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.

 

Aimee León: Art, Sheep Shearing, and Connections

aimee león at arcosanti

 

A few weeks ago, I got invited at the last minute to go with a couple of friends to a fiber “meet and greet” event, held at Arcosanti (about an hour and a half south of Flagstaff).  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I am so glad I went.  Not only was it fun to hang out with other fiber crafters and get a glimpse of the architecture on a rainy, blustery day in the desert, but the speaker was fantastic.

Aimee León, who is working towards her MFA at ASU in Phoenix, had agreed to come up and speak to us about her felt artwork – for free.  Her talk epitomized one thing I just love about the maker movement and modern crafters; people who are not just looking to make something, but thinking deeply about the connections between materials, handcrafts, and society.

Aimee shears sheep (did you know they can weigh more than 200 lbs each?) and uses discarded wool in her artwork, which reflects her ideas about society and gender norms.  She talked about how much wool is wasted because small farmers don’t have the resources to ship whole container loads to China (!) for processing, and about her goal to bring more of that local wool to fiber artists.  And about the historical connections of wool and fiber with labor, women’s role in society, commodities, and how we think about the clothes we wear today.  One great thing about a small venue is that I had a chance to talk with Aimee quite a bit, before and after her presentation.  There are so many ideas to pursue in these topics that I could have talked much longer . . .

I love thinking about how what I make is connected to the materials I use and where they come from, the historical use and place in society of the materials and the maker, and all the choice that gives me in the modern world.  It just reinforces the fact that the choice to be a maker in modern times is a powerful one for us as individuals, with implications for our broader society as well.

 

arcosanti desert in rain

A desert road near Arcosanti on that foggy wet day

Do check out Aimee’s website, there are lots of pictures of her work and links to other interesting projects she’s working on.  If you live around here and would like to be on the mailing list for this event next year, let me know and I’ll pass your info on to the lovely woman who organizes it, Kimberly Hatch (thanks Kimberly!).

What do you think about art and craft and its potential to change us?  I’d love to know!