The Gist of Grist (part 3)

Welcome to another long winding post about the realities of spinning yarn. It’s like skeining up 500 yard lace weight skeins. If I turn the winder up all the way hoping to shorten the time, this yarn is going to break, and cause nightmares for both of us. If I slow this all the way down hoping that everyone clearly understands, it will feel like we’re never going to finish it. Hopefully when we’re done, you’ll know what is the gist of grist?

In this post we’re going to go on the elusive quest for the “Holy Grail” of spun yarn – a language that both the handcraft tribe of weavers, knitters, and crocheters and the artisan fiber mill tribe can both communicate with. This was the dreaded post about grist that I’ve been putting off. So where should I begin? First, I should state that if you’re jumping into the series his is the final post in the series. In two previous posts, we’ve already covered the relevant terms and their relationship to diameter, density, and design in the realities of spinning yarn and approaches we could take to “flatten the curve” of the complexities in the mechanical spinning of yarns.

I guess I’ll start in 2007 after an awkward fumbling lesson by Wini Labrecque, where she and I attempted to navigate the terms and practice of mechanical spinning (of which neither of us knew much) with the world of hand spinning (which she knew very well, and I was still clueless). It was during that time she introduced me to a concept that has served me better than any schooling up to that point. The art of researching and the boldness to ask questions. I don’t think she ever said those words exactly but walking away from that weekend it’s what she left imprinted on my mind.

She also dropped little bread crumbs that led me to purchasing lots of very expensive books. One of those books was Alden Amos’s big book on handspinning. He had a writing style I really admired. Another was a more cerebral text book called “Wool: Science and Technology”. I honestly didn’t know what I was reading in those early years. I couldn’t get to the end of a page before I had to put the book down and try to apply what I had read. It was a daunting process. But I learned to sit up, then crawl, stand up, fall utterly headlong, and eventually move freely gracefully around the spinner as if it were an extension of my hand.

To be honest, grist was the only thing that ever made sense to me. It’s what Jeff Birtwhistle first taught me in one of his infamous lightening training sessions. He’d buzz through on his way to somewhere and pause just long enough to spell bind you about some aspect of processing. And then just like that he was gone.

So I guess the best way to lay a foundation for this post is to acknowledge that you stand upon someone else’s work in my case a lot of people’s work both direct and indirect. Grist, as stated in “Wool: Science and Technology” by Simpson & Crawshaw, is a measurement of linear density. Here’s straight from the text “The ultimate aim of spinning is to produce yarn (i.e. a coherent and cohesive fiber strand) of the required linear density (count) and which has good evenness, tensile properties and a minimum number of faults.” The gist of the grist is particularly getting at this “required linear density”. This is commonly referred to in the industry as yarn “count”.

What makes a yarn count? In what ways do we have to give an account? And to whom do we need to give an account? And what happens in an economy when there is little or no acCOUNTability?

There are a number of ways of calculating this “required linear density”, but the gist (main point) is that the grist is calculated and that the calculation is necessary in certain economies. And here’s where I’ll add the spicy hot sauce to this post that kicks it up a notch. It isn’t necessary in certain economies, and where it isn’t does this make those spinners any less valuable?

The gist of the grist is particularly getting at this… “required linear density”!

main point (gist) of this article on grist

When grist is necessary…

This is where the rubber meets the road. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of potential friction over this issue. That is the nature of rubber meeting the road. So you can imagine when your navigating the road of a changing market with it’s twists and turns friction is a good thing. Now add hundreds or even thousands of economic “drivers” on that same road with you, and you can begin to understand why there is the potential for lots of friction. So we better get grist right in that kind of an economy.

[Here’s a little “food for thought” nugget for those interested in doing a deep dive on getting out of shark infested economies: Research Blue Ocean Strategy]

But back to grist and its importance in spinning yarn. There’s an easy way to illustrate the critical need for grist in the global fiber economy. Here’s the gist: to the degree that there’s no standardization, there will be quite literally no collaboration and partnership to make that global supply chain work and the economy will screech to a halt. One would simply need to carry out the following thought experiment to see the point I’m trying to make at it’s greatest “pinnacle”.

The mental thought experiment

In order for you to do this well I’m going to write this out one thought at a time with space in between to give you time to pause and reflect and let the mental muscles really wrestle with the implications. You may want to go and get another cup of coffee to perk yourself up a bit!

  • Let’s just say that tomorrow we have a new one world government.
  • It is decided that there are now no longer local problems, only global ones.
  • Therefore there is a massive shift to global governance away from local governance (the smallest of which would be the nuclear family unit).
  • Given the advancements in technology, namely Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (and you and I are one of those things), we are able to create a global catalog of all information.
  • Imagine we are able to do this in such a way that it gives us instant access to all the critical points of data for making all important global decisions.
  • These decisions require algorithms designed to correlate the data to best meet the needs of this new global economy.
  • So let’s gravitate over to the area of fashion where it is discovered that everyone should now where clothing grown, constructed, and designed in a certain way to protect and preserve both people and the planet.
  • At that point the value chain is fine tuned for peak performance because we now need to create 7 billion new garments.
  • Running the business numbers on the ground shows that to keep the price point lowest requires that everyone wear the same style and “color” [it’s natural color of course to eliminate the destructive impact of dyeing on the environment].
  • In this thought experiment there is a very specific “required linear density” across all 7 billion garments.
  • Now shorten the time line 12 months to bring these garments to market and I think the gravity of calculating the grist and having a very minimal margin of error is of great concern.
  • If I could think of any more G words I would use them – but I think you get my gist. Got it? Great! GoodGrand… (just get on with it GOSH!)

To some that scenario causes them to be really hopeful in the future of humanity.

While in others, it becomes just one more sign that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

Then along came 2nd wave of the Craftsman revolution

What has happened in the last three decades is the resurgence of small scale, local economic ideals. Just in my lifetime there has been: craftsman furniture, specialty coffee, local food movement, craft beer, and slow fashion (just to name of few). Much of this recently has been fueled by the desire of millennials and other disenfranchised boomers (GenX is always overlooked – and they like it that way) to leave the “industrial complex” and instead root themselves locally and create value in that local space. An existence that has the potential to be much more relational and rewarding.

But the point is that many of them are doing so via craftsmen type businesses, non-profit organizations focused on local needs, and various other entrepreneurial pursuits that help them settle down and get to work on what really matters to them. These types of ventures are popping up across all domains, and textiles is not exempt. In the past, I have referred to this sub-domain of textiles as the artisan fiber mill industry.

It must be plainly stated that these artisan fiber mills work on a very different scale and more local than global. Which should lead me to some very real questions:

  • Do all of the characteristics of the industrial model necessarily need to transfer in a scaled down replica?
  • Does the husband and wife team that left corporate America (to embrace a more genuine expression of themselves) have to apply the same rules that they practiced in their past life?
  • Are there other social, or economic factors that need to be brought to the table and discussed?
  • How does God, people, and land work together in harmony?
  • Why does it seem that we’ve pushed God completely out of the equation and feel like we accomplished something of real significance?
  • Is the goal to simply create a local version of the global industrial supply chain?

Insert image of an Austin Powers “mini me” if you will.

Why are people leaving corporate America in droves? Why are they so tired and feel so lonely at 45 and experiencing a mid-life crisis? I’ve had so many of these conversations with family and friends both young and old. The story is always the same. Those who have left corporate America did so because it had literally raped their soul and left them feeling like a used up and worn out slave. They climbed the ladder for two decades only to find that at the “top” they discovered the new “bottom” and a new ladder of success that was next to climb.

The long way around the fence to the “grist” pasture…

I realize that was a very long introduction to what should be a very straightforward topic. But that was very intentional. We live in a world where everyone wants to just get on with it, and they don’t stop and pause long enough at the bench. We need to dwell in our mistakes to learn from them. There’s great lessons to be learned everyday. And I believe the Lord brings us through these hardships to help us appreciate what He is trying to teach us.

After I explain what grist is an how it works (and doesn’t work), I want to describe scenarios where it isn’t necessary. In some situations it simply doesn’t improve the bottom line. And I’m not talking about cash profits. Sure a business needs to be profitable, but what some small business patriots are discovering is that their economies work off of relational capital, trust, and each one bringing unique value to a local context.

The Knitty Gritty of Grist

Notice that when dealing with yarn counts we are specifically getting at a “required linear density”. Stop and consider each word. Required for who? Make sure when you’re spinning yarn you remember who you’re working for. Do they require linear density?

Second, this is a unit of measure that holds length accountable. Does your customer need to know the length? The whole crafting world thrives because of patterns, and each of those patterns require a certain length. Better make sure you give an account for that. How often does someone go back and buy yarn from someone who sold them yarn that resulted in them coming up 50 yards short on their pattern? This doesn’t build trust.

Third, this is a unit of measure that holds weight accountable. Does your customer need to know the weight? Well there’s certainly an issue if one 100 yard skein weighs 2oz, the next one weighs 2.25oz, and the next one weighs 1.65oz. Imagine the farm that was planning on knitting hats out of the yarn you spun for them. What if these hats took 400 yards of yarn to make and some hats were 9oz while others were 6.6oz? Now imagine that same farmer putting their hats out on display. Do they look the same? Can they price them the same?

Wait… did you just say weight!?

Now as Emeril Lagasse would say, “let’s kick it up a notch”. Here’s where the “knitty” gritty gets down and dirty. As stated before grist is a “required linear density” which results in a yarn count. But that doesn’t count when you’re describing that yarn to a weaver, knitter, or crocheter. They don’t speak “yarn-count-ease”. They speak an entirely different language altogether. It’s not a bad language, it’s just different. In their world they don’t describe things in density and grist, they describe things in diameter and bliss. Tell them YPP and it’s like you’re asking them to chew on gristle.

For the mills involved in spinning for the “yarn industrial complex” they honestly don’t care. They are not concerned primarily with marketing the yarn, but instead making it. This “language barrier” is a problem to be solved by the next in line down the value add supply chain. As long as they can source the same fiber and spin it to the same yarn count, its diameter will be the same. And what that is… it is! Period. End of discussion. They have a language that allows them to make something objectively and repeatably. They couldn’t care less what it takes to sell it, and as long as it sells they will never even know there was a discussion. Give it a name, pretty it up, and describe it however you want. You do your job and we’ll do ours.

So from a spinning yarn perspective, we need to clarify that there is not a “required linear diameter”, nor is there a “required linear design” when referring specifically to yarn counts. So most of us do a double take when the Craft Yarn Council posts a “Standard Yarn Weight System” for knitters and crocheters, that has no direct correlation to “required linear density” to an actual objectively measured weight. Dig a little deeper and you discover another chart they recommend to handcrafters called, “Wraps per inch (WPI) by yarn weight“, but again there is no direct correlation to yarn counts and their “required linear density”. They are talking about weight but not in “yarn-count-ease”.

Now we can see “the violence inherent in the system”, put so comically in the satire of “The Search for the Holy Grail”.

Grist and subjectivity…

There’s no need to poke a bear, especially ones that are hungry and aggravated. But there is an aspect to grist that is about as enjoyable as chewing on gristle – and about as productive. So let’s dive into a situation where “the rubber meeting the road” really doesn’t apply. What if your local economy thrives on “unique-one-off” creations that will never be made again? We shouldn’t belittle the economic incentives to these kinds of markets.

But with this vantage point we must acknowledge something about your market. You are selling art – regardless of how functional and useful as it may be. Second, you are an artist. This doesn’t diminish your skill as a craftsman, potentially it requires an ever increasing set of skills and creativity in your craft. But the point is solidly embedded in your foundational purpose – your not in the business of creating widgets. The trade-off is in determining the metrics of scaling that business.

Ernest Warther & His Pocket Knives

When our family was much younger, I remember loading up the 15 passenger van and heading through Amish country down to Dover, Ohio to visit the homestead and workshop of Ernest Warther. He had since passed away and the business he had left behind to his children and their children now had branched out into a true family destination. Ernest was an artist, genius, and an inventor. These types are cut out of a different cloth. Society needs them. They see the world differently and they seem to spawn greater and greater creativity.

The value they bring to a local economy is of immense value, but to try to force them into the model that creates widgets renders them personally feeling powerless and unproductive. And in their defense, a culture which doesn’t have “Warthers” everything turns gray and cookie cutter. In the grand narrative of God, his creativity is still unfolding. We can wake up and see it everyday.

“Mooney” was his local nickname. His father passed away when he was just five. Needing to help support their family Ernest became the local cow herder, leading livestock to various pastures in the area. It was during his time as a cow herder that he stumbled onto a rusty pocket knife in the dirt, and started to carve and whittle any and every piece of wood he could get his hands on.

Later on Frieda Richard moved to Dover, Ohio from Switzerland. She was the oldest of thirteen children. “Mooney” and Frieda got married and their love for Dover, artistry, and community grew and grew. Those roots grew deep and had a massive impact on that little town. They cultivated creativity and soon people were coming from miles around to see Frieda’s gardens and “Mooney’s” handcrafted creations. He made exact working replicas of railroad steam engines, whittled out of wood. They were loaded with moving parts down to the conductor’s moving arm which pulled the cord for the horn – all out of a single block of wood!

Yarns don’t have to be produced by objective measurements. This way of subjectively spinning yarns has been done for millennia! We can spin what we want and it simply is what it is. When we spin a yarn and say, “That looks about right to me.” or “I like the way that feels.”, these are subjective means. I don’t see that reality every changing.

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking a subjective approach IF your spinning that yarn for your own purposes. For individuals working in a closed loop system it’s often ideal, especially if repeatability is not required for your market. Let’s say you have the ability to grow, harvest, process, and then knit/weave/crochet your own garments for personal use (or even resale). You can certainly get along just fine, without objective measurements.

But what happens when you want to make another sweater for your cousin that looks the same as the sweater you made for your daughter? Suddenly grist is the gravity that allows the rubber to maintain contact with the road. And to the degree that the size/scale/scope of your market demands repeatability that gravity will increase. Your spinning measurements will have to move from subjective ideals to objective measurements that are easily quantifiable.

Imagine there are three or four players in the value added supply chain before it gets to the end user? It is precisely at this point where a mutual accountability becomes mandatory. In this advancement of economy a “language” needs to be created that establishes and governs quality control. Depending on the size/scale/scope of your local economy the gist of grist becomes greater and greater. Therefore, we can appreciate the gist of grist on a global value added supply chain scale.

Making the yarn count…

In textiles, and specifically in yarn production, there are two generally practiced systems for expressing the count of a yarn. Ironically neither of these systems deal with diameter directly. These systems were created to give an objective account for the yarn made. In the simplest terms, I must measure the length of the yarn and evaluate that against the weight that it represents or vice versa.

The first system is called the “indirect system of numbering yarns”. This is where I’m focused on the accounting with this question, “How many units of length will it take me to get just one unit of weight?” This indirect system is used mainly with short fibers and staple fibers. The second system is referred to as the “direct system of numbering”. In this system I’m asking, “How many units of weight will it take me to get just one unit of length?” This direct system is used with filament fibers. Silk pulled from a cocoon would be an example of a filament or continuous strand of fiber. Once that filament is cut to a specific length it would be referred to as a staple fiber. Both systems are designed for specific reasons.

The method of measuring yarns that I’m employed during my 13 years of spinning yarns for Morning Star Fiber was an indirect system that quantified the number of yards in a given pound (YPP). I measured length over a fixed weight. During my season of spinning yarns I was typically working with a very wide variety animal fibers from farms all across the country. In a given week I might spin 3 different fiber types, although we always tried to keep it as low as possible for production purposes. But over the coarse of a given year I would easily spin 50+ different breeds of fiber.

I rarely made myself accountable for the diameter of the yarn. I spun a yarn that was going to be coherent and cohesive with good evenness, tensile properties and a minimum number of faults. To be honest, that alone is a tall order. The level of science required for adding diameter into the count is enough to make your head spin. For those who have mastered that while maintaining a custom fiber processing mill that serves 100s of farms, they should be recognized in the Yarn Hall of Fame.

Word to the wise…

For those who venture down that road of achieving linear density and diameter, with even one or two clients, let me give you a heads up. You’ll quickly discover that little else gets done until you’ve solved the “rubics cube”. And then you’ll likely discover that other pieces in the supply chain didn’t hold up to their end of the bargain. In the few rare occasions that I did traverse this successfully, I ensured there was gong to be an ongoing program that had very good husbandry and understood the exact fiber characteristics that were necessary to consistently achieve linear density and diameter. Each of those examples resulted in over a decade worth of production, and increased throughput dramatically.

For those mills who are endeavoring to bring in distribution and sales under their business model both density and diameter are critical. You’ll have to develop a language that speaks to both tribes – your native tribe of employees and that tribe your seeking to convert to the yarn your spinning. Now to state what should be increasingly obvious, if you don’t have the ability to measure objectively and accurately the length, weight, and diameter of the yarns you are spinning by just looking at the raw fiber and knowing what it wants to be, and what your equipment is designed to do best, you need to change your business model. Anything less will result in yarns that are subjective and lack the accountability necessary to build trust in the marketplace.

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