Bobbins flying everywhere: the Okey interview

In which we learn about mortgages, spinning, crocheting, and we name drop about all the people yelling in the background

As promised, the first stop on Shannon’s blog book tour was… here. Actually, “here” was during lunch on the patio at the Bellevue Diner, which, by the way, is an excellent spot for an inexpensive brunch. Plus, it’s crawling distance from Lettuce Knit. And professional journalist I am not: I suspect that those who are in the business of recording conversations and then writing about them for a living tend not to pick tables full of knitters (and crocheters, too) as background noise, because they’re a loud, raucous bunch. And yet I was the only one who had an alcoholic beverage. (It was technically afternoon.) Abstainers included Shannon and Kim, since they were due at LK for demos that afternoon; Amy, Laura, Jean (blog?), Emma, Dave, and Amy and Sandra, who had arrived in town only that day for a well-earned vacation.

Most of what transpired during the lunch was captured on tape (thank you, Dictaphone), and what you’ve got here is a partial transcript of those proceedings — at least, what I could piece together or distinguish from the background noise. Naturally, whenever I turned off the tape recorder, I missed some interesting or incriminating tidbits, Amy’s story about the time a fellow Calgarian called her a whore because of Cleo and Emma’s explanation why Romneys are Jewish. Just imagine the varied, tangential conversations that usually swirl around a stitch and bitch, and you’re there.

Jenna: What’s the appropriate noun? Like, spinner, spinster, arachnid?

[General appreciative laughter from the crowd at interviewer's wit]

Shannon: You should know. It’s spinster, if it’s a legal term; it’s spinner, if it’s a fiber term.

[General expressions of disbelief from the crowd; think of them like a Greek chorus]

Jenna: Spinster’s a legal term?

Someone else: Are you kidding?

Shannon: Look at your mortgage. Next time that you get a chance, look at your mortgage. Pull it out — if you are, well, find somebody you know who’s a single female and in the US who has a mortgage. On the legal documents it will say “so and so, a spinster of such and such address”. It’s a legal term for an unmarried woman in the US.

Jenna: Yeah, well, I do intellectual property, not real property.

[Note: I checked my first mortgage afterwards. I was single, but not called a spinster. Go Ontario.]

Someone else: Maybe it’s a legal term if you’re a woman of a certain age.

Shannon: My mortgage has “spinster”.

Someone else: It’s not ageist.

Shannon: Yeah, it’s sexist, not ageist.

[Chorus discusses subject amongst themselves]

Jenna: So what was the noun again, to be used?

Shannon: Spinner.

Want more, plus swear words? Below the jump. The conversation actually moves on to spinning and knitting, honest.

Jenna: Given the subject of your book is spinning for knitting, I assumed before I actually saw the book that you wanted to focus on yarns that would actually have practical applications, and I figured that was actually true when I saw the yarns that were spun and demonstrated in the book. How do you actually feel about “art yarns”, the kind that can’t actually be used for making cloth?

Shannon: [with an expression clearly indicating that she totally expected me to ask that question] Art yarns are not necessarily meant to make cloth. They can be either, as an art object, I’m thinking in terms of the Pluckyfluff ones with the doll heads, or they can be meant for embellishment, or something not practical in terms of an entire garment. Number one, it would take so long to make enough yarn to do an entire garment, even if you are an art yarn spinner, that it would be impractical, and –

Jenna: Wait a minute, how long does it actually take to spin doll heads into yarn?

Shannon: It actually is more difficult than you think. Spinning anything into yarn, into the core of a yarn, is time-consuming, because a lot of times you have to back up and you have to get multi plies wrapped around the thing in order to, you know, trap them inside the yarn. If you look in the book, the May Day hat, the flowers that are on that hat are actually spun into the yarn, they’re not sewed on afterward. So they are made individually, and then the spinner while they’re spinning spins the — almost like an anchor piece off of the flower into the body of the yarn to tie it and anchor it into the yarn. So that actually is a lot more time consuming than spinning straight yarn. And that’s why it would take forever to, say, make a sweater of that yarn.

Jenna: So people who actually buy that kind of yarn, what the hell are they doing with it?

Shannon: Trim.

Jenna: Trim.

Shannon: Trim. It’s practical for trim, it’s practical for display, I mean I know I’ve got a lot of –

Jenna: Display how?

[Chorus begins to suspect that I don't use yarn for ornamental purposes]

Shannon: Like in my studio. I have a lot of, you know, samples, things like that, hanging in the studio, art objects. So, they may not be as, um, concentrating on the utility so much as the art purpose.

[Chorus turns its attention to Amy (Knitty), who had been talking about blogger stalkers and Tracey Ullman, who had appeared last night at the Textile Museum to promote her new book:]

Amy: … people that you admire because they’re really cool? And then there’s people you can sit and everything you can talk about is the same cadence? That’s how she was, she was like… [sees Dictaphone pointed at her] Shut up. [Chorus: laughter] … I’m saying how stalky it was, like I told Shannon today we’d go to Romni and we’d walk up to her and go “Hi Tracey, we really enjoyed talking to you yesterday so we’re back to spend more time with you.” [Chorus: more laughter] We didn’t do that. But she was just, like, “yeah, I love socks” and “yeah, I don’t really like dpns, but you’re right…” And then I said, you know, brought up the blog thing, and how people can be really mean on blogs, ’cause she was talking about book reviews, and she goes, “yes, somebody wrote on their blog” — about her, yes — “about how dare I write a knitting book”. Someone wrote that about Tracey Ullman, and Tracey Ullman read that… Her book is great, and she doesn’t make any pretense that she designed the patterns, she was involved with Mel, and Mel did this — and the book is really frickin’ great… So, anyway, it was very cool, and I’m sure we could be best friends if we ever spent any time together. [Chorus: again, more laughter] Not stalky at all…

[Chorus: ad lib; food arrives, leading somehow to discussion of Kim's camp counselor tendencies, further leading to...]

Shannon: I got thrown out of survival camp. I got thrown out of Girl Scouts.

Chorus: Why?

Shannon: We were on a survival campout, it started hailing. And you have to sort of understand my father is very Type A about his possessions, and he lent me his sleeping bag for the trip… they deposit us in the middle of the woods, and then it starts hailing hailstones that are baseball-sized hailstones. So they came and picked us back up but they made us leave everything out in the woods, and I’m freaking out because I know my father is just going to lose it. So we’re walking around the camp and it’s, “we’re driving you back out to your campsite because the hail has stopped” and my friend and I are walking past the leader’s tent and we thought they were in the big, you know, meeting place, and I said “God! What a bitch! I can’t believe she’s making us go out to that again”, blah blah blah, and the leader comes out and goes, “Excuse me? what did you say?” “I said you’re a bitch!” So she said, “That’s it! you’re going home!” “So I don’t have to sleep on the hail. Oooh, poor me.” So they threw me out of Girl Scouts on the spot which was really funny because fifteen years later the Girl Scout Council asked me to be on a committee, and I said “You do know I got thrown out of Girl Scouts, right?” and they’re like, “That’s okay, that’s cool, we don’t care!”

[Chorus: ad lib on subject of getting kicked out of things, disbarred, etc.; discussion of last time Amy and Sandra were in Toronto, leading to conclusion that Amy's recollection of what happened did not coincide with everybody else's recollection, until...]

Amy [Indi]: Amy [Knitty] bought this purse that said “fuck” all over it.

[Chorus: shouts and hollers of appreciation and remembrance]

Jenna: Say you’re a knitter who’s planning on using somebody else’s handspun yarn, you’re not going to spin your own –

Someone else: Because you’re lazy?

Jenna: What characteristics do you actually look for, if you’re going to buy somebody else’s handspun, what characteristics do you look for?

[Tape at this point is garbled, but then there was another burst of laughter, so I bet it was good]

Laura [I think]: Price per yard.

Shannon: If you’re going to do a large project, yardage is key. If not, it’s colour…

Jenna: What about the quality of the yarn?

Shannon: I get suckered in by colour.

Jenna: So it could be the crappiest-spun yarn, and you’ll just buy it because you like the colour? [Falsetto] Ooh, pretty colour?

Shannon: No, no. I like yarn that doesn’t look like what I spin. Otherwise I could do it myself and not pay someone to do it. Like, I don’t spin sock yarn. I don’t spin very, very thin yarns. I just don’t. So, if I saw a really nice, thin yarn, that was unlike what I spin, I would be likely to buy it. Assuming the colour was right.

Jenna: How much would you pay for it?

Someone else: Yeah, how much would you pay for it?

Shannon: I think I would be willing to pay more for it than the average person because I know how much time goes into making it.

Someone else: Five bucks, ten bucks…

Jenna: You’re reasonably experienced. How long does it actually take you to spin a sweater’s worth of yarn?

Someone else (Emma?): How motivated are you?

[More tape garbling, this time about Rhinebeck.]

Shannon: The last time I did a sweater’s worth of yarn where the whole sweater was handspun, it was a month of knitting and spinning because what I would do is, before work I would spin up an entire bobbin, and then I would go to work and knit all day at work, and then run the bobbin out, and lather, rinse, repeat, every single day. Took about a month.

Jenna: Two questions — tell everyone what the hell it was you were doing at work? And secondly, is it actually good practice to spin only a bobbin’s worth and knit it –

Shannon: No. Ooh, Emma!

[Emma had pulled out the reknit of the Sweater That Ate Two Knitters.]

Shannon: Well, to answer your question, at the time it was shortly after I had moved to Boston. It was a temp job for Homeland Security. So, this is where I learned that the letting through of knitting needles is a highly selective thing, according to the individual screener. My actual job, technically, we were at a hotel because this was when we were rolling out the new screeners at the airports, they stayed in one hotel, and they were doing the large airports first. So, JFK, LAX, and Boston, and I was in Boston. So the new trainers would go from city to city training more trainers, so it was a constant stream of new people coming through the city every other week or so. So my job at the time was to basically sit in the hotel lobby and tell them where to go to do things. So I sat in a chair in a hotel lobby in Chelsea in Boston and… knit. For a month. And had a sweater at the end of it.

Jenna: And so basically American taxpayers helped pay for this book to be…

Shannon: If you want to put it that way.

Jenna: Sure! I do want to put it that way!

Shannon: It’s me or the NEA, people. Take a side. And that was actually the Eddie sweater, in the book.

Jenna: The Publisher’s Weekly article — you said you’d read it — the writer says, “the market is now saturated with titles that target the no-longer-so-new young knitting demographic.”

Shannon: That the market is saturated with books for the not-so-new knitters?

Jenna: The “no-longer-so-new young knitting demographic”.

Shannon: I don’t know if that’s trying to imply that they are intermediate knitters, and it’s the intermediate market that’s saturated, or that the books aimed at knitters who are still ramping up their skill set is saturated. And if that’s the case, I could agree with them, because how many more beginning new books can you have. My ongoing joke is, how many “50 Easy Things You Can Knit With Size 50 Needles” books can you have, and there’s more than enough. I mean, there’s a lot. You can pick any style you want. There are more than enough. There are ones that are illustrated, there are ones that are photo-illustrated, every possible different way. Which is why I think we saw the cable book explosion this year, because then everybody wanted to stretch and do something new and learn something new. And cabling I think was seen as the next hurdle to go after, so now there’s the big cable books. There’s the Melissa Leapman cable book, the Fiona Ellis cable book, you know, you name it. And more underway, because in talking to various people I know, other publishers have some coming out, too. So that’s been the next hurdle. Yeah, maybe the beginner market is saturated, but the intermediate and the advanced market are nowhere near saturated.

Jenna: So do you think there’s going to be momentum carrying forward, just less of it, obviously?

Shannon: Less of it, and more complex. It’s kind of bad to say this, but it’s not that difficult to write a beginner’s knitting book. There’s only so many different ways to say, you know, “in, through, around, up”, whatever mnemonic you use to…

Jenna: Yeah, well, I don’t know how to knit.

Shannon: The wider range of skill sets — they take more time to demonstrate, they take more time to knit; you can do a garter stitch scarf in a night; you can’t do a cable sweater in a night. They’re underway at the publisher, they’re just not out yet. So I think they’ll be more comprehensive, they’ll be longer, they’ll take longer to come to market.

Jenna: You think the compensation to the authors is going to be commensurate with the skill level?

Shannon: I know that one of my publishers actually raised their prices because the rates that they were paying authors to get better quality and to attract — you know, with everybody vying to do a knitting book, even if they’d never done craft books before, they knew that they had to offer more in order to get the people interested and so they actually raised the amount of money they were offering. So it’s happening, but slowly, and you have to negotiate for it.

Jenna: Going back to the momentum that actually started a few years ago: what do you think the market would actually look like right now if Deb Stoller hadn’t published Stitch ‘N Bitch in 2003?

Shannon: I think it brought a new group of people who perhaps were not interested in crafts in general to the market, and that they zeroed in on knitting just happened because they liked the style of the book. And they liked the other things she does — they liked Bust magazine, things like that. So I think that had she not written it, the knitting books would probably still be out there, there would be less of them, and not so broad an author pool to draw from because I’ve watched other publishers who have never done a craft book come and say, now I want to do a knitting book. Well, you’re about three years late, because you want to do a beginning knitting book, and there are already a lot of them. Yet they don’t understand how knitting works, so they don’t want to take that next step and maybe step into an intermediate book. They want to start from the beginning and work their way up, and they’re coming in a little too late. So, she got the market started, and she revived the interest in the older books. Because after people worked through Stitch ‘N Bitch, they went and they bought the Maggie Righetti book or they went and they bought the Barbara Walker treasuries or they went and they bought all the beginning knitting books that have been out for thirty, forty years. Elizabeth Zimmermann books, you name it. If anything happened, she jump-started an interest in the older authors, you know, the books that have been out on the market forever, that are now reprinted and selling like crazy again, because people want to expand their skill set.

Jenna: So in the absence of Debbie Stoller, there wouldn’t have been any jump start; is it likely there wouldn’t have been anyone else like her?

[Forgive me the stupid question; I didn't mean it that way]

Shannon: I know that from going to professional conventions like TNNA, the last two conventions people have been complaining that sales are down. And in talking to them closely, you learn that sales of the novelty yarns are down. People are buying sweater yarns; people are buying yarns for larger projects. So they’re not coming in every three days to buy a ball of novelty yarn and a ball of Cascade, but every other month or so, they’re buying a sweater’s worth of yarn. Now, is the market really down, or is it just changing? I would say it’s changing. I mean, Brown Sheep, they’re still back-ordered. You can’t get yarn from them and if you’re a new distributor, you can’t get in with some of the larger yarn companies. They’re obviously having a hard time keeping up with the demand that’s there, so I just think that the novelty yarn companies are having a hard time of it. But everybody else thinks they’re selling really well… You go to TNNA and there’s as much yarn as ever, but higher end yarn. People are starting to buy the Tilli Tomas, to buy the yarn that is a lot more expensive than “beginner” yarn, and I put air quotes around “beginner”. And if you’re going to spend how many hours knitting a sweater, and you and I can probably crank out a sweater faster than the average knitter, if you’re going to spend that many hours knitting something, number one, you want quality, and two, you want something that’s really nice to work with. I think that I would rather see people buying higher quality yarns than a garter stitch scarf’s-worth of yarn every few days. If you’ve got them knitting sweaters, you’ve got them for the long haul.

Jenna: I have one final question. You have a bottom-whorl spindle. The whorl has a mass of 40 grams and has the approximate shape of a cylinder with a 5 mm height and a radius of 35 cm. The shaft is 200 mm long, with a radius of approximately 2 mm and a mass of 10 grams. Let’s say that you can only spin about 1 m at a time before you need to stop and wind the yarn around the shaft, and you’re producing a singles of roughly worsted weight, with an average density of 120 metres to 50 g. If you do the same amount of work each time you spin the spindle — that is, you transfer the same amount of energy to the spindle each time — how much longer do you have to allow the spindle to spin when there are 5 metres of spun yarn wound around the shaft under the whorl than when the spindle is empty? You may express your answer as a ratio or percentage.

For the purpose of this question, you can assume that there is no leader (or that it forms part of the first metre of yarn spun, has the same density, and is likewise wound around the shaft). You may also assume that the 5 metres of yarn, when wound around the shaft, assumes a conical shape with a base of radius 20 mm and a height of 3 mm when wound around the shaft.

Shannon: I don’t use bottom-whorl spindles.

Whereupon we adjourned to Lettuce Knit, where I attempted to spin first on a single-treadle wheel (highly unsuccessful; couldn’t get the treadle to spin the direction I wanted most of the time) and then on a double-treadle (more successful; with Laura’s help, I spun perhaps half a metre of respectable yarn). Did the book help? Yes, I think it did.

And for that brief moment when I was in the zone, I could see what was so attractive about the process of making yarn. And then the yarn turned into an overtwisted, thready mess.

I later turned my mad crafty skillz to crochet, and did a sample of single, half-double, double, and treble crochet (highly successful, but I did have prior exposure).

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16 Responses to Bobbins flying everywhere: the Okey interview

  1. fillyjonk says:

    Well, I live in Oklahoma, and my house deed and related documents say “unmarried woman.”

    (I don’t know about mortgages, don’t have one….)

    Also: re the other more recent posts: I think I’m glad I’m not really designing. My desire to get involved with anything gets totally sucked away as soon as the lawyers move in and start crapping it up for everyone.

  2. Kacey says:

    I have worked with legal documents from a Texas courthouse and single women are referred to as: “a femme sole.”

  3. Becky says:

    Great interview, looks like it was fun. Hi Shannon! Saw Heather last night!

  4. Amy (indi) says:

    I see Kim’s blahhhhhhhhhhh and raise you a fuck purse.

    Oh wait. That sounds bad. But at least I remember something!

  5. Shannon says:

    Hey Jennifer, hey Juno — maybe it’s a weird Ohio thing? (that’s where the last house 100% in my name was located). Wouldn’t surprise me at all…red state and such.

  6. Juno says:

    When I signed the papers for my house purchase I know it said “spinster” somewhere. I can’t remember if it was the mortgage paperwork, or the sales documents (I signed a lot of things that day) but I was horrified at the time.

    The developments of the past few years make it a little more, well, amusing.

  7. Franklin says:

    Thank you so much for the thought-provoking interview with Shannon! It makes such a lovely contrast to mine.

  8. pippi says:

    great interview!!!
    the lack of swears was alarming tho!

  9. Jennifer says:

    As a U.S. lawyer who works in a closing office, and performs lots of property transfers, I can assure you that I have NEVER seen a woman referred to as a “spinster” in a deed, deed of trust or any other document used to transfer property. I have also never seen a mortgage (because they’re all deeds of trusts now. but maybe not in Canada. I don’t know.)

  10. Kim says:


  11. JoVE says:

    Great interview. If you want to feel really bad about spinning, I’ll introduce you to my 9 year old sometime.

  12. Shannon says:

    The best interview ever, crazy physics questions and all… thanks, Jenna! (and thanks, Greek Chorus!)

  13. --Deb says:

    Great interview (garble, garble) enjoyed it quite a bit! (grin)

  14. j. says:

    In view of your recent adventure, the more appropriate question is “so when are you getting a house“… and the answer to both is, “not yet”.

  15. Steph says:

    Sounds like a fun day. Sorry I missed you. So when are you getting a wheel?

  16. Lola says:

    Good interview – I’m glad to see that intermediate and advanced books are coming down the pipe.