Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

On Meditative Labor

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I have a number of things I do which are both contemplative and produce something.  Knife sharpening, breadmaking, spinning.

Today I finished making some 2×3 cabled yarn.  As I was finishing it was pondering how how much fiber has passed through my hands in the process of turning about 4.8 oz of alpaca and tussah into yarn.  From first to last each piece of fiber has run through my fingers 21 times (in about six hours of spinning/plying/cabling)

First it had to be “pre-drafted” as I pulled the roving out to a density which made spinning each of the 6 singles possible.  Then I had to reel each of those from the bobbin I spun them on, so they would be easier to ply.  Then I had to reel  each of the 2-ply yarns so they wouldn’t fight me as I turned it  all into cabled yarn.  After that I had to skein it off, and that adds up to 21 times through my hands.  I overtwisted the cabling*, so it’s not going to be as balanced a yarn.  I’ve got 78 yards, which means I have 1404 feet of singles (which means I was spinning about  4680 feet per pound of fiber), for a total of 29, 484 feet of fiber I had to move to get that 78 yards.

Historically yarn making has often been seen as, “incidental labor”, something women did in their odd moments (hence the term, “distaff” to refer to women).  Weaving was a man’s trade, but the yarns he warped to the loom, or put in the shuttles, was made by his wife/daughters.  Independent spinners, in Yorkshire (where Defoe was when he visited the cloth exchange), might; at that time, get a ha’penny per pound of spun yarn; suitable to weave.  Even then this was known to be an incredibly low wage; and only attractive to the very poor.  I’d guess I’m spinning about an ounce an hour; assume someone who was doing it all day would be faster, maybe even thrice my rate, that’s a pound and a half in eight hours, so a days work would be be somewhere between 2-3 lbs. .  6 days a week that’s worth about a schilling.  London prices at the time (like Manhattan a bit higher than the rest of England) mean that she could buy four meals, or 3 qts of beer for her weeks work.

The interesting this is that handspun was (for some little while) still the preferred yarn for warp (weft was easier to spin on machines).

Cabled yarn, of course, is tolerably specialised, and the 2×3 I did the moreso.  It looks a lot more like 3-ply than anything else, though it’s loftier, and would make a warm sweater, or cap. Stitches will be more defined when uses it to knit/crochet.  It’s also more durable, so it’s a well-favored type of yarn for socks, though that demands the spinner be able to make very thin singles.  I’m getting better at that.  I discovered I’d done a less than perfect job of portioning  my fiber, and the last pair of singles was a bit lighter (about 1o grams per bobbin).  The remainder on the other bobbins was 16 yards, and 5 yards, so I was spinning the last couple a fir bit thinner (this was intentional, I was trying to make it go further).  So (at another rough guess) the singles on the last bobbins were a bit more than the 4700 ft per lb I was estimating above… I got 78 yards out of .8 oz. on the last one).  Most weaving is done on 2-ply.  Two ply only moves the fiber through the hands six times.

And I can talk, watch television, listen to music, ponder things (in this it’s a like riding a motorcycle; it’s taking up some of my mental energy, but not all of it).  So I can, in various ways, commune with myself as I do it.  So I guess that I can’t get what my time is worth (even at the rate I’m being paid to do retail, there is no way that the time required to make even a two-ply yarn is going to be something people are willing to cover the cost of; take out the cost of materials [which has to amortise the cost of wheel, bobbins, spindles, lazy-kate and niddy-noddy) and making a living as a handspinner isn’t something I’m likely to do.  If I can recoup some of my fiber costs I’ll call it good.  If I can make a slight bit of money for my time I’ll call it a win (the yarns I can make as gifts are made of pure win).

At bottom if I don’t do this for myself, there is no good reason to do it.  Happily, as with gardening, playing the pennywhistle or doing Aikdo, the doing is the part which matters (to me).


*actually, as I was looking at the remnants on the other two bobbins I see that I undertwisted the plies.  Depending on what MBF thinks of it I may unspin the cable, and then feed it all through the wheel again to up the twist, before recabling it.


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