Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Don't Teach Your Grandmother to Suck Eggs

For years I've heard (accompanied by a long-suffering sigh): "Everybody and their mother gets a camera and immediately thinks they're a photographer." This statement comes from a darned fine photographer with decades (four, to be exact) of experience; he's commenting on the difference between the amateur snapshots that many people--including me--take and the carefully composed photographs that capture what he sees for the rest of the world to share. The guy is good, really good, and over the years I've watched him patiently put up with the n00bs who--with exactly 15 minutes of experience with a camera--tell him exactly how to go about capturing a moment.

I'm suddenly running into fiber version of the n00b with the camera. As I start to shift from the winter months full of papers to write, papers to grade, and the workload of both graduate school and full-time teaching, I'm starting to monitor the fiber-related social networks. During the eight months I've been away, focusing on Real Life, a new crop of n00bs has grown up, most having received fiber equipment (usually spinning wheels and/or looms) while I've been away. Many are true n00bs, full of eager questions and excited to share their new successes at an art form. It's fun to watch their excitement, give them a bit of support, and occasionally give them a gentle nudge down the path to all things fibery.

Unfortunately, along with all these excited fiber "puppies" come the fiber "n00b with a camera." We've all run into her/him: he/she is the person who has just gotten a spinning wheel, has read one or two books on how to do a specific aspect of fiber (e.g., spinning), and are now the complete expert on spinning. She/he loves to share their knowledge with everyone, whether or not asked, and is double-quick to tell people they are wrong when confronted with information different than the book(s) he/she has read. I've also noticed that the "n00b with a wheel" is also very young; in many cases, I started working with fiber long before the n00b was born.

So, to all the n00bs with a [fill in the blank]:
  1. I learned to crochet at my mother's knee in 1961, and learned to sew and knit when I was a Junior Girl Scout, around 1966 (my Sewing Badge was my second badge, right after Housekeeping). I started weaving potholders in 1965, and did my first weaving on a floor loom in 1967. I took sewing and needlework classes in high school, and by the time I graduated I was skilled at most types of needlework and could sew my own clothes. By comparison, spinning is a recently acquired skill--I've been spinning since 1994.
  2. Unlike you, I haven't gleaned all my knowledge from one or two books. I've had the tremendous opportunity learn under the guidance of some of the foremost teachers in the United States. I don't like namedropping: open a copy of Handwoven or Spin Off to the contents page, and chances are good that at least one of the authors each month is someone I've taken a workshop from. Workshops aren't the only way I work to improve my craft. I've got "a few" (roughly 300) books on fiber and needle arts.
  3. In the nearly 50 years I've worked with fiber, I've learned one universal rule: there are at least two ways to do nearly anything connected with fiber. Some things don't work quite as well as other things, and sometimes a different technique is required for each different type of equipment. Whatever works best at the time with specific equipment and specific fiber is the best technique. It's knowing which technique works best in each circumstance that separates fiber artists from fiber hobbyists, just as it separates photographers from snapshot takers; refusing to consider other techniques merely makes you look small-minded and becomes an obstacle in your own path to knowledge.
  4. There's an old saying, "Don't try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs." In other words, don't give advice to someone with more experience than yourself.
About the Shawl...

The photo at above is the Aurora Borealis shawl, knit from some nice Mountain Colors Targhee (colorway Northern Lights) that I spun as a fingering-weight 2-ply a while back.