Not all that long ago, I had lunch with Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press and my employer from late 1986 to halfway through 2000. It was October 13, to be precise. We get together a few times a year. Last spring, we collaborated on a road trip (the first road trip we've done since I left Interweave) to visit Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and record some material for the first issue of SpinKnit e-magazine.
The photo of the three folks in red aprons is truly historic. It's probably 25 years old, and I grabbed it off the Spin-Off newsletter site. It shows me, Linda Ligon, and Dale Pettigrew, at one SOAR (Spin-Off Autumn Retreat) or another, figuring out SOMETHING that would make the experience better for the participants. I'm guessing the picture was taken at the first Spin-Off Rendezvous, in Potosi, Missouri, the year we increased the participant numbers from about 125 to 300 and added the marketplace. It's amazing how long-standing the connections from back then have been. Linda was the catalyst for the DVD that's the topic of this post. And I saw Dale most recently a couple of weeks ago.
Sometimes when we get together either Linda or I (or both of us!) will be working on a project we can't talk about, which can be kind of amusing: "I'm involved in something really fun, and I can't tell you about it yet." Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands, the book written by Nilda Callañaupa that Linda produced, was one of those secret endeavors, up to the point when it was nearly done and I read it and offered some lightweight feedback. The Project I've been engaged in recently was like that for its first couple of years, because I'm working with Storey on it rather than Interweave. Linda knew it was happening, but not initially what it was. Then there comes the time when we can reveal what's been under wraps. Linda's known about The Project for at least the past year, both from me and from people she knows at Storey, and has been a great supporter of this work.
So in October, after Linda and I had both been off on some adventures, we met up to catch up. Shortly after we parted ways after lunch, Linda called to ask if I'd be interested in working with Interweave to make an instructional DVD about rare-breed wools. We both knew that we'd need to clear the idea with Storey. When we asked folks there, they offered whole-hearted encouragement.
Linda asked if I thought I could be ready to be in the studio by December 3. I figured that could work (more time to prepare is not necessarily a good thing), and I asked a bit about the process and began planning.
Linda wanted the focus to be rare breeds of wool. She envisioned the audience as spinners. Those two foundation concepts guided everything that followed.
I met Linda at the studio shortly after our initial conversation, so I could see the environment. We talked a bit about structure.
At Interweave, the DVD-creation process is outlined, but unscripted. You basically make an outline of what you want to talk about, make sure you have all the tools and materials ready (as well as what are called set-ups, which means you've done any work required to expedite the demos), and then you wing it.
Many people I know have survived this experience, and I'd watched a number of their DVDs (and I began to watch more, looking at how they were put together). I took heart from the number of people who had actually done this thing and appeared to have had a good time and produced something well worthwhile.
I went home and worked on what I'd cover, in what units and in which order, and I assembled raw materials to work with (washed them, of course), and put together file boxes to take with me. Yes, I have lots of samples, but I didn't have quantities of clean fleece for the rare breeds that I would use for demo spinning.
Each medium and set of time constraints for any teaching experience requires re-evaluating the material and its presentation. While I've been on TV and radio, doing video for a DVD would be a whole new experience. Not long after Linda floated the idea and I agreed, I had the delightful opportunity to visit with Margaret Stove, whom I hadn't seen in a decade or more, just after she'd been in the studio at Interweave making her own DVD. We talked about a gazillion things, including what it had been like to do the video.
The biggest challenges for me throughout the process came from my decision to at least show/mention/give tips for spinning and using fiber from every wool-growing sheep on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's and Rare Breeds Survival Trust's rare-sheep lists (I skipped the four hair sheep on the ALBC list).
Yet there was no way I could tell an adequate story about rare-breed wools while excluding any of those wool sheep. The contract called for a finished product of between 60 and 90 minutes. I knew I'd have to be exceptionally well organized and concise. I also determined to focus on the ideas and skills that are the most useful to know about when working with rare-breed wools, rather than on general spinning information that's available from other sources.
The day before
We spent a chunk of December 2 (the day before studio day) moving tools and materials into the basement working space, and pulling samples out of boxes and arranging them so they would be in the right sequence when we needed them.
Here are some of the boxes of samples I took with me:
We used box lids and bakers' trays to organize the samples, so we could move them efficiently into and out of the set.
Here's another set-up area. Lying on top of some of the piled-up groups are maps I got printed out at Kinko's so I could give an overview of each group of breeds. The maps may show up in the finished version as these printouts or as images taken directly from my electronic originals.
We also arranged the set. Linda had gotten enlargements made of a couple of sheep photos to put on the back walls.
In the production area there's a back room (just through the white door on the left in the photo above) that contains chairs, tables, rugs, and other things that might be useful when creating a DVD or doing still photos. We dug in there and chose what rug to use. We found the tiered set of baskets, through which we rotated the fleeces that I was working with (it wasn't just a static display). We talked about the chair I would sit in (the one we actually used came from Linda's house the next day), got a tray table to hold the demo samples, added the Scandinavian booster chair my daughter used when she was a toddler (which I now enlist at home to support my peasant combs), and found the right location for the Lendrum wheel I've been using for most of The Project. My toolbox is that dark shape under the tray table. We sticky-tacked the sheep posters to the walls.
Overall, we considered the colors, textures, and harmony of the elements that would be surrounding me, along with the practicality of their positioning—both for my work and for the cameras, which would be able to catch the action from two different angles plus through close-ups that would be shot with the help of the big mirror hanging from the ceiling, which you can see in the photo above.
The set-up is very simple, but it worked exceptionally well. It involved a combination of useful objects, many of which were familiar and therefore helped me feel comfortable in the environment.
Here's a still shot taken from the video of how our set ended up looking "for real":
The brown sheep in the poster on the left are Soays. The white sheep on the right is a Cotswold. Even in the low-resolution photo shown here, I can tell you that the fiber on the straw mat on the tray table is Rough Fell. There's a smaller photo of Navajo Churro sheep on the other wall. That Navajo Churro was supposed to be reproduced at the same size as the other sheep, but the image file ended up not having enough resolution to be a big picture.
I got to the studio at 8:30 on Friday morning, December 3, and we finished tweaking the set-up. The sheep posters got moved to slightly different positions. We decided to use the straw mats to hold most of the demo samples.
Fortunately, there was some flexibility in the finished length. I was very concerned about my ability to say anything meaningful about 38 breeds in the initially planned one-disk presentation. Garrett (DVD production director) and Linda (creative instigator) said, "Just do what you need to do, and we'll make it work." Whew. I had arranged the overall plan to group breeds by their similarities, but they all at least make cameo appearances.
We started recording somewhere between 9:30 and 10. We finished the camera work by about 3:30 p.m. Because there were set-up shifts to cover 38 breeds, at least half the time was off-camera, changing samples and piling up the used components, to be re-filed in my boxes later. We did take a lunch break. It was good to get outside, to walk across the street to the cafe, to lower the intensity level for a bit.
No script. No visible notes, except the intro. I hope I did not misspeak more than the one instance I know about. (I referred to one fleece from 40 years ago as red Karakul, when I remembered later it was gray. As I was speaking, I was thinking about how pretty red Karakul is, and the word "red" just came out of my mouth instead of "gray.")
The ending was kind of a surprise to all of us. They asked if I wanted to do a retake, and I said, "No, I don't think so." Which means, except for a couple of times when I halted a segment a few seconds in so I could start again and launch it more smoothly, everything in this project was a first take: me, wools, tools, extemporaneous.
The finished version is two disks and 120 minutes.
It's honest and from the heart. Whatever the cameras caught, as long as those are the baselines, I can live with.
Once we were done with the recording, I still had to pack everything up so I could transport it home again. Linda helped, and we were done by a little before 7 p.m. There were a lot of samples and tools.
Everyone who saw parts of the process said it was really interesting (Linda, Garrett, Amy, Caroline, possibly some other folks briefly passing through . . . I was very focused on Doing My Job).
I have no perspective on it at all. And I don't get to see what we did until it's all done and published. That's probably just as well.
Last week's Spin-Off Newsletter gives the official story of Handspinning Rare Wools. Rumor has it the finished version will be out in a few weeks (February 2011).