“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Book

I often refer to “my next life.”* I have plans for it. In my next life, I will start weaving sooner so I can learn more and be better at it. In my next life, I will study and work as an art conservator. And as an archaeologist. And I’ll write murder mysteries.

But I have a previous life, too.

And in my previous life, I made this:

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My previous life was as an academic, a college professor, and I did what academics do. I did research and published my analysis.

My field was rhetorical criticism, the analysis of public persuasion. Think of it as literary criticism but, instead of turning my critiques to literature, I endeavored to understand how humans influence, or persuade, each other in more explicit and strategic ways.

My particular area of interest was protest rhetoric and, even more specific, protest song

In some ways, the making I did then was similar to the making I do now and in more ways it was really different.

I loved aspects of it. I loved the subject matter and feeling like I was solving a puzzle when I better understood why a song like “We Shall Overcome” struck so many chords with so many people when other, similar, songs were soon forgotten.

I enjoyed all aspects of the analysis and the learning but I did not enjoy this kind of writing. Once I had the insights, I didn’t care about sharing them, except maybe in class, with my students.

The pressure to “publish or perish” rubbed me entirely the wrong way; it seemed to strengthen my will to resist. And, back then, in the distant past of my previous life, things like footnotes and indexes had to be sorted out laboriously, without help from computer programs . . .

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The whole time I was doing academic writing, I fantasized about writing murder mysteries. Murder mysteries set in an academic department at a comprehensive college in a Rust Belt city in the Northeast. Murder mysteries where the victims were pompous tenured professors . . .

The heroine of my never-to-be-written mysteries was a bright, untenured female assistant prof, super cute and stupendously popular with students, and with an incisive, agile mind, able to see patterns of speech and behavior that led to the murderers.

Sigh.

I hardly remember the me I was in this previous life, even though it’s only been 6 years since I retired and left it behind. Sometimes I come across the book and open it randomly and have no earthly memory of thinking those thoughts, let alone writing the words!

I guess it’s nice to know that this book is in reference libraries and people actually quote passages from it. I used to get a kick out of doing vanity searches in the Internet and seeing where the book showed up.

But I get much more of a kick out of the things I make now. They please me in a way my academic work never did. I’m not sure why that is, but it undeniably so.

So, it’s very clear to me what I need to be doing in my current life! Not what someone tells me I have to do, not what I am expected to do, but what I want and need and love to do.

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

And what about you? What will you do in your next life? Will it be the same as that which you’re doing now?


* A note—I don’t really think I get another life, as much as I love the idea. It’s more my way of saying “woulda, coulda, shoulda”!

The Not-So-Boring Begats

When I was a child, I went to church.

In that church, we read the Bible. The whole Bible.

Or at least that was the idea, the goal. We were encouraged to read the whole thing, as well as memorize the names of the books of the Bible (which I can still reel off with weird precision 50-ish years later, for the first 20 or so).

Parts of the Bible were interesting. But then one would get to the boring begats, the long lists of genealogy, like this one in Genesis:

[7] And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters:
[8] And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.
[9] And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan:
[10] And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters:
[11] And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died.
[12] And Cainan lived seventy years, and begat Mahalaleel:
[13] And Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters:
[14] And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died.
[15] And Mahalaleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared:
[16] And Mahalaleel lived after he begat Jared eight hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters:
[17] And all the days of Mahalaleel were eight hundred ninety and five years: and he died.

And on and on. Who were these people and how did they live so long? These were the sections I skipped.

I find, now, that my life is full of a different sort of begats. I think of this as the crafting begats, the way one project begets others.

These begats are anything but boring!

Each weaving project begets new ones. I start with one color and think what a different one would look like. Or one treadling pattern and imagine others. I work on a scarf and want to see how the structure would translate to towels or a baby blanket.

Each quilt begets new ones. As I work on the redwork squares to reproduce the antique quilt I have, I think of ideas for a modern version, with blocks that reflect my current life.

This weaving project begets ideas for a quilt—wouldn’t this look pretty in pieced fabric?

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I work on the quilt I am making, with quotes about women’s rights, and think of embroidering a short phrase, a few words, to represent every day of my year, a stitched journal.

I iron vintage linens and inevitably find pieces with damage that makes them unsellable. I put them aside because, in my mind, they beget a quilt made of the pretty bits pieced together. Or they beget rag rugs, woven from strips of the usable fabric. Or they beget special buttons . . .

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I imagine this organic moving from one project to the next, each unique but related to something that came before, happens to us all—gardeners, bakers, painters, potters . . . makers.

With my making begats, I’ll never be bored.

My projects are fruitful and they multiply. How about yours?

What’s Your Style?

I wrote recently about stitching being like handwriting, so distinctive and impossible to copy. As I thought about this more, I thought about the most distinctive aspect of our handwriting—our signatures.

The idea is that our signatures are unique and, according to some people, reflections of our characters, who we are. But does that just apply to our handwriting?

I thought about some of the world’s best-known artists and how recognizable their styles are. I think I could recognize a Vermeer or a Van Gogh anywhere.

And I thought about the bloggers I read regularly—you folks. Honestly, I believe I could pick out who wrote what even if your names weren’t on your posts! Your styles are so distinctive!

What about the rest of the things you make? Your gardening? Your sewing? Your quilting? Even your cooking?

I bought a mixed lot of linens on eBay recently and got three items, among many others, I would swear are by the same hand—they have what, to me, is clearly a signature style.

The three pieces are a table runner, a storage pouch for a dressing table, and a “splasher,” a cloth designed to be hung over the bar on a washstand to keep water from splashing on the wall.

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A splasher would hang over a bar on a washstand, to protect the plaster walls.

Here’s what I think they tell me about the maker:

  • She loved color—bright, saturated colors. She didn’t adhere to a bunch of set rules about what colors “go together” but, rather, used what pleased her. Maybe she wasn’t one to follow fashion but had a strong sense of personal style.
  • She saw every blank piece of fabric as a canvas. She was looking for places to apply her skill and prettify her home. She actively liked embroidery, rather than doing it as a chore.
  • She was practical and wanted to make useful items. These three items all have a job of work to do, beyond being pretty. Even the table runner may have been designed for a specific table—the one in the sewing room. Look at those snazzy scissors added to each corner!

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  • She was patient and skilled and confident, and maybe a little vain about her ability. All three items have hems finished with buttonhole stitch, a time-consuming and fussy stitch. But she did it to perfection!

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  • She might’ve been rural or a little old-fashioned. The use of splasher cloths was really a late-nineteenth or early-20th century thing, when people had washstands and pitchers and bowls in bedrooms, rather than indoor plumbing. My guess is that these pieces were made later than that, probably 1930s or ‘40s.

I feel like I could recognize this woman’s work now if I came across a piece in a different setting. I feel like I know her a little and like her style!

I admit what I’m doing here is little more than a parlor game, speculating without ever being able to know whether I’m right or wrong.

But it also leads me to look at my own work over the years and wonder whether someone could say, “These things, these, were made by the same person.”

It’s harder to do with one’s own work, partly because I’m not just using the handwork itself but bringing in things I know to be true about myself.

I think my weaving so far shows that I am practical and value making things that have a function, the job of work to do. Of all I’ve made, probably 75% of it is dishtowels.

I like color, or think I should, but I am not confident. My weaving has a lot of neutral expanses with bands of color thrown in. Or I use a neutral and one color. It’s safe.

I like traditional style and am not adventurous. I choose straightforward, fairly easy patterns to weave and do variations of them rather than trying new things. I also use traditional natural fibers—no sparkly novelty yarn for me!

My quilting tells a similar story in some ways. Because I want what I make to be useful, I have, with one exception, only ever made bed-sized quilts.

I like traditional and tend to use the old-fashioned patchwork patterns that my grandmothers might’ve chosen.

I have issues with color. I am not confident choosing patterned fabrics and don’t really like them. I tend to make quilts with a few, limited, solid colors. It’s safe.

One thing that would connect a few of my recent quilts and would mark them as mine is the use of embroidered words. I don’t know if this makes my recent work more didactic and pointed or if it just means I like to take the time to ponder certain words. Or both . . .

In all my work, I see evidence of wanting it to be good quality but not necessarily perfect. I can see evidence that I subscribe to the notion that it’s good enough “if a man galloping by on a horse wouldn’t notice a mistake at 50 yards.”

I think I could take this further, to apply it to the writing I do and other things I make. Maybe even what I bake? Or the gardening I do? Actually, I suspect I could apply it to the clothes I wear and the way I decorate my house!

But I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject. Can you think of someone’s work that is instantly recognizable to you? What are the elements that give it away?

What about applying the idea to your own work? Are there elements that cut across the work you do? What would your work tell us about you?

Do you have a signature style?

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!