Issue #23: The return of the quiet season

Comfort for the Apocalypse, October 2021

This newsletter is one vehicle for my writing interests and experiments, an exploration of brief-essay style and content. To that end, “object biographies” are my focus at the moment. I am interested in function, aesthetics, and histories attached to the objects we possess - why we choose to display or use some things over others, how we tell stories through the artifacts of our material culture.

Weft Passing Through Warp (A Brief History of the Loom)

“I have a thing for looms,” Will confesses to me at a yard party on a chilly summer evening in Fernwood. We’re standing around a fire ring in June twilight and it’s come up that since the last time we met I’ve started weaving. 

”I don’t want to weave or anything,” he says, “But as an object, looms are so..,..,” He can’t quite put it into words, but I understand, and attempt to fill in the gap “....so clearly functional, that the space they take up seems worth it even if all you do is look at the thing for the beauty of its wood, string, gears and all.” 

Will nods. As someone who restores art professionally, he is deeply interested in objects and the space they occupy in our lives. I tell him about restoring my first loom, and how I’ve come to own a couple of smaller ones, easier to handle for narrower projects. “What do you weave?” he asks, and I say, “Well, fabric of course. That’s what a loom is for.” “Yes, he says, but what can you use the fabric for?” And I realize that he, like most people, doesn’t realize that weaving is where the garments he is wearing come from. “I could weave denim, like your jeans,” I said, “Or fabric for a shirt. I could weave lace for curtains, or durable fabric for tea towels. Once the fabric is made, it can be anything.” 

I see the look of surprise come onto his face. Though he doesn’t say it, I imagine that for him (as it once did for me), hand-weaving on a big old loom brings to mind the bulky ponchos our mom’s friends wove in the 1970s, or the Fair Trade Guatemalan goods we associated with the back-to-the-landers we grew up around on Vancouver Island. Like many people, he has lost touch with the fact that every textile in our lives is either woven or knit on machines–the industrial looms operating by the same principles as the countermarch looms in my home studio. Weft passes through warp one way or another, and fabric comes into existence.

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In Textiles, the Whole Story, Beverly Gordon sums up the disconnect by saying, “...in a post-industrialized world, fabric has become ubiquitous and inexpensive. Most of us are very distant from its production, and the magic of cloth-making has thus for the most part become invisible; few who have not witnessed the laborious processes and multiple steps that go into making even the simplest cloth realize what treasures they may be wearing or holding in their hands.” 

As Gordon documents, bolts of fabric and textile goods such as garments were once itemized in wills due to their value. The tradition of Boro mending which originates from an historically impoverished region of Japan, allowed garments and bedding to be used through many generations, each owner performing many small mends over their lifetime to create a multi-layered and multi-storied cloth. Before the advent of quilting as a hobby, the inside of American quilts were a kind of Frankenstein fabric, with old clothing layered and stitched together to form the “batting” (since replaced by rolls of cotton and polyester–easier to work with, though not nearly as thrifty). These practices indicate the value of cloth historically, when each part of the cloth-making process was carried out by hand, from harvest of plant or animal fibres to finished fabric.

Textile-making in one form or another has been with us for tens of thousands of years, likely beginning with the stitching together of animal and fish skins using animal sinews, progressing onwards to the making of plant-based rope or thread. The creation of netting followed, which evolved into nalbinding (sprang), knitting, and weaving–all forms of interlacing threads to create a stable fabric. In On Weaving, Annie Albers imagines this evolutionary development of textiles, leading up to the time when “weaving was singled out, for millennia to come, to attain a major role in civilization.”

Archeologists believe that weaving originated in Neolithic times 10-12,000 years ago as per evidence at some sites in Europe. The earliest woven fragment–a piece of linen–dates to 5500 BCE (discovered in Anatolia), though pictorial evidence of the weaving loom does not appear until 3700 BCE in an Egyptian pottery engraving which depicts two figures at a warp-weighted loom (a vertical frame where tension on the yarn is held by weights hung at the bottom of the warp).

Until the 19th century, a loom was a relatively common household possession in many cultures, particularly in homes which had access to fibre through farming, making it a fixture of rural culture. Even for those who did not weave, the basic 4-shaft loom was a somewhat familiar object right into the 20th century. Even once home looms were no longer necessary due to industrial fabric production, they continued to hold some prominence as a symbol of self-sufficiency, and in some cases, a political show of support for domestic cotton production. Right into the 1950s, Sears and Roebuck sold “fireside” looms alongside other living room furniture, though it’s hard to know how well these sold. Today we are lucky to see a loom being demonstrated at a historical re-enactment village or a sheep-to-shawl event at the local fall fair. And even when we do run into weaving in the wild, we mostly see it as chunky shawls (fast to demonstrate, less fiddly to weave in a public setting), and don’t connect it to the making of the garments that we wear. The disappearance of the loom public view is a relatively recent phenomena.

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When I purchased my first floor loom, I didn’t know almost anything about weaving. I had taken a single course in which I used a table loom, and from there decided I needed to scale up immediately. (This is much like when I learned to quilt some years earlier and went from a class where I learned to make a potholder, right to my “next step” of making a queen-size quilt.) 

That first loom came with a romantic story–hand built by a draft dodger in Nova Scotia the year I was born, bought by a school teacher who spent half her year’s salary to purchase it–and took up six feet in all directions. My plan had been to install it in one half of our attic bedroom in East Vancouver, the only extra floor space in our small home. But when we tried to move it up the narrow staircase, I discovered it was far too tall for the sloped ceilings, and even if it had fit, would be too dominating a presence in a room marked for rest. Folded up against the wall, it took up a quarter of the space in my tiny sewing/guest/television room. There was really no way to use it without emptying the room of everything else! My husband likes to say we moved out of the city because of that loom, which I think is only partly true, but surely this need for maker space was on our minds when we decided to put our home up for sale only a few weeks later. 

Five years on, I occupy a full textile studio which doubles as my home office. That first weaving machine taught me much about the countermarch style of loom. I restored it completely once I was able to open it up and evaluate its needs, but ultimately it had quirks I couldn’t get over. At the beginning of the pandemic it moved on to a young art student who I understand is happily weaving on it these days. 

I went on to acquire a Berga Savonia from one of my neighbours–a 10-shaft/10-treadle countermarch loom, made by the Finnish company Varpapuu (long out of business). One of the finer examples of the Scandinavian loom industry, it is of a style used in Northern Europe for hundreds of years. Mortise and tenon joints hold the birch wood frame together, with very little metal hardware evident beyond a few lag bolts and the ratchet and pawl brakes. It has been owned by at least two people before me, and though it doesn’t have a particularly interesting origin story, it is a much nicer loom than my first. The weight of the beater is just right, its sturdy beams do not rattle when I bear down on the cloth, and the sectional beam allows a more even tension to the warp. The bench, height adjustable with wooden pegs, is designed to fit where it needs to go–in front or inside the loom depending on my task. I recently made a modification to the treadle tie-up system and now consider it to be the machine of my dreams.

At the start of my weaving journey I had not fully comprehended how much I would learn about the loom itself. I sew, and yet I can not fix a sewing machine. I knit, but the knitting needle hasn’t much complexity. But part of the allure of weaving is in fact, the tools themselves. An old-school weaving loom is intelligible and accessible, we can see all its moving parts, and regular maintenance is essential to successful weaving. Like my friend Will, I find the fusion of function and form a bottomless well of appeal. I can spend hours looking at looms on the Internet, not with an intention to purchase, but because I am curious about them as objects in and of themselves. To be a weaver is to not only understand the craft, but to deeply know the tools of the craft. The loom is an extension of the person who operates it, and so we take care of it much as we must take care of ourselves. 

In Shop Class as Soulcraft Matthew B. Crawford documents the decline and removal of trades education from schools. He argues that “the disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit.” In my creative domain this disconnect is persistently evident. While I enjoy showing people how the weaving loom works, I am not convinced it’s possible to understand without actually participating in the weaving process. Which means the magic of fabric-making is mostly lost to us. The decline in this understanding overall shifts us into a passive relationship with our material goods, and towards more dependence on machines and processes distant from our realm of understanding. This intensifies over time and has lent itself to an increasingly disposable culture of goods.  

I have written elsewhere about the return of craft work expressed over the last decade–the resurrection of arts considered defunct in the era of just-in-time, mass market products. There is no economy to sewing one’s own clothes, knitting is time-consuming, handweaving a laborious pastime. The same can be said for building one’s own furniture, or making cheese and charcuterie. And yet all of these activities have growing communities of interest, people reaching back into the practices of their ancestors to find the satisfaction of touching something authentic. Crawford explains, “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it…… Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.”

The weaving loom is one of the tools (and weaving one of the skills) that connect me to the human-scale world Crawford is talking about. The one in which I am threaded from the deep past through to a meaningful present in which at least some of my personal goods are of my creation. Our fascination with tools is our ancient nature, weaving one of oldest inventions. To sit at the loom and pull weft through warp, is to close a gap between myself and my possessions, myself and my ancestors, my understanding of the made world in which we live.

A white building with a reddish roof sitting amid grasslands - against a backdrop of sky and cloud.
I spent some time here in early October thinking about objects and why we collect what we do: the old fog station on Saturna Island, run as a small museum in the summer months.

October recipe: Carrot Vegetable Soup

With the return in wet weather I’ve been on a bit of a soup kick, and carrots have been in steady supply from my farm share! I offer you a version of the soup I made earlier this week to warm you up as the days get cooler.

  • 3 cups carrots, thinly sliced

  • 1 cup onion, chopped

  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped

  • 1 medium potato, diced

  • 1 garlic clove, minced

  • 4 cups of broth, bone broth or veggie

  • Fresh thyme

  • Salt & pepper to taste

  1. In a large pot, saute carrots, onion, celery, potatoes, garlic and sugar in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add broth, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes.

  2. Remove from the heat and cool to lukewarm. Puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Heat and serve.


In the workshop

The studio is a tad messy, but given my essay this month I’m showing off the Berga Savonia countermarch loom. At the moment I’ve got a table-runner commission on the go, which I plan to finish weaving in the next few days. After that I’m not sure what I’ll put on–either a table runner for myself or a throw composed of red yarns I dyed over the summer.


Three things

  1. I’m reading the book Making a Life about people who make things and their connection to their craft. The first interview in it is a thought provoking discussion with Ellen Dissanyake who has spent her life thinking about human evolution our need to “artify” the world we live in. I recommend you check out the whole book, but if for some reason you can’t get your hands on a copy, the interview with Ellen can be found online here: Making a Life: An interview with Ellen Dissanyake

  2. I feel like I could have written Bethany Ball’s piece, Planning for the End of the World (or Hopelessness as Superstition), so accurately does it sum up the emotional landscape of some of us who have been thinking about collapse for a long time. And while our life circumstances have been different, I emphatically agree with her warning that, “If we can imagine only a world that must be escaped rather than improved then maybe that’s what we will end up with,” and her ultimate conclusion with regards to collective responsibility for survival.

  3. I was going to share an article on climate change with you, but instead I’ve decided to share this seasonal comic by The Oatmeal. It’s much funnier than the other post and I think we all know how bad things are.


And finally

On Gabriola Island, the end of Thanksgiving long weekend marks the beginning of the (very) quiet season which stretches through until about March. Most of the seasonal people have left, the snowbirds start making their way South, and the darkness of early nightfall keeps a lot of people indoors. It’s a cosy time for me, but also one in which I have to remind myself to keep up my social relationships. It’s far too easy to hibernate and see no one.

Since I concluded the Comfort for the Apocalypse reader survey in September, I’ve decided to get rid of the “Small Comforts on a Sunday” edition of the newsletter. Things in life have picked up a bit more I want to make space for other writing projects (including my own blog at red-cedar.ca). I hope you don’t miss that extra recipe too much!

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If you want to hear more from me, find my blog at Red Cedar or follow me on Instagram @birdsongworkshop - otherwise, I’ll see you here again next month.