Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Your Body is a Wonderland: On Practicing Safe Fibre Work

For the past few days, I've been following an on line discussion on spinning and posture. It's a lively discussion and several comments have caught my attention. There are suggestions for wheel selections, debates as to whether one should use single treadle or double treadle wheels, treatments for pain that spinners have found useful. There's a lot of anecdotal chat (which I do not dismiss, since experience can be a very effective method of scientific discovery), a bit of medical advice. While I am not a medical practitioner of any kind, or even a yoga therapist, I do have some practical experience and training in various ways of dealing with pain, posture and strain on the body.  Because of this, I want to address a few of the points that came up in this on line conversation and give some tips that may help in our practice, whether that be fibre arts, yoga, meditation or anything we do on a regular basis.

Although physical problems can and do occur because of genetics and factors beyond our control, many of us tend to think of our bodies as objects to ignore, units which contain problems which can be discounted or pushed through, instead of celebrating our bodies, all of our bodies, as the wondrous vessels they are. We ignore what hurts until we no longer can.  We assume all our good intentions will keep us safe, that doing what we love is healthy, until those good intentions lead us down the road that is the special kind of hell in the form of repetitive stress injury, chronic pain or illness.

I was surprised at the claim that spinning does not cause poor posture (rather, it brings poor posture to light), because, in fact, anything that we do which rounds the upper body, puts strain on our spine and keeps us sedentary for long periods of time can and will cause deterioration in our posture, if we do not practice with care and attention.  We tend to forget that these things we do for enjoyment-knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving and the like-were (and still are) considered hard work which wears the body down. I sometimes wonder what our ancestors, the people who had to do fibre work in order to survive, would think of us if we could tell them we find so much of this stuff "fun."  I suspect they might question our sanity and who could blame them, since some fibre activities were known to be hazardous, if not life threatening. (My physical therapist can tell when I've been weaving tapestry because everything tightens up, despite the fact that I pay careful attention to my posture and I stretch and take frequent breaks when weaving.  Tapestry work is hard, physical work which constantly constricts muscles, particularly in the upper body and, as a result, can restrict breathing as well, which is seldom a good thing.)

Another comment that caught my attention was one from someone who could spin 8 to 10 hours without pain, because, well, I've been that person.  In my early spinning days, my husband went off to work one morning while I was sitting at my wheel.  He arrived home, 8 hours later, to find me sitting at my wheel. When he asked me how long I'd been spinning, guess what the answer was?  Yup, 8 hours.  I had been so immersed in spinning that I hadn't stood up from the wheel for a snack, or a glass of water, or, more remarkably, a bathroom break. Nothing hurt then, but it took me several more long, continuous spinning sessions before I made the not so amazing discovery that the fact something doesn't hurt at the time does not mean it isn't going to cause physical problems down the road.  I've had to learn the hard way about taking frequent breaks, practising to relax, shortening my fibre sessions, staying hydrated and testing spinning ergonomics in order to continue my fibre practice safely.

The third point which seems to escape many of us is that most fibre work is sedentary.  As much as spinning and weaving and the rest make our hearts sing, they really don't have direct benefits for cardiac fitness, or joint mobility or breath movement, unless we consciously practice to make that so. Fibre people don't like to hear this, but, if your life consists of sedentary activities such as sitting at a computer or behind a desk and your down time consists of sitting at a wheel or loom or with needles or hooks and string, you can be increasing your chances of excessive weight gain, decreased joint and general mobility and restricted breathing, all of which feed into one another and can potentially lead to health problems. Yes, fibre work can be good for you, but there's is always the possibility of harm through doing too much of a good thing. We all need to get up, get out and move our whole bodies from time to time.  If you're going to sit constantly, then plan some time for a walk or a yoga class or other exercise.  Better yet, walk to that yoga or exercise class!

So what are the solutions to the wear and tear caused by fibre work?  There are many, some medical, some therapeutic, some common sense. Most of these are well-covered by chiropractors, physical and massage therapists and yoga therapists and others, so I won't repeat them here. Carson Demers. a physical therapist, gives excellent advice on spinning safely in every issue of PLY magazine (full disclosure: I sometimes write for this magazine); he also offers classes in ergonomics for knitters.  Personally, I think his articles alone are worth the price of the magazine.  If you are having massage or physical therapy or seeing a yoga therapist, be sure that your caregivers understand exactly what you do in terms of fibre work-take your spindle or photos of your loom with you to treatments and/or demonstrate your habitual practice.

In addition to a regular yoga, breathing and physiotherapy practice, I do have a few tools which have helped me stay relaxed, aligned and comfortable when I weave or spin or knit.  (Most of these were suggested by therapists, so ask yours about these things, too.) Among the least expensive, most effective, portable therapeutic devices is a racquetball. That's right-racquetballs,which usually sell in sets of 3 for about $10 a set.  You use the racquetball for massaging fascia, muscles, etc. and working into deep tissue. Rolling on a racquetball on a regular basis is a bit like carrying around your own personal masseuse. There are techniques for rolling the feet (wonderful!), the back muscles-don't roll along the spine-and into the glutes. You can also work the front of the body and the legs with a racquetball, or sometimes, two taped together.  (Tennis balls work, but not as well, because the tennis balls are not firm enough.  Don't start rolling with street hockey balls-they work well, but can be too intense at the start.)  I get students rolling on the wall with racquetballs and once they accept that sometimes, working on those "juicy spots" (as we like to call what other people might refer to as "pain)" can actually be beneficial, as long as you don't over do it.  (Usually, once I introduce people to racquetballs, the only way I get them to stop rolling in a class is to confiscate the balls.) The beauty of racquetballs is that, unlike larger, more expensive equipment (like a physio roller, which is also a great tool, but harder to carry around inconspicuously), you can toss a racquetball into your spinning kit or knitting bag without taking away space for that precious project.

A more recent tool in my kit is a Gaiam Restore Strong Core & Back Kit.  (I don't usually endorse specific products and I haven't tested similar items, but this one works for me.) The kit, which runs around $15, comes with a dvd exercise programme (which I haven't watched), a pump (which didn't work, so I used a bicycle pump) which is used to inflate what Mr. DD described as "a strange-looking bumpy green peanut."  Rather than use this device for exercise, I use the peanut as a substitute for sitting on an exercise ball (which I also have and curse because it takes up so much space in my fibre room).  I pop the inflated peanut under my butt and centre my sitz bones on it when I'm weaving or spinning. This small thing has done wonders for my posture and for strengthening my lower back muscles, all of which opens my chest and improves my breathing, especially when I sit at my tapestry looms.  The Gaiam peanut can also be tucked into your fibre kit if you're heading out to fibre nights or workshops where the chairs are guaranteed to be uncomfortable and ergonomically detrimental to safe fibre practices. (I checked with my physical therapist about the efficacy and safety of using the Gaiam peanut.  It works for me, but like anything else, you should check with your health practitioner before using or doing anything in the way of therapy.)

These are a couple of practical tips for improving and maintaining good posture and decreasing strain while spinning, knitting, weaving, etc. Like anything else, fibre work can help us or harm us, depending on how we practice. Knowing how to sit well can make a huge difference to our bodies and minds. Another bonus to good, well-structured fibre practices is that comfort and care with our bodies and minds will transfer into improvement in our yarns and textiles.

It's great to explore the Wonderland of our bodies!



  1. Thanks for the great information, Deb!


  2. You're welcome! There's so much we can do to make our practice safer and more enjoyable.

  3. Such an informative but engaging post. I usually have great posture, but notice that it changes dramatically at knit club...usually where I am too busy talking to get up and move around. Lovely to hear your thoughts.