This Would Be Great, Except . . .

“Being a college professor would be a great job . . . if it weren’t for the students.”

I’ve heard these very words spoken, and have uttered them myself, if only as a joke. After all, if there were no students, there would be no job, no need for college professors, right?

All jobs, no matter how fun and fulfilling, have their downsides, I suppose.

In all my years teaching, it wasn’t the students that were the problem for me—I liked the students. It was the grading I hated.

But teaching, at least in American higher ed, means grading. Without students and without grading, there wouldn’t be a job.

In every craft I’ve done, there are tasks I dislike.

Making yoyos is great, if it weren’t for sewing them together.

Quilting is great, if it weren’t for the basting. Ack—I hate basting.

Making jewelry is great, if it weren’t for the polishing stage.

Weaving is great, if it weren’t for winding warp/sleying the reed/ threading the heddles/finishing the fabric off the loom. This whole topic of unpleasant tasks is actually on my mind right now because I face a day, or more, of hemming eleven towels and tablecloths. I have been postponing this for a while!

And, yet, without these tasks would the craft be the craft?

Without sewing them together, yoyos are just a pile of useless, albeit cute, pieces of fabric.

Without basting the quilt top to the batting and the backing, there is no quilt, just a piece of fabric of no particular use.

Without polishing, jewelry is just, simply, ugly.

Without all those steps of weaving, no weaving happens, no fabric grows.

When I was first learning to weave, I read a book where the author’s response was very clear, to a student who hated to wind warp.

The student said, “I just want to weave, not do all this other stuff.” She meant she just wanted to throw the shuttle.

The author’s position was that, when you wind warp, you are weaving. When you sley the reed and thread heddles and otherwise prepare the loom, you are weaving. It’s all weaving.

All the aspects of any job are critical to its being done.

So, if we care enough about the making, and the finished product, we learn to manage the bits that we find difficult or tedious.

I suppose, in some cases, we find more tedium in the craft than joy, and that may explain why we give some activities up and search out new creative outlets, to find the ones where the tedium/joy ratio is more to our liking.

For me, and the crafts I continue to do, I’ve either looked for ways to make the process more enjoyable or tried to re-frame my attitude.

I found a technique for basting quilts that works beautifully for me and, while I still don’t look forward to basting, I do it with much less gnashing of teeth than before.

For the yoyos and the weaving, I have simply (or maybe not so simply) changed my thinking.

Sewing the yoyos together remains a drag. But the only really unpleasant part is the longer stretches of stitching and it’s those longer stretches that also provide a sense of how satisfying the finished project will be. I keep my eyes on that prize and take time to step back and see how lovely this will be!

With weaving, I’ve found that many of the steps I used to hate get less soul crushing as I get better at them. Winding warp used to be my bête noire and now I have no trouble, although it’s still tedious.

I’ve come to grips with other steps by treating them as challenges, as fights I must win. Can I thread the heddles without mistake? Can I get the warp wound on without major tangles? I think I can, I think I can . . .

And along the way, I tell myself that, no matter what stage I’m in, I’m weaving. I am touching the threads and enjoying the textures. I’m watching the colors shift in the light and planning how they will come together. I’m doing some task that is integral to the making. It’s all weaving.

I wonder why we don’t talk about all this more often. I can’t imagine that we don’t share some frustrations about our crafts, as beloved as they are, but we spend our time talking about the fun parts and the finished projects.

Will you tell me about what you don’t like in your craft or in a job you’ve done? Or do you relish every step? Have you found ways to make the icky parts more fun?

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It Pleases Me: A Personal Aesthetic

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You walk into a furniture showroom, packed with sofas, and walk right up to one and say, “This one. That’s my style.”

You flip through the pages of a clothing catalog and stop short on one page, with one outfit, and say, “There. That’s my style.”

You get ready to start your next project—quilting or weaving or knitting or gardening and, in a world full of options, you know just what you want to do because you know “that’s my style.”

You probably can recognize your style, or your personal aesthetic, when you see it embodied in home furnishings or clothing or craft, but have you ever tried to articulate it?

In my ongoing attempts to explain what pleases me in terms of the making I do and, conversely, what leaves me cold, I’ve been thinking about my style.

I don’t mean style in a fashion sense, like “she’s so stylish.” If pressed to describe my fashion sense, I could tell you, quite honestly and without apology, that I have no style. Or it’s the sort of anti-style of LLBean, Orvis, and thrift shop, apparently based on a desire not to stand out in a crowd.

I’m talking more about what makes us tick, visually.

What motivates us and guides our choices, choices in what to make, how to express ourselves, what to wear, how to live?

I know I tick and you tick but what makes us tick? And what makes us tick so differently, so uniquely, so one-of-a-kinded-ly?

So, in this latest installment of craft-related navel gazing, let’s talk about our personal aesthetics, shall we?

Here’s a rundown of what I see as my style:

  • Head, not heart
  • Reason, not emotion
  • Practical, not precious
  • Traditional, not trendy
  • Timeless, not au courant
  • Nostalgic, but not sentimental
  • Understated, not flashy
  • Geometric, not organic
  • Old, with a patina of age, not shiny and new
  • Clever, not cutesy
  • Craft, not art
  • Patchwork, not appliqué
  • Solids, not prints
  • Twills, not overshot; rep weave, not lace
  • Dishtowels, not scarves
  • Saturated and low-key colors, not pastels
  • Natural fibers, not sparkly or shiny or fussy
  • Silver, not gold
  • Semi-precious stones, not diamonds (but, mostly, no jewelry at all)
  • Flats, not heels
  • Denim, not velvet
  • Wood, not plastic
  • Arts and Crafts, not Victorian
  • Art Deco, not Art Nouveau
  • Et cetera . . .

I could go on all day like this. If I got stumped, I could go to my Pinterest boards and get new, but consistent, examples to add.

My aesthetic is consistent to the point of providing humor for people who know me well. They laugh when I choose another navy blue crewneck sweater. They nod knowingly when my husband shows up in bright prints and I wear that navy crewneck and jeans—the peacock and the plain little peahen . . .

This house is full of elderly, sturdy denizens of the farm . . . and I’m not just talking about my husband and me. The furniture comes from attics and sheds and barns, not Pottery Barn. The colors do not change to reflect the Pantone color of the season. Practical trumps pretty every time—frugal Formica that doesn’t show dirt and there’s not a bit of stainless steel; dark leather furniture because the cats seem less likely to claw it.

One other aspect of my aesthetic that’s a little harder to put into words is the extent to which I am moved by the symbolic appeal of an item. I really like things that have a story behind them, a personally-meaningful provenance. If, somehow, words can be brought into the bargain, then I’m really happy! So, I can walk around my home and tell you the story of most of the items of furnishing and décor that we keep around.

In large part, the story is what makes the thing beautiful to my eyes.

My craft choices undeniably reflect my aesthetic.

I made jewelry for years, and the one thing I liked best was making these classic loop-in-loop chains. I like the fact that, originally, chains like these were made by ancient people years ago, in the same way I make them in the 21st century–the earliest examples are from 3000 B.C.! I like that they are simple, sleek, and understated. I like that they need to be made of pure silver, not sterling. I like that they are woven!

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Other jewelry I made often had a connection with the past or something with symbolic appeal. I’ve written about this brooch before—it contains a scrap of a quilt with my great grandmother’s signature.

Banker quilt pendant-8

This charm bracelet was made to communicate my feeling about summers at “camp.”

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The quilts I’ve made are consistent with my aesthetic, too. They’re all patchwork quilts, made with traditional blocks, blocks that were chosen as much because I liked the name of the pattern as for any other reason. The quilts have been, almost always, bed-sized, because that’s what quilts are meant to be in my world—bed covers. They are made of colors that appeal to me.

Having said all this, my favorite quilt is still the 1812 Cot to Coffin quilt.

In spite of not being bed-sized, it reflects, perfectly, my aesthetic—the colors, the simplicity, the focus on hand work, the story behind the words of the song, and the story behind why the quilts were originally made. The symbolic appeal of this one, for me, is huge.

Already, as a weaver, I can see my aesthetic playing a very large role in my choice making. You know I love to make utilitarian items in “homespun” colors. I am happiest, it seems, working in patterns that focus on texture and straight lines, like twills and stripes. I know that one direction I want to move is into what’s called “rep weave”—done with blocks of color in bold geometric shapes.

I am already choosing weaving patterns based on their names! I did a scarf from a pattern called “Wall of Troy” mostly because I had to read all that ancient Greek history for graduate courses in rhetoric.

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It tickles me no end that my husband weaves an overshot pattern called “Mary Ann Ostrander” because Ostrander is a family name—I might be related to Mary Ann! Although it’s too complicated to explain quickly, there’s even a technique called “name drafting,” where the weaver encodes words into a woven work—can I tell you how that possibility thrills me?!

Here again, I could go on and on. But the point is not to catalogue every detail of my aesthetic life in (more) mind-numbing specifics.

The point is that I’ve learned a lot about myself in this exercise, both about the aesthetic rules I abide by and the ways I step outside those rules sometimes.

I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about your own style or aesthetic as you’ve read along. My style is not right or better—it’s just my style. Your style may be incredibly different and I could find it beautiful and impressive and I might envy it . . . but it wouldn’t be my style.

So, what makes you tick? What’s your aesthetic? If you’re a blogger, maybe you’d consider writing a blog post about it, so we could all know you that much better? Or just give us a hint, here, in the comments . . .

Tools, Glorious Tools

toolsI love tools.

Truly, I do—I love the tools of almost any trade. I love hardware stores and catalogs like the ones I get from Lee Valley Tools and Rio Grande and the Yarn Barn.

In history museums, I love to look at rusty tools from the farm, the sawmill, the kitchen, the workshop. I like the familiar tools and the mystery tools, the ones now obsolete, where you can only guess what their work once was.

One of the best parts of starting a new craft, for me, is the necessity of accumulating the tools of the trade—poring through catalogs, searching eBay, poking through garage sales, coming up with elaborate ways to justify the cost.

As I’ve thought about the crafts and hobbies I’m most drawn to, I’ve noticed that I seem to gravitate to the ones that take the most tools. I wonder if the reason I’ve never really connected with knitting and crocheting is because the basic tools seem so few and, well, basic?

I also realize I like powerful tools—they make me feel competent. One of the primary appeals of jewelry making, for me, was that I got to use acetylene torches and wield big hammers.

And I love specialized tools—the tool that does one thing, perfectly.

I love expensive, high-quality tools because, if you can’t trust your tools, you can’t do your job.

And, if I can get a tool that is, itself, handmade and beautiful—well, that thrills me no end.

I love old, well-loved tools that show the evidence of the work they’ve done and human hands upon them—the wooden spoon that’s getting a little flat on one edge because it’s stirred the soup and scraped the pan so often, the worn spot on the hoe handle, where the hands always grip.

I find myself consciously appreciating certain tools, almost petting them. Just off the top of my head, I can think of favorites for almost any activity I engage in. When I find these favorites, I keep them safe, and I keep them close.

I think I may tell you about some of my favorite tools, at some point, partly because I love them so, but also because I want you to think about the tools you use and rely on and, yes, love.

Just off the top of your head, do you have special favorites? A paintbrush that’s special? A crochet hook? A fiddle, or trowel, or shuttle, or pair of scissors?

Imperfectly Perfect

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I am not perfect.

I know that must’ve come as a shock to you, when I revealed it last month, but it’s true. And you know what? People love me, in spite of my imperfections! No, really, they do–they think I’m good enough.

The imperfect dishtowel I told you about is finished and it’s still imperfect. In fact, I had threaded my loom in such a way, with a long enough warp, that I am now the proud maker/owner of three imperfect dishtowels.

And, you know what? I love them, in spite of their imperfections! No, really, I do! I think they’re perfectly good.

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I learned a lot from making them.

I learned new things about weaving and the possibilities. The loom is threaded one way but, by pressing different treadles in different orders, I could weave three different patterns. It shows up most clearly in the striped colors but is also really pretty in the texture of the white.

I learned that it really is important to fix mistakes when you notice them. I made at least three threading errors in my towels. I knew one of them was there from the start and thought it wouldn’t be noticeable. Now I know better!

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I learned I really like this fiber. It’s called Cottolin and it’s a mix of cotton and linen. I’m told linen, by itself, can be difficult to weave but mixed with cotton it was very satisfying.

I learned that cotton and linen shrink a lot, especially in length. I had intended, and thought I had planned for, these towels to measure 26 by 18 when finished but the biggest one ended up 22 by 20 . . . Hmmm, and I’m just now learning that I must’ve done something very wrong from the start, if I thought the towels would be 18 inches wide and they ended up 20. That can’t be explained by shrinking!

I guess I’ve learned that I need to pay more attention to the math aspects of the planning stages!

I learned, or realized again, that weaving feels like a certain kind of magic. You start with thread, just endlessly long, boring thread, and create a web of fabric that is full of possibilities.

 

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I made dishtowels but I could’ve made cloth for a dress, a blanket for a baby, a coat for my cat, placemats and napkins for my table, a tapestry to celebrate a victory, a christening gown, a shroud . . .

And the fabric I wove makes me appreciate fabric like I never have before. Weaving anything gives you a sense of why, historically, fabrics were treasured and treated with care and patched and re-used. This is an appreciation that gets lost when all our fabric comes from mills in foreign lands.

My towels are imperfect but they will accomplish, perfectly, the purposes for which they were created. They have already taught me a great deal. They will be absorbent and will hold up to rough treatment. They will stand up to a hot washer and dryer and be ready to serve again. They will age beautifully and last long and make me smile when I use them.

And they offer an important reminder to us all—we don’t need to be perfect to be perfectly good!

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It Pleases Me

working handsA folklorist, traveling in rural America, meets an elderly farmer. The old man is tired, from hard work with his herd and his land, yet works in the evening to make chairs he needs for his home.

The chairs he has crafted could be considered finished—they are strong and sound—but the old man continues, with weary hands, to carve flourishes and curlicues into the wood, to decorate his utilitarian creations.

The folklorist, a specialist in material culture, asks the man, “Why? Why do you take the time to decorate the chairs when they are perfectly serviceable?” The old man is silent, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about his motivation, his desire. And then he answers:

“Because it pleases me.”

I heard this story, told by folklorist Henry Glassie, many years ago as an undergraduate when Glassie came to visit my college. Since then, I have thought often of the story, the old farmer, and his desire to create beauty and to please himself.

The fact that this story, and none of the others Glassie undoubtedly told, has stuck with me suggests to me that it touched a nerve with me, even as a young person just starting to make things with my hands.

It seemed, and still seems, so profound to me.

In my painting classes, I was taught to follow rules of perspective and color theory. In my jewelry making classes, I was taught design principles and told that my designs were too predictable. In my communication courses, I was taught that good speeches are audience-centered. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I was taught to please others.

No one ever suggested that it was okay, a legitimate undertaking, to make something a certain way just because it pleased me.

And the idea that an old farmer, a man of practical considerations and hard work, with his feet firmly planted on the ground, would find pleasure in making beauty was also a revelation. I knew old farmers; I was genetically bound to old farmers! Did old farmers feel things like that? Might I?

Since I heard this story, it has informed my understanding of other makers and my understanding of myself. True craftsmen are pleased with what they create, with the skill it takes, with overcoming the difficulties of the task, with the mastery and the creating, not just of a thing but of some thing, beautiful to their eyes.

So, I’ve thought hard about what pleases me and sought to make things accordingly.

I’ve made a lot of different sorts of things in my life, from embroidering on my jeans as a teenager to majoring in metalsmithing in college to calligraphy to spinning to weaving. I’ve worked in polymer clay, beads, yarn, paint, silver, linen, and chocolate.

Along the way, there have been many other creative outlets that moved me not at all. I’ve tried some and moved on. Others . . . just never spoke to me.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been tempering chocolate and packaging candy these last few weeks. I’ll write more about my thoughts in the next couple of weeks, I’m sure, as my schedule calms down and my thoughts become clearer.

I’m hoping, right now, that you are thinking about what you make and how it pleases you. I imagine that what pleases you is different, in some ways, than what pleases me. And yet we share the deep satisfaction of feeling fulfilled, in important ways, by the making.

What aspect of your work, your craft, do you do simply because of the pleasure it brings to you?

Why Do We Do The Things We Do?

WHY?What motivates you? Why do you do the things you do? Why do you make the things you make?

So many of us make things. We weave, we bake, we quilt, we “craft,” we garden, we sew, we work in wood, paper, metals, fibers, clay. And, of course, we write.

But why do we pick one or two of these expressive outlets instead of others?

What draws me to fibers and textiles and you to your medium? How come one thing turns you on but might leave me kind of cold?

I’ve been pondering the reasons I make the things I make.

I like to be creative. I like to be productive. I like to understand how things work. I like to add something lovely to my world.

Okay, well, all of those things might apply to any creative outlet. But they don’t give me any special insight to my own interests.

Three other elements that draw me to a specific craft or creative activity seem to be the following:

I like to solve problems. I really like my creating to have an intellectual component. I want my brain to be engaged. If someone says, “Oh, this craft is great—it’s mindless,” I’m unlikely to be impressed. So, I seem to be drawn to crafts that have an analytical component and present problems to be wrangled with.

I like the math and geometry involved in planning and piecing a complicated quilt design. I like the need to really ponder the exact sequence of steps to be followed in a difficult jewelry design. I am intrigued by, and still overwhelmed, by the endless nuances of weaving structure.

They things make my brain hurt. I guess I love that.

I also like to make things that will last. I don’t cook at all but I like to bake and make candy very much. I think it’s because, first, baking is rules-based (and I love rules), whereas cooking is much more improvisational. But, more than that, baked goods and candy might stay around for a day or two while cooking gets gobbled up in 20 minutes. The idea of spending a lot of time and energy on a dinner that is just . . . gone depresses me.

I make things of metal and stones and fabrics that are more likely to stand the test of time. Those monks who make the sand art, knowing it is evanescent, doing it partly because it won’t last? I admire it but could never, never do it. Same with the people who build fabulous sand or ice sculptures—their art is of the moment. I want mine to be of many moments.

I like old, handmade things because they lead me to think of the humans behind them and I guess I hope that someday someone will run their hands over something I’ve made and think of the person who made it. There are vital human connections to be made as a result of our creative output.

Taking this a step further, I realize that, in addition to hoping that my art will connect me with people who come after me, I like creative outlets that connect me with human beings who came before me.

When I taught college, my academic discipline was rhetoric and public address—the stuff of human communication and persuasion and expression, and just that which Aristotle taught his students in Greece, in the 5th century BCE.

I can remember saying to my students, “Think how exciting this is! We’re gathered in a classroom, discussing the same topics and the same problems that thinkers have been discussing for 2500 years. We’re here together, not looking for one right answer, but exploring what it means to be human, just as they were!”

As you might expect, I got a lot of blank looks from this. But I always saw a few sparks of understanding, too.

For some of us, the thrill in making comes from the thrill of knowing that humans make—it’s a large part of what we do and what we are. And to be making in the same manner, building on and continuing the skills developed through the ages—for me, that’s heady stuff!

I love reading about the history of craft—how women wove as far back as the Paleolithic era, how exquisite jewelry was crafted without specialized tools, how tiny, ornate stitches were done in candlelight. I love the practical concerns that led humans to develop these skills and, more, the ways in which these art forms were used symbolically.

I love the connection I feel to people, women, of so long ago. So different, so much the same.

The writing I do fills these needs as well:

The problem-solving—Writing is never mindless. To write is to wrangle with difficulties. How do I express myself clearly? How do I draw the reader in? What is worth saying, how best to say it?

The connection to the past and to the future— All of us who write, not with the idea of the next Great Novel or renown, but just for the pleasure of writing and communicating, are carrying on a great tradition. We’re the Samuel Pepyses of the future, documenting and providing insight to daily life in the early 21st century, reflecting what it means to be human here and now.

In an era when people don’t write personal letters much anymore, our blogs become a place to convey the minutiae, the worries, the thrills, the little things that make up our lives. And, when I put words down in my blog and hit “publish,” my words, and any knowledge and insight I impart, become more likely to carry on. My thoughts and my way of seeing things, might, just might, outlast me.

I’ve learned in my blogging that these wordy, contemplative posts are not popular. That’s okay—while I work hard to keep my writing reader-centered, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes, as with all my making, I need to please myself. And, as was true with my students, I am thrilled to get the occasional sparks of understanding that reassure me that I’m not alone!

If you’ve read this far, have you considered what draws you to the creative choices you’ve made? I’m still working through my thoughts on this and would love to hear from you—why are you drawn to your particular art or craft or expressive outlet? Any of the reasons I’ve mentioned? Or ones I’ve missed?

Fabric + Freezer Paper + Printer = Fun

IMG_4814If you’re crafty, love textiles, and want to customize your projects, you probably already know the technique I’m going to explain here. I’ve known this technique for quite a long time, and used it many times in the past, yet had forgotten about it–so maybe the same goes for you!

I want to remind you how easy and satisfying it is to print any image or words on fabric, using humble freezer paper, your trusty iron, and your home computer printer.

IMG_4784It’s a great technique for textile artists and crafters to have in their repertoires—it’s super easy, very inexpensive, and gives you custom fabric pieces that can be used in a gazillion ways.

I’m planning a quilt and, for part of it, I want to embroider the words of an old song on fabric panels and stitch them together.

I could just write the words on the fabric, and embroider over that, but I want a calligraphy typeface. So I chose one on the computer and typed up the stanzas of the song. You can choose anything, though—words, graphics, photos. You may be surprised at the quality of the print you can get! Just take into consideration the color of your fabric and how that might affect the colors you’re printing onto it.

I used my rotary cutter and cutting mat to cut cotton fabric into pieces that my printer could handle. These rotary cutters are commonly used by quilt makers but I use mine, with the mat, to cut all kinds of things—fabric, paper, cardstock, lots of stuff. If you don’t have one, just use your scissors.

IMG_4788Then I just ripped off a piece of freezer paper bigger than my fabric. Be sure you have freezer paper, not waxed paper!

Put the fabric face down on an ironing board or protected surface. Place the plasticized side of the freezer paper, shiny side down, on top of the fabric.

IMG_4791Make sure your iron is dry and will not spit steam all over the fabric. Empty it of water and turn the steam option off! I have an old iron that was never designed for steam so I use that.

Get the iron really hot and run it over the back of the freezer paper. Press down firmly and check often to see if the bond is complete. You don’t want corners that peel up or any spots that shift. When this is ready, it will seem as if the pieces of fabric and of freezer paper are one.

Let it cool a bit and trim the freezer paper right up to the edges of the fabric. Avoid any raveled threads that could gum up your printer!

Then, if you have your images ready, all you need to do is pop the fabric piece into your printer, making sure you know which side the printer will print on, and run it through!

IMG_4799Since I am embroidering over the lettering I printed and I’m not planning to launder this quilt, I’m not worried about the printed image fading. If you’re printing an image that will stand on its own and/or be washed, you should look into a spray-on fixative.

After the ink has dried fully, you can gently remove the fabric from the freezer paper and go ahead with your project!

IMG_4806Make a quilt with family photos!  Add fancy frames and borders around the photos! Make little fabric pennants to spell out a name! Make a fabric coffee coaster for your Valentine with downloadable graphics!

IMG_4804The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and the size of paper your printer will handle. And, of course, you can also use this method to stabilize fabric while you write or draw directly on it.

I’ll show you more of this quilt and tell you the story behind it as I get a little further along.

Have you used this technique before? What did you make? Can you add any helpful tips that I missed?