An Intention of Inclusion

“ … Nothing can be changed until it's faced.”

- James Baldwin, quoted by Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika in Seeing White Part 13

If you are at all connected to the fiber/textile world online, you are most likely already aware of the explosion in conversation around diversity, discrimination, and inclusion that has been going on, and expanding outward. (If not, here is a summary of how it started on Ravelry.) At first, I admit I was disappointed to read about prejudice happening in a community I’m a part of, and to realize how little I was aware of it. Now, I’ve come around to thinking that being exposed to this reality is a needed opportunity to engage more fully and to do better, both for me personally and hopefully for the broader community. I’ve read and listened and learned (some, no doubt I have much more to learn), and I would like to offer both some resources that have been helpful to me for any other white folks who may be able to use them (below), and more importantly, any help I can to BIPoC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) who may be able to use it.

For BIPoC reading this, if I can help you, either with textile skills like knitting, spinning, natural dye, etc., or advice and/or networking for teaching, writing, or other things I do, just let me know. I don’t have all the keys by any means, but I’ll be happy to share what I know. Please contact me here.

For my fellow white people, I want to heartily recommend the podcast series Seeing White from Scene on Radio. It was recommended to me by my aunt, who has done a lot more thinking around race than I have, and I later found out that it’s also used by a meditation/mindfulness teacher I respect for anti-racist work. Listening to this series was amazingly eye-opening for me. I knew about slavery in US history, about segregation, and discrimination against BIPoC for housing and jobs … but I was also brought up to believe that all people are equal, and at least in unspoken messages, that if we are just nice to each other, everything will be alright. I did not learn about how all these forms of prejudice are tied together, or that the white men who founded our country were explicitly setting up a system to benefit people who looked like them, at the expense of everyone else.

As Robin DiAngelo puts it in Part 14 of Seeing White, “I cannot tell you how transformative and liberating it is to start from the premise, ‘Of course I’ve been thoroughly conditioned into a racist worldview. Of course I have a racist frame of reference, and investments in this system, and I have patterns. Of course, that is unavoidable, and while it wasn’t my fault, I do have to take responsibility, because to not do that is to actually collude.’ ”

In my teaching and writing, I’m constantly asking people to think more deeply about where the textiles we use every day come from. I now understand more than ever why that is uncomfortable—at the bottom of it, it means I’m asking people to consider and acknowledge which other people and ecosystems have been exploited in order for us to have these things. I think it’s totally fair that I’m now being asked to consider those questions from this different angle.

It’s not fun to think about my environmental impact, but doing so is ultimately empowering, because I can use the knowledge to make better choices. And not surprisingly, in a similar way, I’m finding that by looking more closely at the institutional racism around me, I feel more like I can make a difference to help change it. When an organization I care about, which has clear issues with a lack of diversity, sends me a survey about their future (this happened recently), I can share my concerns. I can bring a better internal framework to conversations, emails, my own work … and adding this piece, thinking about racism more deeply, has somehow unlocked an ability in myself to bring up some of the issues I really care about when someone asks me for advice or an opinion—which is great.

I took some time in between episodes of Seeing White to process things, and I’ve been alternating also listening to:

On Being, which is my all-time favorite program/podcast. Talk about deep conversations. For me, some of them have been actually life-changing. There are some directly related to challenging racism, and also a whole lot of conversations with brilliant BIPoC, everyone from civil rights leaders to poets. And it’s full of gems in unexpected places, like recently this poem, Ode to My Whiteness by Sharon Olds.

What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito, which I stumbled across on NPR. It’s full of honest conversations with BIPoC musicians and celebrities, a lot of laughter, and they aren’t afraid to ask the occasional very deep question. I hope there is another season coming!

You can tell that I currently have a lot more life space for listening than reading. But I also want to mention the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I read a while back, is great, and changed how I think about what it might be like to be Black in America.

I’m pretty sure that people who read this blog like their fiber arts mixed with some searching questions about life and society, but just for anyone who’s gotten this far and is still thinking, “I just come here for the sewing,” I think Jacey did a good job in this post on the PLY blog of talking about why that isn’t really helpful.

And, although this is a place where I tell my stories, this issue isn’t really about me, so comments are closed. Please engage the broader conversation elsewhere. With love to everyone!

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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.

 

Our Relationship with the Tangible World, or How I Learned to Spin

 

first handspun yarn 1

You may be able to guess what this is … yeah baby, my first bobbin of handspun yarn!

 

So it’s like this: My beautiful, wonderful cousin came to visit me (with my beautiful wonderful auntie) and when she went back home, she left her spinning wheel here for me to borrow while she’s at college this spring. Amazing!

I’ve been thinking vaguely about learning to spin for, um, the past two decades give or take, ever since I first practiced weaving with my grandmother. But it just seemed to take so long, like it would add so much time to my whole knitting/weaving process, so I wasn’t ready to commit. Needless to say, that was before the infinite list.

In my new post-infinite-list world, starting to spin seems like the perfect choice; an expression of surrender and adventure all at the same time. Since there’s no way to ever finish all the knitting I’d like to (or weaving for that matter), I might as well make some frickin’ yarn!

 

first handspun yarn 3

 

Spinning is pretty amazing (I’ll talk more about that in a minute), but one of the best parts about it so far is an accidental discovery. In an effort to keep my immediate-onset spinning obsession from taking over my whole life (remember, I’m supposed to be focusing this year), I decided on some rules: I wouldn’t read about spinning except during times when I would normally read something else, and I wouldn’t sit down to spin at odd times during the day. Instead, I would wait until just before bed. So every night at 10 pm, I give myself permission to stop whatever I’m doing, shut off the computer, and spin for up to half an hour before getting ready to sleep.

Oh people, this has been life-altering. A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been very abstract: putting my ideas out there to various people and institutions, basically a whole lot of online research and laboring for hours composing messages, many of which are never answered at all. I do hope that good things will come of it, but it’s basically a frustrating process that leaves me floating in inconclusiveness, and for the most part, kind of grouchy.

Then at the end of the day, I put all that aside and sit down to learn, to make something real, to interact with the tangible universe. I’m reminded of this quote from Anaïs Nin about letterpress printing (which I found, like a lot of my deep-thought quotes these days, via Brain Pickings):

 

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.
You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

 

Although later this spring I will return this wheel to its rightful owner, I fully intend to keep this night practice going with knitting, or drawing, or something else. At 10 pm the computer shuts off, and I make something real for a little while before bed.

Some things you may be wondering: yes, the spinning wheel tempts me all day when I look at it, but in a sweet way of something to look forward to. And yes, if we’re going out at night or I think we’ll have guests staying late (I’m not really a late-night person and tend to crash hard if kept up past my bedtime) I find a half an hour earlier in the day to spin. Yes, this is in addition to the hour I still try my best to find every day for personal projects. I’m discovering that the more up-in-the-air my day’s work is, the more real-world-project time I need to stay happy.  I’m also a firm believer in taking the time your life will allow for the things that are really important to you. And yes, when I wake up at night lately I find myself thinking about twist in fiber, which I like much better than mulling over my worries!

 

first handspun yarn 2

 

Another thing that’s been beautiful about this process (although it sounds funny) is watching myself learn. I suppose I’ve absorbed the mantra I’ve told all my beginning knitting students: “You can do this! Anyone can do it if they just decide to practice it.” I do absolutely believe that this is true, that skill in handcraft is available to anyone who’s willing to start where they are (which a lot of times means training your hands from scratch) and keep practicing. It’s a gift we get just for being human, but it does take work.

Anyway, I’m cheating at learning spinning—the process is brand new to me but the feel of fibers and their qualities, the look and feel of yarn I’d like achieve, these things I already know. Not that I didn’t have lumps and bumps (you can see them!) and moments of beginner’s frustration which I had to push past, of course I did, and do still. But it’s been a long time since I learned something truly new to me, and maybe because of my teaching experience, but this time I’ve been able to let go of the outcome (a really healthy attitude for a first project in any material, I feel) and enjoy it. I’m a little surprised and pleased every time I sit at the wheel and notice that my technique is a little bit better, the yarn is coming out a little more even, or I just figured out some tiny thing that no one told me, it’s there in the materials and my hands to be discovered. When I first started I couldn’t spin from the imperfectly-carded batts of wool leftover from my early felting days, or treadle with one foot, but now I can do both.

 

first handspun yarn 4

 

If you’re not interested in being seduced into the wild world of spinning, stop reading now.

Three compelling reasons to spin:

Spinning is fast! For some reason I always assumed it was the slowest part of the fiber-to-garment process, but it’s clearly not, due to being a more-or-less continuous flow, rather than a stitch-by-stitch motion. It’s fairly shocking how quickly a newbie like me can make enough yarn to knit something out of.

You can make yarn that you can’t buy, and the other people doing so are interesting folks!  This, realized while reading Ply Magazine, was one of the final straws for me: I could see myself wanting just such a yarn for such a project, but it wouldn’t exist commercially … I started reading Ply because of an article about how twist protects the fibers in yarn from wear (by Deborah Robson), and ended up reading every. single. thing. in the Twist Issue, even though at that time I had no plan to become a spinner. The way the articles are presented; with differing opinions, and explorations by people digging around the fundamentals of their craft, captivated me. The intricacies of how yarn is made are interesting even if you’re working with the yarn and not making it … but as I read I also became more and more convinced that if this is how spinners think, they are my people, and I must become one.

Spinning is amazing! There’s something very fundamental about it, an immediate sense of how old and how intrinsic this process is, which draws me in. The rhythm is soothing, and at this point in my learning anyway, it works best if I can concentrate on what’s happening and be present without many words in my head—a lot like meditating, or dancing with someone. Plus you make real yarn from a pile of wool! If that doesn’t seem amazing, then you’re just not paying enough attention.

I have just two tips so far for other would-be beginning spinners:

Read the book The Intentional Spinner by Judith MacKenzie McCuin. Although it doesn’t have the variety of perspective you get from reading Ply, she lays out answers to a lot of the basic questions I had with clear photos, fascinating descriptions of fiber, and even ideas for making tools you need using a cardboard box and old knitting needles!

Try not looking for a second while you’re spinning. I know it sounds crazy, but I tried it after reading an article by Carson Demers in which he said (among other things) that looking up at least part of the time you’re spinning (or knitting!) is much better for your body. And it turns out that (also like dancing with someone) if you take your eyes off what you’re trying to do, even for a couple of seconds, you become instantly so much more aware of all the other information available to your body—in this case what your fingers can tell about the twist and diameter of the yarn you’re making by feel.

Ok three tips: just try it! Or try something else you’ve been meaning to do, and save it as a treat until the end of the day. I really can’t recommend it enough.