My namesake great-grandmother taught me how to crochet when I was a child. Grams was an incredible woman and a loving matriarch who saw her century; each year she would begin crocheting snowflakes in June so that each recipient of her carefully carbon copied Christmas letter could hang it on their tree. I was honored to be little Alice, her only great-granddaughter, helpful elf at her side whenever we were together.
For one of her birthdays all the extended family came together and Grams taught the basics of crochet to a big circle of us cousins. Everyone who wished to learn was given a ball of yarn and a crochet hook of an appropriate size. Then Grams showed us how to thread our off hand so that you could keep the thread under the amount of tension you wanted.
Then Grams twiddled her fingers and a little chain started to form. She chuckled, pulled it out, and demonstrated how to begin more slowly.
Her wrinkled hands were incredibly deft from constant industry. The repeated, deliberately slow movement revealed how to twist the thread around the hook to start the chain; instead of a twinkling flicker of metal and cotton, the first step became perfectly clear.
The most basic increment of crochet, or knitting for that matter, is pulling a newly formed loop through existing loops. When there’s something inside a loop it can’t close by itself to become either a tight knot or a loose line. A chain stitch is a single loop pulled through a single loop.
Chain stitch is one-dimensional, it can only make a line. To turn the line into a plane, another dimension must be added.
One loop is always on the crochet hook, the last leg of the previous stitch. A family of loops in a recognized formation is called a stitch.
The hook is put through part of the chain stitch, grabs the thread, and comes back through.
Now there are two loops on the hook.
In practicing all of us struggled to wrangle the thread into loops, poking fingers and thumbs with the thankfully blunt hook end. Grams oversaw our struggles, answered questions, and soon enough everyone had a dangling rope of chain stitches. It was time to turn around.
… (this narrative and craft explanation is a work in progress)
…After graduating college I felt adrift and wanted to reconnect with my family roots. I found some yarn and started crocheting again, but it didn’t fill the void. I wasn’t challenging myself in doing the same sort of crochet I had been. So I asked myself, “What would Grams have taught me next?” and the best answer I found, in realizing I was a mature adult instead of a child of ten, was, “Lace.” I dug out some tiny hooks and lace patterns that my Mum had conveniently stored with foresight, and waltzed over to a crafts supply store. I was less than thrilled by the results. I knew Grams would only use 100% cotton thread to make doilies because she had a secret starch recipie. Starch would slide off synthetic fibers, or even discolor them. At the store I found very few crochet cotton options, none soft, appealing, or delicate. The cotton I was presented with would have been suitable for dressing a seafarimg miniature, so much it resembled and felt like minute rope. I repacked the craft hope chest and let the dream of lacemaking simmer on the back burner of my mind until I could obtain suitable materials. After a great deal of research, gratified by the proliferation of niche crafts social media and information sharing on the internet, I decided to craft my own laceweight crochet cotton so that I could have an unlimited supply of thread just the way I wanted. Some of what I learned in the six-month journey from novice to adept spinner, and beyond, can be found in its own section below. In summary, I fell in love with the activity and my thread soon progressed from fluffy and weak to a sturdy cobweb.
I’ve always loved quilts; the love of them was passed to me from my paternal grandmother, who introduced me to an awe-inspiring room in her home when I grew out of having jam hands. At the age of being able to walk and keep myself clean, I was allowed into the sewing studio. As I wasn’t interested in dolls or making doll clothes, as my cousins were, I was instead schooled in basic quilt square designs. I learned how to use an electric sewing machine, even her special embroidery machine which used an internal computer to create detailed illustrations in thread. There wasn’t a cute dog so I settled for making the central panel an orange striped cat instead. I had no idea at the time, not having had a cat companion, that I love them. But using the machines felt distant and impersonal. The cat embroidery was stiff, with a rough texture. I wondered why I couldn’t design my own picture or choose my own colors or let the stitches show. I used some decorative stitches over the quilt seams but it felt like cheating because it was embellishment, not structural necessity. The machines were noisy, too, and I was always worried about having my fingers chewed up. But the finished pillow was very pretty, crisp, and professional in appearance.
Years later, I was in my senior year of high school. I was scared of the future, leaving home and familiar surroundings to go to a new place. I wanted to be brave and remember where I came from, who I was and who I wanted to become. For years, in the back of my closet I’d been squirreling away a stash of clothes no longer fit, but I didn’t want to give away. An idea coalesced: I could combine these items into a practical object that could be taken to school with me as a talisman for bravery and symbol of home. A quilt.
But most of the cloth items were t-shirts and thus a knit material, not a material usually considered in the rigid, geometric medium of quilting (or so I thought of it then, having only been introduced to quilt techniques suitable to woven fabrics and simpler, straight seams. There are amazing quilters who make neither rigid nor geometric quilts, but I did not know of them when I was first a atudent of the medium.)
…(this narrative and craft explanation is a work in progress)
My interest in spinning stems from my love of fairy tales. There are a multitude of stories in which a character spins or is affected by spinning. However, little explanation of this process is ever included, and usually is depicted as involving a wheel; without access to this device, learning seemed impossible so I neglected my curiosity in the craft for many years.
Later, my interest in lace crochet blossomed. I had found some of Grams’ patterns after my tastes had matured. I went to a big fabric&crafts store to find laceweight crochet cotton. Not a single cone was to be found. I tried some (more expensive) hole-in-the-wall yarn boutiques. No fine cotton thread. It is possible to order it online, but this is a tactile material. I want to feel it before making a purchase, especially since I was making this investigation in the dead of winter and I was far from awash in craft funds, no margin for gambling on materials of unknown properties.
I’ve always loved knowing where something is from and how and who produced it. This applies to food, clothing, architecture, information — all the necessities of life. “Well,” I thought, “If there isn’t enough demand for this material to have it be readily available, I must investigate its method of production so that I can count on a steady supply” This meant lots of research into spinning, and its history. I realized that a spinning wheel, though prevalent in usage, couldn’t be an absolute necessity as the complexity of its construction far outstrips the simplicity of thread. Textiles existed before complex looms; what were the low-tech tools of thread production? As I researched, I found out more and more about the development of thread and garment production technology, as well as its political and social implications.
The low-tech solution for producing raw material locally?
And what kind of spindle best produces laceweight (or garment-weight) cotton thread?
This research breakthrough meant that I could learn a new craft for an entry price of less than $30. The spindle was about $20, and a half-pound of raw cotton was $10. I bought a few books too, though I’d already gleaned a great deal about the whole process from videos freely available on the web.
Spindles are incredibly portable, too, so any spare minutes can be spun away. There’s a myriad of situations where waiting is necessary and a portable spinning wheel would be inappropriate, but a spindle is not more inconvienient than a book. Spinning cotton with a tahkli spindle is a particularly convenient pastime due to its compact nature. It is very small compared to most other spindles, and has a great yardage capacity due to the fine thread produced. Even coupled with a favorite spindle bowl, cushioned by raw ginned cotton fiber in a pouch, spinning takes up very little volume or weight in a bag.
To begin, the spindle is held in the hand which is most deft at twiddling. For me, this is my left; after years of ceramic practice and painting, both of which require some ambidexterity, I’ve come to rely on my left as a steadying or autopilot/repeated motion hand, while my right does precise, detailed work.
The point of the spindle ideally rests in a very smooth slightly concave surface. At worst, a surface that won’t be scratched by a sharp metal tip. Before I found an ideal spindle bowl already numbering among my treasured posessions , in the first weeks of practice a clean peanut butter jar lid served admirably as a smooth spindling surface. However, a bowl is preferable as it is easier to support an angled axis without slipping. Chasing a spindle bowl does not make for efficient or comfortable spinning.
A tuft of cotton is held in the opposite hand.
Then, to begin, a small part of the cotton tuft is teased into a little ribbon. This is wrapped around the base of the hook like a scarf in a cold winter.
Then, drawing out some thread is attempted by alternately applying twist and gentle pressureto the forming thread. This is achieved bt twirling the spindle with the thumb towards the inside of the hand, pinching it to an abrupt stop when it slows, then slowly pulling the main tuft away from the spindle point, maintaining constant pressure between the hands. When twiddling the spindle to add twist, the spindle is held at an angle. For me, this is most comfortable in the hook of my middle finger, while I am seated with the spindle bowl on my knee. Then the opposite hand maintains the axis of the spindle with the extending thread.
There will be lumps.
… (this narrative and craft explanation is a work in progress)