Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In which I provide further evidence of my unmitigated dorkiness

Or: I think I've finally figured out why I took up knitting

Dork: N., a foolish person
Dorky: Adj., having the attributes of a dork; unfashionable
Dorkiness: N., the quality or condition of being dorky

How I do love linguistics. Not only for the fun of morphological analysis (see above), but also because I have just realized that it is a big part of why I am a fiber junkie. To wit:

As I was waiting impatiently for my spindles and roving to arrive, I had to do something to take the edge off, and I did what I so often do in times of stress and turned to reading. I mean, if you can't do something, at least you can read about it, right? I read the two spinning books I had laid in for just that eventuality, but it wasn't quite enough. So I turned to one of my very favorite all-time academic books, which I hereby recommend to all of you. Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. And therein lies the latest evidence of my status as a geek.

This book is fun for so many reasons, but I should tell you first that Betchen Barber (as she was called by her students) is the reason why I am a linguist. I don't think I've told this story yet, so here goes (if I have, skip down a bit). I was an English and Comparative Literature major in college, with plans to go to law school after graduation, practice for a bit, and then see if I couldn't become a judge. (Ah, yes, the idealistic plans of youth.) I minored in French, but it was mostly because it's my mother's first language, and I wanted an excuse to study abroad somewhere for a semester my junior year. For that minor I had to take a linguistics class, which I did in the winter of my junior year, and from that moment on, the jig was up. I was hooked. It turned out I had always been a linguist, I just didn't know there was a name for it. I completed my major while applying to graduate schools in linguistics (to the screams of "You're going to be a what?! We want a refund of your college tuition. Now." from my parents)(they now think that this was all their idea and insist they're very proud of me).

I realize now that my conversion was due in no small part to the professor I had for that class; it's not that linguistics isn't a great field in its own right, but it can be ruined by the wrong prof (ask me how I know), and if I'd had that wrong professor I might be a lawyer today. But I didn't. I had Betchen, who always came into class looking as if she were having the most fun ever, as if she knew some secret that we didn't know yet, but she was going to let us in on it. She clearly loved what she was doing, both the field, and the teaching of it. Her presence was quite a gift. She was always moving, and moving fast. Her braid was askew each day, as if she'd started it neatly down the back of her head, and then had grown impatient and pulled it hurriedly over one shoulder to finish it off. She had intense blue eyes, and a marvelous smile. She had originally trained as an archaeologist, and her specialization was and is textiles. She is one of the experts they call in to evaluate the clothing of bog bodies and mummies, to see where and when and how it was made. She also taught folk dancing, had many looms in her house, and spun. I still want to be her when I grow up (isn't it nice to have a role model?).

So she wrote this wonderful book about textile technology in Europe and the Fertile Crescent. She traces how the tools change from place to place and over time, and the words that are used in different languages to talk about these tools. Her argument is that while the textiles themselves don't last, and so much of women's work is perishable, we can glimpse what they did by their tools. It's wonderful. And when I read it, lo these many years ago, it clinched a long-standing desire I had had to learn how to spin. (I contend that it is impossible to grow up, as I did, with a fascination with Greek and Celtic mythology and not want to learn how to spin.)

But there is this annoying practical side to me (this is the side that would have done just fine as a lawyer, the side that was raised by a surgeon and an ER nurse), and I kept asking myself why I would learn to make fiber for which I would have no use (weaving seemed like quite a big leap at the time; still does, really). So I shelved the idea. But I wandered regularly into yarn stores, wandered back out, tried to learn to knit from a book and failed, got a friend to teach me, knit for a while and stopped, took it up again and stopped, hit my stride.

And then I got my spindles and am trying to learn how to spin, and I had a great big ah-ha moment as I re-read Betchen's book, and remembered how much I wanted to learn eighteen years ago when I first read it. I learned to knit so that I would have a reason to spin. Doh. Now, don't get me wrong, there are other reasons why it was knitting and not, say, weaving that I took up, reasons which I won't go into right now but which fit right in with why spinning appeals to me (I could briefly mention portability, that long shadowy line of women standing behind me when I make a humble pair of socks, or any one of a number of things, but I won't now), but I realize that there is this other reason which I hid even from myself.

Joke's on me.


Marianne said...

heh.... but of course!

Love this post!

Willow said...

I found your blog via Kristin. I'm intrigued with your post for several reasons. I am a spinner and knitter. I learned to spin so I could knit beautiful yarns. I have linguistic training (18 graduate units but never matriculated in linguistics). I read Mummies of Urumchi and heard Betchen speak at a lecture in Portland. I would have to agree with your description of her. What an amazing woman. AND finally, my daughter is a senior at SDSU, in anthropology, emphasis in archeology. I'll be back to read more.

twinsetellen said...

I have read so often that we just don't know much about ancient textiles because they don't last, and never thought much about it. Now it is so blindingly obvious that it the tools tell the story. Thanks, Betchen.

And with your story, it is blindingly obvious why you knit!

Anne said...

Do I need to say again, I love academics? Yes, indeed. :)

Bea said...

interesting. I shall be checking out your book recommendation. Should it worry me that I have more interest in weaving then spinning??

Alwen said...

Gah! You had Elizabeth Barber as a teacher? Um, I hate you.

I got into fiber arts from the other direction, starting out with braiding and (very bad) knitting as a little girl, moving on to weaving and tatting, and now dancing around netmaking and knitting (and whatever else fibery that takes my fancy).

I love textile history and even own her textbook (is it Textile History?) just to read.

You're in good company.

Courtney said...

So, how do you know about the way a single teacher can ruin a subject? I know it happened to me - twice.

I love language as well, though I've let some of my hobby-etymology & dictionary reading taper off of late... I often wish I'd tried linguistics. Though I guess I'm still young. It's never too late, right?

I'd love to get my hands on that book you were talking about. Sounds interesting.

Enjoy your spinning!

Juno said...

Have you ever read Connie Willis' short story Blued Moon? Which features language generation as a plot point.

It was the reason I took linguistics in college - though, alas, I had a much less successful experience than yours and ended up sticking with English and Comp Lit.

Juno said...

The terrible thing is that, um, I'm pretty sure we had the same prof.
It is all in the moment you find something, isn't it?

You went to Oxy, didn't you?

Carrie K said...

The linguistics prof I had made it unbelievably boring. For me! A word and language freak. Sad.

So spinning was in the back of your head all this time, eh? I love the way our minds work.

Willow said...

This is The Professor (Willow and I share a Google account.)

Thanks for your thoughts about On First Looking Into Betchen's Linguistics.

I had the same experience with linguistics when I was a freshman at UCSB--this is the way the world really is. All the rest of the humanites are mere metaphors.

I felt the same way years later when I finally got around to the calculus-based physics course--this is what the universe is really like. So now, I teach Computer Science at CSU Channel Islands. It turns out that linguists make pretty good programmers and engineers, especially if they pass calculus!

Helen said...

I don't think I can afford to continue reading this blog. You keep making me buy books :)

KnitNana said...

What a great post! I'm off to find that book...
(seems I'm a bit of a dork, too!)

mehitabel said...

Oh wow--I ordered 3 of her books last week, and I'm really eager for them to arrive--she is speaking locally at the end of the month, and I'm really looking forward to it! I was a lit major, have a law degree, but the course I had the most fun and "aha" moments with was a linguistics class, back in '85 when I tried to go back for a secondary credential!

Wanda J said...

What a great post! Thanks for sharing your journey. Of course you're spinning.

Must try to order Betchen's book through ILL. :-)