I am curious as to how yarn is made. My very limited understanding of hand-spinning originated from scenes in the animations Spirited Away and Sleeping Princess where the characters spin yarn out of clumps of cotton on a spinning wheel. Before electric spinning wheels and weaving machines were ubiquitous, cloth works were made by handspun yarn and handwoven fabric; Yarn was considered the basis of all cloth works. In Xuejia, a rural district in Tainan City, there is a local resident, artist, and modern weaver named i chun. I chun is the founder of SLW Workshop where she crafts as well as teaches hand spinning and weaving. Her story begins with handspun yarn.
“It’s not only cotton fiber. Wool, ramie, linen, jute, and paper mulberry can also be spun into yarn.” After sending her child to grandma and grandpa, I chun came to the workshop to meet me. There were several students weaving and chatting.
“Unlike the neat and well-formed yarn produced by machines, hand-spun yarn is unique and special. It is the strength and fiber used as well as the time spent in the spinning process that makes such a difference. Every yan is unique to its creator.” i chun, who was soaked in sweat, explained what hand spinning is about as she prepared for yarn dyeing.
In Taiwan, young artisans like i chun who reside in rural areas are called Nong Qing (agricultural youths). There are not many young people living in Xuejia, and some people might think that Nong Qing who reside in such an area would live a more relaxed life compared to the young people living in the city. The truth is, even though they share the same passion for arts and crafts, Nong Qing and the urban citizens encounter very different difficulties and chances.
In addition to taking care of her workshop, I chun also needs to take care of her family and child. Although what she does is like any other parent, due to the physical distance between Xuejia and the city, I chun needs to spend extra time and effort doing chores, may it be teaching, doing promotions for her projects, or having meetings with cultural groups. Without unyielding strength and gentleness, it would be impossible for i chun to complete different tasks while creating such delicate and precious works.
From the extraction of plant fibers to teasing and twisting into yarn for weaving, the earliest yarn spinning technique relied solely on human hands. Nowadays, when handcrafting is moving back to the basics, craftspeople use wooden spinning wheels to aid the process compared with machine production. This kind of manual production involving so much human touch can still warm one’s heart. I spotted a large box of off-white cotton fibres in the warehouse. They are mostly about two centimeters long, and together they look like a mop. I grabbed a clump of the fibers and placed them on my palm; it was then I realized these fibres are all connected.
“Those are the trimmed excess parts of the towels. I got them from the towel factory. They are sewn together by machines, so they are more like yarn. Just that they have fibers of different lengths.” i chun is someone who pays attention to the ordinary. It’s quite natural for her to cherish these off-white fiber excesses.
In fact, Taiwan’s Yunlin county houses some major towel manufacturers. A large amount of cotton fibers are discarded every day. I chun cleans and sorts through the unwanted excess, and turns them into raw materials for her creative works.
Old techniques are being abandoned, so are the cotton fibers and even the countryside. But as long as someone doesn’t give up, there is always a chance of rebirth.
If everything happening on earth is some sort of an energy transformation, the creation process should bear the same notion. For i chun, she doesn’t only transform the cotton excesses from towel making into hand-spun yarn, she also transfers the colors of plants to the cotton fibres.
“In Xuejia, we have many girls who are very talented crafters. Some of them moved here from the city after they got married, and some are local girls. Of course we have male students, but the majority is female,” i chun showed me how to soak and wash the yarn in dye as she explained.
In the modern world, hand spinning and yarn dyeing are no longer the survival skills that have long been embraced; they are merely activities for enjoyment during leisure time. But to the women in Xuejia, hand spinning and yarn dyeing are part of the normal routine that they’d go through on any given day when their kids are at school. In the workshop, mothers transform into students. The spirit of youth fills the air. Everybody feels comfortable and at ease.
The locally grown plants such as turmeric and Shoulang Yam are turned into dyes to give the yarn a brand-new look. It might be hard to tell from its appearance that yarn is made of plants. Regardless, the plant-based yarn carries the significance of time and the power of gentleness which in turn allows the weavers to freely interpret and create; this is what I consider the energy transformation.
“If we take time to study carefully those daily necessities that we are so accustomed to, we might encounter numerous possibilities. To create with our hands in a more traditional and natural way, results in something more valuable than simply existing as an object. This is what craftsmanship is about.”