Friday, January 12, 2018
Our fiber art group just scored two huge garbage bags full of old doilies and tablecloths in a variety of techniques -- crochet, tatting, hairpin lace, cutwork, bobbin lace, embroidery and who knows what else. As we sorted through, contemplating what we'll do with them, I noted how some were obviously made at less-than-expert level craft.
And I thought, as I have so often in the past, that in every single fiber art, the key to mastery is control of tension.
When I first learned to crochet, taught by my mother-in-law, I made a fairly large afghan. I was proud of how neatly it was done, flat and even -- until I finished and tried to fold it up. Oops -- one end was a good six inches longer than the other!
What had happened, of course, was that as I got more comfortable with the yarn and the stitch, I eased up on the tension and the finished fabric got more expansive.
I have taught many beginners how to crochet, sew and embroider, and have watched myself try to learn knitting, weaving, felting, macrame and many other techniques. In 99% of the cases beginners' work is too tight. We clench up on the needle or hook or whatever tool we're using, we pull too hard on the thread or the yarn, we hang on too tight to the underlying material. We grab that quilt in a death grip and resist the pull of the sewing machine; we wrap the french knot so firmly that we can barely pull the needle through; we tug the weft through the weaving so hard that the selvages bow inward.
(Weavers may correct me on that last remark -- I think some beginners err in the other direction, leaving the weft too loose so the selvages are uneven and loopy. But that's the other 1% of tension headaches.)
The problem usually disappears with practice; we relax, we learn to let the yarn flow easily, we develop muscle memory so all the stitches have the same tightness throughout the whole work. In knitting parlance, we automatically maintain the right gauge without having to stop and measure all the time.
That's not to say we can stitch in oblivion. It's still good to stop every now and then, lay the work out flat, check how it's coming along. Note whether your afghan is still the same width as when you started. Check that the second sock is the same size as the first one. Make sure your seams are smooth, not drawn up in a ruffle. Look at the back of your work and see that the threads are well-behaved, not forming tangles and knots.
It's not just the sewist that can have tension problems -- the machine can too. In my experience, Bernina sewing machines, which I love, adore and have used exclusively for almost 30 years, have one achilles heel, and that's tension control. I have had to learn tricks to keep them from spoiling my work: avoiding threads that the machine doesn't like, making sure the bobbin thread matches the top thread so if it's pulled up too far, it will be less visible.
All these issues are part of mastering the craft of our art.