The Comfort of Washing a Rug

And of making a rug, especially with friends.

 

sw rug hanging up

 

I can’t pretend I’ve been unaffected by the news the past few weeks. It could easily start to feel like the world is crumbling around us. It may seem trivial at first to post about anything I usually talk about here. But I believe it’s not. Actually, I believe that we need our creative pursuits, the things that give us comfort and fulfillment, more than ever when times get rough. Even more than that, I believe that by making something with our hands, by sharing it with friends, by just cooking dinner and eating it with people and having a face-to-face, honest conversation, we are making a difference. Taking a small step towards the world we hope for,”being the change,” as Gandhi said.

Last week, during a dry spell in our monsoons, I decided it was time to wash the kitchen rugs. I wove the one shown here two years ago, at my friend Lauren’s house (but never posted these photos). It occurred to me while I was cleaning it that this rug is actually a pretty good metaphor for the value of craft in our lives. All the yarns I put in it are ones I saved from my grandma’s stash after she passed away—a reminder of our connection, the passing of knowledge between generations, and the “waste not, want not” I try to put into practice.

 

sw rug weighing yarn

Weighing yarn and winding into balls, making a plan for the rug.

 

Lauren did the math, wound the warp (for several rugs, not just mine), and put it on the loom, so all I had to do was show up and weave, which was wonderful. We spent time together weaving and listening to music. We lit a fire. I remember other friends were there at least one day while I worked on the rug, doing what women have been doing for millennia: talking, eating, and making things together in community.

 

sw rug on loom

My rug on the loom.

 

The act of weaving brings up all kinds of good memories for me too, of learning to weave with my family and working on my grandma’s big loom. Like most textile crafts, the rhythm of the work is meditative. It calms my mind so that sometimes creative ideas bubble up, and other times I can think less, and just be. I’m coming to believe that just being is an important part of my growth as a human, something I need to carve out distraction-free time for, and practicing in fiber arts definitely helps me do that.

 

sw rug through warp

Looking through the warp at the rug in progress.

 

This week, it rained. The rain falling onto my high-desert home is a miracle of relief. Knowing that the forest will be sustained for a little while longer makes me feel better about everything—even politics, even tragedy. As long as we have the solace of nature, and a way to nurture our creativity, I think we’ll be alright. In fact, more than alright—I believe if we can keep those two things near the top of our collective priorities, we’re still working towards a better world.

Here’s to better weeks ahead!

 

sw rug on floor

The finished rug in the kitchen.

 

PS Karen wrote on a similar theme this week, and I found the comments on her post heartening. It involves seeking peace in the beauty of landscape and sheep …

 

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Origins, Materials, and Connections

 

This spring, I explored cotton growing in the US—I interviewed organic farmers in Texas, read some fascinating history, and pulled seeds out of a cotton boll to try spinning them myself. Most of that research went into an article for Seamwork, which comes out today. It also ties in well with what I’ve been thinking about around the one Year, one Outfit project, which was the reason I bought local(ish) cotton fabric in the first place, and got curious about where it came from. I’m coming up on a full year since I jumped into that project, and I’d like to talk a little more personally here about what I’ve gotten out of it so far.

For #1year1outfit I pledged to buy new fabric only if it was made in the US, and the fiber was organically grown or otherwise considered sustainable. It’s easy to see a choice like that as restrictive, claustrophobic, or even self-righteous. But like a lot of similar times, I found that I was more creative because of the limitations I had set. I learned a lot, because the project encouraged me to look more deeply into everything from the environmental impacts of textile production to what it’s like to be a cotton farmer. But the best thing I got out of it was a feeling of connectedness and participation with the people, plants and animals that make what I do possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 1

I’d like to sincerely thank Kelly Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, who was so helpful in connecting me with farmers, answering questions, and also lent me the use of more great photos of cotton growing than I could use for the article. All photos in this post are courtesy of TOCMC.

 

I read Environmental Impact of Textiles by Keith Slater (borrowed through interlibrary loan). It was full of statistics and graphs as I expected, but also contained insights about the contrast between processing fibers by hand and by machine that I didn’t expect at all. Slater points out that tools for turning fiber into fabric by hand are relatively easy to make, and often operate on human power, burning little or no carbon in the process. Selecting the best quality fibers by hand takes more time and so is more costly, but it results in a better product, less waste, and less energy used. In contrast, the machinery needed to process fibers (“millions of tiny particles of flexible units”) at the speed necessary to satisfy demand must be “massive, complex, and expensive,” use huge amounts of energy, be environmentally costly to make, and concentrate the impacts of production (from noise to waste) in one place.

I learned that one of the most environmentally problematic areas in textile production is dyeing and printing (as well as other chemicals used in manufacturing and finishing fabrics). Most of these substances are toxic and/or carcinogenic, especially the first synthetic dyes developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and used to be released freely into waste water. Thankfully, at least in the developed world, we now have regulations to protect our water and our textile workers, as well as some less-harmful dyes that have been developed more recently.

Textile production is a relatively small part of worldwide manufacturing and resulting environmental impacts, totaling less than 1% according to Slater, including transportation, machinery, and everything else he could find to calculate. Still it’s an area where we, the consumers, have a lot choice in what we buy, and I believe, we can have a big impact.

Ultimately, what I took away is that nothing comes from “the store,” or goes “away” when we’re done with it, even though our consumer culture very much wants us to believe that it does. Everything has an origin, and is part of a cycle of people and things that includes us, whether we’re aware of the rest of it or not. I want to know my place in that cycle, and respect the other participants in it—both the humans and the animals and plants, the communities and soils that make my life possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 2

 

I just finished reading an amazing book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. It’s kind of heartbreaking, actually, since she spells out what we in the Western world and in the US specifically have done to both the native peoples and the native landscape, and it’s inescapably tragic. But, she also offers a lot of hope, and a vision of how the world could be if we behaved as though we were part of it, participating in and nurturing the ecosystems around us, instead of pretending that we’re somehow separate from the rest of the universe. Of all the beautiful, powerful, potentially life-changing books I’ve read in the last year or two, this is the one I most wish everyone would read, the one that I think might be have the most potential to move hearts into action.

Braiding Sweetgrass reinforced my belief that our choices matter, the little things matter, and also that so very often when we do the best we can for the world around us, it ends up being the best thing for us too, bringing more joy and connectedness to our lives. I believe that a big part of the satisfaction which many of us feel is missing from our lives comes from a lack of participation with the world around us, and that part of how we can bring ourselves into a healthy relationship with the universe we belong to is to participate in its natural cycles as makers and creators. To me, this is the best part of using local and traceable materials; I can visualize the system I’m part of, the fields and farmers who grew the fiber that I’m now sewing and wearing.

 

TOCMC cotton 3

 

After this experience, I can’t go back to using anonymous, supposedly source-less materials—it would just feel so hollow. My year of #1year1outfit is over, but I’ve been changed by this project, by realizing the deeper connections that are possible. Although I may want to work with fabrics or yarns that no one is making near me (or even in the US), I can’t see myself choosing anything that I don’t know how and where it was made, that I can’t picture how it connects me to other hands, and fields, and creatures.

When I started this project, figuring out where my materials came from and tracing things back to the source seemed daunting and confusing. And it’s still true that taking any finished product (even fabric) and figuring out who made it can be nearly impossible. At this point, I’m looking at it more from the other side: what do I know is being made well, and what can I do with it? I’m looking for materials available with origins I trust, and they seem like more than enough to fuel my creativity for quite a while.

 

A few more Resources:

Through TOCMC I found out about Adele Stafford who is doing amazing work hand-weaving and making garments with US fibers, and writing so poetically about it at Voices of Industry.

Sally Fox has been experimenting with growing naturally colored cotton and biodynamic agriculture since the 1980s. She has fabric and yarn at FoxFibre, and pictures on Instagram.

My list of sources for sustainable fabrics is here.

The fabric I printed for one Year, one Outfit is here, the skirt I made from it is here.

 

No Wardrobe is an Island

Thoughts on MMM’16

I wanted to give myself a real challenge this Me-Made-May, and I succeeded! I decided to endeavour (love that British usage) to wear only clothes I’ve made for the month, with a few exceptions noted at the beginning: socks, jackets, and raincoat. Trying to follow through with this plan made for my most thought provoking MMM in several years.

At the beginning, I felt liberated. Even though I’ve pledged to wear mostly me-made the last couple of Mays, getting by on only MM stuff felt like cutting a cord (despite the deliberate exceptions). I was not just making do with scraps thrown my way, but existing on only what I had made from whole cloth.

It also occurred to me that wearing clothes I didn’t make is anonymous—it’s not satisfying, but sometimes it’s a welcome cloak of invisibility.

As May began and the weather stayed cold at home, I found I missed some fairly ridiculous parts of my non-MM wardrobe—notably the big shapeless thrifted wool sweater I’d been throwing on over my PJs for tea and yoga first thing in the morning. I guess some kind of large, warm, not at all precious, natural-fiber layer is now an essential wardrobe component for me in cool weather …

On the 5th I realized that my plan had totally failed to account for days when I really needed to just wear grubby work clothes. Although an oversight, because my life definitely does have those days, I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s conceivable that one day my clean-the-truck clothes might be all old me-mades … but that day is not here yet, and that’s fine with me.

 

05mmm16

I did make two of these items …

We hit the road for two art shows in the DC area about a week in, as we have done for the last few years. This time, it was cold (like record-setting, 25 degrees colder than normal cold) and rainy practically the whole time we were there. I had enough me-made layers, I just wore them over and over …

 

21mmm16

A typical show-day outfit. I’m wearing my favorite cashmere top, the upcycled sweater, a jacket, and a raincoat. I was going to roll up one pant leg so you could see that I’m also wearing wool leggings underneath, but I forgot.

 

Then after travel and the first show, I totally ran out of clean pants. I discovered I would rather break my pledge and wear an old pair of Bryan’s than freeze in a skirt, especially since we were going for a walk in Rock Creek Park. I also discovered that I am really used to custom fit, especially in waistbands. Any places that rub or sit wrong seem totally unacceptable. This is probably a sign that I could not go back to ready to wear—even if I wanted to.

I wore the “Me-Made-May” badge on my bag or clothing almost every day—and didn’t get asked about it once. But still I hope that some folks saw it and were curious. I also wore the “I MADE this” badge a few times (attached to something I made and was wearing). That one is more direct, and when I wore it I got comments and/or questions from friends, acquaintances, and waitresses, which was great! But I also discovered that I’m just not up for being the face of the handmade movement whenever I’m out in public. I’m naturally a shy person, and with the added stresses of travel, being in strange places, and dealing with whatever came up, a lot of days it was just not happening. While, for whatever reason, having the MMM one on felt fine.

 

19mmm16

If you made a badge and didn’t see a comment from me about it, please leave me a message here or tag me on Instagram—I’d love to see them, and I was in no way keeping up with all the hashtags last month!

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how making my own choices is wonderful, but it’s not enough. I also need to find ways to share more of those choices with larger communities. (Some things that are pushing my thoughts that way: this post from Jess on Wardrobe Ecology, and this amazing interview with Rebecca Solnit from On Being.) I’d like to continue to explore ways I can make a more public statement, without feeling like I’m “on stage” too much of the time. And I’d still like to wear the “I MADE this” badge from time to time … we’ll see what happens!

Overall, as the month went on, I realized another important thing: I don’t really want to make my whole wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to be capable of making whatever I need to wear. But as far as the actual content of my closet at any given time, I don’t want that to exist in a vacuum of only self-made, any more than I think any of us can really live a good life without friends and community to belong to. I know it’s vital to have friends along the way—people who give us a place to rest our heads, deep conversations and connections, and sometimes a place to dry out our tents in their back yard. I want to celebrate that as the joy and blessing it is. In sort of a similar way, I also want to celebrate the special parts of my wardrobe that I didn’t make, especially those made or given to me by folks I love.

 

31mmm16

The last day of #mmm16, with our irises having a great year.

 

So, a lot to think about! As always I’m grateful to Zoe for putting this on, and for all her encouragement! It really is a great time to pause and reexamine life through the lens of what we make and wear, and I’m glad it happens every year because I wouldn’t go to the trouble all by myself! Between now and next May, I’ll be thinking about more ways to share my love of handmade without freaking myself out, and how to celebrate my mostly-me-made wardrobe with a pledge that reflects where I’d like it to go.

How about you? Anyone who hasn’t already shared their thoughts from MMM on a myriad of other platforms is welcome to do so here … In the meantime I hope you’re all enjoying the start of summer! (It went from cold straight to hot for us, but, I’ll take it!)

 

A Failed Attempt

 

It’s so tempting for our online lives to show only the bright side; just our beautiful finished projects (neatly ironed), our best ideas translated fluidly into tangible objects. I’ve definitely swept my share of failed makes under the rug, never to see the digital light of day. And actually I think that’s fine too—some things we learn from, and some we just don’t want to talk about. I’m going to talk a little bit about this one though, and see how it goes.

 

failed refashioned sweater 2

 

I had so many reasons to love this sweater and try to save it. My mom knit it for my grandma, and after my grandma passed on I took it, thinking I could turn it into something I would wear. It started out as your classic grandma Aran cardigan; white and long and covered in cables and textures, slightly too big for me, with a high neckline and little pearly buttons. Although I’m sure it could have fit right into some people’s wardrobes with minor adjustments, it made me look ridiculous. Maybe I should have stopped right there, but I have a lot of faith that things can be refashioned to work in a new wardrobe (built on a solid foundation of makes that have worked out).

My first attempt to refashion the sweater was a few years ago, and included: shrinking/felting it slightly, dyeing it with tea, widening the neckline, and knitting new bands for the bottom and cuffs. It was a fair amount of effort, and I still didn’t wear it much. It felt strange, and the strain on the neckline proved too much, the yarn started to pop in several places. Not sure what to do next, I put it in a plastic bin in the garage, and there it sat, occasionally nagging at the back of my mind.

I got it out again last fall at the start of Slow Fashion October. What could be a more appropriate project? And I had a plan, in several steps, thought out beforehand, which looked good in my head. I trust those plans and my ability to envision how they will come out.

I dyed more yarn and ribbon in tea. I stitched the ribbon in to reinforce the neckline. I shorted the body and used the extra to add a collar onto the (ridiculously wide) neck. I figured out what stitch pattern I had used before, and knit another piece for the collar, and then another one because the first one didn’t work (actually I think there were three attempts at the collar). I wasn’t convinced it was great, but I also wasn’t able to take a step back from all I had invested, and I went ahead and overdyed the whole thing  with madder, hoping for some kind of warm soft brown. It came out, well, salmon, and that’s when I was forced to take a step back.

It wasn’t just the color, it was the spottiness of the color that really got me down. I knew this could be an issue dyeing garments (even though I haven’t had many problems using tea) and I had tried to strategize against splotches, but evidently not well enough. On top of all that, it was inescapably not my style—particularly that blasted collar.

 

failed refashioned sweater 3

 

I put it down, knowing it was no good, but not emotionally ready to let it go. It’s been a while since I had a downright project failure, particularly of something that I put this much effort and planning into. I still have plenty of “um, well, I won’t do that again,” learning moments, but at this point in my creating life, the results are usually fixable, or cause just a minor inconvenience in the finished garment. I had kind of forgotten what it feels like to have to give up completely on something that I’d worked so hard on, and how it takes the wind out of your making sails for a while. I definitely felt a little intimidated to start another project after this one.

The best silver lining I can come up with so far is this: that remembering this feeling is good for me as a teacher, in the same way that remembering what it’s like to be a beginner is good for me. There’s one big difference though: being a beginner is super fun if you have confidence you’ll get there in the end, but making a failed project is still no fun at all. I do know that my present confidence and skill is built on a whole bunch of projects that didn’t go very well (to one degree or another). And I’ve reminded myself that no time is ever wasted, as long as you’re making and learning, and enjoying the process. I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one of my favorite things about that book is how much she is reassuringly down-to-earth about stuff like this: everyone fails, everyone has droughts of creativity, and crises of confidence (even highly successful authors). What makes the difference is whether we can use the good parts of a bad experience to move forward, or we get so bogged down in the bad parts that we give up on this path entirely and look for another one.

Needless to say, one crummy sweater will not derail me from the path of any of the fiber arts I love. Thinking about this one still stings a bit, mostly because I can still see the potential in some parts of it … but I’ve accepted that I cannot make it into what I want, and I’m ready to put it in the charity pile, and let it go to meet its future, which whatever that may be, is not my responsibility any more. It took a couple months of the sweater sitting in the corner in our bedroom for me to get to this point. To tell the truth I think, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that the whole second attempt was doomed, because the neckline from the first attempt was beyond saving.

But now, I’m ready to take what I learned, leave the sweater behind, and move on. I still trust my instincts, and my ability to plan a project in my head before I start. These skills are built on years of experience, and usually the plan works. Even when it doesn’t, it’s another step moving me forward on a path which I believe in with my whole heart.

 

Reflection with Books

 

I’ve had some kind of post like this in my head since before the holidays. I’ve been wanting to write about the next stage in my thought process around time and a slow life, as well as to highlight some of the fantastic books I read last year that helped bring me to where I am now. But to tell the truth, I’ve been struggling. My thoughts and plans don’t feel like they’re in any kind of order, and I feel a little lost, like I’m stumbling around in a trackless forest. I’m sure I’ll find my path again, but on the way there, I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, so I can revisit some of the ideas that spoke to me in 2015, and also move on to other things I have planned for this space.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 1

These photos are from a walk during our trip to Albuquerque just before the new year.  I always find the light in NM beautiful, as well as the cranes and geese that come through in the winter.

 

2015 was a good year for deep thoughts in my world, and it was also a great year for books. I can’t remember another time when a stream of reading material came to me one after another—as gifts, recommendations, and by chance—as if the universe was giving me the reading list for the next stage of my life.

The first of the startlingly appropriate books was Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read it as part of my research for that article on wool I wrote for Seamwork (that was the best research project ever in my personal history of research). There were some useful tidbits for the article in there, but what I liked most about this book was how it put “women’s work” throughout the millennia of human history in context, and made me feel connected to all those women who came before me.

At the beginning of the book Barber points out that women didn’t get assigned tasks in societies because they were weaker or inferior to men. Women got tasks like spinning and weaving because those were compatible with also being the primary caretakers of small children—the role of women in every human culture to date, for obvious biological reasons. Even though I don’t have kids, and it’s kind of obvious once you think about it, this was a bit of a revelation. Women’s work isn’t “less than”, it’s part of the set of skills needed to make a society work.

I also love how she talks about hand work and how it relates to society. Quotes like this one really spoke to how I think about my making:

“Working within a quota system of production is not like weaving for oneself. It is no longer fun, nor does the weaver get the benefit of extra effort put in. Mass production is not at all like making single pieces at will; there isn’t time to do a careful job. This economic principle is illustrated many times in history.”

I’ve always thought that feminism should mean we women can pursue what we want to with dignity. Choosing to knit or make jam should be just as valid a choice as welding or practicing science. Ultimately, this book let me feel more comfortable and grounded in my own skin and my own choices. When I spin or sew, I can feel proud of the connection those activities give me to all the women going back in time before me. It’s a great place to start from.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 4

 

Another book that made my rethink my ideas about our society, specifically class and being connected to the land, is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For the first half of this book I was incredibly jealous of the author, of the way he always had a place in the world and knew exactly what and where he wanted to be. The freedom we get in many modern societies is truly amazing, but does anyone else lament the amount of angst and flailing around looking for what we’re “meant to do” that comes with it? There are definitely days when I’d trade all this for a place to belong and a clear contribution to make. As his story goes on (I’ll try not to spoil anything) I realized that he too had to coexist with the realities of the modern world, but he finds a way to do so that gives me a lot of hope. The book is full of deep insights from a perspective I don’t often hear, that of someone intimately connected to both the land and the practices of the past. Its deepest impact on me was in how I think about what I really want out of life. I need to be connected and feel like I’m making a difference, and I’m not so sure I need “success” in any sort of modern sense of it. I do want a life that makes me “want for no other” as Rebanks says at the end of the book, and I should seek that kind of satisfaction.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 3

 

“Slow” became a definite theme to my thoughts last year, fueled by another couple of great books. The first one was World Enough and Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. It’s jam-packed with ideas, so much so that I had to go back and sift through the passages I bookmarked in order to figure out what I was really getting from it. It’s difficult to choose which of the many promising insights McEwen includes to share here. One of her biggest themes is that we humans need slowness, rest, and time for contemplation, in order to feel whole and happy. And that we can get those things, we just have to choose to do so.

This is something that’s been at the core of my beliefs for as long as I can remember having some, and it’s wonderful to have it validated by someone who’s clearly done her research: that we can choose to live in the way that seems best to us, that we still have available many of the options of people in previous eras, even if our society at large is moving a different way. After all, if you take a step back, we have just as much time as anyone in the supposedly “slower” past—actually more, since our lifespan continues to increase, and we arguably have more leisure time than ever before (depending on how you define that). Just because a choice is there doesn’t mean it’s easy though, going slower and with more meaning is something we have to do consciously, and follow through on every day. I’m trying. McEwen quotes Howard Zinn:

“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

The book is full of quotes, insights, and strategies for anyone who’s thinking about moving slower and more fully in life, and is especially helpful if you also have a creative practice you’d like to nurture.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 5

 

Another person who’s gone to great lengths to re-imagine his relationship with time is William Powers, author of New Slow City. My dad, who worked in wildlife habitat conservation for decades, had an interesting take on this one: that Powers was ignoring the fact that a lot of the calm he seeks he can only find in nature, that maybe he is suffering more from a lack of contact with the natural world than from going too fast. I think Dad has a point, but I also think the two things are intertwined. Powers also has a lot of other good ideas about moving slower, and being less influenced by the craziness of modern life in New York. The thing I liked best about this book is that it’s a chronicle of Powers’ personal experience, so it feels approachable, even if not all of us can afford to cut back drastically on work the way he does at the beginning of the book.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 2

 

One thing that comes up prominently in Powers’ book and in McEwen’s is the damaging influence of advertising. This also strikes at the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; that the job of this entire industry is to make us feel dissatisfied—the exact opposite of what I personally want out of life. This perpetual dissatisfaction harms us, as well as the environment, by encouraging more and more purchases of disposable stuff. For me, a trip to the thrift store is sometimes enough to start a mental spiral of “I want, I want,” and even “I could make this, I could fix that,” which pushes me out of my slow making mindset and back into the same old place of wishing for more time.

I think I’m looking at it all wrong when that happens, it’s a modern-society habit I just haven’t shaken off yet. What do I want more time for—so that I can make more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I don’t need more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I have the same amount of time as any human being that ever lived, or possibly more? And how did we all decide that keeping a score of things accomplished is the best, maybe even the only, way to judge the quality of a life?

So, I’d like to strive not for more time, but for better time. As McEwen says:

“What matters is not how much [time] they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

I know that when I can drop into “natural time” as Powers calls it, paying attention to just the moment I’m in, I find so many layers of sensory and emotional complexity to be discovered in every single minute, sometimes I’m then amazed that I spend any time at all ignoring all these textures, completely distracted by everything in my own head. The best way I can describe how I get to that slow place (although it sounds a little negative) is to say it’s by not thinking about what’s coming next, not waiting for whatever I’m doing to be over, and not planning for later. What I’m left with is what’s right in front of me.

Which is not to say that I succeed in going slow all the time, far from it (um, especially lately). And even if I could I’m not sure it would work. After all, I need to make plans in order to accomplish things, and once I get into slow mode I have zero interest in planning. I have lots of other questions too. Is there a mode in between “experiencing the moment” and “planning for the future”? Is it possible to send a slow text, or do some activities inherently belong to one realm or the other?

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 6

 

There’s also a piece of all this that’s about experiencing what I’m really feeling at a given time. Powers says, “It’s what’s happening to me when I go off the drug of distraction. Sadness has the space to grow …” For me anyway, the part of myself that’s habitually distant developed as a survival mechanism while I was miserable in school as a kid. The real world is infinitely more wonderful to me now than it was then, but that doesn’t, and won’t, mean I never feel sad. And if I’m not distracting myself, then the sadness is right in front of me too. I’m trying to choose this richer experience, both when it’s light and when it’s dark.

I am very much still figuring all of this out. Some days it definitely feels like I haven’t figured anything out at all. But I have real hope that if I keep thinking and writing and trying to move towards what I want out of life, I’ll get there eventually. I’m convinced that I’ve been thinking about time the wrong way. It’s not a thing chasing me down, or a precious commodity to be hoarded, it’s the whole of our experience, an experience we can interact with as we choose.

I’d like to mention one more resource that ties into these thoughts, this interview with the artist Ann Hamilton from On Being. This, recommended to me by my friend Amanda, has got to be one of the five best interviews I’ve ever heard, at least in terms of relating directly to what I’m thinking about, especially time and our relationship to it. They discuss the fact that our sense of time is very malleable in the brain (which I find totally fascinating), as well as making, the creative process, knitting, and other things close to my heart.

I’ll leave you with two more quotes I found relevant.

Powers: “Everything out there on Fifth Avenue was dreamed up by somebody. None of it has to be … we can create something else.”
And McEwen: “For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all, playful relationship with time.”

 

Slow — What it Means to me Now

 

How I think about slowness, and about my life list of things I’d like to make, has changed pretty dramatically lately. I’ve been wanting to talk about it here, and Slow Fashion October has given me the perfect reason.

It started when I learned to spin. Then a little later, I realized how much I really could make, and how little I really needed. That feeling built, fed by the other things I was doing and reading, until the vast universe of possibilities suddenly felt expansive instead of overwhelming.

 

indigo handspunThis is apparently the only picture of my second batch of handspun before knitting.

 

You wouldn’t think that learning to spin would speed up my knitting, but it kind of did. The two batches of handspun I’ve made so far have gone pretty much straight to the needles, partly because I was so curious to see what I would learn by making something from my own yarn. So one thing was obvious from the start: I can spin all the yarn I need to knit with. In fact, if I spun even a little bit every day, I would end up with much more yarn than I usually consume.

 

tasha's quaker yarn stretcher 3It became a Quaker Yarn Stretcher Boomerang, a fantastic fit for the yarn.  I’ll post Details are now on Ravelry, but for now I want to focus on the thoughts.

 

I already have a pair of fingerless gloves, and a pair of dreamy mittens, and that’s really all my hands need. Between (ahem) making them and the ones my grandma wove, I’m approaching more fantastic scarves/shawls than I can actually wear. And then, I can’t imagine I need more than four good sweaters. Actually, my ideal would probably be three sweaters I absolutely love, and one to throw on when the going might get rough. Right now I have the rough one, a thrifted one I think is OK (but Bryan is not a fan of), and some other kind of makeshift stuff. But those got me through all last winter just fine. And my SFO goal is to re-finish one that will hopefully become one of the loved ones. I could make another one next winter or the winter after, and that would be more than fine. There’s actually plenty of time for me to find the perfect fleece, wash it, comb it, spin it …

So need, or maybe it would be more accurate to say lack of need, is a big part of this shift in my head. I find it incredibly helpful and freeing, and it goes something like this: if I already have most of what I really need for this winter, I’m free to spend my time making something really special (no matter how long it takes) or trying something new (ditto).

What I don’t know how to explain (in fact I’m not sure I’m explaining any of this very well) is why spinning in particular set me free from the desire to make all the things, but here I am. Of course, if I didn’t spin it would still be perfectly valid (maybe even more so) to say, “I have the capacity to make so much more than I will ever need.” In fact I think maybe every maker should say this, and see how they feel about it.

I know that time always seems short. I have struggled and struggled with that myself. But I’m coming closer to peace with it, and for me anyway, it doesn’t really have anything to do with productivity, with figuring out how much I can “fit” into a given time, how much I can accomplish or make. Ultimately, a good life isn’t about how much we do. It’s about what we do, what’s memorable, how we shape and enjoy our experiences.

 

tasha's quaker yarn stretcher 2

 

In theory when we decide to sew or knit something instead of buying it, we’re taking more time about it and being more thoughtful. But somehow pursuing a craft can also pull us into a spiral of wanting to make more and more, of making something just to finish it and go on to making something else, because we have so many ideas. Thinking about everything I’d like to make leaves me perpetually unsatisfied, as it always must, since I can think of about a dozen new ideas per day. Framing my making around what I need allows most of those ideas to pop up, get admired, and then just float away. Lovely though ideas are, they should not all be added to a perpetually growing list of things I “must” make.

Ironically, giving up on making all my ideas for the realms I usually work in (mainly clothing) may leave me time to take on things in my wildest crafting dreams. Try making shoes? How about a quilt from those passed-down handwoven scraps? Well if I’m content with what I have to wear for the moment, why the f#^k not?!

 

tasha's quaker yarn stretcher 4

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all kinds of ideas around slowness. I listened to an interview with William Powers and I’m convinced I need to read his new book New Slow City. One thing he talks about is taking time to fully have an experience, just focusing on what you’re doing instead of already planning the next thing you’re going to do after it. I want to do craft like that. This week, I’ve been in the final stages of refinishing a treadle sewing machine cabinet, a project I have probably a months’ worth of total work hours sunk into. Just doing that, and thinking about nothing but that, running my hands over the velvety smooth wood and mulling over all the steps that got me there, it was so incredibly satisfying. Much more so than finishing four little projects and for each one just thinking “oh good, that’s done,” and moving on.

Letting go of a lot of my ideas does feel like somewhat of a surrender, but it feels like the kind when the heat of the day won’t let up, insects drone on, and finally there is nothing for it but to peel off whatever clothes are handy and throw yourself into the nearest body of cool water. Or the end of a long winter day, when nothing feels better than to pull warm cozy blankets all around you, and let your whole body relax.

 

tasha's quaker yarn stretcher

 

So here’s what slow fashion means to me right now: it means I will make just a few things at a time, and I will make them with my whole heart. It means I will allow ideas for things that I don’t need to float away, and concentrate on the projects that mean the most to me and those that will be the most useful. It means I will give myself space to enjoy the processes, the parts that bring me the most joy (like spinning) without worrying about what’s next on the list. And I think it will mean that the more I make in this slow way, the more I will wear my heart on the outside, all over my body.

Anybody else want in? The water’s fine …

 

Maybe I’m Over It

Over the purple corduroys, the NYC garment district, the whole thing.

I’ve been to New York City twice ever, both times since I’ve had this blog.  Both times I went to the garment district, and I haven’t written a thing about it either time. The first time, a couple of years ago, it was just crazy and overwhelming. We had the truck with us, and let me just say I will never, ever, drive any vehicle to NYC again if I can possibly help it, much less one that qualifies as quasi-commercial and definitely oversize. The truck is fine in Chicago, but as it turns out, not all at fine in New York.

 

floyd bennett field camping 3Our truck in the parking area for camping at Floyd Bennett Field, by far the most post-apocalyptic National Park Service site I’ve ever been to.  It’s staffed by friendly New Yorkers who, when they find out it’s your first time in the city, will tell you everything, starting with “So there’s five boroughs …” to making sure you have quarters for the bus.  I am not making any of this up!

 

Anyway, we went to NYC again this past winter, along with traveling to an opening of Bryan’s work at the Griffin Museum of Photography outside Boston. I actually have a dear cousin who lives in Brooklyn, so we made a side trip to go and see her (completely vehicle-free, with only the luggage we could carry). I thought it would be much better and I would love it. It was better without worrying about the truck, but I was still overwhelmed. I’m the kind of person who naturally absorbs most of the stimulus coming at me in a given day, and likes to have a while to process it. There is a whole lot of stimulus coming at you all day, every day in New York—before you even get to the shops full of ceiling-high mounds of fabric in every color.

 

nyc street view

 

The garment district, while fascinating, is not geared for a thoughtful experience. It’s fast-paced. There are millions of choices packed together, but not a lot of background on any of them (any, really, beyond the fiber content and maybe a country of origin). I’ve tried to be more conscious about my fabric choices for a while now, but I knew I wanted some fabric to make another pair of pants, and it seemed ridiculous to be surrounded by what felt like all the fabric in the entire world, and go home with nothing for my project. So after some debate, I chose something purple and stripey and soft, brought it home, and a couple of months later, cut it out.

 

over it purple pants 1

 

And I got exactly what I deserved for picking fabric I had no background on, no relationship with, and so no idea what to expect—it behaved terribly. There’s some stretch in this stuff, which I’ve avoided in wovens in the past, and I’m going right back to avoiding it like the plague. It kept stretching as I was sewing it, throwing off my alignment and topstitching, moving the pockets around even though I basted them in place, etc. Plus, it’s weirdly clingier around my bum than the non-stretch fabric I’ve used in this pattern before.

 

over it purple pants 2

 

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t the worst pants ever.  I like the color, and they fit me reasonably well, which is enough to almost certainly ensure they’ll get wear when the weather gets cool again. And, they have the nicest inside waistband and zipper tab of any pants I’ve made so far, so I learned something there.

 

over it purple pants 3

 

But, the whole experience just brought home what I hadn’t been able to articulate. In my head, before I went there, the garment district was a mythical paradise of fabric. But it turns out; it’s not my Mecca. It may sound a little blasphemous to say so, but I don’t think the garment district even has the fabric I want. I think I’m over it.

So what, exactly, is the fabric I want, you may reasonably ask? Well, what I really want is unreasonable to ask for in our current culture. I want fabric that not only do I know where it comes from, what labor conditions went into it, and how the fiber was cultivated in the environment where it grows, but I want to feel good about the answers to all those questions. I want to buy some fabric now, see it how it wears, and in 5 years, when I like what I find, buy some more of that exact same fabric. I want fewer, but better choices.

 

floyd bennett field camping 2

 

I have tried before to find some fabric closer to these ideals. I went on an online quest for organic wool a couple of winters ago (when I eventually bought this lovely stuff from New Zealand).  I had a few interesting conversations with fabric store owners through email. Mostly what I learned is that they don’t know any more about the origins of their fabrics than I do.  Often times even by writing to their suppliers, the most information we could possibly get was what factory the fabric came from.

At that same time I wrote to Mountain Meadow Wool, an American yarn company I feel really good about supporting, and suggested they think about making some knit fabric out of their American Merino. I got a really nice response back … but since then some blankets and finished knit goods have appeared in their line-up, no fabric yet … I do get it, I see why market research would indicate a much bigger market and profit by skipping the fabric and going right for finished goods.   Imperial Stock Ranch took it one step further and produced a high-fashion collection. But knowing that they are taking high-quality wool, sustainably grown in USA, all the way from sheep to fabric also in-country, and that none of that fabric is available for sewists to buy (that I know of, I’ll write them too, we’ll see)—it makes my fingers itch. I think it’s phenomenal how much single-breed, known-origin, small-farm-type wool yarn is available to knitters right now, and I know there’s a niche for fabrics made from the same materials.

The fabric for my first pair of purple corduroys was organic cotton & hemp, but made in China (under supposedly good working conditions). The biggest problem with it was that it didn’t hold up to wear long enough to be called well-made. How sustainable is anything that has to be replaced every couple of years, or less?

The best news in thinking about all this, is that there are other sewists out there on similar quixotic journeys to find (or make!) sustainable fabrics, and thanks to the magic of the internet, I can find them. And there is a lot going on right now.

I’m throwing my lot in with one Year, one Outfit, a project on this is moonlight to source “fibershed” textiles in your area, and make them into an outfit by the end of the year. Although I may not make a whole outfit by the end of 2015, I’m pledging not to buy any new fabric for (at least) that time, unless it meets (at least!) these minimum requirements: 100% made in the USA, sustainably grown also in USA, and not dyed with synthetic dyes, bleached, or processed in other ways that use toxic chemicals. At the very least, it will be a kick in the bum to do my homework, and some experimenting!

 

one year one outfit logo

 

While I’ve been thinking about this, some other thoughtful bloggers have also been researching and sharing around similar topics. This post of Zoe’s about organic cotton and whether it’s really better got me thinking about the fabric I really want to find. The other bloggers in the one Year, one Outfit project have done some good research. Mari’s post about what she’s found available in the Southeastern US was really interesting, and there are people around the world taking part and sharing what they find, there might be someone near you.  Then just the other day, Ginger posted about a designer making sustainable sweater knits available to home sewers! If you’re curious, I also definitely recommend listening to this 2010 interview with Rebecca from the fibershed project, which I also linked to from one Year, one Outfit.

Phew!  So, do you want in on some crazy back-to-basics fabric hunting? Interested in dyeing/printing your own textiles (because I think that’s going to be a big part of it)?  Stay tuned, updates will definitely be coming!