Weaving shuttles

On days when I’m feeling especially scattered I now find myself sneaking off to the weaving room, in much the way that last fall I’d go kayaking to unwind after stressful meetings. In each case I’m seeking a way to untangle a snarled mind.

The shuttles we use are called “boat shuttles”; they’re shaped like kayaks.

The action of weaving, moving the shuttle back and forth across the warp, has not yet become meditative for me. I’m still too aware of each step, each count, each possible glitch. And to the degree that I do “lose myself” a bit I find that it shows up in the cloth. You can trace my thoughts by the weave structure: unpleasant memories appear as tightly constrained versions of my “M’s and O’s” pattern; interludes of contentment yield smoother, rounder O’s and cleaner selvedge–or not.
For a time I thought the pattern might reflect the music on my iPod: I set a Genius mix from Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and got some Cat Stevens, Alanis Morissette, Talking Heads, Rolling Stones, Suzanne Vega, and Radiohead. I expected my beat–my rate of moving the shuttle back and forth, the rhythm and pressure as I beat each row–would match the beat of the music but it didn’t seem to. Instead, it seemed to almost always reflect my stream-of-consciousness, a tapestry weaving itself in its own space and time according to its own teleology.
Kayaks by drurydrama
Image sources: Weaving shuttles by Shiny Red Type; kayaks by Drurydrama

Text and Textiles

Etymologically, text and textile share the stem textere, “to weave.”  The OED defines text as:

1. a. The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.
I found myself thinking about “The structure formed by the words in their order” as I admired a complex pattern on a loom today. I complimented the weaver on her pattern and she said, “the loom’s doing it.” We chatted a while about how we spend so much time setting the stage for the cloth–choosing a pattern, (based on whatever models and descriptions we can find, which rely on the wisdom and ingenuity of generations of weavers who came to realize that, for example, pressing pedal 1-2-3 then 2-3-4 then 1-3-4 then 1-2-4 about 300 times will achieve a particular design), then visualizing how it might look using a given combination of colors and thread sizes, then preparing the loom itself (measuring the yarn and threading the loom takes several days–longer, of course, if you’re dying the yarn yourself beforehand). Once everything is set, a weaver with decent concentration, an appropriate quantity of time, and a consistent beat can basically just groove through the project . . . if what she’s making is a beginner’s kind of project without any more decision-making or pattern changes.
What beginners like me mostly do are projects based on repetition and a sound weave structure. That’s how we manage to create something beautiful and complete.
So much depends on the structure but also on that groove. You need to groove in order to get over yourself, stop over-thinking, and allow the back-and-forth rhythm to bring everything together evenly.
I haven’t asked my studio-mates about this yet, but I suspect the best work depends on a meditative state.
I’ve been reading about the historical relationship between textiles and spirituality and discovered that weaving is a well-established analogy for the mantras spoken over prayer beads such as the mala or rosary.
Scholars of material culture and Christianity note the crossings of warp and weft, the sacred work of women reciting Ave Marias while crafting ritual garments and veils, as well as the sewing of textiles into prayer books–another form of illuminated manuscript.
Understanding the relationship between text and textiles takes much more than etymology and analogy. But it’s a start.

The Trials of “Noticing”


Giacometti Figures in a Room by Vi




For the first time in my arts-immersion experiment I’m experiencing real anxiety. And that fact itself fascinates me.


The class is basic drawing. I’m in week three. It’s been more than 20 years since I sketched-for-teacher. I dread this class.

We work on giant sketch pads. We draw big. The scale overwhelms me. I’ve filled reams of blank pages with words but now words aren’t an option. My job is to draw what I see, to become more skillful at noticing what’s before me and to represent that visual composition with lines. Shapes. To scale.

The first day the instructor taught us “the Giacometti method,” which involves painstakingly marking the relationships between objects in space. It’s a brilliant method, explained much better by the artist on this blog than by me. The method relaxed me somewhat because it requires me to stop attempting to replicate everything before my eyes and instead to choose just one small thing as my starting point, drawing a line to indicate where it is going to exist on my paper. Everything else proceeds from there. 


I notice an apple. I ask myself, “How big is that apple going to be on my page?” I mark that. I see a troll doll sitting on the apple and ask myself, “Where does the troll doll touch the apple?” and “How many apples tall is that troll doll?” And so on. I work slowly, sequentially, I forget about whether the thing is art and instead do the work of marking the locations of things.

But I still feel panicky.

Why is that?

Some of it is just ego. I want to be good at this. I don’t need to be the best but I dread being the worst. Why is that? Why does that matter? If the room were filled with professional artists (instead of novices like me) would I still feel the need to be not-the-worst?  Yes, I think so. On some level, yes.

But there’s something else too. Noticing is hard work. Much harder and much less fun than I expected. Like doing leg curls at the gym after years of not doing them. Only worse. Like attempting to do chin-ups. I’ve searched my mind for other analogies (like speaking French to a Parisian, like assembling a toy train, like trying to get my Lab to come when called) but honestly the best ones are physical. I find myself commanding a level of coordination and skill that is definitely within me but utterly dormant and resistant and under-prepared. Attempting to materialize what I’m noticing–to make marks on a page (not even drawings, just marks) documenting what I see–is physically and intellectually awkward. It’s challenging me to use a part of myself I haven’t developed. It makes me feel weak and inept and stupid.

Functional illiteracy. That’s also what this is. In the world of words, my world, literacy is about reading and writing, both of which are physical and intellectual activities that demand a type of focus and concentration and imagination that aren’t activated in exactly the same way by any other task. Other activities are comparable, but not the same. I believe this is also true of drawing. Doing it well requires repeated practice, and practice achieves first physical-mental coordination and later a leap into a different dimension of experience. When I read or write fluently I experience “flow,” not sequences of words on the page.

Noticing is also extremely intimate. In terms of sketching, noticing can’t be done superficially. We must look closely and make note of things no matter how inconveniently they are positioned, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us (physically or otherwise), no matter how intimidating they are now or how insignificant they might be tomorrow. In this moment the job is to notice them and nothing else.


Noticing can’t be faked. What you see is what must appear on the page. It will always be an interpretation of sorts, but certain things must be there in order for the image to be complete. To the extent that visual composition parallels verbal composition we might say the artist simply can’t “bullshit” the composition. If fundamental things are missing or sloppy your audience will know. She’ll know, that is, if she also approaches the work with the intention of truly noticing it.


So perhaps that’s what makes sketching so scary: the vast complexity of seeing anything for what it truly is.



Image source: Vi