Caveman Chemistry Chapter 6: Textiles

Spinning arts
monomers, polymers, and a piece of my two-ply cording.

Some of you may recall that I was working my way through a book called Caveman Chemistry.  I made mead (that was Chapter 4), and learned to make fire using a bow drill (that was chapter one), and bumbled my way through making a crucible rather badly. (That was chapter 5).  The crucible failed the first time, but I learned a good deal about working with clay; and I think that my next effort is likely to succeed. As Dunn’s students complete each chapter, Dunn apparently gives them a grade of sorts in a way that a magician might recognize: they’re entitled to use the mythical character who introduces each chapter as if it were a title.  Accordingly, I’ve had a chance to be Lucifer (a maker of fires), Unktomi (a chipper of stone blades), Hammurabi (a weigher and measurer), and Samson (a brewer of mead). I’m sorry to say that I am not yet Athanor, a successful maker of a ceramic crucible, which is chapter 5.

In the meantime, I turned to Chapter 6.  As you know, I’ve been working on my inkle loom over the last few weeks, and spinning projects; it’s been tremendously interesting to build a loom, build a dozen or more drop spindles, and otherwise make these technologies.  What I’d forgotten is that spinning using a drop spindle is the basis of the project in Chapter 6 of Caveman Chemistry includes VENUS as the sixth project, the spinning of thread or yarn.  Kevin M. Dunn credits the modern academic understanding the development of string and yarn and cloth to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, and her awesome book Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years — and I do, too.  The fiber arts have been shown in ancient art and design as having been women’s work, and Barber’s book is both fascinating and delightful to read.

Spinning artsThe oldest clothing in Europe is usually found on the bodies of buried bog-people, from around 600 BC or so; the industrialization of cloth-making really began in the Iron Age, about the same time, although Egyptian mummies from 2000 BC or so have linen wrappings — so cloth-making has been around that long.  Kevin Dunn wants his chemistry students to understand that by making thread or yarn, they’re converting short fibers into long ones; and this is similar to what happens when  animals and plants convert short amino acid chains called monomers into non-water-soluble chains called polymers — short fibers are drafted and spun together in order to form microscopic cables.  Where nature uses chemistry, such as condensation, to drive out water and assemble chains of polymers, humans use the drop spindle, the spinning wheel, and their more advanced technological descendants, to convert monomers to polymers.  Accordingly, I spent some time over the last few days converting a number of ounces of raw wool fiber into about twenty feet of polymerized yarn.  It’s incredibly ugly thread.  But — at least in the initiatory process that Kevin Dunn describes — I can now describe myself as a VENUS — one who knows the art and science and mystery of turning short fibers into long ones.

As with many of the arts I’ve studied, I found that there’s a lengthy period of time — an hour or more — where the quality of the work is … hmm… poor. That’s followed by a stretch of uneven-ness, where the one part of the work is easy, but another part is hard; and then they reverse — essentially, you’ve learned to do two skills well, but not at the same time.  And then, finally, there’s a moment when both skills are being done simultaneously, but poorly.  I’m no Deb Castellano, I want you to understand.  It’s the case that if you want awesome and magical yarn, you should buy it from her store ( I do! ).  But I feel as though I’ve begun the work of learning this particular art, and manufacturing the thread of my own hands.  How Venusian.

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    • Hey, you’re welcome. It’s part of my job to find these sorts of cool projects, from the inkle loom to the drop spindle, from “how to make fire with a bow drill” to how to make dyes from natural materials. And if I get to share these projects with you-all, that’s fine by me.

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