The Urban Weaver Studio
is growing flax this summer. Flax yields linen, which is a fibre both long and strong enough for rope, and fine and soft enough for clothing. Folks with a sunny plot of at least 8'x10' can go ahead and 'grow-along' with them -- complete instructions posted on the blog. Flax is one of the oldest known cultivated crops.
Flax has the reputation of being tedious and laborious to process, and there's some truth to that. The flax has to go through retting & scutching in order to separate out the woody parts even before the fibre can be got at. I did some scutching and heckling last summer at Ross Farm
in Nova Scotia, alongside the excellent Farm staff members, and weaver Lesley Armstrong of the Atlantic Natural Fibre and Dye Association
, and it was sweaty work. When the engineers and inventors of the industrial revolution created processing equipment, they made it for cotton, which could be imported cheaply, and left the pretty blue flax fields behind.
But Cotton, grown industrially, is incredibly vile -- roughly a third of all pesticide use is attributed to cotton, and vast amounts of water. Entire regions in Honduras are now barren thanks to overproduction of cotton. Linen and Hemp seem less resource-intensive, and can be grown in Canada.
But would a straight switch to linen and hemp on an industrial scale really be better for the environment? or is that greenwashing, taking advantage of the fact that consumers are so easily duped? ('Bamboo fibre', case in point...) Business in Vancouver
reports that a British Columbia-based company, Crailar Technologies, has patented a process which makes linen more suitable for use in knit fabrics. They've just opened a plant in a flax-producing region of the Carolinas, and hope that their fibre brand will become an industry byword of quality, like 'Gore-tex' or 'Tencel' or 'Lycra' (not that any of those labels is green... quite the opposite).
But how is the linen grown? on a five-year rotation, to allow the soil to rest, or with intensive petrochemical inputs?What's involved in that 'processing'... is it a chemical process? mechanical? how much energy does it consume? where does the wastewater go? and is it going into a garment that is designed to catch a cheap one-season trend?
People in our culture are not going to seriously set about to grow their own fibre by choice, not until the view out our windows looks more like our favourite dystopian novel setting -- and by then, it won't be a matter of choice. But it's important not to let those skills die -- as they can and do, over the course of only one generation. It's also important to educate ourselves about resource consumption, and to be cautious of trusting the processes that we cannot see for ourselves, and to learn to value the work of the hand and the spirit that moves us to create, regardless of the toil involved.
I hate admitting how cliche I am, but at this time of year I inevitably spend a lot of time pondering the past.
Once, I used to be competitive and determined; I took risks and won lots of awards. But it was relatively easy for me to be courageous when I had a clearly defined path ahead, and a finish line; because the most important part of survival in any field is not being the strongest or the smartest or the fastest: it is the mind; it is vision and resolve. Not that I didn't take a face plant now and then, but still.
Nowadays I feel like a dropout, or a has-been. I plague myself by reading stories of successful business people or explorers or artists or healers or what have you; the people who are making an impact are my contemporaries. Honestly, I admit that I never had any clear vision of myself among them; but still, it stings to get here and find that I'm really not -- not even close. Neither am I living in the woods like Chris Czajkowski
, which was my heart's vision.
I think I ran out of road, so to speak; once I finished school, was married, and had a corporate career, I had no more external goals, I stopped running, and was overtaken by the internal journeys I had been putting off.
And it's true what they say about those internal journeys: they're full of endless forks, demons, despair, and occasionally some bright lights; and the knowledge that is won there can be devastating. Not sure which of these paths has actually resulted in some enlightenment, and which ones are simply mental health issues. The longer I spend here, the more arbitrary everything seems; the deeper my paralysis. I seem incapable of mustering any of my former 'vision and resolve' and that's the most painful part, that my mental state has become so pathetic and pessimistic and aimless; the archetypical anti-hero.
True to form, I'm angrily resisting it all the way... and at the same time knowing that "it's all in my head", and thus, whether I can accept it or not, within my power.
What is the word for this state of consciousness, with some degree of awareness and yet no clarity?
January Post Script.....
My mythologically-savvy sister Andrea Routley
pointed out that despair, pessimism and aimlessness ARE, in fact, a part of the archetypical hero's journey. She called to my attention the story of Herakles as an example: Herakles (Hercules) completed his twelve tasks and settled down to a happy life, which was upset by his going into madness and killing his family, for which he was plagued by remorse for untold numbers of years. Eventually he was rescued by the Gods and delivered to the Elysian Fields anyway.
A few more details on that miraculous redemption would be nice; regardless, point taken, aimlessness is a time-honoured tradition among heros.
It's sunny today, ironically; but the rain seemed relentless and heavy for much of October. As a third generation Cascadian I usually have a rather careless relationship to the rain -- as in, I don't care that it rains; rain is what's supposed to happen in the winter. I clothe my nonchalance with layers of wool and waterproofed shoes, cap it with a good hat, and I'm set.
Now that I've become a basketweaver, I've developed a fixation with the iconic hat forms of the Coastal First Nations. Generally conical and broad-brimmed for shedding rain, they speak of lives lived by the seas, under the heavy grey winter skies that I've known all my life. They are the perfect, practical, local-materials solution to the challenges of this climate.
This climate, this land that I love dearly is the only home that I know; my parents were born here, and my grandparents too, and so I identify with the First Nations art as representing 'the place I'm from', but my family can claim no First Nations heritage. Is it wrong for me to make a hat like this?
My Haida friend Giihlgiigaa Tsiij Git’anne
says that I can go ahead; he said to me,"You're not Haida, so it won't be a Haida hat
, it'll just be a hat". I'm not qualified to delve into the discussion of the politics at play when others practice First Nations art forms with or without cultural permission; I have simply observed that it's loaded territory. And so for now, as much as I might like to embrace a hat like this as my own, an iconic representation of 'the place I'm from', I will defer out of respect for the fact that they carry more meaning than the ones I assign.
Below are some photos that I took of hats that I saw when I visited Fort Langley with my kids earlier this year, showing beautiful examples of plaiting, twining, and the combination of the two. Also a beautiful plaited hatband, which was how the hats were
Is anyone wondering why I've got orthorexia and anorexia on my mind? because my sister in law lent me the course pack for one of her favourite courses: The Social and Political History of Food in North America, as a little light vacation reading.
One of the excerpts that caught my attention is from the book More Work for Mother
by Ruth Schwartz Cowan. It's about the technological changes of the industrial revolution, and how those changes redistributed household work from the shoulders of all family members, to those of the females alone, at the same time that they raised families' expectations in cooking and cleaning. The technology didn't decrease the amount of work -- if anything, for women, it increased work -- but it altered the material standards (more, cleaner clothes; fancier meals).
I loved this! it allowed me to vilify the industrial revolution a bit. I am such a flake. I have definitely romanticized nonindustrial societies: how could I not? I love baskets, plants, farm animals, log cabins and wilderness; I've devoured vintage Harrowsmith and Mother Earth News; I've read most of the books of Hilary Stewart and Nancy Turner; and I resent the smell of road haze and the incessant hum of electronics, not to mention the insults of climate change, the Garbage Patch, etc.
I doubt that I'll ever be able to cut myself off from my little huntergatherer or homesteading lifestyle fantasies completely; but I would like to have a better understanding of why I harbour them. Why is it that I need to speculate and to take myself out of the present, and deny all the privileges that I enjoy? (well, perhaps because they offend my sense of social and environmental justice, for starters....)
In the meantime, I practice being critical of any nostalgia and fantasy in my work. I am exploring many materials and sometimes using traditional forms; sometimes this is copying or cliche (like the corn husk fairies and diagonal-plaited forms), and with apologies to my professors, I do it because I want to reach mainstream audiences with the exhortation to look again at the materials and appreciate the natural world. I think the most direct way for me to accomplish this is by making accessible objects and teaching.
But I am also thinking about ways to incorporate electronics into my work, so that I can create different contrasts and explore the relationships between the technological and wild elements, and my own complicated feelings about the technology. And to those who already see and appreciate the natural world, I hope that my work can speak quietly and deeply.
I remind myself to practice gratitude for the comforts and advantages that I have (because really I'm a wuss and couldn't deal with being any more vulnerable than I already am), and not to let my romantic yearnings for a "simpler life" blind me to the complexity and harsh wonder of the real thing.
If I do, may I be thoroughly spoofed!
This article caught my attention because I (still, just barely) live in East Van, and mason jars, bicycles and park parties are a colourful, and still authentically-lived, part of the culture there. I thought it might be about that, and I was pleased.
But the article isn't about exotic EastVanners on fixies and choppers; instead, it's about a second wave of adoption and cultural legitimization, people of more means who have fallen in love with the quaint romance of DIY imagery and iconography, and the backlash against their use of it.“Weddings have become more than about getting married: It’s all about the stuff, and that’s what [people are] backlashing against. We’re forgetting the actual point of the day, the actual standing up there and getting married. People are more into the cake topper than making sure grandma’s okay. It’s kind of funny, right?” says Catherine Lash, creative director at The Wedding Co. in Toronto.
I think one might fairly argue that for a lot of couples in any era, the wedding has been 'all about the stuff'. If the bride and groom have binged half a years' salary on their wedding, obsessively ground over every detail, and the guests are now drinking champagne at a dinner that requires half a dozen utensils, their materialism is self-evident and unapologetic.
On the other hand, I can imagine that if the same self-conscious drive for the "perfect" event is accompanied by a pretense of wholesome innocence, or a "return to the simpler things", then it definitely provides fodder for a good spoof.
On the serious side, I think that if we allow ourselves to romanticize a small-is-beautiful, grassroots, artisanal vision of culture, we end up trivializing it, and not coming to terms with the complexity of our actual situation. “There’s a trend right now of very precious, do-it-yourself weddings,” says Katie Baker, the author of the scathing Wedded Blitz series. “Overly innocent,” she adds. “They’re all being ‘different’ in the same way.”
I've never been to a wedding like the ones they're describing, but this person's comments really caught my attention because I think "accessories", "toys", "art", "clothing", "baking", "yarn", "baby stuff", "home decor" etc, could all be substituted for "weddings" and the statement would still be true; some segments of our culture seems to be suffering from a sort of material version of 'orthorexia nervosa', the obsession with ingesting only "good" foods; now "good things" means "handmade", "organic", "artisanal", etc. Again, we are romanticizing "a handmade life"; this trivializes the realities of nonindustrial societies and ways of being, while allowing us to delude ourselves into thinking we are participating in some sort of meaningful cultural and economic shift.
The antidote to this material orthorexia is probably a few good hearty doses of spoof, delivered with the serious postscript that buying 'better' is still not as good as simply buying 'less' when it comes to easing up on the environment; and in the pursuit of buying less, it's good for one's mental health not to get too precious about what one does, in fact, buy.
Andrea: I like your comment (below); I have another post coming which touches specifically on my own romanticization fantasies and how traveling taught me to beware.
I've been sitting on this post for a while now, waiting for the events to recede into the past so that I could eye my writing with scrutiny, and see if what I had said still rings true. I've shared this epiphany a few times now, and yes, it still rings true.
Here is what I wrote:
I've been seriously engaged with planning for the Weaving Arts tent at Midsummer Fete now for a couple weeks, and yet I've been worrying about it for much longer.
This is my first major public gig as a professional, and I've been taking my role as a leader at the event -- as I do with just about any leadership role, in fact -- very seriously. Leadership tends to bring my self-doubt, social uncertainty and fear of looking bad to the forefront of my mind; and in the past, this has been very distracting for me and made it difficult to just get on with leading.
Will people like the projects? What if the projects don't work or are too hard? What if nobody is interested? What if people think I'm a fraud? What if somebody gets hurt by doing the projects? What if? what if?
These were the sorts of questions that began to plague me after my excitement about getting the gig wore off. I was unable to think about the event without starting to feel dread; and the dread precluded anything else.
But a few weeks ago I decided that being my own enemy and victim just wasn't how I wanted to operate this time. I wasn't going to stand to the side wringing my hands and thinking: I was going to take action. I was going to get my feet on the ground, and practice.
I began by visiting Colony Farm Park, so that I had a mental picture of the setting in my head when I thought about the the Fete and could see what weaving materials were on hand. I got in touch with the Park Warden to ask about harvesting materials; turns out that they could get staff and volunteers to harvest it for me. I asked an artist I know who did this event a few years ago what she used.
But I was still feeling the dread. I reflected on that and realized that I was still in a passive role, hoping for the best. I didn't have any experience to guide me, and that lack of imagery and intuition was something that I was going to have to make up for through practicing in my imagination.
So I sat down one evening and spent two hours creating detailed, written visualizations of everything that was up to me about the day: what I'm wearing, how the tent looks, what the atmosphere in the tent is like, what my mission is, what sorts of materials and information I share with people, how I am being, everything.
Yes, it was grounding; I began to really move forward with clarity and to regenerate some of my initial feeling of excitement. I planned some projects, tried them out, and got positive feedback from other experienced artists. The dread was dissipating.
But the moment that finally freed me from the dread came as the result of something unrelated to my industrious efforts in planning and visualizing and practicing: I witnessed the first moments after a traffic accident between a motorcylce and a car. No one was hurt, but I pulled over and offered support at the scene and did what I could anyway. Later, at home, I realized that whenever I closed my eyes and saw the image of the red motorcycle lying on the road I felt that same dread that I got from facing leadership; that it was a feeling that just came anytime I was uncertain about what to do.
This epiphany gave me an unexpected sense of power over the feeling, that I had isolated it and recognized it as a spectre that haunts me in many places, but was not the same as those places. I allowed it to flood my entire body, so that every cell seemed filled with the mosquito whine of tension and bile; and then I just lay still, examining it. I called up the image of the red motorcycle lying on the road, saw that it was just a red machine lying there, and knew that it was separate from the dread; I called up images of leadership, saw that it was just a role, and knew that it was also separate from the dread.
And now I know that when I face leadership, I will face it just as a role, accepting my uncertainty without judgment, and without dread.
I had made raspberry lemonade for a potluck and had the leftover slices of lemon that had floated decoratively in the large jug. It had been a very large jug, with about 4 lemons' worth of slices, and I couldn't bear to compost them; so I decided to try candying them instead.
It was a process that I did slowly over the course of an afternoon, with the syrup reducing over low heat and me puttering around tending to kids and studio bits in between stirs. At some point I began to think of a professor that I had in my first year of university, when I was a student in an elite science program at UBC called 'Science One'. His name was Lee Gass; he spun magical narratives embedding with wisdom about ecology and science, sculpting and life; and he sometimes told us stories that made us realize he approached us as adults, too -- about the bliss of intense flavours, sensuously described.
On a whim, I decided to google his name. I was innocently wondering what he was up to; and I was unprepared to find what came up and how it affected me.
He has a website
, and it is a large one, incredibly rich and deep. It is a gift of hundreds of pages' worth of stories of reflection, inspiration, and learning from his long and varied life. Reading his stories was like hearing his voice again in class, remembering how being his student affected me, being able to glimpse life through his eyes; and reminded me of a time in my life when I took courage for granted, because that's how he was.
I also learned things about him that I didn't know when I was his student 16 years ago, about professional struggles that he faced because he was a teacher first, and a research scientist second -- read 'A Notion of 3M Currency' to see what I'm talking about. I was deeply moved by this, that he faced a sort of professional discrimination for the importance he placed on pedagogy, because Lee Gass was far and away one of the most charismatic, influential and memorable teachers I've ever had.
The other thing that has affected me (so far) from plumbing this trove of his thoughts is the awareness that I am really, deeply interested in teaching -- the way he describes it. I've shied away from it in the past, not wanting to be in the spotlight at the front of the class and not sure that I was even any good at articulating my understanding.
But this year I've had the chance to re-examine those feelings; and the truth is, I do enjoy being with people and learning to articulate myself, and I want to do more. Lee's writing has lit a fire under me to go forward with a fresh context for my teaching: not as a transfer of information from a single person to many, but as a connection amongst people, the creation of an atmosphere. Do that, he says, and the specific classroom management techniques and details become secondary: the learning is carried by the will of group, not the will of the instructor.
I'm so grateful to have been Lee's student, and now to have his influence and guidance again through his writing.
What am I doing these days? I ask myself. Bits and pieces, really; exploring a few different trains of thought. I seem to have the most focus when I'm exploring something entirely new to me; that's when I really get into a groove and produce a quantity of cohesive work.
The exploration process focuses me; and I want to learn to generate that focus without the crutch of novelty so that I can produce work that goes deeper into craftsmanship, into thought and meaning.
I want to do this because....? Because, flatly, I want to have a new gallery up on my site and right now I don't have a cohesive body of work to put into it. I'm very attached to 'finishing' things; and I begin to languish if I can't look back and see a tidy package -- the bigger the better -- to show for my time and effort.
I know that this is just an old, neurotic habit. Like the lab rat and the sugar pellet, I get rewarded when I produce -- I get attention, opportunity, and status. Maybe I'm shallow, that attention and status are important to me -- but being prolific and receiving acceptance is just a simple, comforting equation, in a world which is otherwise confusing, uncertain, and beyond my control.
Anyway, here is a summary of how I've been spending my working hours of late:
I haven't taken pictures yet; and since documentation is key to why I keep this journal, I'll repost in a few days with a slideshow.
Sewing some Russian Shirts for my friend Suzanne. Suzanne is whimsical and flamboyant, almost atavistic, and if I weren't so doggedly pragmatic and cynical, I would probably be more like her. She and I take inspiration from many of the same things.
Planning my presentation and projects for Midsummer Fete (see the Events page)
Harvesting English Ivy for my workshop at the Atlin Festival of Arts and Music (again, on the Events page)
The workshop that I did in Ravenstail a couple weeks ago, still mulling over that, and experimenting with thigh-spinning some of the fleece from my sister & brother-in-law's place
Washing and processing that fleece -- I had to rinse it outside in my tubs first, and then put it through six soak/rinse cycles in the washing machine too.
Experimenting with rawhide vessels
Making 3- and 4-sided woven beads from my scraps of birch and cherry bark
This is a little string of birch bark beads that I made this morning. The project idea and instructions came from that book that I was raving about last week, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark
, by Vladimir Yaresh, Flo Hoppe and Jim Widess.
Working on these beads got me thinking again about my observation that people seem to be most moved by the all-bark baskets. Does the intensity of the use of raw material make them more emotionally reactive? or just visually novel, compared to most of material culture?
This seems strange to me; aesthetically, I find them to be too raw, with the texture of the bark overwhelming. I like the bark shown in contrast to the smoothness of the veneer, which allows my eye to rest and to appreciate the texture of the bark in greater detail. These beads, I decided, have many of the same raw, rustic qualities that the all-bark baskets do, and I wondered if people will have a similar reaction to them.
I have to admit that there may be other reasons I feel averse to the all-bark baskets. For one, I spent years participating in finely pointed, dispassionate academic critiques of art, which favoured work that was intellectual rather than emotional. For another, my own personal struggle to understand and assert the value of what I do has made me shy from making things that are rustic, simple, unsophisticated or emotional. I am also afraid of making work that is 'too rustic' because it is too far outside the mainstream.
But secretly I like those things. I really liked the all-bark baskets when I made them; I would probably have made a lot more except my inner critic started in on them about the same time that I realized I was going to run out of bark imminently, and I had the idea that I might be able to make baskets from veneer instead. With my mission to investigate natural materials and make my audience more aware of the possibilities of natural materials, clearly I should be making more 'raw' work.
I was just speaking with my mother-in-law, who lives near Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it got me thinking about making some connections with Nova Scotian basket makers to explore this summer.
The Nova Scotia Basketry Guild
seems to have a very rich life, and I found this great link to a short interview with a basketry artist who came just after me at NSCAD, Ursula Johnson
I hope I can see some of her work and perhaps meet her or take a class with her this summer.
I don't know what to think about the fact that she is a NSCAD alumna, just six years after me. Would she have been taught by Naoko and Robin? I was desperate for someone to teach me basketry while I was there, but I had to settle for learning from books (at which I failed), and doing drawings (at which I succeeded). Maybe if I had been less obsessed with my vulnerability questions, I would have been able to lift my head and find a mentor in the community somewhere -- after all, the NSBG has been around since 1988. Was there anyone on faculty who taught Ursula Johnson in basketry, or was she on her own, or looking to her grandmother for mentorship? What would have happened if I had been there at the same time as her -- would we have become a basketry force of nature, shaking up the department?
Ursula Johnson's aspirations outlined in the interview, that basketry again become a functional craft form, resonate with me. I look forward to cheering her on.
Who knows... perhaps we'll get that opportunity to shake things up after all?