Thursday, January 16, 2014

Defining 'Art Yarn': What are We Really Talking About?

The other day, I posted on Facebook that I am torn. I want to sell handspun yarn in my Etsy shop, but traditional handspun just doesn't sell well there. It sells in spurts, but mostly it sells at fiber conventions and craft shows. Now that I have my new fiber tools (hackle and blending board), I want to start selling my art yarn. And there's the conundrum. I want products to sell, not hang around in my Etsy gallery. After reading some opinions of about art yarn, I realized that 'art yarn' can mean a variety of things. I mean, I already knew that it was a catchall term for all non-traditional, novelty-style yarns. But what are we really talking about when we say 'art yarn'?

In the last probably 10 years, 'art yarn' has stormed the spinning scene. Lots of people have begun spinning because they were inspired to make those fabulous 'art yarns' they saw in magazines and at conventions. I can't blame them! How many kids watched Bob Ross paint beautiful landscapes and wanted to become an oil painter? 'Art yarn' is inspiring, artistic, a statement, and even transcends its intended purpose. 'Art yarn' has moved beyond the concept of yarn and entered a realm of 'meta-yarn.' We can identify it as a thread which can be looped around a needle and formed into a fabric, but in some sense, it isn't functionally yarn anymore (as indicated by 'art yarn' being curated by art museums, thereby restricting its functional use to being solely art).

But not all 'art yarn' is created equal. While some yarn borders on 'meta-yarn' and becomes an accession with a catalog number, box, and database entry, what about the other 'art yarns?' Well, that's fuzzy, but also clear-cut. When you first look at a hundred pictures of 'art yarn,' you see a mass of crazy uncarded fibers, utilitarian add ins (like nuts and metal springs), and yarn so thick you might consider it rope. If you look at each 'art yarn' individually and mark down their characteristics (single/plied; beaded/unbeaded, natural components/man-made components, smooth/chunky, etc.), two distinct types emerge: a yarn which has strikingly similar characteristics to traditional yarn (but isn't traditional yarn), and one which defies everything we thought we knew about yarn.

In the first category, I'm talking about yarn which has some exaggerated attribute which makes it non-traditional. For example, thick and thin yarn is an exaggeration of a handspun yarn which isn't spun perfectly even. Even the simple addition of pulled silk to create textured bumps will force a traditional yarn into the 'art yarn' realm. The 'art yarns' which fall into this category are yarns which can be used similarly to traditionally spun yarns. You can make shrugs, skirts, mitts, and more with these slightly exaggerated yarns. You can even use patterns designed for 'normal' yarns with this 'art yarn' just by making a few minor adjustments.

In the second category, no holds-barred. Practically anything goes with this type of yarn, and it's such a freeing experience. Sure, you can get extreme versions of the first category, including super thick and thin yarns and giant silk 'cocoon' slubs. Most of the yarns which fit into this category won't be suitable for 'normal' patterns, even after making adjustments. There are several books on the market which cater to these artistic creations and have patterns specifically designed for these works of art.

I propose a way to distinguish these two types of 'art yarn' without diminishing their amazing qualities as statement pieces. I'd like to call the first category 'Tame Yarn.' I'm imagining a wild beast, full of predatory instincts and majestic beauty...all squeezed down into the tiny, compact body of the House Cat. Anyone who has ever seen a cat knows that behind those eyes of complacency lie the inner desires of a ferocious feline...the desire to attack that string until it stops moving. In a sense, you have a domesticated 'art yarn' in the first category. The point of this metaphor is to describe how the first type of 'art yarn' fits within our traditional notion of handspun yarn. Going from being a family without a cat to a family with a cat is a minor adjustment. We add cat food and kitty litter to our grocery list. For some of us, it's an easy way to dip our toes in the whole animal care business. Maybe if this goes well, we'll buy a farm and twenty sheep. You get the idea.

I think the second category should be called 'Wild Yarn.' And for this, I mean the epitome of King of the Jungle, Mr. Lion himself. He's the perfect balance of strength and relaxation, rigidity and flexibility. This category of 'art yarn' can add in structural elements like wire and suddenly we can't wash this yarn. It can also add in pieces of recycled cloth and cut felt. It can be softly spun and felted together. It can be spun tightly and coiled onto another yarn. This 'art yarn' can be just about anything yarn isn't normally. It demonstrates the incredible abilities inherent in wool and showcases the ways in which it can be worked as a medium by artistic hands. It's your imagination come to life, and every idea you have can be boiled down to materials and construction. Essentially, it's the embodiment of yarn as art.

I wanted to take a quick moment to clarify something. In no way is one category inherently better than the other. They both have their merits, their uses. But each serves a different purpose, I think. The 'Tame Yarn' can be used by those who are trying to figure out how to incorporate 'art yarn' into their current corpus of skills. It can be used by those trying to break out of the mundane and add in something fun. For the 'Wild Yarn,' it speaks for itself. You use this yarn to trail blaze, to boldly go where no artist has gone before. In the end, all fiber creations can intermingle. It wouldn't be unheard of to incorporate a traditional yarn with 'Tame Yarn' tactics (a 2 ply yarn with locks plied between them), or a 'Wild Yarn' with in-line weaving.

I can't say it enough: Wool has billions of possibilities and it can never truly be ruined. No matter which category we're referring to, the yarn speaks for itself. All 'art yarn' makes a statement, whether it be subtly or bombastically.