Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What Do the Mountains Call Themselves? Musings on Fibre Terminology

Every summer when I was growing up, we'd pack up the car and head out on holiday to a park somewhere.  Usually we'd stay in the province, but sometimes my parents would decide on an excursion through the Rockie mountains.  On the drive, we'd be expected to learn the names of the most prominent peaks and their elevations.  We'd stay in cabins along the way, taking long walks, noting the characteristics of flora and fauna on the trails.

Upon reflection, I realize that this was a way to preserve some semblance of sanity in a group of 7 children and 2 adults travelling thousands of miles on rough roads in a station wagon.  (On shorter trips, we'd sometimes include my sister's godfather, "Uncle" Hugh, the family dog and my best friend.  I've no idea how this was accomplished except that it involved a lack of seat belts, a stash of Archie and Superman comics and a now legendary blue plastic potty.)

I learned a lot while travelling this way-including a lifelong passion for solitude!-but it wasn't the facts and figures that stayed with me through time.  In fact, my favourite remembered walk occurred in Waterton National Park, when my Dad and a family friend decide to give my Mom and her friend a break by taking the older children on a hike.  A short, spontaneous walk with no particular agenda turned in an hours-long climb up the mountain trail and back.  Two men set out with 4 or 5 small children in tow-I was the oldest at about 10 years old-no food, no water, no proper gear.  As an adult, I shudder at the foolishness of the impulse, but what I remember of that day was a sense of wonder at the beauty of the trail, the variety of wildlife calmly noting our passing and the remarkable silence of small humans as we trudged up the trail.  At the end of the path, we came to a glacier-fed mountain lake.  I've never seen anything so clear or felt water so cold.  The shear drop down the lake bed was a terrific danger, but Dad and Mr. O'G. watched carefully as we children lay on our bellies and caught rainbow trout with bits of string and a safety pin.  I was mesmerized by the shimmering colours of the fish flashing through the lake ripples.  Proudly, we tied up our catch in bandannas and headed back down the mountain to face the scolding Dad and Mr. O'G. received for scaring the wits out of our mothers.  I've never enjoyed an outing or a meal of fish as I did that day.

I don't remember the specifics of what we saw on that walk.  The names and details of mountains, plants and birds are long gone.  Memories come in flashes, watercolours of what we experience.  It's those larger pictures that give us joy.

Clouds East of Kelowna

 On my recent trip to the mountains, I forgot to look for signs and notes of what humans have named.  I saw mountain goats and sheep, antelope, coyotes, hosts of birds with blue tufted heads and huge neon yellow flowers pushing out of the marshes and ditches.  The minutia of these things no longer concern me.  Instead, I'm caught in the beauty of the moment, the flash of a creature (what was that?) as we drive past, the terrifying greatness of a collapsing rock face, streams of water racing down the mountains, along with snow, dirty white drifts of spring snow catching the sunlight in the mountain air. 

What, you ask, does this have to do with spinning, fibres and the terminology we apply to it?  Lately, I've been watching the growing Western fascination with spinning and the naming of techniques applied to the craft.  I'm amused, because when I learned to spin, our terminology was more limited.  We knew rolags, batts, roving, top and sliver.  We understood woollen and worsted, long draw, Paula Simmons's "point of contact" and inch worm techniques.  People like Mabel Ross, Peter Teal, and Allen Fannin promoted precision, measurement and industrial applications to hand spinning, but most spinners simply did what they needed to do to get the yarns they wanted.  I soaked up as much knowledge as I could from books and other spinners.  I was and remain in awe of friends who spin cobweb yarns to precise grist, but mostly, I just spin.

Now, I see intense discussions on long draw, supported long draw, American sliding long draw, short forward draw and many other terms.  While I'm impressed with the earnest desire for knowledge, I'm caught off guard by spinners who are afraid to spin unless they know the "proper" terms for what they're doing, with precise details as to how to do them.  They want to spin the right way, and, as a result, they sometimes get stuck before they get started.  They worry about wasting fibres, wasting time, wasting money on a hobby.  They question and question, forgetting that spinning, art and craft, is doing, not knowing.

Just as I sometimes missed the experience of our holiday adventures by focusing on the details of things, spinners who bind themselves too closely to the fine print can miss the wonders of the craft.  (Feel free to insert the obligatory, "Can't see the forest for the trees" cliche here.)  The terms we invented to help explain, clarify and order our actions can bury us in the details.  We need to take time just to act, to do, to spin.

We don't know what the mountains call themselves.  At heart, it doesn't matter what we call things or how we try to claim them in the naming.  The beauty and the wonder of life, our actions and our presence in the world doesn't lie in how we describe them.  Our joy comes from our interactions, experiences as they occur and our memories of them.

The next time you find yourself worrying about what fibre is best suited to the "sliding backwards while standing on one leg mid length draw," go sit at your wheel.  Pick up your spindle.  Just spin.

Or take a hike.  Breathe and just BE.  Hold the experience of your craft to your heart and enjoy the moment.  Years from now, it will be what you best remember.

Mountain Memories, May 2011, Ink and Watercolour


  1. Love your watercolour! Getting wrapped up in the technical aspects is a really common problem in photography too. I think it's a crutch for people who are afraid to be creative and just go with instincts.

  2. I saw your wonderful work using your iPhone and enjoyed your comments. Congratulations on your commissions! Sometimes, we just have to go for it.

  3. I went on a school field trip to Waterton when I was in grade 7. We went on a hike that was very likely the same one that you did as a kid. Truly breathtaking!

    I also remember going on road trips through the mountains in a station wagon. We would lay in the back with out feet out the rear window and read comics. It's amazing that we all lived through our childhoods without the safety rules that kids have today.