The last art of spinning, knitting and crocheting

photography by Jessica Keller


he rise of mass-manufactured clothing has really only happened within the last few decades. Not long ago, clothes were made at home and worn for a long time. For centuries, textiles were made slowly, the fiber harvested, spun, and woven into cloth by hand. The textile industry in America revolutionized clothing in the mid-19th century, and advances in technology have made clothing and accessories cheap and easy to attain. Clothes are often worn for a season or two before being discarded.

Many still find enjoyment in the old ways, though. Some artists and hobbyists knit and crochet clothing, blankets, and accessories such as gloves and socks. A growing number of them even spin and dye their own fi bers. A small group of those artists live right here in Lakeland, and they pride themselves on bucking the trend of mass-produced fast fashion and instead make pieces that are meant to last.

April Shoemaker, a local entrepreneur and mother, knits all manner of things, and she does it with yarn that she’s processed, dyed, and spun herself. She was introduced to the fiber arts at a young age when she learned to crochet at age eight. She learned to knit in her early 20s, and within the last year started dying and spinning the yarn she uses in her projects. Her decision to start making her own yarn was a natural progression of her hobby. “I had always done things with yarn and fibers,” she says.

“Spinning wheels are cost-prohibitive,” Shoemaker notes, and she initially tried spinning with a drop spindle, an ancient, simple hand tool used to make yarn. Her husband eventually bit the bullet, she says, and told her she needed to spin on a real spinning wheel. After months of research, she can now start with a bag of freshly sheared, unwashed wool and, over the course of a week, transform it into skeins of yarn.

Shoemaker’s interest in spinning is shared by Linda Jarvis, a local woman who, among other things, knits elaborate lace shawls and scarves. She too learned to knit when she was young, and knitted her first major project when she worked as a geologist for an oil company. “I took [my project] out to an oil well, and the company man didn’t quite know what to make of the female geologist who would sit knitting and watching the football game,” she says with a laugh.

After her time on the oil fields, Jarvis pursued other hobbies and only started knitting frequently a few years ago. “I got into knitting again because [my daughter] wanted a hat. And I just started knitting like a fiend.” She moved quickly from beginners’ patterns to elaborate lace patterns from all over the world, particularly from Estonia. The biggest appeal knitting has for her is the combination of beauty and utility. “I like making pretty, functional things,” Jarvis says. “Functional things don’t have to be plain.”

Local crocheter Lisa Kolesar also loves the creativity inherent to fiber arts but adheres less strictly to patterns than Jarvis does to hers. “You can be really creative,” Kolesar says. “I think you have the people who will make your exactly-by-the pattern sweater, and then you have someone that looks at it says, ‘I’m going to make that pattern FURRY!’ People come up with all kinds of crazy stuff.”

Kolesar was taught to crochet when she was seven years old and has experimented with different projects and patterns since then. She makes an array of things, from cell phone covers to stuffed animals. When she needs to relax, she works on simpler projects like scarves and pot holders to help alleviate stress.

All three women have noted an increase in interest in the fiber arts. More and more people are learning to knit, crochet, and spin, and what once was a vaguely out-of-fashion hobby is becoming more popular. Kolesar says, “When I first started hanging out with a lot of the people I hang out with, I was the only one who knew how to crochet, and one girl knew how to knit. And now all our friends learned to knit, though we never seemed to get to crochet.”

Part of the allure of the fiber arts seems to be in the do-it yourself mindset that is so prevalent today, along with the push to shop local and support local artisans. Kolesar notes that it seems to correlate with an increased emphasis on community and sustainability. “I do think that part of the whole community building thing is part of a fear about things getting bad,” she says. “Maybe it’s a fear of the apocalypse or something — I don’t know. Maybe people want to say, ‘I have a valuable skill.’”

That idea of self-sufficiency is also appealing to Jarvis. “I like the idea of starting with an animal and ending up with lace,” she says.

Enthusiasts also seem to appreciate the departure from mass-produced products and the act of rediscovering the history and tradition of the fiber arts. “The thing I like about lace, cables, and colorwork is that all those things have a very long heritage,” Jarvis says. “Knitting and the hand arts were ways women could contribute to their household.”

Shoemaker agrees, noting that the process of spinning yarn and turning it into something useful is a long, tedious process that is also a valuable oral tradition passed down among families.

Despite the surge in interest in the fiber arts, artists struggle with finding a place either in the art community or as a business. Shoemaker, who recently started Ply or Die, a company that sells handmade yarn, admits that she caters to a niche market. The hardest part of building her business is finding a price point that’s accessible to shoppers whether they’re looking to buy raw fibers or finished yarn. “Something that’s made from scratch costs more than something you can buy by the pound from China,” she says. “Bulk yarns aren’t as nice, but pricing is hard.”

Kolesar also struggled with pricing her work. “A couple of years back, I had some stuff for sale at [a local retail shop] downtown,” she says. Unfortunately, customers weren’t interested in paying for her goods at a price commensurate with the pieces’ values, or they were looking for baby items. But she wasn’t interested in crocheting baby stuff, so she eventually stopped selling altogether and prefers to give her projects to friends as gifts.

Jarvis, too, prefers to give her lace and other projects to people as gifts instead of selling them. “You can never get anyone to pay for the time you’ll put into anything,” she says. She showed me a picture of one of her shawls, a delicate lace piece knitted with elaborate patterns in very fine yarn. “Even at minimum wage, this would cost at least $500,” she says. Jarvis says she’d rather knit what she likes than take commissions for paid pieces, especially given the time she invests in each piece.

Spinning, knitting, crochet, and other hand arts require technical skill and years of practice. Th at generally means artists have to choose between pricing their work high enough to account for the time they put into projects and pricing them low enough to appeal to shoppers who are accustomed to mass-produced products.

On the other hand, the fiber arts have yet to become a respected part of the art community at large. “The fiber arts are undervalued in the art world,” says Shoemaker. She notes that paintings, sculptures, and other pieces will sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, but fiber pieces will never command the same prices even though they can take just as long to create. Often, artists like painters or photographers are reluctant to trade their work for a knitted piece that cost the same amount of time and money to finish as their own art.

Despite the strange niche that the fiber arts occupy — not quite in the art world, not fully viable as a business — they’re still attracting an increasing number of people who want to learn them. Whatever has contributed to their growing popularity, be it economic uncertainty, a need for community, or a love for local arts, the surge in interest doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Online tools like YouTube and chat forums have made what was previously an oral tradition passed from generation to generation widely available to anyone who cares to learn, and a growing fiber-arts community will ensure that those skills are preserved for another generation.

For Lakelanders who are interested in knitting, spinning, or crocheting, Shoemaker and Kolesar suggest visiting The Knotty Knitwits, a group that meets every third Wednesday of the month at the Lakeland Library on Lake Morton at 6:00 p.m. Four Purls, a yarn store in Winter Haven, also hosts a group that meets every Tuesday.