinary one that includes art, history, economics, development, agriculture, gender and social studies.

Yea gods.

On the plus side, there would be a lot of pretty pictures. So that's nice.

A spectrum of the yarns that Rachael and her colleagues spin on site at Prick Your Finger.

(Images: Zoë F. Willis, Crafty Magazine)

The Knitting and Stitching Show 2013

21 October 2013

The Janie Crow 2013 Crochet Club taster pack. Just one of the myriad of temptations at the K & S show

Ooops. Has it been more than a week since the textile bonanza that is the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace?

I think it has. My, how time has flown and I think I've just about recovered enough to write a word or two and share a few pictures.


Overall, it was great. Textiley temptations? Tick. Nanas of Northampton body surfing on bags of bargain yarn? Tick. Throngs? Tick. 

Bargain bags of yarn before the body surfing began at the Black Sheep Wools stall(s)

I will grant you, that the throngs got a bit much. I only lasted two hours before I had to leave. Well, it was actually a combination of throngs and too much visual stimulation. It's something I noticed during the doctorate. Even though I am trained to look at Art, enjoy, appreciate, wax lyrical and occasionally write something erudite on the subject... within 1/2 an hour in a gallery I'm like an exhausted and grumpy toddler after a raucous music class involving kazoos. Odd, I know, but too much of an aesthetically pleasing thing gets a bit overwhelming and I need to retreat before I am rude to somebody.

And a Nana of Northampton wielding sharpened knitting needles does not suffer rudeness gladly. Not even from lapsed Art Historians.

I thought you should have a virtual taste of what the throngs were like. Uffa. Small wonder I only lasted 2 hours.

But before I hit the wall there were wonderful and pretty things to behold.


I am ever so taken by Janie Crow's crochet-a-long clubs. Every year she puts together a pack of yarns and send them out to Crochet Club subscribers. By the end of a few months, with drip-fed instructions and many acquired crochet skills en route, a magnificent bit of textile art is revealed. One year I'll find the time to join (BAHAHAHAHA! Wishful thinking, Willis...) but for now I'll just admire from afar.

The Moorish inspired 2012 Crochet Club project by Janie Crow. Ooooh.

Lotsa skeins of yarn from Mrs Moon.

There was also the Upcycling Academy. Yayness! It was even more of a success than Barley Massey, Craftivist Collective, War on Want and TRAID could have hoped for. I'm especially pleased for Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective as her contribution was just the tonic.

The Upcycling Academy before the doors opened. © Rosie Allt

An important theme at the Upcycling Academy.  © Rosie Allt
Sarah created a small corner of tranquility in and amongst the chaotic throngs where people were encouraged not only to sign a "Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops" petition, but to embroider their signatures. This made a lovely and welcome space for making, discussion and sweet, blissful calm in the face of the frenzy. Here's hoping she will return next year.

The "Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops"embroidered petition from the Craftivist Collective.

Jumbo knitting with recycled textile waste on the Fabrications table at the Upcycling Academy.

Some intensive embellishment underway at TRAID's table, part of the Upcycling Academy.

But what of my own acquisitions? Below is what was meant to be a tasteful, Pinterest-able still life until a small person decided that those wooden buttons would make perfect plates for a dinner party that Upsy Daisy was planning at her bijoux apartment.

The Haul
Ahem. I had other plans for those buttons and the stripey linen ribbon, mainly finishing off the Cricket cardigan I'm making for said small person. The Liberty print ribbon is for an intended Heathered cardigan, essentially a big person's version of the small person's cardigan. I know, I know. We're dabbling with Mummy / Daughter identical dressing, which is just wierd. But my planned cardigan will be in a sensible navy blue and should last a lifetime. Small person will get two months out of Cricket if she's lucky.

As for the yarns, the variegated, lilacky balls of the Garnstudio DROPS Big Delight (Wow. What a name) acquired from Nest will become not one but two of the bajillion versions on Ravelry of Purl Soho's infamous Bandana Cowl

Christmas is coming, people. I need to get prepared.

Then there are the two skeins of mariney, bluey, fantabulous Malabrigo Yarn Merino Worsted. I've no idea what they will become but, by gum, they are things of beauty.

Finally, I am now the proud owner of two indigo house aprons from Chang Textiles. This is a company who import textiles from East Asia, predominantly indigo-dyed and batik print fabric from rural south western China. I find the myriad of shades produced during the indigo dyeing process very appealing and Chang's has everything from fat quarters to batik hangings to fabric by the metre to Muji-esque house aprons.

And from these house aprons was a fascinating element of continuity from the Upcycling Academy; the notion of how textiles and clothing are part of a complicated global web that connects all of modern humanity.

One of the ladies helping on the Chang stall told me that this sort of indigo fabric and the skills needed to create them are becoming increasingly hard to come by in south west China. With echoes of the societal and economic problems that forged the Ricefield Collective, internal migration and the increasing urbanisation of China's population means these skills are fading. Mothers are no longer passing the knowledge on to daughters. Why learn about indigo if you're working in a factory that produces a heap of cheap clothes for the West? Also, the local market for these products are vanishing in the face of dwindling rural populations. Maybe a significant international demand for these indigo textiles could mean enough women find it worthwhile to stay in their rural homes and thus ensure the continuity of both culture and community?

Here's hoping it's that simple.

(Images: Zoë F. Willis & Rosie Allt)

The Upcycling Academy at the Knitting and Stitching Show

4 October 2013

Barley Massey, the creator of the Upcycling Academy.
It's almost that time of year. The Knitting and Stitching Show, Europe's BIGGEST textile bonanza at Alexandra Palace, is coming (10th - 13th October).

There's an overwhelmingly exciting array of stalls, workshops and textile temptations that make up the Show. So much creativity and only one lifetime per person to achieve even some of it.You'll need sharp elbows and quick wits to acquire your bargains and / or expensive delights. Oh, and do watch out for the Nana of Nuneaton, usually a lady of a certain age who wouldn't say "boo!" to a goose the rest of the year. But at the Show when she is unleashed... be warned. She'll be the first one body surfing across the bargain bags of yarn and has been known to deploy a well-aimed tapestry needle upon anyone getting between her and a unicorn-themed crewel kit.

So before you join the throng let me suggest you drift across to the Panorama Room. There you will find the contained, focussed and buzzing vibe that is the Upcycling Academy. The powers that be at the Knitting and Stitching Show realised a few years ago that as much fun as the Nanas of Nuneaton are, they will not last forever. Thus fresh blood was needed. Cue Crafters: The Next Generation or "Yoof", searching for inspiration, craving - often without realising it - an outlet to make things, beautiful things. However the fact that Yoofs are youthful means there's often not much money sloshing about to indulge in expensive bundles of fat quarters or £100 sets of crochet hooks.

The Upcycling Academy at the Knitting and Stitching Show
Hence the Upcycling Academy. A space at the Show where young crafters and artists can have a go at creating beautiful things... out of materials found at the back of their wardrobes or on a rack in a charity shop. A space where they can gain the confidence to make and thus enjoy the satisfaction of making. A space where they can think about the bigger implications of making versus consuming. A space to add value to materials, making and personal creativity.

So, with that ambitious remit the initiative was handed over to textile artist, Barley Massey.

You couldn't have a better organiser than Barley. Her shop, Fabrications on Broadway Market in Hackney, is a temple to the prefix re-. Reuse, recycle, recreate and rethink rubbish. More precisely the mountains of rubbish made of garments that people believe they don't need any more. The mountains of garments that have cost a vast array of the Earth's resources to produce. For example, just think of the petrochemicals alone used in say, fertilising and harvesting cotton, then shipping it to be turned into cotton jersey, then shipping it again to get stitched into a T shirt, the power needed to run the factory to make said T shirt, then packing it up and shipping it out to the West, followed by driving it to a shop before a customer buys it for a few quid wears it a few times and then tosses it. And we are all too aware of the human cost of a cheap T shirt.

Barley is an inspiring teacher nurturing people's inherent creativity. Why toss a T shirt when with a few snips and a bit of weaving have a stunning statement top?

Statement, weavy T shirt plus skirt made out of a shirt. Love it.
Oh? You've more ties than you know what to do with? Then why not make a curtain for some cupboards.

1970s style tiles, cupboards made of old fruit boxes and a curtain of old ties at Fabrications. Job done.
And as for all those inner tubes from bicycle tires (of which there are bajillions in Hackney due to all the hipsters on their fixies)? Cue the Caught Pouffe.

Pouffe captured by a net of bicycle inner tubes. The seat-tester in the background can vouch for their comfiness.
Inspiring, isn't it? And not expensive and it makes you think about the bigger picture. The fact that we're all part of a ginormous economic and social network that extends well beyond our immediate friends / family / high street. This also fits into Barley's ethos that making and craft are what help bind communities together, giving us an appreciation of objects and the people that create them.

Barley's Upcycling Academy has proved a roaring success, often cited as one of the highlights of the entire Show. Since its first year legions of GCSE Textile students and their teachers have attended, never mind teenagers dragged kicking and screaming by Grandma only to find that by French knitting a jumbo necklace from yarn made of cotton T shirts they've decided to become fashion designers or professors of economics specialising in corporate responsibility / environmental sustainability / social cohesion. Working in conjunction with TRAID, War on Want and (for the first time in 2013) Craftivist Collective, participants get involved in a production line of activities, a production line that references those which make the clothes we in the West so casually discard. By pulling apart the garments and recreating them participants are pulling apart and reconsidering the ethical and social implications of our obsession with consumption.

Participants at the Upcycling Academy
It's a brave and exciting venture. The Academy gives young people - the Nanas of Nuneaton of Tomorrow - the chance to be the change, restoring value to notions of creativity, community and ultimately human dignity.

So much creativity waiting to be unleashed upon so many unloved cotton T-Shirts.

With special thanks to Barley Massey for her help with this piece. It's always a delight and an inspiration to speak with her and I continue to be grateful for her ongoing support of my ad hoc attempts at becoming a writer. 

(Images: Zoë F. Willis & Fabrications)