Better Isn’t Always Better

(Danger Will Robinson, it’s about to get all post-colonial1 feminist up in here.)

So the Heifer International catalog came in the mail, and as I was idly flipping through the pages I stopped at this picture:

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My first thought was, I bet those ladies are total badasses on the spindle and don’t need those newfangled contraptions anyhow. And sure enough, when I looked closer, I noticed one of the ladies in the back row looking on, spindle in hand. The caption and accompanying article assert that the spinning machines produce better quality yarn and faster than spindles. I call bullshit.

Abby Franquemont2, a spinner who grew up in the Andes mountains in Peru (and started spinning at age 5, woefully late compared to her peers), argues that the idea that wheels are faster than spindles is an artifact of Western/Northern/First World/One-Thirds World3 spinners mostly learning later in life. You can get up and going to production level on a wheel pretty quickly. A spindle takes more practice, but Franquemont says that a spindler who’s been trained since early childhood can put out just as much yarn as a wheel-spinner. I believe it, having seen a support spindler in the Himalayas whirl through a bump of fiber in the blink of an eye. I’m willing to bet it’s also true of the spinners in the cooperative the article describes, who live in…the Andes mountains in Peru.

Beyond just the speed of the tool, there’s also how it fits into the life of the spinner. For one thing, the article follows one spinner who lives without electricity in her home. So, how is she going to use an electric spinning machine? Will she have to do all her spinning at the workshop, which the article describes as being a 5-hour commute for another cooperative member? How is that faster than a tool that fits into the rest of her daily life, that she can use for a few minutes at a time in between other tasks or even while she attends to other tasks? A tool that, if it breaks, is simple to fix and replace, and cheap enough to have multiple lying around?

In Himachal, I saw spinners squatting by the side of the road with their takli while they watched the livestock they had brought out to graze, and out in the middle of the snow park while they waited for tourists to buy roasted corn. That’s not gonna happen with an e-spinner, or even a treadle wheel. A portable wheel is still pretty substantial (I’ve ridden my bike with mine strapped to my back, but only a mile on flat, well-paved roads, and even that was dicey) and requires a flat, clean, hard surface to sit on (not necessarily so easy to find in a rural mountain setting), not to mention a chair for the spinner to sit on. A spindle, on the other hand, can be tucked into any convenient fold in one’s clothing, and drop spindling while walking is not quite a piece of cake but pretty close.

I also wonder about how this Peruvian wheel-spun yarn is “better” than the spindle-spun. The article talks about improving alpaca breeding for softer fiber (I’ll save the softer-isn’t-always-better rant for another day; this is already getting long enough). And one spinner demonstrates how easy it is to make both thin and thick yarn on the e-spinner. Ok, news flash: you can make thick yarn on a spindle, too. These ladies don’t because it’s not valued in their society4; it’s not “good yarn” to them, only to the Western etc. consumers who want bulky knit hats.

Now, this isn’t meant to be an anti-wheel screed. I love my wheel, and have even decided that spinning on it is a crucial part of my writing process for grad school (although in jotting down this little thing, I’ve decided to go with the top-whorl drop in solidarity). I’m not even against e-spinners, if that’s your thing, although I have to say I don’t personally see the point. But I want to push back against this idea that more is better, that fast is better, that mechanized is better.

Perhaps some of those women are choosing to adopt the e-spinner, and more power to them (literally, ’cause you have to plug those things in). But it’s not exactly a free choice. It may be required or encouraged in order to work with a particular organization. In Himachal, I met a man running a hand-made textile business, who was very proud of having introduced treadle wheels to his employees. When we asked if many of the women had switched to wheels, he answered, “the smart ones did.” I sincerely hope that women who choose to stick with the spindle don’t end up labeled as lazy or stupid, or lose out on opportunities because they don’t conform to the ideas of some outsider, no matter how well intentioned.

1Apparently, pomo is so last-time-I-was-in-college. It’s all poco these days.

2Franquemont 2009, Respect the Spindle. Read it, people.

3It’s Choose-Your-Own-Hegemony!

4Abby Franquemont talks about this, and it mirrors my experience in India as well.

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