It struck me recently that my current fascination with fiber is something like the flip side of my dissertation research, and perhaps that's why I'm so drawn to it again. What I mean is that it's another culture, a microworld of human-animal relationships. People who do fiber often live their lives around and among their animals: sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas, rabbits. They work with the seasons for breeding, birthing, and shearing. It's a lifestyle and people are very passionate about it, and some sacrifice a great deal to do it. It's also steeped in folk tradition.
I don't guess I've talked much on this blog yet about my dissertation. I've been studiously ignoring it. For the last five years, I studied a very different site of human-animal relationships. I don't want to name it here, but as completely different as it seems on the surface, it actually has much in common with fiber farming. Both of these cultures are also very white, and it's probably fair to say that they have come out of Scots-Irish heritage.
Years before I went back to grad school, I tried my hand at fiber farming. I had twelve angora goats at one point, and loved caring for them and working with their fiber. I learned though that with the amount of labor and expense, it wasn't likely to make me a living, and soon I became overwhelmed and discouraged as the work and expenses mounted. I had no-one to help on any kind of regular basis, I had another full-time job and also worked with a nonprofit, and so wrestling with goats to deworm or shear them became such a chore. Then many of them got nasty cases of hoof rot which would not clear up no matter how much I scraped or how many toxic chemicals I dumped into their little stinky hooves. And even worse, a couple died in farm accidents and I freaked out. It all felt like a failure. I see now that I was just a novice, and all those issues are normal for farmers. But my life changed, I went back to school, got married, found great homes for the goats, and immersed myself in another, very different culture based around animals.
Even with the very strong and male shearer, fiber culture is very feminine. I don't mean for this to sound essentialist, but spinning, knitting, weaving were traditionally women's crafts. There are always a few men doing woodworking with wheels, but fiber fairs are peopled mostly with women whose hair is longer, more multi-hued and more beautiful than their animals. I wouldn't worry about going alone to spin night even if I didn't know anyone since it's probably a bunch of gentle, funny, strong women. Not so with the culture I've studied for my dissertation! Even with women sometimes playing a role, that culture couldn't be any more male-dominated.
Now, I'm struggling so much with writing up my dissertation, am so sick to death of the subject and running from those memories. Maybe embracing yarn and sheep is a way of comforting myself, returning to the feminine, while still keeping with what I love: vernacular skills, and lives lived with animals.