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The Future is Fluffy

I want to tell you something about your underwear. But first, hold that thought.

I Spin

If one says, “I spin” in German it’s the equivalent of saying, “I’m crazy” – ich spinne. Well, I spin. Judge if you must. I happen to think spinning is key to our future. I also think that to succeed in this spinning madness we need to understand what we’re talking about. And yes, this has to do with your underwear, and our shift to a regenerative economy.

I am sometimes introduced as a weaver as shorthand for the kind of work I do across diverse teams and communities. I hear this term more and more among those of us working to connect the pieces of the future we want. But I think weaving is not always the right word. I think most times we actually mean spinning.

Don’t get me wrong: I love weaving! And I get the gist of the metaphor. But with an eye on fomenting regenerative business, I want to make sure we are using the best tools for the job.

By the way, I think you will love spinning, metaphorically speaking. And if you pick up an actual spindle, or treadle a wheel, or turn the crank of a charkha you’ll be in good change-maker company, including Donella Meadows and Mahatma Gandhi.

Mental Models Matter

Why pick on weaving with everything else going on? Because to create a major change, it’s important to question everything, even (especially?) the mental models we hold dear. And language is a potent piece of that. We need to pick our metaphors wisely in case they catch on. Witness leading change-maker John Elkington’s recall of the triple bottom line, a key tenet of the business-for-good industry of the last few decades.

I have been involved in that industry since 2004, bumping up against the paradigmatic problem John’s recall points out. Meanwhile, I have also been making stuff with string for an even longer time, and this habit informs some of my corporate work too, as I’ll explain below. But first, a word on my fluffy qualifications if I may: I have been knitting since the mid-1970s and designing my own pieces since the late 1980s; and I completed a six-year program that goes deep on every spinnable fibre imaginable (for example, we unreeled silk cocoons, scutched flax and spun recycled PET, to name a few fibres). I have even competed in several regional and international speed spinning, knitting and weaving events, including with the World Champion International Back-to-Back Wool Challenge Team, the Toronto Spiders. It might sound crazy but I’m not making this up – I know my distaff from my hackles.

Even more basically, I know my wheel from my loom, and what matters here is that they serve very different functions. Whether or not you choose to learn how to actually spin yarn or weave cloth, it’s worth a moment to understand the difference.

Spinning Turns Disparity Into Integrity

Spinning is the making of thread or yarn by putting twist into fibres. Characteristics of spinning that lend themselves to metaphor include:

  • Seeing potential in seemingly useless inputs: Spinners recognize possibilities in loose fibres. Almost any fibre – from animal, vegetable or mineral sources – can be spun into usable thread. On their own these fibres could be mistaken for the dust buffalos that roam under the couch. Brought together, loose fibres comprise practically every stitch of cloth on Earth, past, present and future.

  • Creating exponential strength from inherent weakness: Twisting fibre multiplies strength in ways that defy the imagination. Loose silk fibres are easily broken yet when spun together they are literally as strong as steel yet light enough for parachute fabric. This is thanks to the twist energy passed through a spindle, accelerated through a foot- or hand-powered wheel. While industry has sped spinning up, the process is remarkably similar to its millennia-old roots.

  • Blending diverse elements to adapt: Spinners blend different fibres for particular effects, such as making a valuable material go further or to withstand abrasion. The right fibre and spinning techniques are critical for the finished piece, something a spinner can adjust at multiple stages before the finished results are locked in.

Do you see potential in disparate elements, combine them for strength and adapt as you go? You might just be a spinner after all. Maybe you hand your work on to others for them to take to the next phase while you cycle back into the next round of spinning, or perhaps you yourself turn the thread into cloth – which may or may not be woven. (I haven’t forgotten about your underwear, by the way.)

Weaving Plans And Manages Tension

Weaving is one of several ways to create cloth with spun thread. It lends itself to metaphor for different reasons:

  • Committing to a plan: The way the weaver sets up the warp determines much of the structure of the finished cloth. Once weaving has begun there is little that can be changed without starting over – the plan is locked in place. It is a mix of math in the set-up, combined with finding a steady rhythm in the weaving process.

  • Managing tension: The whole point of a loom – the primary piece of equipment weavers use – is to hold the warp threads under tension so that the weaver can weave. Without this tension, the yarns would be loose and tangled and the cloth would be a wobbly, chaotic mess. Consistent tension – not too much, not too little – is key to good cloth.

  • Repetition of intersection: Woven cloth is created by intersecting weft yarns with warp yarns at a right angle, with the weft passing over some and under other warp threads. It’s this repetitive intersection that gives cloth its integrity and pattern.

If committing to a plan, managing tension throughout the plan’s execution, and rhythmic repetition sounds like what you do, perhaps you are indeed weaving. If so, hopefully you have someone to supply yarn that meets your needs, because it’s the quality of the yarn that will define much of the quality of the finished product. There is no fixing the yarn on the loom.

Spinning: For Weaving And Then Some

Spun thread is at the foundation of all fabric (with the exception of felt, skins, and a few synthetic innovations) yet very few people know how it comes to exist. It’s a bit like how many people today can name more corporate logos than bird species, although perhaps worse since it’s illegal to leave home without cloth. A lot of network weavers would not be able to pick a loom out of a line up much less say why women are known as the distaff side. One could argue that it doesn’t matter – birds, logos, distaff, dat-staff. In my opinion, as someone who spins and weaves, literally and figuratively, I believe it matters deeply as it shapes our own world views. As Meadows’ infamous leverage points article describes, it is our world views which shape our goals, behaviours and so much more. If we don’t understand them, we’re not likely to push in the right direction.

Which brings us back to your underwear (assuming you are wearing some – perhaps my own world view coming to the fore here). Is the fabric woven? Or knitted? I bet it’s knitted, if it’s stretchy. If it’s boxer shorts you’re wearing, made of a canvass-like fabric with a loose-fitting feel (like a button-down shirt versus a t-shirt), then it’s a woven fabric. It is made from spun thread though – of this I am 100% certain – most likely cotton with a small percentage of elastane or other synthetic. How many of us have wrapped our most sensitive parts in complete unknowns? The good news is, we can do something about this.

We may indeed be weavers, many of us. But let’s encourage more spinning, too. Spinners are needed to gather disconnected, seemingly unimportant yet critical elements, to energize them and add strength, and to bring a diverse blend that may just be the stuff of our future.

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Bonus Track

You may be wondering, Okay, Lorraine, where is this fluff you’re talking about? It turns out it’s all around us. I try to make it visible, those promising bits that I think – when spun together and worked into some form of cloth or other – could make for wonderful new forms of social fabric. And many others do this too. (This is why I propose we’re actually spinners!)

Sometimes I write about examples in more detail here on the blog as I learn about them in my travels. Sometimes I create “stories” and save the juicier ones as “highlights” on Instagram. I always blend in unknown tidbits of future fluff along with better known stories from the present when I give talks or am asked to share input on projects. Here are a few recently collected spinnable goodies:

  • a visit to Heartwood Farm in Ontario, a regenerative business focused on rebuilding soils while exploring connection to place through food and farming (highlight here);

  • time spent on site with Instituto Feira Livre, an innovative organic grocer in São Paulo whose purpose is to connect producers and consumers through fair and healthy products (highlight here) – incidentally these folks model a level of transparency that the Global Reporting Initiative may want to spin into their own cloth one day;

  • a journey into the biodiverse Atlantic Forest of Brazil alongside the founders of the NGO Apremavi to learn about their efforts spanning more than 30 years to make change through policy, collaboration and activism (highlight here);

  • book reviews exploring new understanding shared on this blog, such as those of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us, and David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees;

  • and a homespun memo on the voices exploring soils, mushrooms and what keeps us alive in My, Mycelium & Maitake, penned after I ate some mushrooms (not hallucinogenic, yet world-view rattling just the same).

In other words, crazy as this may seem, I aim to spin these emergent fibres into everything I do. And there is an infinite array of fluff to be spun way beyond my fibre stash. I am just one little spinner working on my sailcloth here.

This future fluff is renewable and free to share. On that note, what are you spinning?

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Banner image from left to right, natural gray Ontario mohair fibre; hand-dyed, wheel-spun green Rambouillet sheep’s wool from upstate New York; natural white organic pima cotton that I grew indoors a few years back (seeds of unknown origin – spinners sometimes just hand each other stuff to experiment with one day, such as these cotton seeds…).

Below: Some of the same batch of cotton as that of the banner image, that I spun on the tahkli spindle pictured; cotton seeds from my crop of home-grown cotton after picking the cotton fibre off the seeds (aka “ginning” it by hand); machine-woven natural coloured cotton pouch; machine-braided cotton chord; wooden beads.

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