We Have So Much . . .

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Oodles of creative energy and desire. A strong desire, the impulse to make, to create . . .

And no resources. No thread, no yarn, no fabric. Nothing to turn my hands to. I can’t imagine . . .

A lot of my recent pleasure in this complicated world comes from my poor power to make something. When I get too overwhelmed by the news, I can turn away, pick up a rainbow of pretty threads, and play. And heal.

I’m reading a book that helps me realize how very, very lucky I am to have that outlet.

The book is Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett. It was published as a companion to a 2012 show that was organized by the now-defunct American Textile History Museum. The show traveled to other museums, including Shelburne Museum of Vermont, where Don and I saw the collection a couple years ago.

The show was spectacular, using “quilts, textiles, clothing, and other artifacts to connect deeply moving and insightful personal stories about the war, its causes, and its aftermath with the broader national context and public history.”

I didn’t write a blog post about this experience, mostly because photography wasn’t allowed and the impact of the show was visual—items included the hemp rope said to have been used to hang abolitionist John Brown, quilts made for soldiers to carry with them to battle, and all manner of personal textile items—knapsacks, clothing, and “housewives”—small sewing kits made for soldiers to carry with them in order to do their own sewing repairs.

Seeing these items moved me greatly and brought the reality of the Civil War to life for me, and I bought the well-written and beautifully illustrated book so I could learn more and have the photographs of the wonderful artifacts. I would recommend it to anyone interested in textiles, domestic social history, and human resilience.

I’ve been re-reading the book lately, in another time of American upheaval and uncertainty. Sometimes, as I read, I almost envy the women left home during the Civil War—they were full of a sense of purpose and knew exactly what they could do to make a difference during difficult times. They sewed, they knit, they wove, they quilted, and they sent the product of their labor to the soldiers whose lives were made substantially more bearable as a result.

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from the website of the American Textile History Museum, athm.org 

In these times that try one’s soul, as I turn my hand to weaving, sewing, quilting, I have no such sense of broader purpose. I am doing what I do for myself and my own state of mind. Making is a balm.

Yet, reading Homefront and Battlefield also encourages me to think about how lucky I am, and not just in the obvious ways—we are not engaged in a war with ourselves, I am not sending sons to battle to fight and kill their brothers. I am not burying the silver in the yard to hide it from the enemy.

I am lucky, too, in that in my need to make and to turn my hand to a job of work, I have unlimited power to do so and unlimited resources to draw from.

One of the points made in the book, and something that had never occurred to me is that, often during years of the Civil War, women had nothing–nothing— to work with.

As a result of any number of realities of war, there were no raw materials to be had. No cotton because it was all diverted to the war effort. No wool because sheep were killed to feed troops, rather than kept for their wool. A Georgia woman described the plight in her diary, saying, “There is no cloth to be had and no thread, no yarn—nor anything to do with. Time passes heavily under such circumstances” (164).

Indeed, it would.

No cloth? No thread? No yarn?? Just worry, and a frustrated desire to turn hands to fruitful labor, to make something that could help.

I have worry. But I have yarn and thread and fabric. I can sublimate my worry, my agitation, into something positive.

I read examples all the time of women channeling grief or anger or worry into their craft, turning to the soothing rhythm of knitting needles clicking or the needle and thread purring through cloth . . .

Can you imagine not having that outlet?

Our Weaving Ways (Winter 2017)

It does feel like the winter of our discontent.

While we normally enjoy our cozy days at home, in a happy fog of hominess and solitude, buoyed by cats purring, a warm fire, and comfort food, this winter is different.

Politics, chaotic change, and uncertainty intrude at every level. I spend too much time reading the New York Times and checking Twitter, and rolling my eyes, feeling my gut clench. I know I should walk away from the computer but that seems irresponsible.

I need to know.

But I also need to soothe myself and seek some solace.

And so I keep doing the things I always do, as insignificant as they sometimes seem.

The quilting, the embroidery, the ironing, the sewing group, spending time with you.

And the weaving.

The quiet repetition of winding warp, of slowly dressing the loom, of throwing the shuttle, and watching something grow from nothing, demand my focus and let me forget the so-called real world for awhile.

So, here’s what we’ve been weaving, since, after all, this is a place to celebrate loving hands and that which is handmade, not a place of lament and worry.

A bunch of towels:

The large photo shows the towel I made for Caroline, who won the giveaway late last year. Others were gifts for friends.

These ended up in the Etsy shop:

I’ve also made some scarves. This one is the first thing I made on my new loom:

And two others:

And a baby blanket:

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Don’s been busy, too. He made this beautiful runner in colors that make me think of the tropics, along with coordinating placemats:

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And he just finished this runner for a customer:

Even though we’ve been cranky and distracted by news of the world, we carry on and do the things we love.

I know I won’t stop worrying but I also now I won’t stop hoping and, in that hope, I’ll continue to create because creating feels like building, and building feels positive . . . and I need all the positive I can get right now.

Fix It or Let It Be?

I have a lot more sympathy for medieval scribes than I once did. I always envisioned them sitting in a sunny room, enjoying the copying of a beautiful manuscript—pretty colors and interesting words.

Now I understand how difficult that is!

Those guys were probably the original copycats, reproducing books, in exacting detail, before the printing press was invented. Their job was not to create, not to express themselves, but to copy, exactly and precisely, what was in front of them.

When I started my reproduction of an antique redwork quilt last year, that was my intent—to try and copy it precisely. The quilt was made in the late 1800s, and bears the date 1889.

I am trying to use materials that are the same as the original—plain muslin fabric and a red thread that should eventually fade to the washed-out pink of the old quilt. I am using a light box to trace the old blocks onto paper and then from the paper to the blocks of fabric.

What I’ve found is this—it’s really impossible to make an exact replica of hand-done work. As with handwriting, our stitching skills produce a style all one’s own. My stitching is mine—and my 21st century aesthetic means I tend to produce smoother lines and rounder edges.

One of the decisions I am facing is whether to reproduce what are obvious mistakes in the original. I’ve read that medieval copyists were often illiterate and so, made mistakes in spelling and in reproducing words. If the scribe who came later, who was to copy that copy, realized the mistake, should he fix it or stay true to the artifact placed in front of him?

I’m working on a block now that has such a mistake—I’m sure of it. When the maker of the old quilt traced this block from whatever her source, she clearly missed a line that constituted the bottom edge of this leaf.

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So, should I fix it? Should I sketch in that curved line and then stitch it and make it right?

Or should I leave it, knowingly reproduce it in its incorrectness, to acknowledge the human-ness of the creator?

I’ve gone back and forth, and so far, I’ve left it as it was stitched on the old quilt.

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I know I always get a kick out of these little errors, this proof that the thing was made by a distracted flesh-and-blood woman, in between her chores. Maybe, as she traced the design, a baby was crying or she was rushing to finish before she had to milk the cows (cows don’t wait!) or start dinner.

But maybe that’s being condescending and unkind in a way, to see her mistake and not fix it for her . . .

I don’t know. I haven’t quite decided yet.

I realize that, in the scope of real world sturm und drang, this is an insignificant point. And yet, I find I need distractions from real life and from Twitter and from alternative facts . . .

So humor me—talk with me about insignificant details of an old quilt, made by loving, if imperfect, hands.

What do you think? Should I reproduce the mistake or fix it? What would you do?

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Words

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I love writing.  I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.

–James Michener

Words have always had an outsized place in my world—reading, hearing, pondering, analyzing the words of others while using, manipulating, playing with words myself.

In college, I was a member of a competitive debate and public speaking team. We traveled the Northeast, competing against other college teams and spent all our time figuring out ways to use our words more effectively.

In grad school, I studied rhetoric and public address, the ways humans use language to shape ideas and other humans.

As an academic, my field of study was the power of protest rhetoric, especially the uses of protest song, to advance a cause.

As a college prof, my focus was teaching my students the skills to critically evaluate the persuasive messages directed at them, to recognize why some messages moved them and others failed to.

This love of words didn’t end with the speaking of the words or the straightforward writing of them. One other way my fascination with words was displayed was through calligraphy—the actual “swing and swirl” of the words as they go onto paper.

I can remember practicing my handwriting as a child and teenager, wanting to make it more interesting.

I picked up little flourishes from writing I saw and made them my own, the most self-consciously cutesy of which was this:

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Love to swirl that “d” back over the word “and”!

But I didn’t stop with my everyday handwriting—more formal calligraphy took up a lot of my time. I had all the fancy pens and parchment paper and inkpots.

I practiced incessantly and I did pieces for family and friends.

When I needed my Master’s thesis typed, I made a deal with a friend. I addressed about 100 wedding invitations in my hand lettering for her and she typed my thesis.

The first gift I gave my husband, when we were dating, was calligraphy. He had a grown-up job and loved spending money and gave me expensive gifts. I was a grad student and poor so I made do.

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I haven’t done any calligraphy in years. I am quite certain I couldn’t do it very well now because my hands are far creakier than they once were. The only calligraphy that’s still in the house is that little framed piece I did for Don.

I have found a new way to indulge my love of words, though. The hand embroidery I’ve been doing for the past three years or so has had a heavy focus on words. First, the cot to coffin quilt, with the multi-stanza song, and now the women’s rights quilt with embroidered quotes.

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Calligraphy and hand stitching are slow. Both provide the time to focus on and think about individual words and their meaning and their power.

I like thinking about the ways the words were used, the alliteration in the use of the “b” sound in Sojourner Truth’s quote, her analogy of the ballot box to a glass globe, fragile and transparent and perfect.

I think about why some sets of words persevere, catch our fancy, live on beyond the lives of the speakers.

I am inspired, motivated, and always moved by the words.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my calligraphy and embroidery?

And what about you? Is there a theme or a kind of subject matter that you can see in your artwork or creative expression that has remained constant over the years?

The Circle of Life

The rituals of life are wrapped in cloth.
Louise Todd Cope

Swaddling clothes, receiving blanket, christening gown

Hand-me-downs, Easter bonnets, first high heels

Prom dress, graduation gown, hope chest linens, wedding veil, satin sheets

Cocktail napkins, Thanksgiving tablecloth, Christmas tree skirt

Maternity top, “mom” jeans, apron strings, easy-care clothing, sensible shoes

Electric blanket, moth-nibbled cardigan, hospital gown

Coffin cloth

. . . . . .

Swaddling clothes . . .

When All Else Fails

What do you do when you don’t feel like doing anything? When you have no mojo, no forward momentum?

Do you accept that state and just hang out? That sounds nice . . .

It may be clear that I feel a pressing need to be productive. It seems to be critical to my sense of self and satisfaction.

So, I am rather undone on a day when I feel like doing nothing, when it all seems off kilter.

My antidote these days is to sit down and do some quilting by hand.

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I had such a day recently. I managed to exercise for a bit and make some candy for a customer. And eat breakfast. But then I just stalled. I tried weaving and that wasn’t the answer. I ended up unweaving almost all I wove because my heart wasn’t in it and I kept making mistakes.

I did some prep work for embroidery squares for two different quilts. Blah.

The weather was windy, cold, icy . . . no hope of a walk outside.

I even tried to nap and that didn’t help.

In my heart, I knew just what I needed. I sat down in my little corner with the soft cushion on the sturdy chair, with the bright light over my shoulder, and my red and white quilt on my quilting hoop.

I put my thimble on and got stitching. When I quilt by hand, I use the method of rocking the needle through the layers of fabric and batting, loading 4 or 5 stitches on the needle at a time.

This method is rhythmic and results in small, even stitches—a joy for a quilter to behold.

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I rock the needle and straight lines emerge. The flat, pieced blocks gain a texture, any wrinkles are plumped out as the fabric is sewn down around the interior batting.

Quilting in an open area of plain fabric poses no difficulties. The needle slides through easily and quickly and the magic happens.

I imagine my father felt the same satisfaction as he plowed a field, watching the straight, dark furrows replace untilled pasture.

Quilting by machine is all the rage these days and it can be fantastically impressive. I just know I could never get this calm sense of accomplishment from quilting on a sewing machine—sewing machines make me tense and frustrated.

I am sure hand quilting might make lots of people tense and frustrated, too. But it soothes me. And I’m not even certain why that is, except it’s difficult to make a mistake, it’s fairly easy and pretty mindless, and you can really see the benefit of the time invested.

I guess the point is that I hope we each have a place to turn when we want to make progress, feel productive, snap ourselves out of a funk. I know one of my “pick me ups” is hand quilting.

What’s yours? What soothes you, when your day seems off-kilter?


Just a footnote: Thank you for the time and energy so many of you invested in reading and adding wonderful comments and interactions on the Advent, My Way series. You made my holiday season memorable! Happy New Year!

Advent, My Way #24

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My favorite Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas album.

In all my ambivalence about the religious aspects of Christmas, I know one thing—I hope you all will find happiness and contentment at this season.

As the song says,

I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer,
From a heathen and a pagan,
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne

The streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the “Prince of Peace”
And they call him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.