Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Maze on the Way to Ping

Creativity at work is like the discovery of a new path, the solving of a puzzle. It does not matter that the puzzle has been solved before, what matters is that you are able to follow all the steps and solve it yourself, getting closer and closer, as the excitement builds, until, ping!, you find the answer.

A good teacher gives you that final clue that lets all the pieces fall into place: that aha! moment we all have had, and I think seek to re-create in the process of creativity, and in the process of teaching and learning. A good teacher wants you to have that aha! moment too, to share in that joy.

That moment can come from the most unexpected sources. I'm never sure which teacher will say just the right thing, or which idea will lead to the solution. You have to try a few, more than one, keep at it.

When I sign up for a class what I look for is that person who is on the path themselves, winding through the maze on the way to ping!, whatever it is we are seeking, as opposed to someone whose own work is static, who has been doing the same thing for years and years, and might have it down pat, but who is not seeking. The latter teacher might have great things to say, and have great work to show, but they've said it too many times, packaged it too many ways to make it new and exciting.

I know: I've been there. I have taken several twists and turns in the weaving I've done over the years, from fabric to beads through dyeing and spinning, to arrive back where I started: simple weave structures, simple looms. When I notice my teaching get stale, my work no loinger reflects that path, I change course. I drop classes I have taught, and try out new ones. There are fumbles along the way: new classes take a while to settle in. But most people are willing to suffer a few glitches, in the face of enthusiasm.

Not everyone who was on the same path as I am came to the same place: some people have instead delved more and more deeply into complex weaves, complex looms, complex structures.

But I winnowed out the features that are important to me: color is one, and the use of my hands is another. I'm not here to learn how to use a machine, I'm here to watch as my hands create something of the twists and turns that are yarn, color and fiber.

In my last post, I mentioned the need to balance old and new teachers at conferences. A further thought engendered by your comments is that the old (and I use that term with discretion) teachers are what people new to the craft are seeking, and the *new* teachers are what the veterans in the craft want.

If you are new, you want to learn from the *names*, the people whose books are on your shelves, the people whose commentary is quoted when others talk about our craft. You want the broad answers to the Big Questions, like how do I hold my hands so I can get the results I want? Which materials will give me which results? What tools do you recommend? May I try out lots of tools so I can pick my favorites?

But if you've been around a while, doing the work of the craft, your questions are more refined. You want the final puzzle piece to drop in place, and for that you need colleagues, mentors, people on the same path, seeking that same puzzle piece.

In recent years, I have found some people whose online presence indicates they are seeking, sharing, discovering for themselves, and eager to present the wonder that is their latest piece, their most recent discovery, their newest twist in the wrinkly fabric. It makes it both easier and harder for me: When their subject is of interest to me, a similar path to mine, I want to take classes from them, follow their path. But I also have these winding steps that I am following, that I want to see to their twisted conclusion in quiet work in the solitude of my studio.

So I am picky about how I spend my time (and, yes, money) in classes. I want a solid basis in technique with an overlay of experiment, an overlay of What If?

I would take a class from Phiala, or Abby, or Michael, in a heartbeat. You can read the excitement they have in their work through their web presence, whether it is thoroughly answering questions in an online forum, or presenting their process on their personal websites. They have done their homework, and while their work is rooted in tradition, it is not bound by tradition. They know the back story of the work that they are doing, and they are exploring.

They have also taught for a while in smaller groups, or more local groups, and are poised to move into a larger arena. And there are people like me who want to sit with them, and listen to the ping! of their thoughts on weaving, reeling, twisting cards and pulling heddle bars.

They remind me of my friend Elaine Benfatto who, a few years ago, was online as the Urbanspinner. Elaine taught a few times at SOAR, and I was privileged to spend an afternoon with her, going through her latest work, tossing her library, and talking of future plans. It was exciting, so full of potential, and very fun. Elaine's textile work is on hold, for now, while she deals with some family issues, but she will be back. I know it. And I will welcome her back and try to probe what she has been doing, textile-wise, in her time away.

In the meantime, I have *met* Phiala, Michael and Abby online and have admired their work, and their willingness to share their path of discovery. They move in a forward direction, and are willing to help people climb onto the path they are exploring. They did not pick the most common of paths, the path where it is easy to find mentors, easy to find information, easy to find patterns or direction.

They picked their own paths.

And that is the key, I think. Whatever excites you, follow that path. No matter that people wonder at how you spend your time; only you know what excites you. It may take a bit of seeking, a bit of trying everything, until you settle on your way. Take those classes that sound intriguing, find the teacher you need, but don't stop questioning, exploring, and hunting for the path that is truly your own.

This Fall, I'm hoping Abby, Phiala and Michael will converge at SOAR. If so, there will be sparks. I'm so glad I get to be there too, and meet them. Well, OK, I already know Abby. But as a colleague, I will get to know her better.

And, Michael, as a cautionary tale perhaps, I signed up for your class at GGFI in January.

You have been warned :).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Curiouser and Curiouser

Gratuitous photo, unrelated (somewhat) to the following:
knitting quiver

Most of the time, when one is a teacher of anything, one is well versed in the subject one is teaching. This makes perfect sense right?

There are different learning and teaching styles, as a given, and some teachers reach some learning styles better than others. The kinetic learners (aren't we, fiber people, all?) the aural learners and the visual learners pose different challenges in a classroom situation, and the dance is to find out how to teach them all.

I like being a part of a classroom full of fiber people, the excitement, energy, general goodwill and fun of being with people who like what we all do. I so look forward to classes I'm taking, and teaching.

But what if the learning is not face-to-face, but just words and pictures online? or by DVD? or You Tube? How do you vet a teacher? How do you know someone is not wasting your time? By their reputation?

What about all the learning that goes on between students, not just direct information presented to the class, but the sidelines, the digressions and the personalities in class? I would miss that. Some online classes have the benefit of sharing among the students, but that can be burdensome, chatty, off-topic overkill too.

Knitting is often taught pattern by pattern (take this sock class, or this class on making gloves, this class on this sweater using this yarn, etc.). Does this lead to teachers who have never done original work? I'm guessing so, since I have known some teachers who follow patterns (and do it well), know how to modify patterns to fit different bodies, yarns, whatever, but have not designed anything from the yarn (or fiber) up.

Many people (myself included) learn lots of techniques from following a pattern. Good patterns do just that: the designer has tricks worked right in, shaping, cast ons, hems, tricks, decreases expertly placed, all to help the knitting be more than a cut and sew garment. So is the designer the teacher, then, and the teacher presenting the ideas of the designers?

I've always aimed for teaching the technique, not following a pattern necessarily. I teach spinning, dyeing and weaving, and there are very few patterns, per se. One of the skills we try to teach is the critical thinking needed to achieve a goal (how do I get sock yarn? How do I get that color? How do I make determine how to weave fabric like that?). There are just too many variables to have everyone trying to achieve the same exact outcome.

I have had to create patterns that will teach the skills I want to pass on, so indeed, we are learning from a pattern. My hope is that people still leave the class with enough skills to create original work. That's my goal.

It may not be the goal of the person taking the class though: they might just want to try out a technique and see if they want to continue with it. I get people in classes who never do the technique again. I try not to blame myself for this: I do tend to teach esoteric weaving skills. Not much call for your esoteric weaving skills in this modern world, unless for some reason they happen to resonate, in which case they are then fun, as they are for me, and I'm all about sharing the fun.

As a student though, how do we know how the teacher will be? How do you decide, when choosing a teacher, on whom to trust with your hard-earned dollars (or Euros or Yen)? Do you follow the crowd? Do you take other people's recommendations? Do you decide based on work or articles by the teacher that you've seen or read?

I puzzle through this often. I rarely take a class from someone I have never heard of, but with the internet(s) we *hear* of just about everyone, and mostly in glowing terms. Lately there have been a few snafus where the internet(s) have ferreted out some poseurs (thank you Ravelry), but for the most part, everyone is happy-happy-no-critiques online. So how do you gauge (hah!) the truth through all the fawning?

I've taken far more weaving and spinning classes than knitting classes, and the weaving world is a little smaller. There are fewer new entries in the teaching-about-weaving world than there are in knitting, where everyone can teach someone as soon as they know two things. In fact, I'm signing up for a weaving class next January, at GGFI, just because I want to learn from someone I've never met, never heard of anyone who has taken the class, but whose work online looks fabulous.

It is hard to be a trailblazer, and try out new teachers. We recently had a conference where the organizers wanted to have all new teachers, people who may not have taught here before. Sign ups for the seminars were great (comes with conference registration) but the workshops were under-subscribed (costs extra). By all accounts, they were fabulous teachers, their work was good, their lectures and seminars were well received. But people did not know who the teachers were, what there work was like, how they managed their classes etc, before the conference. If those same teachers came back, I'm sure there would be far more interest and sign ups because now we know, now we have heard, now we have word-of-mouth, now we have testimony.

Some conferences try to balance the old and new teachers and class offerings, and I think that is the key: SOAR usually has someone entirely new along with some tested veterans teaching. GGFI has done this too, even though it is a brand new conference: several road-tested teachers and some that are new on the scene. This gives attendees the confidence to sign up for someone new, knowing that there is also the opportunity to balance that with a known entity.

Spinning is starting to burgeon, and with this comes the You Tube videos, DVDs, classes at local knit shops, a whole new crop of Spinning Teachers. How do we decide who has something to say? Does it matter? I learn something from every teacher I've been privileged to sit with, perhaps off the syllabus, but still...

We need new teachers. We need new viewpoints, new perspectives, new twists on old techniques. Someone has to vet them, and I guess there is a winnowing process of sorts by word of mouth or by work done and seen. There is certainly very little winnowing online. Everyone can be an expert. Until they are not. Then they are the latest cautionary tale.

Interesting. I am working long hours in the studio, and ruminating. Can you tell? Thoughts?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Busy Weekend

This past weekend was the Conference of Northern California Handweavers (CNCH) held close by in Sacramento. I attended on Saturday, shopped the vendors and wandered through the various galleries of work on display. I was stopped in my tracks by a beautiful woven shawl by Tien Chiu called Liquid Fire. It is just that, in silk, an amazing combination of color and weave structure.

Tien dyed the silk for this shawl in several batches, grading the colors so that the color changes are very subtle. It is woven in a multi-harness pattern weave, and the color and weave structure are complementary. The shawl is a tour de force: often a colorful piece will have a simple weave structure, and a structurally interesting piece will have simple colors. This shawl combines both color and weave structure in an exceptional way, and is truly stunning :).

I wrote to Tien and asked her permission to quote her dyeing information:

It's actually interesting from a dyer's perspective - the color
transition looks continuous but is actually forty stripes of color in
the warp, and another forty stripes of color in the weft. I mixed up
eighteen combinations of red to gold, and another two combinations of
gold and lemon yellow, to give a total of twenty different colors of
yarn. I then ran it gradually from red to yellow (twenty stripes) and
back to red again (another 20 stripes).

The weft is also 40 stripes, from red to yellow and back again - which
is why it has so much "color motion" in it.

Tien says she tried several combinations and colors until she came up with this seamless blend for the warp and weft. The idea is wonderful and Tien's execution is flawless!

It is also inspiring: what would happen if you tried to knit this? I can imagine a knitted blank painted in grades of colors, to be re-knit into a shawl (or scarf, let's start small). But I don't think I am a good enough knitter to re-knit and have everything come out where it is supposed to be. Weaving (in that sense) is easier, you put the threads where you want them and they stay there :)

Spinning the color into yarns would also be possible, especially if you dye a set of colors and then blend the gradients. Even with that, my mind sets up the finished project as weaving not knitting: I think my weaving skills are just more honed than my knitting skills, and certainly my weaving mind jumps to the forefront ahead of my knitting mind.

Dyers certainly seem to have the leg up on color ideas like this, and spinners maybe even more so. How do people function when they can't make colors?? I know you can strand colors to blend them, and some lines of yarn are particularly good for this: I'm thinking Paternayan tapestry yarns, with three components of two plies each, plenty of room to grade colors. There are some yarn lines, like Tahki Classic Cotton, which have several tints tones and shade of every hue, but not the 20 Tien produced. There are probably lines of dyed silk, but with 20 colors from red to gold? Not commercially.

Thanks Tien, for displaying your shawl and being so generous with the information on how you made it! It is lovely.

I also went to the Maker Faire this weekend, and it was inspiring and exciting on a very different level than CNCH. There were lots of crafts vendors and displays, lots of activity and experimentation, and tons of potential. It reminded me of the 60's, clothing-wise, population-wise and excitement-wise. There were arts and crafts, but also electronics, music, outdoor art, sculptures, demonstrations, classes and food :). Lots of silly things and un-polished ideas: just the type of inspiration which can help develop the new ideas we will need in this world. People came in droves (65,000!)and the level of excitement was palpable. It was crazy like Burning Man, without the heat and dust.

There were knitting and crochet classes, vendors of finished crafts and craft supplies, recycled clothing make-it/take-it with lots of sewing machines set up to help people right there.

I saw Kristine whose business partner Brooke was at CNCH the day before. I wondered at the different venues: CNCH focuses on weavers, the Maker Faire is focused on DIY of every stripe, woodworkers, engine mechanics, computer geeks, electronics nerds, and artists of all kinds. The Maker Faire was definitely more exciting for the whole family, but CNCH and other fiber festivals reach a small self-selected audience of fiber aficionados.

Which did I like? Well, both. The Maker Faire has such potential for changing more than just the fiber world, with interaction between various fields of thought. But fiber fairs of every kind are my focus and my orientation. Even at the Maker Faire, what I liked was the fiber.

I can ramble on, but you get the picture. Spring has sprung and fairs are here, with all of the excitement and inspiration they bring. A busy weekend indeed.