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!

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A Weavers’ Road Trip: Maurice Brassard et fils

IMG_8070It ain’t easy being a weaver.

Knitters, crocheters, quilters—you all usually have access to yarns and fabrics and textiles somewhere near where you live. Even if it’s a big-box craft or fabric store, usually there is someplace you can go to touch and fondle and squeeze the object of your desires.

Many, many weavers are not so fortunate. Stores dedicated to weaving are rare and located in far-flung places. We can go to local yarn shops (if there is one!) but most yarn that is designed for knitting and crocheting is not suitable for weaving—it’s often stretchy, often bulky.

So weavers are very dependent on the internet and on catalogs. And thank heaven for those shops, the places like Yarn Barn of Kansas, Halcyon Yarns, and the Woolery! A weaver can buy a set of sample cards to guide purchases and get beautiful things delivered to her door.

But, as anyone knows who works with fibers or textiles or any art supplies, there’s nothing like going into a well-stocked store and browsing the aisles, wandering the rows, and touching everything.

For that reason, my husband and I took the long-ish road trip to the small-ish town of Plessisville, Quebec, to visit Maurice Brassard et fils, makers of weaving supplies and home of LeClerc looms.

Yummy!

The round trip took us seven hours by car and isn’t one we will do often but the experience was so worth having! Just look!

I’d say that Maurice Brassard is primarily set up as a wholesale operation. We knew going in that we could buy these yarns at any of the on-line shops we use. The retail store has a warehouse feel—bins of yarns organized by fiber and by color—with little done in the way of presentation or marketing.

The shop is open to retail buyers but doesn’t really cater to them. Buyers are left alone to ramble and gawk, no one hovers and offers input. The whole place closes for an hour and a half at lunch and for two weeks in the summer. The checkout process is more time-consuming and old-fashioned than you find in most retail shops and, much to our shock, they don’t accept credit cards!

It was also a bit of a setback for us, English-only Americans, that only one person who works there, in the office and not in the showroom, spoke English at all. We didn’t get to ask many questions.

And, yet. . . . color and abundance and sheen and variety know no language.

It was such a luxury to walk around and see these fibers! To be able to see and touch the rich texture of the chenille and the unbleached linen. To be able to pick up a cone of color and walk around with it and hold it up next to other colors, instead of operating from little scraps attached to a sample card—I think I was hyper-ventilating!

Maurice Brassard et fils also purchased the long-established LeClerc loom company in 1995, so the showroom was a place to see and try a number of loom models, as well as to be able to handle and purchase other weaving tools. Again, this was a huge thrill for us—we’ve only seen new looms in catalogs or online!

We might’ve been a little overwhelmed. We might have gotten a little carried away. We might’ve had autumn on our brains when we chose our colors.

We didn’t buy a loom but bought plenty of yarn. With not nearly enough cash on hand, we made a flying visit to a bank and got back just before the shop closed for the long lunch break.

It was a long day—nine hours on the road.

We drove home via the rolling hills of rural Quebec, where the ancient barns are clad in weathered cedar shakes and every house has a huge hydrangea bush, showing the subdued colors of approaching fall.

We brought back lots of lovely work to keep us busy and happy and creative through the long North Country winter.

Our senses were filled, to capacity and beyond. We will struggle to go back to choosing yarns from a catalog or computer screen but still feel fortunate to have that option. And we will know that Maurice Brassard et fils is only a road trip away.

It ain’t easy being a weaver . . . but it’s good.IMG_8084

It Makes Me Warm and Tingly

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photograph by Joseph Turp

A lot of things make me feel warm and tingly.

You already know about many of them. Handmade makes me warm and tingly. Anything to do with words gets me pretty excited. I love history and tradition and human symbolic behavior.

Another thing that makes me feel all warm and tingly is Magna Carta.

Huh?

That’s right. An 800-year-old document gets me excited and when that document gets incorporated into a modern artwork, a huge piece, hand embroidered by hundreds of hands, working cooperatively? Well! Tingle, tingle!

Magna Carta is 800 years old this year and that has gotten lots of people thinking and talking about what it has meant, to England, to the United States, to democracy and justice.

Magna Carta may mean something different to each individual. I like what it meant to my American forebears, how it influenced the Revolution, and our Bill of Rights. I like that it seems to have led us toward equal justice under the law.

To me, it means that no one is above the law—too important to be bothered by the rules that bind the rest of us—or beneath the law—too unimportant to warrant protection from unfair bias and arbitrary persecution.

So, how about this embroidery?

My pal Gallivanta steered me toward a story that blew me away. You can read about it in detail elsewhere; think of this little post as a “heads up” to go look at the links I’ll include at throughout!

Magna Carta (An Embroidery), undertaken by British artist Cornelia Parker, has it all. The work was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford, along with the British Library, after having been chosen from a group of proposals.

In a nutshell, the project is a facsimile of the Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta, replicated in the most minute detail in hand embroidery, and crafted by over 200 stitchers from all walks of British life. The finished piece measures 4.9 feet wide by 43 feet long (1.5 m × 13 m) and has been on display in the British Library (and will be until July 24—there’s time for you Brits to see it!)

This project moves me in so many ways!

Parker combines the gravitas of history and tradition with a 21st century flair. The meaning and value of Magna Carta has been constantly re-interpreted and re-negotiated over the years so it seems especially appropriate that Parker chose to make her text a screenshot, taken on June 15, 2014, of the Wikipedia entry for Magna Carta.

Because Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and constantly amended by people like you and me, the articles constantly re-negotiated in a largely democratic way, it reflects not official truth but a communal representation of what Magna Carta meant on its 799th anniversary. It seems fitting that an historical document so often adapted to the needs of different people and times is offered to us in a format that is constantly open to our adaptations as well.

Parker also made a conscious choice to take the digitized word and transform it by hand crafting. When the words and images of Wikipedia are translated into embroidery, they are elevated in ways that ask us to re-see and re-think words that may have lost depth of meaning. The stitchers certainly had plenty of time to consider the words they worked on, sometimes as few as one or two. As viewers, we ponder the stitches, as individual as the stitchers who made them, and see the words, as if for the first time.

And consistent with Magna Carta’s principles of justice, fairness, and equality under the law, the embroidery work was done by a large group of stitchers, a group as varied as the peoples Magna Carta has been held up to protect and represent.

Parker drew her stitchers from many sources and walks of life, from peer to prisoner, choosing people who represented groups, like convicts and barristers, that have been associated with Magna Carta.

Over 200 stitchers contributed and the majority of the text was done by prisoners from the social program Fine Cell Work (which deserves a blog post of its own!) The Wikipedia images were re-created by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, from across the UK. Some of the stitching is expert and exquisite, some is rough and labored. The fabric holds stains, from tea and blood. It is not even and pristine and perfect, any more than is history itself.

Parker invited royalty to contribute but they declined. Other high-profile stitchers contributed, often by stitching words of their own choosing. Lord Igor Judge, who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the head of the judiciary, from 2008 to 2013, and Lady Judith Judge stitched the words, “Habeas Corpus.” Edward Snowden chose to stitch “liberty,” and Julian Assange, chose one of the instances of “freedom.”

The project seems to me to take the iconic and make it real again, to take the digitized and modern and make it warm and human. The varied stitches in the piece remind us that real people held the needles and that real people both shaped these words originally and are affected by them every day. It reminds that a word such as “freedom” will look, and mean, differently depending on who is uttering or crafting the word.

I hope you’ll go look for yourself. I have no access to photos other than those I can poach from the internet and I don’t like to do that (too much!) You can see many images typing the words “magna carta an embroidery images” into your search engine.

But, really, the best place to see and hear the story is in the video shared by Gallivanta. I predict it’ll make you feel warm and tingly too!

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photograph by British Library

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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Patty Yoder’s Beautiful Sheep, Again

IMG_8479Just about a year ago, when I started my blog, I wrote about an exhibit of hooked rugs I had seen at Shelburne Museum, in Vermont. These rugs, made by Patty Yoder, are so beautiful and so successfully bring an new artistic vision to an old craft form that I was excited to share them.

The problem was, I had just started my blog and almost no one was reading it yet! So the delightful, sweet, hand-hooked sheep were enjoyed by only about 4 people.

We went back to Shelburne last week, and visited the sheep again–they are still splendid. I took some new photos and am refreshing what I wrote, with hope that you’ll find them as compelling as I do.

The Shelburne Museum website says the following about the rugs: “The Alphabet of Sheep series combines two of [Yoder’s] favorite things: the sheep on her farm and the alphabet. Her rugs incorporate her family, friends, or sheep as the subject matter, a joyous celebration of one woman’s life.” And joyous is the perfect word to describe these rugs!

IMG_8477The exhibition features about 20 of the 44 hooked rugs Yoder made in the 13 years between her retirement and her death in 2005. That’s a very short time to develop skill and a personal vision but these rugs are amazing in both ways.

IMG_8476Have you ever tried rug hooking? I have. It was hard! All those strips of wool sitting around, flat and uninteresting, and the maker needs to be able to envision how those pieces fit together, how to vary color, how to bring them through the backing fabric in a consistent manner. Yikes. My failed attempts at rug hooking made me much more appreciative of what Yoder accomplished with her work!

I wish my pictures were better. I wish Shelburne had more photos on their website. I wish you could see these in person, to appreciate the texture and color with your own eyes. Patty Yoder found her creative outlet, building on a traditional, utilitarian craft and, like so many other makers, finding a way to express herself and her passion with her own hands.

The Patty Yoder show is up through October 31, 2014. I know most of you will never be able to see these in person but I hope the photos give you a sense of how loving hands can transform strips of fabric into a whimsical farmyard of sheer delight!

“This Has Nothing To Do With Staying Warm . . . “

IMG_7244A warm and inviting city.

A world-class museum.

An exhibit of quilts that should forever silence any question about whether the work of “loving hands at home” can and should be viewed as art.

I spent the last few days in Boston, Massachusetts, with my husband and two friends. I could regale you for hours with stories of the fun we had but what I really want to do is show you pictures of the current exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

IMG_1463The exhibit is titled “Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection” and it will be at the museum through July 27, 2014. If you are able, do go to the show—it’s amazing and will give you lots to think about, regarding quilt making and the definitions of art and craft!

The 60 quilts in the exhibit are from the collection of Gerald Roy and the late Paul Pilgrim. Pilgrim and Roy, trained artists and interior designers, began collecting quilts for their aesthetic value in the 1960s and they amassed glorious examples.

Pilgrim and Roy recognized how women had been using colors and shapes in the making of quilt designs that were every bit as innovative and exciting as the paintings of recognized artists, such as Josef Albers, and other Op Artists and Abstract Expressionists.

The show is organized around different aspects of color theory. It’s all very interesting and informative but, really, I found it difficult to get into reading the explanations.

I just wanted to feast my eyes on the banquet of colors and shapes and patterns. I wanted to get close to every quilt and try to imagine making stitches that tiny. I wanted to think about the women, often Amish or Mennonite, who lived what we think of as such austere lives and yet created such opulent and rich beauties.

This quilt was probably my favorite of all and it was the catalyst that brought Pilgrim and Roy to re-think their notions about quilt making.

IMG_7246 IMG_7251Many of the quilts are displayed against a black wall, which makes them seem to glow and vibrate with inner light and energy. (Click on any photo in this post to really check out the details!)

The craftsmanship of these quilts is superb. Of course, they are all quilted by hand and the quilted designs combine with the colors and shapes of the fabric to create a whole that is far more than the sum of the parts.

But, really, why am I still yammering on? Just look!