In the textile studio I am quiet, but my equipment is not. Shck, sprrr, thump. Shck, sprrr, thump. My foot presses down against the treadle and pulls the shafts into place, I throw the shuttle through the opening, bringing the beater down to tap the yarn into the weave. Every few minutes I rise and advance the cloth that’s been woven, and start again with a new set of threads waiting to be patterned into place. Each advance of the gears wraps new cloth around the beam underneath the loom and I am caught by the rhythm. When I sit at the loom, my goal is to find the dance–the shuttle goes through raised heddles, I move my foot over to the next treadle in the pattern, I beat the fabric; throw the shuttle, move my foot, beat the fabric; shuttle, treadle, beat; shuttle treadle beat. Shck, sprr, thump.
It doesn’t always move along easily. Broken warp threads are a frequent occurrence, and I’m still at the stage where I sometimes throw the wooden shuttle down and out through gaps in the thread. The ensuing clatter to the floor is jarring in this otherwise calm space. While time spent weaving on a multi shaft loom is 50 percent magic, the other 50 percent is problem solving.
Weaving is a kind of birthing process, with new cloth rolling off the beam at the end. And, like most humans giving birth, I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time. Which is true for all things we do in the creative realm whether that be spinning wool, making clothing, building furniture, or cooking a great meal. In the beginning, all we know are the raw materials, and through time and experience we learn what the finished product will be.
When the shuttle (the object that carries the thread) passes through the warp, it goes from hand to hand. When I put the warp on my loom, my hands touch every part of the yarn in the process of winding, threading, and tensioning. Working with rough wool or twine, my hands chafe under the rub of them. Thin, smooth yarns often break and so I pin or tie them back together. Such is the process of turning string into fabric–one that stretches back more than 20 000 years to our Paleolithic selves. Each time I throw a few rows with my shuttle I create anew, while also participating in something ancient and integral to the human experience.
By the time I remove that cloth from my loom, I am more than familiar with its flaws. Quite often I have forgotten my treadling order somewhere along the way and the pattern is shifted out of place, or threads have frayed and snapped in a way I couldn’t repair and small gaps in the horizontal line–the warp–appear. A master at this craft would not have so many flaws in their finished work, but they would know the same feeling of familiarity with the object of their creation. Whether highly skilled or just learning, we are intimate with the things we make, particularly when we work alone or in silence.
I’m not one of those people who goes around saying ““knitting is my meditation” or “gardening is my meditation”. Gardening is gardening. Weaving is weaving. Meditation is meditation. They all have their place and are not greater or less than one another. But I do find it interesting, this desire in our culture to equate the creation of beautiful and useful objects or the tending of home and garden with meditation. We don’t go around saying “video games are my meditation” or “online porn is my meditation” (thankfully). Instead, we equate the act of creation with mindful practice, best attended to in silence and with presence held for both process and product.
Last month I was on the phone with one of my Zen teachers who told me, “at root, our [spiritual] practice is about intimacy and connection–love.” These phone calls are a new thing since a winter retreat I did in February; I’ve been talking with Michael monthly to deepen my Zen study discipline and he is helping me work through my thoughts on the readings. At the moment we’re reading Genjokoan, a dharma talk written in the 1200s by Dogen, the founder of our Soto tradition. The work is poetic, and confounding in the way poetry often is, made more complicated by the Zen tendency to talk in riddles, holding up one side of an image against another in a roundabout way of meeting the point.
I was skeptical in our conversation, asking my teacher how one could talk about an authentic yearning for love and connection in a world addicted to screens, chemical foods, and the plastic-wrapped consumption threatening much of planetary life. “How,” I asked, “can we talk about this desire for interconnection when this is the world before us? If all religions on some level seek a return to the whole, and many people consider themselves religious followers, how is it we are living this way? Where are all these people who are supposedly seeking out a greater intimacy?”
But as we continued talking–Michael in his role as spiritual teacher and challenger of cynicism–I had a flash that took me back to my loom. Out of nowhere, I was thinking about the intimacy inherent in creating cloth and how that might be symbolic of something else. We continued talking on this theme, until I could see this idea more clearly: that although secular in nature, the re-emergence of maker culture may very well be connected to this spiritual yearning for authenticity and intimacy. A counter to corporate culture, the craft movement is not only an opposition to mass produced goods, but perhaps also a reinvigoration of our emotional existence and a way to connect past with future as we reach back into our collective history to master skills and then carry them forward.
Beyond that, is a further level of connection in the way these goods are shared. I find an example in sewing clothing. I sew my own wardrobe and also some pieces for my partner Brian. When I sew him a shirt, the resulting item is not simply an object, but is emblematic of our relationship. The act of making is imbued with meaning, care and love. Clothing is an intimate gift, worn next to the skin and carries the touch of the giver with it. Even if I remove that piece of clothing from my specific marriage context and make something to sell –I am still engaging in an act that differs from trading in mass-produced goods. My handmade object carries greater symbolic resonance even when exchanged with a stranger. When a friend comes by and comments on a handmade item in our homes, we might relate what we know about the person who made it, and the story of how it came into our life. We ascribe a much greater value to artisanal goods than a shirt bought at Walmart or the Gap, and I think part of the reason why are these intimate links to one another.
Though we may be shoulder to shoulder with a thousand others every day, we still find ourselves in a deep well of loneliness and disconnection. I often note in my reading of Dogen that even in the 1200s, he spoke of human alienation from a real world, obscured. It’s not like this is a new problem to the human condition, and yet I expect that today we face a much more profound chasm between the real and constructed worlds than the inhabitants of feudal Japan. It’s from this crack that we must seek tangible ways in which to help each other out. The culture of creation is one of those mechanisms, and a sign that despite a world designed to stamp out our humanity, we are still seeking interdependence and intimacy in a myriad of ways.
The shafts of my loom move up and down, I’ve got two shuttles on the go and it takes all my concentration to get the overshot pattern right. I can’t even listen to quiet music when I’m working like this, not if I want a perfect piece of cloth for the sample book I’m working on. In other words, I’m absorbed in the process of building the fabric line by line. It occurs to me now that although the act of creating may not be my meditation, it is perhaps my prayer - a call to be heard above the din of the world, a request for connection, for recognition, and for love.
April recipe: Rhubarb Ketchup
On the recent long weekend we had 23 people over for a sit-down dinner. It was a random assortment of the awesome people we've met since moving to this island nearly three years ago. We served ham and cold sides, with bread, pickles and all the condiments including my favourite, rhubarb ketchup. Not only did it disappear from the table, I found Brian in the kitchen later giving jars from the pantry away! This stuff goes on everything and according to my blog I've been making this recipe for at least seven years. It's a canning staple, and I'm looking forward to replenishing in the current season of rhubarb.
Makes 4 pints. Process in boiling water canner.
4 cups of rhubarb cut into one-inch pieces
1 large yellow onion, chopped into one-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, diced
3 cups of canned tomatoes (with juice)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 good shake of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of pickling spice tied in cheesecloth
Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer low for an hour or two. You want to cook this down a fair bit. Once the consistency is to your preference, remove the pickling spices and blend with an immersion blender. Fill jars. Process for 20 minutes.
Recipe is safely doubled.
This is what a dinner table set for twenty-three people looks like.
In the studio
It will come as no surprise given this month's essay that I've been back at my looms after a long break from them. I'm focused on process rather than product at the moment, though I did take some samples off the loom this week to make this charming little zip bag. Also featured as the backdrop is a knit shawl I finished this month.
This is the first time I've sewn an object with my woven fabric and I've got some learning to do, but I'm pleased with this foray into sewing with my own cloth.
To see more of Birdsong Textiles follow me on Instagram @birdsongtextiles.
The Future is Handmade. This 12-minute long mini-documentary explores the re-emergence of craft culture through the work of luthiers, wine-makers, tailors, barbers, and more. Inspiring and thought-provoking as we consider what kind of a world we want to live in, and what kind of world is sustainable.
How to Survive the End of the World. I just discovered this podcast by sisters Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown, both activists and writers in the US. Like this monthly mailing, the podcast explores what survival means, and how to develop and empower communities to face the challenges of climate change and social breakdown. I haven't had a chance to listen to many episodes yet, but I can recommend it from what I have heard. These are smart, engaged women with an analysis I share - so check them out!
Bayo Akomolafe. (Poet. Philosopher. Psychologist. Professor. Passionate about the Preposterous.) My friend Anna invited me to a workshop in Victoria this weekend by this person, and though I cannot attend, I am excited to know about Bayo's teachings which center on the work of returning home, decolonizing in all ways, and creating a better world. He teaches in person and online and has a lot of fantastic writing on his blog and website.
I've launched an Instagram account just for this project. You can follow @comfortfortheapocalpyse and get more recipes, writing snippets, and photos related to the themes of this mailing.
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See you next month and if you want to read more of me in the meantime you can find me at red-cedar.ca.