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Playing With Yarn

September 20th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cut a piece of yarn about a foot long. Hold it at eye level. Shake it. Jiggle it. Swirl it around. Tie a knot near one end. Tie another one near the middle. Tie the two ends together. Swing the loop around your fingers. Hang it from a nail.

Yarn can be as playful as any toy you’ve ever had. Even more, because it doesn’t put any limits on your imagination. And it’s cheap. For about two bucks you can get half a pound of a bright, wiry acrylic.

So go ahead–start playing!

If I could give one piece of advice to people beginning to use yarn, this is it: stay away from patterns. The people who write patterns are highly skilled, sophisticated designers, and your early (and middle and late-middle) experiments will look crude and clumsy compared to their work. But–BUT–the experiments will be YOURS, while other people’s patterns will not.
It all depends on what you want–if you want to make pretty things that other people admire, then patterns will help you. But those pretty things and that admiration will become addictive, and the longer you use other people’s designs, the harder it’ll be to create on your own.

If, however, you want to use your yarn like a painter uses paint, you need to develop the courage to be crude and clumsy and to make useless things that you throw away.

Eventually you’ll figure out how to make useful things if you want to, because you’ll be developing technical skill and design intuition with each experiment that you toss in the trash.

I’ve taught myself to use yarn the way I use paper. This is the second time I’ve tried to write this paragraph–the other one has scratches out and squiggles and a big X through it. And I’m going to throw away all the sheets that I’m writing on once I type everything into my computer.

I use my yarn just as lightly–I make something, fool with it a bit, maybe even admire it, and then toss it out. Sometimes my husband photographs some of the pieces for my web page, but I refuse to become attached to them because I’m much more interested in the doing than the done.


Every so often I feel loose enough to dance with my yarn. I cut slits in the vertical ends of a piece of watercolor paper, warp with pearl cotton #8, tie a length of embroidery thread to a warp, and go looping and knotting across the page. My dance weavings are spontaneous–I don’t measure the slits, I don’t choose the threads ahead of time, and I don’t know where I’m going until I tie on a thread and start dancing. I rarely spend more than fifteen minutes on a weaving, but it takes me weeks or months to store up enough confidence to make one. Then, of course, I start having such a good time that I make two or three in one sitting!


Find 3 yarns that look good together. Cut about a 2-foot length of each. Tie them together at one end, leaving about a 1-inch fringe. Lay the knot on the edge of a table, put a heavy book on it, and braid the yarns until you have about 1-1/2 inches left. Then make a knot at the end of the braid.

Now cut 3 lengths of each yarn, combining 1 of each yarn into each braiding strand, and make a braid.

Now cut 3 more lengths of each yarn, but keep all 3 of one color together to form a braiding strand, and make a braid.

Look at your braids. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you prefer 3 lengths or 9? Do you prefer combining the colors or keeping them separate?

Do this experiment again, but twist the yarns instead of braiding them. How do the twists look? What are the similarities and differences, both among the twists and between the twists and the braids? Which do you prefer?

This is an experiment you can perform again and again, using all sorts of yarns in all sorts of combinations. Try 3 of 1 yarn and 6 of another, or 2 and 1 or 7 and 2 or 2 and 3.

Just keep trying.


The biggest problem in the yarn world today is the lack of education in art. The great pioneers of Hippiedom–Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lenore Tawney, Ed Rossbach–all went to art school and have remained actively involved with art and artists throughout their lives.

Keeping us ignorant could be a conspiracy on the part of the yarn establishment (whatever that might be) to keep us servile and dependent, but I doubt it. I think it’s just inertia, a continuation of the split (turning into a gulf) between art and craft. It’s easier for everyone to depend on a few leaders to make the patterns for the rest of us to follow. Occasionally a gifted amateur will break through with some original work, but mainly it’s the same old, same old, rutted, constricted way.

So how do you go about educating yourself? For starters, go through the shelves in the 700’s section of your library. You’ll find books about art theory and technique, as well as those beautiful collections of artwork. Learn about composition and design. Find an artist whose work you like and study that work. Find another artist. Watch some of Sister Wendy’s videos.

And start really looking at your world. Is the sky the same blue every day? How is it different from 9am to high noon to 6pm? Are all gray skies the same? What about grass–is it uniformly green? And is a tree the same color up close as when you’re ten feet away?

Look. Question. Look some more.

And never stop thinking and learning.


Find a skein of yarn you like. Make a loop at one end and then knot the loop around its bottom. Pull a loop through it and knot that around its bottom. Pull and knot a few more loops. Then pull a loop and also pull it through another loop. Knot it around its bottom. Pull and knot a few more, then pull through another loop and knot.

As you keep going, you’ll be making a loose, loopy, spherical shape. Keep looping and knotting, occasionally stopping to look at your shape and judge where you need to loop next. When you have a shape you like, make one last loop and knot it, then cut the yarn from the skein.

Hang your sphere by its last loop on a nail over an archway. Look at it from all directions. Admire it for a day or two. Then take it down and make another one.

And another.

And another.


Simon Rand

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