Spinners, Webbers & Me

I have lived and written about many diverse lives.

In the past few years much of my time has been devoted to two worlds: accessibility to the World Wide Web by my blind friends/clients; and fiber craft - notably raising cashmere goats to obtain the exotic fleece that is spun into yarn for garments of unsurpassed warmth, softness, and beauty.

The (mostly) women who create handspun yarn to knit, crochet, or weave into beautiful artifacts are continuing a tradition as old as humankind. Although most fabric is made in factories by incredible machines (the first "computer controlled" loom was made in 1801!), the products of fiber artists have a character that is not approached by mass produced articles.

The (mostly) men who invented, improve, and maintain the World Wide Web also have a remarkable dedication to the effort to bring us all together and their product is equally the result of a "calling" to a vocation that is beset with opportunities to put personal gain above the goal of "everything, everyone connected" that motivates their intense efforts.

I have attended several gatherings of people who share each of these interests with me and in doing so encountered persons of great excellence who would seem to have little in common, but who represent things I hold dear.

As in many fields there are "superstars" in the world of fiber arts and one of these is Judith MacKenzie. She travels about teaching classes at gatherings of those who detest synthetic fibers, food additives, and threats to world peace. She writes for the journals in her field and is besieged by questioners at her appearances, but always finds time to talk to anyone with an interest in her passion for natural fibers, dyestuffs, and handspinning. You get an idea of the respect she commands from this quote from an article by Marie-Christine Mahe who maintains popular email lists about knitting and spinning.

"Judith lives in British Columbia, she is an accomplished weaver, spinner, dyer, and general fiber person, specializes in Oriental rugs, works as a conservation scientist for a BC museum. She's also an excellent and active moutaineer, which makes me think she's perfect :-). The workshop in question was one in which we covered all the different methods of spinning and plying fibers... all the way to chicken feathers, and why one might choose one technique or another. We also got a fine course in wheel maintenance as Judith, who has strong mechanical skills, adjusted each one in the class to give her best, tips on avoiding repetitive stress injuries, design ideas etc... Altogether a most satisfactory, educational time :-)."

Judith had just published an article in the Bible of Spinners, Spin Off about my favorite fiber. I tracked her down at a recent spinners' conference and she obligingly looked at my box of newly de-haired cashmere and flattered me with, "how can I get you to sell me this?" We had a long talk about my goal of starting a fad for American cashmere. Although she has no email, she is well aware of its details and demands.

Many of the leading lights in the field are involved in email lists and some have their own web sites. One interesting site is Spindlitis, which is about spinning with small spindles instead of spinning wheels, an activity that one can do under almost any circumstances. Terri Pittman who is behind it collects and uses these beautiful tools and spoke with me at the aforementioned gathering about spinning and the use of UNIX on the Web!

The meeting of Spinners was singular in that the audience was seated at spinning wheels which were quietly turning out yarn as their users attended to the familiar "old business, minutes..." associated with such conclaves. The meetings I've attended with Webbers often substituted notebook computers for spinning wheels and the conversation was probably less understandable to outsiders - although the "niddy-noddy", "lazy kate", and "Scotch tension" of the Spinners' discussions are also somewhat arcane.

In my decades of working at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute I have been privileged to travel to meetings dealing with issues relating to improving access to the World Wide Web, most notably the Web Access Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). In my lifelong search for excellence I occasionally encounter competence, sometimes excellence, but rarely genius - the people I've met who work for the Consortium represent one of the largest pools of excellence in my experience.

Although I am comparatively naive in the technical details of programming and tend to dwell rather heavily on issues springing from my anger with the slow pace of progress in making the planet accessible, they all treat me with respect and seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. At our first encounter I was given a copy of "Cascading Style Sheets - Designing for the Web" by its authors Håkon Lie and Bert Bos. It is now autographed by almost all the Consortium members - which makes me if not the only, at least the oldest "W3C groupie".

The other main creators of HTML 4.0 and CSS2 - two Consortium efforts that promise to strongly further the goal of "everything, everyone connected" - Dave Raggett and Chris Lilley have listened carefully to my expositions concerning accessibility as a human right rather than a bestowed privilege. It has also been very pleasant to work with Judy Brewer and Daniel Dardailler in various WAI Working Groups. Chris typifies their major characteristics: an awareness of just about anything; and an almost devotional attentive listening. Now if they would only learn to spin!

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