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

Kaleidoscopic Composition


There are days–most days, actually–when I thank my lucky stars I’m a liberal arts professor. This is how I make my living: thinking and learning and experimenting with ways to help people compose and communicate constructive visions of the world.
If I’ve done my job really well, they compose texts that generate knowledge for themselves and for others. The infrastructure of all this is a process that only partially reveals itself in words–it’s a process of posing questions and exploring possibilities through research and cogitation and putting ideas out in a space or on a page and then translating those ideas into sentences perhaps with images or other media–the intellectual, ethical, and imaginative process itself is a substantial part of what we teach when we teach writing. Students should complete that process with greater insight and more substantial resources and information than they would have achieved without my help. That’s what I mean when I say my job is to help them generate knowledge, not just communicate it. And if they’ve generated knowledge, something meaningful to themselves and others, they’ll be better equipped to compose an artifact that articulates what they’ve learned. At that point it’s my job to be sure they do so with style and precision.
[In teaching as in weaving, at least 50% of the work is preparation, and good or poor preparation reveal themselves in the completed cloth.]
But the raw materials come from finding and mining possibilities. The single question or problem or topic is magnified, narrowed, turned upside down, divided into bits and re-assembled, all to give the researcher-writer-artist an interesting way to approach the project.
This is why I spent yesterday afternoon at a big table with two colleagues, sifting through pictures of yoginis and monarchs and a desert cougar atop a cactus, contemplating collage and metaphor and teaching and writing.
What we’re after is a way to create a short workshop experience that will enable us to share with other teachers the experience of using visual composition to generate insights. This is not a new idea in our field, which is one of our challenges, actually. Our workshop isn’t intended to teach our fellow teachers that using images is a fruitful invention strategy (duh) but instead to foster an experience we can share with the group, who will have assembled at a conference to generate and exchange ideas about teaching and learning.
As we ponder a fresh and relevant approach to this workshop, one of the interesting things we’re working on is the words we use to describe the purpose of the workshop. For example, if we say, “compose a collage that represents you as a teacher” or even “make a visual metaphor that expresses your teaching philosophy” we run the risk of encouraging people to concentrate on the product rather than the process. Each of those instructions sparks an answer, an outcome. A classically structured analogy of [A] in terms of [B].
And that’s not our goal, really. People already know how to do that and do it pretty automatically, which means the generative process is truncated by the wording of the instruction. Granted, even if you have a preliminary idea in mind, the process of visual composition pretty much requires a period of deliberation and reflection (ex: my teaching philosophy is derived from constructivism and emphasizes experimentation and collaboration so I’d want to use images that somehow represent those qualities), the constraints and materials on-hand would lead me to make some decisions and slow down and think in some detail about the various dimensions of my philosophy that might be illuminated by my collage.) But we’re not satisfied with that version of the workshop. We think we can do more.
So what’s more?
For one thing, more = composing an image that moves or that lends itself to a complex or multidimensional interpretation. (Here too a challenge because most smart people can generate multiple interpretations of any image, so what we need to push for is a surprise, I think, an insight or way-of-seeing that comes from the process rather than from pure wit.)
For now, we’ve decided to describe the workshop’s collage *not* as a “metaphor” but as a “complex image” in the hope this will help us all avoid leaping too immediately into a witty [A] as [B] mode (nor a Burkean ironic [A] in terms of [not B] mode 😉
In my own collage experimentation with this project, the image I consider most successful is one I’m still unable to clearly articulate. It’s a tracing of my two hands touching, fingers extended to create a triangle, with a masked character in the center (snipped from a National Geographic story about a masquerade festival in Spain). I like the aesthetics of the collage, and I like the way it resists a simple explanation. I’m not sure whether this is a kind of collage experience others would find meaningful, especially within a short workshop time frame, but I’m still considering what it might suggest or inspire.
Generally speaking, as a learner I’m extremely comfortable with ambiguity. It gives me lots to chew on. Although collage can be a wonderfully rich food for rumination, it’s also such a familiar genre that I think people sometimes overlook its richness or perhaps become overwhelmed by it.
This is one reason I’m very much attracted to the kaleidoscope as a collage vehicle. People are familiar with kaleidoscopes and might take them for granted as toys but if you hand someone a kaleidoscope they’re irresistibly drawn to make multiple images with it. In other words, it’s rare that a person will look through the eyepiece at the image handed to them and then put the scope down. They’re compelled to make their own image–usually again and again.
So let’s think about what’s happening there: the container of “stuff” is the same each time; the image is always different; the person holding the scope is making ephemeral art (I’m carefully avoiding lots of postmodern references and explanations here but go ahead and plug them in if you like) but its components are constantly there for further consideration, albeit from multiple perspectives, generating further ways of seeing; the artwork is inherently collaborative, facilitated by the maker of the scope and the user of it; if you diddle with it long enough (which may only be a few minutes) you’ll encounter some surprises, some combinations or juxtapositions that are beautiful or unexpected.
THAT is what I want my students to experience from research and writing.
THAT is what I want the workshop experience to accomplish.
THAT is my metaphor.
What shall I do about it?
Is the process of composing a collage sufficiently kaleidoscopic?
Image: Hibiscus Kaleidoscope by ifijay

Goats and New Media


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

In Defense of Underwater Basket Weaving


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:



What Weaving is Teaching/Reminding Me About Writing


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

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.

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living


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