Goats and New Media

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In the weaving studio yesterday I overheard someone discussing her next project, a rug she began some time ago with the spun wool of an angora goat that has since died. She has been searching her herd for just the right goat, whose donation of hue and texture will complement–but cannot duplicate–the existing yarn.

Dying the wool won’t make them match; each goat’s wool is distinctive.
I smiled as I heard all this. A palette of goats.
And I found myself pondering what other sorts of materials and resources exist that just haven’t been on my radar. And what might I do with them? How might they speak differently than other materials I’ve used. Their conventional symbolisms of course are part of their rhetoricity. A sentence woven into bamboo cloth (something I’ve just completed, actually) communicates contextually and visually and culturally differently than the same sentence squeezed through a label maker or typed onto a blog.
Nothing new there.
But there’s something exhilarating about recognizing the collaborative potential of livestock for the very first time.
Image source: Kris247
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In Defense of Underwater Basket Weaving

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So today one of the weavers brought some baskets into the studio. In addition to her work at the loom she’s a basket-weaver and recently returned from a workshop in Branson, MO (of course!) with two remarkable artifacts.

I’m struggling to articulate my new respect for functional handicrafts. I’ve always been an at-best marginally socially conscious consumer, viewing objects such as dishcloths and baskets–even scarves and rugs–as products among products among products. As a former Nordstrom scarf lady and occasional overseas traveller I’ve been much more respectful of the artistry of the latter. But baskets are things you buy half-price around Christmas time to hold gifts or dinner rolls and dish cloths are things you don’t even think about except perhaps when moving into a new apartment and wanting something fresh rather than tattered in your kitchen to wipe down countertops–and you purchase them for a few bucks as an afterthought.
As I observed the structure of the baskets, their materials, their combination of textures and hues (hand dyed), I also had to think about all the other basket-makers in the world. These objects aren’t made by machine but by people. Women and children and old men making things of beauty, so lightweight, so cheap; how many must fit into a commercial shipping container?
But that’s not what I logged on to say.
I logged on to observe that basket weaving is done wet. The reeds are softened (as clarinet players know) with moisture. Many types of basket weaving must be done with water. Perhaps not “under water” but as a former SCUBA diver I have no problem visualizing the aesthetic possibilities and, for that matter, the fun challenge of weaving a basket under water.  I have easy access to a swimming pool. I can rent the gear. I might just try it. I’d need to take a few basket-weaving lessons, though.
I’m not kidding.
Here’s the thing: in this time of economic constraint when I am so blessed as to be taking a sabbatical that permits me to explore widely and deeply the intersections of art and writing, I find myself moving ever more zealously toward activities that are “impractical” because I find that the closer I get to those activities the more I discover their fundamental practicality–no, their essential practicality, perhaps their transcendent practicality. (Emerson would be right on board with this.)
What is more practical than cloth, than vessels?
What makes these things impractical is not the objects themselves but the assumption that a person like me has no practical need to make them myself, nor to study how they are made. I’m an American university professor in suburbia. My job is to teach writing to college students–people who are already functionally literate, which means my job is not to “teach writing” so much as to teach “good” writing or better writing or writing that enables them to gather information, analyze it, and communicate it in ways that deepen their critical thinking and advance their facility with research and writing for now and for the future. That’s my job. OK. And I guess my retort (another favorite metaphor but since this isn’t my writing-and-laboratory-science sabbatical I won’t elaborate) is that as soon as we move from the teaching of functional literacy (something that, frankly, I’m not trained to teach) into the realm of teaching-for-resourcefulness-and-ingenuity we’ve moved into a realm where it matters for someone like me to understand such bedrock cultural practices and connections as the composition of functional crafts and the crafting of functional compositions.
And I don’t just mean metaphorically.
This arts-immersion experience is not just about metaphors; it’s a leap of faith, really. I know there’s more to learn about the materiality of language through the materiality of handicrafts.
That’s what I’m after.
And in that vein, I’m seeking connections to that other “impractical” thing: the liberal arts education. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the phrase “underwater basket weaving” seemed to be the standard joke regarding the liberal arts curriculum–the path that prepared you for everything by preparing you for nothing in particular through explorations of whatever the heck struck your fancy in a loose confederation of seemingly arbitrary categories.
(I need to find that scene from Addams Family Values with the liberal arts joke. Here it is.)
When you study fiber materials (ex: viscous materials pounded and strands twisted or interlaced or chained to achieve strength and flexibility) and weave structures you’re dealing with chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, mathematics . . . it’s all so obvious. It would take so little to parse out every discipline represented in the process of weaving a basket–and the delightful problem-solving dimension achieved by doing so under water. (Not to mention kineseology or phys ed.)
This may be the perfect course.  If only I were qualified to teach it.

 

Image source: Advocacy Project

Note that the basket is composed of tightly wound newspapers:

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What Weaving is Teaching/Reminding Me About Writing

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That timidity is never rewarded in any art form. When I try to avoid tangles, I get tangles. When my beat is too cautious my threads don’t cohere well–so I overcompensate with extra beats that still aren’t as good as a single firm one would have been. When I give in to worry my rhythm falls off.
That beauty comes from practice and repetition.
That the art is in the process.
That there is no single product; instead, there is a body of work, which includes an array of output, some of which is made public but all of which teaches and illustrates our craft.
That everything hangs on something, even if we cannot see it.
That preparation is at least 50% of creation.
Weaving is also getting me to think more vividly about patterns. Visually, I’m paying attention to weave structures–these are the algorithms designed by experts for novices like me to follow, but also the way those algorithms play out once I’ve made use of them, which includes everything from my choice of palette, weight, and sources of yarn to how I set up the loom and how I manage the work of making the cloth. To the extent an analogy might be useful, I suppose the syntax of the cloth is the warp and its grammar the weft, which would leave us to call the rest of the variables its narrative style.
All of this can be programmed ahead of time and generated mechanistically–even the most elaborate tapestries. (Which we all learn in Software Programming 101 with the history of the Jacquard Loom–punched cards serving as the precursor to Babbage’s computing machines.) So why bother making any of this stuff by hand? Likewise, why bother learning to write in college when you’re already literate enough to get into college, able to read and mimic existing documents for any given task?
Because at some point the creators of algorithms die and others must take their place and create new algorithms, new patterns, or new ways of working with the old in order to preserve our ability to make cloth when the machines crash and in order to help us generate cloth that can serve and delight us.
Because at some point the people with interesting and important things to say die and others must take their place and create new arguments, or new ways working with old arguments, in order to preserve our ability to know, think, communicate, and do things essential to our survival and happiness.
Because textiles [and texts] are a fundamental component of the human experience. Someone will always make them. Making them ourselves connects us with those on whom we depend. Having made them ourselves empowers us to choose self-sufficiency or interdependence.
Because there’s so much more to express. And because our imaginations should never be constrained by ignorance about what properly constitutes media or message.
Image source: Jeremy Butler

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living

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My short time at the loom is changing the way I experience much of the stuff of everyday living. After my first class it seemed only natural that I would begin to look more closely at textiles: cloth napkins, hand-knotted rugs. I became interested in the way bath towels are made, and found myself wondering who threads the looms in giant factories. Humans. Ultimately everywhere it’s still humans putting things in place before the buttons get pushed. Some things are still very much dependent on small hands. More than we might think.

But something else is happening to me: I’m asking myself how life might be different if ordinary objects were things I’d made myself. Would I toss my clothes on the floor if I’d hand-loomed the fabric and cut and sewn the garment myself?  Would I darn my socks?
One wall of my weaving classroom is hung with handmade dishcloths in different colors and patterns–model projects for beginners like me. After I complete my sampler I can proceed to design a simple object: a scarf, a purse, a bookmark, a dishcloth. The first time I saw the dishcloths I thought I could imagine nothing more boring and pointless than to devote hours and hours to the weaving of dishtowels. At best, my design would be something I could purchase more cheaply at a store and get a product I wouldn’t be worried about staining and laundering and eventually discarding. And, get real: who “designs” a dishcloth, anyway?
I had to ask myself, though: what might it mean to make something as well as I could, knowing that it would need to withstand a lot of wear and tear?  And what might it mean to use something that deserved to be treated well even as it did my dirty work?
So I will weave dishcloths and vow to use them because doing so will make me a better person. I wonder what else this will teach me.
Image source: luckywhitegirl