Thursday, February 03, 2005

Gandhi and Spinning

My recent hiatus from blogging was also a hiatus from blog reading. Imagine my surprise to come back and discover that the spinning bug had captured even Wendy, arguably one of the most popular and influential knitters on-line! (I am envious, but not surprised, that she is already more accomplished at spinning than I likely ever will be.)

I haven't yet had the leisure to check all 600 or so sites on the knitting blogs webring (from which mine has apparently been booted, with good reason), but I'm curious ... how many other knitters have taken up spinning? What are your motivations?

I'm an occasional spinner, but primarily a knitter. I became interested in spinning long before I took up knitting, but I lacked the opportunity to learn. A few years ago, I noticed an ad in the classifieds for a used spinning wheel and went to check it out. For $100, I purchased an Ashford Traditional, two large bags of raw fleece, a set of drum carders, and three extra bobbins. I ordered the "Hands On Spinning" book and attempted to teach myself. I couldn't get the hang of it. Then good fortune intervened. Our recent year in Colorado brought me into the orbit of the magnificent fiber shop, Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins, and its co-owner and gifted spinning teacher, Maggie Casey. Voila! I finally became a spinner.

My initial interest in spinning was spurred by my admiration of Gandhi. This originated during college, when I wrote a paper in a public policy and ethics class analyzing themes in Salman Rushdie's brilliant masterpiece, Midnight's Children. Researching background on the caste system and the religious struggles featured in this novel led me to the writings of Gandhi. This encounter with Gandhi's life and teachings was perhaps the key turning point of my life. It awakened me to different thinking and banished forever my previous goals of serving only the needs of my pocketbook by pursuing a lucrative career in something like corporate law.

Anyone who knows anything about Gandhi knows that the spinning wheel was the foundation of his plan for India's political and economic independence. He also advocated spinning on moral grounds. One of the most fascinating sections in the Gandhi Reader, (ed. Homer A. Jack) is a published exchange between the Mahatma and the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore questioned the value of burning foreign cloth when it could be used to clothe the poor, calling it a "magical formula" instead of the "precise thinking" of economic science that he believed India required (yes, it is odd that a poet would make this argument). Gandhi replied:

"I venture to suggest to the Poet that the clothes I ask him to burn must be and are his. If they had to his knowledge belonged to the poor or the ill-clad, he would long ago have restored to the poor what was theirs. In burning my foreign clothes I burn my shame. I must refuse to insult the naked by giving them clothes they do not need, instead of giving them work which they sorely need. I will not commit the sin of becoming their patron, but on learning that I had assisted in impoverishing them, I would give them a privileged position and give them neither crumbs nor cast off clothing, but the best of my food and clothes and associate myself with them in work."

Gandhi urged all of the people of India, rich and poor alike, to spend at least one hour a day spinning. In addition to the political, economic and moral benefits, he believed that spinning was a deeply meditative act. Of course, he was right. Sadly, I don't spin on most days and it is a rare day indeed that I spin for an entire hour. However, I have sometimes become so relaxed at the spinning wheel that I actually caught myself snoring, while fully awake and still spinning!

(Warning... I'm about to get on my soapbox!)

I'm thrilled that spinning is catching on. While our western industrialized nations are not the India of the British Raj, we are not so different, either. Very few of us, if any, live independently from the sufferings of the poor. Sweatshop labor clothes us, toxic chemicals endanger the agricultural workers who harvest our cheap food, and oligarchs enrich themselves while oppressing the poor in the countries that fuel our vehicles. Even if comfortable Americans, such as myself, are spinning cashmere and silk just for fun (actually, I haven't the confidence to try cashmere or silk yet; I'm still working on basic wool), perhaps we might slightly, even if only for a moment, spin the solidarity that Gandhi envisioned.

At the risk of making this much too long, I leave you with one other influential passage from another novel I read in that same college class. In Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, a party of comfortable North Americans is traveling by car through an impoverished Central American country. Their conversation:

"What I wonder," Bob Cole said in his strange tremulous voice, "is whether the people down here have to live this way so that we can live the way we do."
"I'm just a soldier," Zeccca said. "But I think the answer to that is no. It sounds too simple to me."
"But it's not a simple question," Marie said brightly. "It's a really complicated one."
Cole turned to Holliwell.
"How about you, sir? You're something of an expert. What do you think the answer is?"
"I have to confess," Holliwell said, "that I haven't figured that out. There are lots of gaps in my expertise. I don't know what the answer is."
"We have to believe it's no, don't we?" Cole asked. "We couldn't face up to it otherwise. Because if most of the world lives in this kind of poverty so that we can have our goodies and our extra protein ration -- what does that make us?"
"It makes us vampires," Holliwell said. "It makes us all the cartoon figures in the Communist press."
"What if you found out it were true?"
"Me? What I do doesn't matter. I'd go on doing what I'm doing."
"How about you, Captain?"
Zecca took one hand from the wheel and turned partway around toward Cole. Marie kept her eyes on the road.
"What are you, Mr. Cole?" Captain Zecca asked. "Some kind of an agitator?" He asked the question humorously, with more of the Toledo in his voice that he usually permitted.
"Not at all," Cole said.

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