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?

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 #21

Well, of course we have handmade Christmas ornaments!

We haven’t put up a tree in a few years but I sorted through our ornaments this year, and smiled to find some of the ones I’ve made. These are my favorites.

I know you must have handmade ornaments, too, whether you made them or they were made for you, by other loving hands. Have you written a blog post about them? Care to share?

Advent, My Way #18

Christmas—it’s not just for humans anymore.

And it really never has been.

Have you ever thought about the role of animals in our holiday celebrations? They’re everywhere!

If we ever needed convincing of the significance of the relationships between humans and animals, we need look no further than the traditions of Christmas.

Certainly animals are a part of the Bible version of the Christmas story. Every Nativity crèche includes, in addition to the figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby, and the Wise Men, small figures of sheep and lambs, donkeys, sometimes camels.

One of the most magical superstitions of Christmas is the belief in some cultures that Jesus was born exactly at midnight and, in the empty, lonely manger, the farm animals acquired the gift of speech. Your kids might’ve stayed up at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa, but some children sneak to the stables on Christmas Eve, to hear the animals talk.

Today, a moment that always brings gasps of awe from audience members is when, during the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, live sheep, donkeys and, yes, camels, join actors on the stage in the heart of New York City. People like the Rockettes but they LOVE the animals!

The popular culture of the Christmas season is awash with animals. We love “the most famous reindeer of all,” Rudolph of the red nose. In the TV special Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy dances with abandon and, in a song that always gets airtime at Christmas, Snoopy and the Red Baron reach a truce that recalls the Christmas Truce of 1914.

When the Grinch steals Christmas he is joined, reluctantly, by his little dog, Max, and the Budweiser Brewing company has made a holiday tradition of including their great Clydesdale horses in their holiday ads. I am sure you can come up with many examples that are not popping into my head right now!

I think about my recent blog posts and the animals that populate my little world—the sheep in the jigsaw puzzle, the cat ON the jigsaw puzzle, the woodland animals on my Christmas stocking. Probably at least one-third of all the Christmas ornaments we have include animals in some form.

Animals join my Santas that line the mantle. Almost every one of these Santas has a pet—a dog, a cat, a small mouse. A penguin, a koala, an alligator?

My childhood book of Christmas songs includes the song about Santa’s kitten, Sandy Claws, and Mowzer, the Mousehole Cat, saves the day for the people of that town.

My own pets are not forgotten—I consciously think of ways to make Christmas nice for them. I often make new catnip toys for them. Last year, though, they won the feline equivalent of the lottery—our name was drawn for winning the big basket of toys given away at the veterinarian’s office!

I’ve made Christmas stockings for the cats. I haul out cans of tuna for a feline feast. We’ve engaged in high-level negotiations on the topic of them modeling reindeer antlers or Santa hats, for blog photos. Sadly, those negotiations have recently stalled.

I walk through my local pet store and look at posts on Facebook and know that I am not alone in including my animals in my Christmas celebrations! In fact, compared to what I see, my treatment of my cats is incredibly modest and restrained.

We humans do love our animals, whether they work for us or are our companions. They amuse us, they comfort us with their stolid presence and their unconditional affection. It makes perfect sense to me that we should include them in what is, for many, the most important celebrations of the year.

Where do animals show up in your Christmas traditions? Is there a favorite story or song that features an animal? Do you have pets who open their own gifts at Christmas? Will a sweet cat or lovey dog cuddle up next to you in front of the fire this holiday season?

Advent, My Way #12

In a crazy, crafty, color convergence, all my current projects are red and white!

I told you about my red and white quilt last week, my evening hand embroidery is still redwork, and the candy I need to make today is peppermint bark.

And serendipity finds red and white on my loom as well!

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I am pleased to say, for my own state of mind, that none of these are Christmas gifts.

The weaving is a gift of a different kind and the peppermint bark is for a customer but, with two weeks left until Christmas, the projects aren’t piling up, causing me stress in a rush to finish them in time. In their joyful red and whiteness, they are just helping me get into a proper Christmas mood.

“Advent, my way,” our low-key approach to the holidays, means the stress of making and baking is simply not an issue anymore.

I love that. I love mellow making and mellow living.

But for those of you who love giving and who love a traditional Christmas, I know that, right now, your loving hands may be working feverishly to create an excellent holiday for people you love.

Are you baking? Trying to get paperwhite narcissi to bloom at just exactly the right moment? Do your knitting needles clack and does your sewing machine hum? Are you making your own cards? Finishing a quilted table runner or Christmas stocking? Poring over cookbooks for Christmas dishes to add to the traditional favorites?

Are your hands busy with Christmas creating? Are you stressed or is everything right on schedule? Do you love and flourish in the bustle or look forward to that quiet, really quiet, week between Christmas and New Year?

Have you found your own ways to keep the holiday season mellow?