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When It Comes to Fabric It’s All About the “Hand”

It’s always nice when something learned in the past sticks with you in ways not fully appreciated at the time. Maybe you experience the “aha” moment later when “the whole picture” becomes more real and compelling … and useful! For me, what I learned in a textiles class in college explains why I like to touch, hold and feel yarn before I even think about using it.

My college roommate and I took Dr. Alma Tapscott’s textiles class together. We would have all kinds of laughs imitating her because she was just SO into fibers. We think she most loved slivers (a long bundle of fiber used to spin yarn), because she would stand in front of the class gesturing broadly with her arms and hands to show how slivers are turned into yarn. Heaven forbid you pronounced “sliver” incorrectly in her class. It is “sly-ver,” not “sliver” as most of us might think to say it.

From her we learned that one must card or comb fibers into long strips to make slivers. Slivers become roving when carded further and twisted slightly. And all sorts of yarns are born from this process. It’s just a little different when you can’t cut the fiber off the animal. Cotton, of course, is grown on plants and that fiber, known as “lint,” gets separated from the seeds then carded. Silk “threads” from certain types of silkworms are processed and wound onto reels, then twisted into bunches. Linen comes from the flax plant, and hemp from the sativa plant. All these are natural fibers (or “authentic,” as I like to call them), as opposed to human made. “Fibers and slivers” my roommate and I would repeat to each other! Who knew?

We didn’t have so many laughs when it came to studying the actual fibers themselves, but we learned a lot. Dr. Tapscott used her demonstrative approach here, too, especially when it came time for the final exam. I clearly remember walking into the classroom to my individual “chemistry lab” station. There were about 10 swatches of fabric there, a Bunsen burner and a beaker with water. The final exam was to identify each fabric (cotton? rayon? silk? etc.) by determining its properties. How did it burn? What happened when it got wet? How did it unravel? And most importantly, what did it feel like? Aha, there it was, the all-important lesson of “hand” that has influenced me ever since.

Without getting into techie terms, “hand” is what a fabric feels like once its created - the drape, the softness (or not), the loft, the weight and durability. Coming full circle, it’s the fiber properties that determine the “hand.” Lesson learned: If I fall in love with a knitting pattern, I first consider what I want the “hand” of the finished garment to be and search for a yarn that will provide that. If I fall in love with a yarn before I have a pattern for it, I let the yarn guide me to an appropriate project. Sometimes I make a poor project choice and don’t like the fabric that’s emerging. It just doesn’t feel right. I stop, rip it out, and mentally thank Dr. Tapscott for providing a solid understanding for doing so. Other than I just messed up, that is!

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