This rant, or maybe I should say “response,” will be held on the ‘threads’ blog page (textiles tab), because that’s where I want it to be stored. It has to do with assumptions people make about backstrap weaving, and the pervasive ignorance that Western academics keep generating. It is a backstrap weaver’s rant/response, and an informative one (with footnotes!), so join me.
Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent,
which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape,
to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.
- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I read Annie Dillard and feel urgent, often. Her sense of duty is compelling, and it motivates me. But it motivates me to very minimal actions, since the imperative is, as I’ve mentioned before, to pay attention. To look, to see, to witness. In another passage, she writes of seeing a bird dive in free-fall before deftly landing on the grass: everyday, commonplace, and extraordinary. She concludes that “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
So more often than not, her words compel me outdoors, as do Mary Oliver’s poems or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essays on our participation in this world. Participating, as a seer, a person trying to have what Rilke called “the right eyes,” is a full-time occupation. Unless we get lazy and neglect our duties, which is easy to do. Easy to get pulled into online discussion or news, easy to binge-watch something as an escape from the arduous act of thinking. I try to increase the time away from such distractions (unless the online stuff is truly feeding a worthwhile train of thought, which happens.) I turn to Ursula LeGuin and her mother’s wonderful writings about Ishi, their tragically famous friend. I read David James Duncan and Robin Wall Kimmerer, Tim Ingold and Dr. Leticia Nieto. Most recently I read Elaine Pagels Why Religion?, a gift from my father-in-law who, as a Biblical scholar, has always been a fan.
They are all pointing down a similar road, leading away from colonialism and the old, destructive narratives that I somehow grew up with. I’ve been trying to dismantle that ideological box for a long time, and I keep finding new tools. But it is an uphill trek. For every sentence I manage to write here, there are countless thoughts and potential words swimming around, uncaught and fleeting. At any rate, I’m trying.
My first project with the smaller bamboo reed that I made at home, on my own, is a sample of sakiori, a weaving made from torn up fabric. The weft is made of strips of kimono silk fabric. I’ve been preparing the strips for some time, and this is the warp I impulsively wound when I arrived home in December (last post.) It wove up quickly, and was finished in time to show friends in mid-January.
As with most of my weaving thus far, it is nothing more or less than an attempt to make a certain type of fabric, to see how it might be done with my backstrap loom situation. I’m pleased with the result, am interested to work with finer strips of fabric, and do not know what I will “do” with this piece at the moment.
Whenever I come home from being away, I tend to re-assess, to inventory my projects, ideas and materials. I need to go around and touch things, fluff the space, remind myself of what was going on. At the same time, I tend to be most open to doing something completely new during this re-entry phase. This was the case yesterday. I’m home, only for a week, with warps on the looms, fiber on the wheel and spindles, and plenty of things in some state of generalized progress. But as I moved through my studio space, every corner, bin, and shelf called to me with fresh voices, things that wanted to jump the queue and happen now.
I see papers and paints and pencils, and itch to pick them up. Then I see fibers lurking in a bag and start to think about enticing new combinations.
What I ended up doing, though, was pouncing on the box labeled Saki Ori, and saying This is it. This happens today. It had been a long time coming. I prepared the kimono silk weft many months ago, maybe even a year ago, I knew what I wanted to use for warp, and I knew I would use my 8 inch bamboo reed. So it was all ready to go, awaiting the moment of ignition. I spent the day preparing a whole new warp, musing on the materials visible through the warping frame as I wound.
And then we’re off and weaving. I’m happy to be doing something new, but also a planned thing: it was on the list, but it has a spark of excitement because I’ve never done it before. I have a beautiful example, an obi that I bought in Japan 20 years ago. Ever since I made the small bamboo reed, I’ve been wanting to weave with kimono silk weft. My silk strips are wider than those in the vintage obi, but this is my first go, just getting acquainted with the possibilities (I have a lot more silk scraps.)
The various vignettes in my studio continue to intrigue: the sakiori weft balls themselves, before being wound onto shuttles, begin to make tentative conversation with some aged handspun cops I picked up at the guild auction. The air hums with possibilities, even as I commit to a single project for hours and days.
I was fortunate to catch a high quality exhibition of textiles in Seattle while Laverne was visiting - details in the textile blog. The array of cultures and techniques was impressive, and the quality of each piece impeccable. Below is a detail from the bodice of an embroidered Mexican dress.
The floating animals filling in the blank spaces, and the random dog with collar, reminded me of a rug hooked by my Great Aunt Jean. I recently came into possession of this wonderful rug, which looks very Persian to me in its composition and designs - with the exception of a cartoonish black poodle among the stylized birds and geometric shapes.
It makes perfect sense, for someone who owned a black poodle and worked as an artist for Hallmark cards. I find this rug brilliant, so I made sure it came home with me. Apologies for the overbright reds. There's my freeform textile association of the day: pet dogs in Mexican embroidery and American rug hooking!
Some things take time. This is one of the gentle lessons of getting old (which is a very relative term, and I use it knowing that with any luck I have only just begun the process.) You have to learn to wait, and be patient, but without abandoning the effort.
I moved to this town a year and a half ago, and was soon trying to spread the word about what I do, what I can offer, what I'd like to share in the form of teaching or speaking. I proposed textile talks in different settings, without getting much response. Finally I wandered into Maestrale, an import store, and happened to meet the owner. In asking her about some Hmong batik cloth, I found out she is a real textile enthusiast, with a weaving and dyeing background herself, and a strong interest in traditional techniques and cultural context. "We need to talk," I told her. That was last September.
And so it happened that I'm giving a series of textile talks, with slides and collected pieces, at Maestrale this winter. The first one happened on February 1st. The topic was Indian bandhani dyeing and embroidery from Kutch, Gujarat.
The wonderful thing is that these images, scanned from printed photos and slides, were taken on my very first trip to India in 1994-5. The pieces I shared were also collected at that time. And this is what I meant by "some things take time." I headed to Mandvi, in Kutch, in 1995, to observe and document bandhani dyers for a day, hanging out in their workshop, being fed an amazing and spicy lunch, taking loads of photos and buying finished pieces. My goal was to write it up, or share the information somehow, and I never have until now. That first little foray into textile research lay dormant for over 20 years. Long enough for me to lose track of any notes I took (I was less organized then, and didn't have everything on a laptop and backup hard drive, of course.) But the images can still tell the story, and the technique still fascinates, and it was extremely gratifying to present this information to the group of women who came to Maestrale full of interest.
The fun continues this week, with Lao weaving. Here's the flyer for my whole series this winter - I hope it's legible. I'm really enjoying digging through my textile collection and all my images to create these presentations, and it's wonderful to meet my fellow textile enthusiasts around here.
I had to go to Seattle the other day, so I took advantage of the chance to see the Mood Indigo textile exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. I'd been hearing about it, and knew it was a must-see sometime before October. I'd also heard from Rowland Ricketts that he'd just hung a show in Seattle, but I didn't put two and two together until I saw this interview.
The prospect of seeing Rowland's work in person was galvanizing. I'd seen his presentations at the Textile Society symposia, and knew from assisting him at an indigo workshop that his work is deep and resonant. Steeped in the traditions of Japanese indigo processing, and constantly manifesting awe and respect for the materials, it seemed utterly appropriate that his work would feature in an indigo-focused exhibit.
Beginning with his work at the entry, this whole exhibit felt like a gathering of friends. Each piece was familiar to me in some way, from the Yoruba eleko cloth to the Lao supplementary weft weaving. I've encountered these things before, and the commingling of their stories made for a polyphonic celebration of skill, with the powerful undertone of indigo holding it all together.
Some of these pieces I just knew from seeing images, or seeing things like them, such as the Nigerian robes and the Japanese futon covers and fireman's clothing. Others were more technically familiar, such as the Yoruba resist-dyed cloths. The year I spent at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was focused on a resist-dyeing course taught by Stanley Pinckney, who studied with the Yoruba in Nigeria. He taught us the techniques one by one: elo, eleso, alabere, sabada, eleko.... all different manners of tying, stitching, folding or otherwise resisting the dye on cloth. We did not get to use indigo in that class, but were shown countless images of the traditional cloths from Nigeria, intricate and stunning.
Another piece that felt strikingly familiar is the Mapuche ikat weaving. I've been admiring this bold design and impressive technique since I saw it on Laverne's blog post a couple of years ago. Since then, she has reproduced the technique quite successfully, and I attempted it, with less success - but constantly felt inspired by these strong shapes. Wonderful to see them in indigo.
There were also familiar supplementary-weft weavings from Laos, Indonesian ikats and batiks, and ancient Peruvian tapestry-woven pieces. Each one spoke to me in a known language, each containing a wealth of technique, traditional expertise, and cultural significance. Since I surround myself with this sort of thing as much as possible, I felt at home, but of course the quality, antiquity and sheer volume of textile wealth of this exhibit are nothing I encounter very often.
Even so, I could think of things that were not included, such as Hmong handwoven lengths of indigo batik hemp, used in skirts. The hill tribes of southern China and Southeast Asia use a lot of indigo in their fabric for clothing.
Leaving you with images from my collection and my own work, and with the urge to use more indigo. It just never gets old, this true color.
These textiles were not encountered in the wild. They were part of an organized program, I knew I would be seeing textiles from the collection of Marilyn Romatka. But still, it's hard to be prepared. Marilyn filled a long room's worth of tables with samples from her collection - fascinating, impressive pieces from around the world, old and new. I remained enthralled with one of the first ones she showed, however. It's a yurt band.
These things just thrill me, largely because I want to learn to weave like this, in the terme style of Central Asia. I've done some small samples, with the help of Laverne's tutorials, but I have yet to grasp the all-over patterning, or to be able to copy designs on my own. Laverne's recent blog post about "Length" resonated with me. The sheer yardage of these bands is awe-inspiring. This piece is about 5 yards long, and it has been cut.
Here's another piece that lay near me and absorbed a lot of my attention. It's from Burma (aka Myanmar):
It's a narrow, long piece, used as a belt which is wrapped many times around the body. In the image above, the white section at right is the back of the weaving. Uh-huh. The red work doesn't show up at all on the back. How do they do it? No idea.
(ETA: Laverne has weighed in with her knowledge of the technique and this link to a tutorial - thanks, Laverne!)
And here's the full table, with Marilyn at the far end, standing and explaining. It was quite an overwhelming array.
Between that, and my recent experience with Pinterest, where I've encountered all manner of stimulating and inspiring textile images, I've been thinking I need to make my own collection more visible. I'd love to do as Marilyn did, and bring choice pieces to the weaving guild for show & tell. But I can also share and educate online - and that's what this website is for, after all. At first, with the "textiles" section, I had been thinking I had to get studio-quality, full-view images of each piece, and create a detailed entry with full information. However, I'm seeing the value of glimpses, detail shots and stacks of fabric on my own creative psyche, and I can easily share that sort of thing. So keep an eye on the textiles tab, and I will get to work with tidbits from my collection.