spinning
Type
Reflection
Category
Culture

Spinning our own fates: the appeal of lifestyle porn

I started hand spinning my own yarn after trying to find somewhere that stocked angora fibre from ethically-raised rabbits.  I located a small farm in Victoria that bred angora rabbits and sold angora blended with other fibres like bamboo and merino in the most vivid, beautiful colours for hand spinning.  The idea of making from scratch my own yarn with which to knit seemed almost alchemical.  Some years ago, I had attempted to restore a spinning wheel I’d traded for a bike, only to realise, after sanding the damn thing for months, that the wheel was warped, unfixable. Those angora fibres, sold direct from the farm via a blog rather than an online store, were the push I’d been waiting for to start another elaborate hobby.

My spinning wheel was ordered online from the factory in New Zealand.  I purchased a new one from a company called Ashford, one of the big names in spinning and weaving equipment, because it would be easier to spin: it is harder to find second-hand double treadles (spinning wheels with two foot pedals). Spinning is not, by any means, a cheap hobby.  I paid over $500 for a bottom of the range learner wheel, and fibre, accessories, and supplies ended up costing more than most people would expect.

Sometimes, I browse online spinning suppliers, wanting desperately to purchase my dream wheel, a Majacraft Rose. Spinning is one of those crafts with a fairly steep learning curve.  The product of your endeavours is, at first, really mediocre.  It takes time to get the feel for feeding the fibre out of your hands and onto the wheel as you pedal.  The spinner grows intimate with the tools and with the fibre they use.  It is technical, in a very different way to say, weaving or knitting (both of which I do also), because the technical skills are to a large part intuitively gained as you ‘feel’ your way through the process of holding fibre.  There are fewer strict numbered instructions and calculations than in a knitting pattern, less maths than in weaving.

Spinning connects into my larger obsession with doing things from scratch and urban homesteading. For me, the urban homesteading dream is a bit of a joke: I live with my partner in an inner city apartment with a small balcony.  I’ve flirted with growing hydroponic basil; setting up an aquaculture system under our staircase; having a permaculture system on my balcony for maximising home grown foods; balcony quails; and the completely ridiculous dream of a full-sized floor loom.  My partner home brews, I grow plants on the balcony, and I make my own yarn.  This is the extent of my urban homesteading  in reality.

I cling to a romantic vision of what it is to be a farmer, as I stare blankly at my computer screen or phone, flicking through photographs of foggy mountains studded with sheep and lovingly-applied filters.  I imagine strolling around with my livestock, affectionately patting the nose of a sheep, the air rich with the scent of lanolin.  But, as my partner points out whenever I become fixated on the idea of sheep, real farming is about back-breakingly hard work, fences, sick animals, flies, and land management.  Given my land management skills don’t extend beyond attempting to grow a lemon tree on my balcony, my notions of farming, even a small hobby farm, are completely idiotic.

I like inside hobbies, and am, at heart, a very lazy person.  Yet I eagerly buy into the idea of ‘farming’.

I’ve attempted to grow an absurd assortment of food plants on my balcony, armed with a pile of books on balcony gardening I bought from the internet, only to realise that growing food is extremely hard work.  My eggplants died, with the exception of one, which produced exactly two tiny fruit. The pumpkin grew two fruit as well, both less than half the size of my hand.  I have a lemon tree that drops every single fruit as soon as it reaches the size of my fingernail; my attempts at balcony tomatoes are a middling success.

My garden habit doesn’t save me a cent. It is an expensive, fanciful, and – to be frank – sort of stupid hobby. With the exception of herbs and strawberries, everything is a bit of a failure, and I constantly question exactly why I feel compelled to garden on a tiny balcony or procure a raw, unwashed fleece from a sheep with the intention of turning it into a jumper.

My personal holy grail with craft is sheep-to-sweater. In terms of time-consuming and elaborate attempts to go ‘back to nature’, it’s about as excessive as you can get.  Sheep-to-sweater is a term used sometimes to refer to competitions where groups or individuals are timed getting fleece off a sheep and turning it into an item of clothing.

I am working on such a project at the moment.  I own three fleeces – a merino from my partner’s grandparents’ farm, which was an unlikely brown sheep in an all-white flock, a crossbreed (which, from my limited knowledge, looks like it is at least partly polwarth) purchased directly from the farmer at a craft store in Salamanca, and a cormo fleece purchased from a woman in Victoria who is a fantastic advocate for the Australian wool industry.

The polwarth is the easiest of the three to work with, as it has very little VM (vegetable matter) and is strangely clean, given it’s been removed from an animal living outside.  But I can still feel, with each clump of wool, that it came from a field: the slightly damp feeling from the lanolin that clings to the fibres before I brush and spin them.

I have an even more excessive plan with which I play I mentally, one that involves growing a field of flax to spin linen yarn from scratch.  Processing flax for spinning involves soaking it to break down some of the protein, and spinning it into linen. It’s hard on the spinners’ hands, and requires the fibre to be damp, causing problems for the equipment.

Knitting and spinning, like any sort of subculture, has trends and fashions: particular brands of yarn that become very popular, particular colours, shapes of garments.  There are subcultures within the subcultures, people who follow particular designers passionately.  Steven West is, for instance, a very popular knitwear designer, whose flamboyant designs are either loved or loathed.

The particular trend I’m enamoured with at the moment is single origin or single farm yarn and fibre. It makes me cringe slightly, even though I honestly believe things like single farm yarn are important and offer interesting ways to engage in craft.  Yet there’s something about being dismissive of people who buy yarn from Lincraft or Spotlight, a ‘yarn snobbery’, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, even as I mentally cringe at the thought of picking up a static, bright green acrylic blend from a bargain bin.

I have three favourite Australian sellers of single farm and single origin yarn.  All three have beautifully-designed websites, which create a story around the product.  They feature photos of the farm, far removed from the shit and maggots and blood and discomfort of real farming, with exquisitely imagined shots of sheep staring into the camera with what almost appears a knowing glance.  This sheep supports your purchase. This sheep is a part of your farm experience.  This is a direct intimacy with the land, and with the creation of something tangible and meaningful. 

I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in different breeds of sheep, and discussing the relative benefits of different animals.  I have in my stash of fibre some top from a sheep called the North Ronaldsay, sheep that eat seaweed, and a box of fifteen different samples of rarebreed fleece for spinning studies.  It is a consuming and elaborate hobby that gives me a callous from the repetition of the fibre easing over my right index finger.

The notion of needing to grow my own food, or needing to create my own clothes, is so completely alien that I cannot imagine it.  Growing food and making textiles are time-consuming and pleasurable hobbies rather than a base necessity. Something about this makes me feel uncomfortable, as though my pleasure in looking at perfectly shot photographs of people’s sewing projects and immaculate backyard homesteads is pornographic.

Rather than a high-end, glossy magazine sort of lifestyle, the world I find myself watching is drenched in neutrals: natural-coloured fibre in rustic but pristine hand-knitted hats and sweaters, made from sheep who have names.  It is all about what the hand can do, with the hours available to painstakingly make a sweater, one knitted stitch at a time, after washing a fleece and spinning it, before relaxing in the garden with some organic mint tea fresh from the beautiful raised beds in the backyard.

A highlight of my week is when SBS plays repeats of Gourmet Farmer, a show which is perhaps the best example I can think of farm and lifestyle porn.  The story of the Sydney food critic turned Tasmanian pig farmer Matthew Evans and his partner Sadie learning where their food comes from, feeds me a beautiful fantasy of what it would be to live off the land.  I’ve watched all three seasons multiple times, and I still exclaim excitedly at my long-suffering partner about the content of each episode: ‘Oh my god, it’s the one where he builds a smoker and has to fell a tree on his property, so they plant more trees!’ ‘It’s the one where he builds the polytunnels that end up getting blown over at the end of the series, thus foiling the plans for a farm-to-plate experience!’

If Gourmet Farmer has taught me nothing else, it’s that farming is hard, unforgiving, and difficult.  Yet with each episode, I stare, longingly and enviously, at Matthew and Sadie, wishing I too was a pig farmer in Tasmania with a smokehouse, despite not eating pork or preserved meat.  I buy the idea of the lifestyle.  The smell of smoking pork, the fog rolling over my imaginary polytunnels filled with organic heirloom vegetables fertilised by my sustainably-raised meat rabbits.

This is completely unrealisable to me; I have chronic health issues and can’t drive, so the idea of rural life, when I need relatively easy access to hospitals, is impossible.  As it stands, I have to take care in crowded shopping malls to not get infections; fixing a rusted barbed wire fence, or wrangling a small flock of sheep while immunosuppressed is a terrible idea to start with, notwithstanding my own natural laziness.

Instagram is perhaps my favourite place for indulging in craft-related lifestyle porn.  Here I can spent many hours following the craft and plant hashtags, yearning to apply a filter to my life as well as they do.

There are two main trends I notice with yarn photography: in one, the yarn is place against a grey or white background, often bed sheets or cement; the other, has a wood-grained backdrop.  The photos are taken from above, and slightly washed out with the contrast turned up.  A fat, soft hand of yarn will have a sprig of a plant next to it, presumably plucked from the lushly-growing apple trees in the yard.  I try and emulate this with my purchased yarn, with my cement balcony or floating floorboards, and always feel like it’s a bit hackneyed. My Instagram followers will look and instantly know that my craft life isn’t as authentic and farm fresh, that it’s rather the result of an idle, bored cancer patient with too much spare time and a romantic idea of how people shear sheep.

The idea that this lifestyle is something accessible to most people is the most insidious part of the myth.  Fresh is best: a garden, verdant and vibrant and filled with crisp corn and the best tomatoes you’ll ever taste.  Gardening, like spinning yarn, takes time. It takes effort. And perhaps most of allit takes money. Jackie French wrote an exceptional book, called Backyard Self Sufficiency, where she talks about the reality of needing to be as close to self-sufficient as possible. She makes it incredibly clear that it’s not fun to do it as a necessity.

In the context of a balcony garden, there are countless upfront costs. Organic soil isn’t cheap. Pots are not cheap. Plants are not cheap.  I know it’s possible to do things like grow plants in milk crates with tarpaulins for soil containment, but they don’t drain well, and are not nearly as productive. The darker-coloured tarpaulin overheats the roots of the plants, and can kill them far more easily than a terracotta pot. There are endless dreamy DYI descriptions online of how to create a vertical garden system on the cheap but, in almost every example I’ve seen, the pots are quite small, and if I’ve learned nothing else from my years of attempting to coax eggplants into fecundity it’s that the more space you have, the more successful your plants will be.

The term ‘problematic’ gets smeared all over places like Twitter and Tumblr, to a degree that using it seems like an embarrassing cliché.  But there are problems with applying a filter to the reality of farming life or the facts of textile production.  By and large, these are hobbies that are creating a fetishisation of the idea of a simple life, which contrast with the reality that a simple life is rarely an easy one and that farming and creating outfits by hand is far from easy. When something is removed from the context of survival, it becomes a task with which you interact in an entirely different way.

Why these basic survival tasks are so often enjoyed now as calming hobbies is something I struggle to understand. All I know is that, when I look over my plants, I feel deeply satisfied by the occasional sprig of mint that’s not been destroyed by bugs. When I sit down of an evening to spin, setting up my wheel with the cords and springs and teasing apart fibre, I feel as though I am doing something real and tangible and meaningful.

How I construct my handspun yarn as imbued with meaning is abstract, because, although spinning is tangible in a way that watching television or films for a hobby is not, there’s nothing inherently more meaningful about a physical object. It might just be that it is a marker of my time and produces something I can hold, or it could just be the pure joy in the process.  It might be the idea that an object will survive me, and that to live on in something that’s physical will make me, somehow immortal.

My immortality will take the form of beanies and scarves and a heavy wool sweater, and will taste like balcony-grown strawberries.

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Elizabeth Caplice works at the National Library of Australia as an archivist, and has written for Overland, Meanjin, Feminartsy and The Lifted Brow. She blogs at sky between branches and has strong feelings about subject headings, craft and Star Trek.

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Comments

  1. You have to go ‘hard-core’ now! Whatever it takes, whatever the
    cost; track down the early 1970s issues of Family Circle and
    get your Holly Hobbie embroidery transfer centrefold.

    “Lay your hands where mine have rested and
    please remember me.”

  2. I found this fascinating, Elizabeth. I do none of the things you mention, except some gardening (succulents are hard to kill) yet I like buying ‘handmade’ items on the various online sites from makers in Australia and sometimes elsewhere, when I can. I have some, possibly fallacious, idea that this makes the item less likely to be produced by exploitation of the person producing the knitting or sewing. Very easy for someone to set up an e-shop though, catering to the sensibilities of the ‘enlightened’ consumer, whatever the origin of the goods being sold may be.

    Interesting how creating fabric or yarn items is still seen as a lesser art in some circles.

    A beautifully written piece.

  3. succulents are the best. i also like carnivorous plants too.

    handmade things feel good! even.. .well… when they are not.

    thanks so much – i’m really glad you enjoyed it.

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