April 2008


Stalkermom, who I suppose should now be referred to as CK except for when I forget, is no longer blogless!  She went and started a blog here, and didn’t tell anybody except for everyone on Ravelry.  Which is actually potentially a lot of people, but I am on the “off again” swing of my ravelling.  Sometimes I am there all the time, and sometimes hardly at all, and anyway I don’t check profiles of people I know all the time because I follow blogs on RSS.  So, I found out yesterday.

So go check it out, and if you’re one of my friends and you already knew and are surprised that I didn’t – don’t tell me, ‘kay?  Thanks.

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Once upon a time there was this girl named Arachne. Now, Arachne’s Best Thing was weaving, and she was really good. She was one of those people you love to hate, too, y’know – the ones who always make it look so easy? She just had a natural talent, and even though she was really quite young, she was designing all these complex, gorgeous, knock-your-socks off patterns.

Well, she got a couple of pieces into a shop in the city, and before long she was really in demand. Spinners and dyers were sending her wool to see what she could make of it, and she was up to her cross-reed in special orders.

Now perhaps understandably, Arachne started feeling pretty high on herself. You have to realize, she was basically self-taught, and as I said she was really good. So it wasn’t like she had nothing to be proud of. At the same time though, it must be admitted that little Arachne had kind of lost perspective. When all you hear is people telling you how great you are, it can be hard to remember that you’re not the only one doing whatever it is you’re doing, and you didn’t invent the craft. Basically it got to the point where she thought she had nothing else to learn, and she started getting a little tedious. It wasn’t that she was slacking off – quite the opposite, she became something of a show-off. And you just couldn’t teach her anything, or even make a suggestion. Some woman who’d been weaving her whole life would say something like “have you ever tried using a variegated herringbone for overcast skies, I find it gives a wonderful texture”, or “you should try a piece working in the traditional black-on-orange, I think it would be an interesting design challenge for you since you do so much work in the mauves and purples”, and Arachne would get all uppity and roll her eyes and say “I used to do it that way when I started, but now I just kind of let the yarn speak to me” or “I’m trying to show how we can make a traditional craft relevant in a modern context, hello?” And then she would go hang out with her young weaver friends who she liked better because they never offered anything but encouragement and anyway they weren’t quite as good as her so it was a very non-threatening environment. And she started making T-shirts that said “ain’t your Grandma’s stola” and showing off her work as if it was something no one had ever done before, which was really starting to get under the skin of the matrons who had raised six children and done all the weaving for their extended households their entire lives and nobody had ever featured them in a “new directions in fibre art” magazine, or anything like that.

Eventually, the grumbling caught the attention of Athena. She thought maybe she’d better go see what was going on down there, because while granted she was the goddess of both war and weaving, she tended not to expect those two things to coincide, and it was starting to sound like the claws were coming out at the local craft nights – too much bitching and not enough stitching, you know? Besides, there was kind of a crackdown on hubris taking place in the Olympian arts community. Athena had just come down on the side of the muses when they turned some uppity choir group into a bunch of magpies, and in order to show consistency she figured she’d better at least give Arachne a bit of a nudge. So she puts on an old lady disguise and heads on out.

There’s Arachne, right in the middle of a big project, when a knock comes on the door and there’s this old lady – a complete stranger – who barges into her studio and right away starts in with “You think you’re SO great, I hear people saying you think you’re better than the goddess. What do you imagine She’d do if She heard that?”

Now, how is Arachne supposed to react? She’s startled and confused, half her mind is still working out design elements… so she reacts kind of badly. Gets up on her high horse. She’s trying to make this woman go away, right? So she says “First off, weird old lady, Athena is probably not like, reading my blog, ok? I mean why would she care? And if she is – well, that’s cool, maybe she’ll learn something.”

Well. Our goddess is not amused. She whips off the disguise and stands revealed in all her beautiful but also kind of scary glory, and says “OK, that’s it, tiny little puffed-up mortal! You think you’re so good? Prove it.”

To Arachne’s credit or discredit, depending on your viewpoint, she doesn’t back down. She wandered into this mess, and she’s going to try and make a good showing. So they each set up a loom, and they have themselves a weave-off. This naturally draws a fair amount of attention, because how often do you get to see two hot chicks in tight halters dipping and reaching and getting all sweaty, and anyway they’re making this beautiful fabric. Also it was a Saturday afternoon in a small town, and there was nothing else going on.

Now, remember way back in the first paragraph when I said that Arachne was really good? Well, she was. The contest was a draw! Their work was very different, but equally good, at least in a technical sense. From a thematic perspective though, Arachne could maybe have displayed a little more tact, a little more sense of what was appropriate to the audience. She was trying so hard to show that her “young” and “modern” approach to the craft was valid that the subject matter she chose was – well – really dirty. Raunchy. And not just pornographic, but the characters displayed so vulgarly were Zeus, Neptune – Athena’s own family.

Now, it’s entirely true that the Olympians generally were… unrestrained in their partying, but Athena herself was actually a real prude. She didn’t approve of that kind of thing, and she sure didn’t like having her face rubbed in the shall-we-say less dignified behaviors that her nearest and dearest indulged in, especially when in their cups. (She was a temperance crusader as well.) So in a fairly uncharacteristic display of temper and poor impulse control, Athena whacked Arachne upside the head with her shuttle.

As reprimands meted out by Olympian deities go, being bonked on the noggin with a stick is pretty small potatoes. It may in fact actually be the mildest such punishment on record. But as far as Arachne was concerned, it would have been less embarrassing to have an island dropped on her or something. I mean, here she’s done this great piece of work, actually as good as Athena’s – it should be the high point of her life, and instead she gets humiliated, and a black eye into the bargain.

And it’s not like there’s anything Arachne can do! People are all going to talk about it, and tease her, and she’s always going to be looking over her shoulder, because – well, if you’d pissed off Athena, wouldn’t you? Basically it felt like even her Best Thing was no good any more, because every time she tried to weave something it was just going to remind her of the whole horrible experience. She was angry and depressed. And so, in one of the earliest recorded instances of a bitterly misunderstood teenager directing their negative feelings into self-destructive behavior, Arachne hanged herself. She left a note that basically said “nobody gets me and you’re all unfair, this will show you. Now you’ll be sorry I’m gone, no refunds on unfinished carpets.”

That note is really the reason this story is still being told. Athena really had been having a bad week, it wasn’t like her to overreact like that, and if it hadn’t been for the tone of the note she might actually have felt bad. Might even have rescued Arachne from Hades and swept the whole episode under the well-woven rug. But gods have never really grokked human depression (goodness knows why, they’re moody enough themselves) and Athena interpreted Arachne’s suicide not as an act of despair or remorse but as a final gesture of defiance. Maybe she was right, who knows?

Athena did bring Arachne back to life. Unfortunately she also turned her into a spider. An immortal spider. “You will live” she said “until the last of your kind drops from its thread”. So now Arachne can’t die, and she always has to weave, and people scream and go ‘eew” and destroy her work instead of praising it, because even if they think it’s actually pretty, nobody wants to keep it in the house.

—-

And what the heck was that in aid of, you ask? I’ve always loved the Arachne story, and not just because it’s about a hubraic fibre artist. I also like it because it is about art, and craft, and the balance of the rational and irrational in the process of creation and transformation, and what people’s attitudes are towards that. This month’s TIF is about change, and what we think of it. I think that change valued for its own sake implies a denial or diminuation what has gone before, which is wrong. Everything has a history, and for change to be meaningful what a thing or person is changing FROM is as important as what it/they are changed TO. The history is still there, even if only as a remembered contrast. The miracle of a butterfly would be empty if we denied or forgot the caterpillar. To change something is not the same as to “fix” it.

Change itself, however, if the above is recognized, is both inevitable and fascinating. Everything we do either provokes change or is a reaction to the possibility of change. So change itself is not the problem, change can be quite wonderful and magical – it is our own attitudes and motivations that make it positive or negative.

Is what I think.

The other day (yesterday? day before? I’m vague) THIS GUY contacted me with a link to his site. He makes “toothbrush rugs”, which probably you have heard of. I hadn’t, but I knew of the technique as naalbinding, because I used to hang out with Vikings a lot during my impressionable youth. But, I never actually had anyone teach me to DO it before.

So armed with the instructions and some ugly thick yarn, I marched off to Knit Night and spent most of the evening trying to make what he said plus what my hands were doing equal rug making. I think I’ve got my mind around it, there may be one loop I’m approaching the wrong way. Actually, I might have fixed that as well, except idiot that I am I did that part in black rags, and actually I can’t see what I did there at all. So I’ll have to do it again in something bright or contrasting, at least. It’s a little like crochet, and a lot like buttonhole stitch, and also quite a bit like punto in aria if you’ve ever done that.

Point is: Sturdy rugs! Made from old clothes or yarn or plastic bags or whatever you want, PLUS the technique can actually be used for socks and mittens, which is what the Vikings used to do with it. Very cool, go check it out!

I also found this site, which has samples of extant pieces from the Viking age done in wool, and if you’re really feeling like a yarn nerd they also identify how the wool was spun. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Emily!)