by Stephenie Gaustad
Chapter One: Cotton
Cotton Fiber Characteristics
Preparing Cotton Fiber
Chapter Two: Flax
Flax Fiber Characteristics
Preparing Flax Fiber
Chapter Three: Hemp
Hemp Fiber Characteristics
Chapter Four: Handling the Yarn
General Yarn-Handling Techniques
Setting the Twist
Preparing to Dye
The End of the Yarn
Chapter Five: Knitting with the Enemy
Perceived Drawbacks and How to Overcome Them
The Importance of Size
Finishing Cotton, Flax, and Hemp Knits
Chapter Six: Weaving Yarns & Tales
Warp Yarn Characteristics
Weft Yarn Characteristics
More on Yarn Structure
Dressing the Loom
Finishing the Cloth
Glossary of Terms
Like Stephanie Gaustad, I have a long, ongoing love affair with fiber. Also like Stephenie, I have been immersed in fiber my whole life. I have worked with the animals, grown the plants, processed, spun, dyed, woven, and knitted. I have written, talked, and filmed. But it’s still a chilly moment, at the party or on the plane, when someone turns to me and asks, “And just what is it that you do?” I used to fudge and say, “Well, I teach.” But inevitably, the next question would be “What do you teach?” And when I would answer “textiles,” they would say, “Oh, you must knit sweaters.” Although I never learned to dodge the initial question, I have learned to take refuge in my favorite fantasy at moments like that. I just imagine the Good Wish Fairy fluttering by, granting me one wish. I’d wish that all textiles on the face of the earth would vanish, not forever, but just for a day, perhaps two, maybe a week. Just long enough to make people grateful for the amazing accumulation of knowledge that lets us continue to create the threads of our lives. It wouldn’t be long before the path to my door and yours, dear reader, would be trodden flat by hordes of shivering, naked people asking, “Aren’t you the one who does that funny thing with string?”
It would be a cold, dark, and hungry world without thread. And if, wickedly, I expanded my wish just a tiny little bit to include all technologies that have arisen directly from the field of textiles—which would include ceramics, the computer, and the engineering that made the Golden Gate Bridge—no one would be unaffected, except chickadees (they’ve been around for millions of years) and fireflies. Back in time, the occasional humanoid might lift his head in puzzlement as the thigh-spun sinew cord disappeared from his wooden spear shaft, dropping the stone spearhead to the cave floor. Ah, there went dinner.
Another chilling question, as any of you who have bravely spun in public know well, is “Why do you spin?” Consider just how useful it is for humans to have clothes that can be conveniently changed at the whim of the weather, not to mention all the nonclothing things that don’t work without the input of textiles—refrigerators, cars, furnaces, hospitals, and paper, for a tiny start. Surely the properly defiant answer is “Why on earth do you not?” (even though I realize that machines do much of this for us now).
I’ve heard many answers to the why-spin question over the years. My friend and business partner for many years came from Sámi ancestors. Pavii’s father’s family were nomadic reindeer herders who traveled on their yearly migration across Finland and into Russia on foot. During the terrible influenza epidemic in the early 1900s, his entire tribe, except himself and his older brother, perished in the middle of the wilderness. The two young boys, not even teenagers, walked alone for months to Russia, where they were rescued and adopted by a Russian family. Raised to never forget what it was to be selfreliant, Pavii is a brilliant spinner and weaver; she designs software equally well. When I asked her why she wanted to spin, she answered, “Because we are always only a week away from the tent.”
I think the answer that has the most resonance for me came from a student I had many years ago in Canada. One of the original European designers of the solar cell, he had retired to Vancouver Island, off the coast of British Columbia, where he and his wife built a house. Their house was entirely powered by solar energy, with one exception: they chose to light their house with beeswax candles made with wax collected from their own bees. It was an unforgettable experience to spend an evening with them in their beautiful, luminous house. He took many classes with me—spinning, weaving, papermaking, dyeing, felting. I was curious why someone whose whole career had been involved in developing state-of-theart technology would be so interested in methods that appear both simple and ancient. This is his answer: “I want to demystify technology. I want to understand what I am asking a machine to do for me; I want to know what I gain and what I lose when I choose to use a machine rather than doing something by hand. And then, I want to choose.” Like this man, I want to know the cost—personally, environmentally, socially—of the decisions I make on how I live in the world.
Here is a good example of what I know from asking myself the question “Why spin?” I have loved weaving my handspun sauna towels, and it gives me much pleasure to use them in my day-to-day life. On the other hand, I am eternally grateful that there are cotton mills to spin the exquisitely fine cotton that was machine woven into the bedsheets that I sleep under every night. I do get to choose.
I learned to spin from Mrs. Axen, a woman who had simply chosen spinning as her way of being in the world. As soon as I saw a spinning wheel, my fingers made their own decision—and she understood that. Mrs. Axen spun flax beautifully and wove all her tea towels and bed linens. She washed wool from lamb fleeces and dried them on her lilac bushes to make the best mitts and socks in my known world. She wove and sewed the beautiful long dresses she wore. Stephenie reminds me so much of her, and not just because they look alike—which they very much do—but because their way of being in this world includes the same deep integrity and the same calm competence. I have a friend who, like so many of us, was struck speechless when she realized that when Stephenie said she had made the shirt she was wearing not only, as my friend assumed, had she sewn it, but she had also woven the cloth. As my friend recovered from her first amazement, she had to come to terms with the fact that Stephenie had also spun the exquisite fine thread the cloth had been woven from. And before that, Stephenie had planted, watered, nurtured, and harvested the cotton that she spun into that exquisite fine thread.