thinky-stuff


Why do I always feel like I should be doing something else? If I’m painting I should be sewing, if I’m sewing I should be carding wool, if I’m spinning I should be blogging (spinning is when I think of all kinds of stuff I want to tell you guys, most of which I promptly forget about as soon as I get near a computer) if I’m dyeing I should be cleaning the house or washing wool, and if I’m knitting I should be doing just about anything else. The only time I can really get away with guilt-free knitting is if Raven has the TV on.

What the heck is this about? I have been trying to figure it out for ages, and while I have formulated some theories I don’t know if any are correct. Or maybe they all are. I know that my finished object to WIP ratio is bizarrely low, because I am the poster child for process orientation and I have the attention span of a small rodent when it comes to repeating any action or process that I thouroughly understand. I do have a boatload of guilt about the number of UFOs I have – but why? I don’t need these things, I only needed to figure them out. Which I have done.

It’s not as if I spend a lot of money on my crafts either. I build a lot of my own tools, I make do with salvaged or broken items. I work with found objects, and an exhaustive study of my crafting history would demonstrate that since I learned to sew at the age of five I have been moving further and ever further backward, always pursuing and fascinated by the step that comes before the thing I already know how to do.  At this point, the natural conclusion of my life should be that when I die I will be placed in an elaborate coffin of my own construction, hand carved by me and painted in hand ground pigments (egg based, naturally) and lined with hand spun, hand woven and naturally dyed wool.  In a perfect world said coffin would be burned on a pyre of wood cut from a tree I planted, while my friends danced around drinking beer and mead that I brewed.  It will be fun; you should come.  If I have enough warning, I will make paper and print invitations.  There will be door prizes.

Now, in the course of posting this, WordPress has managed to lose the latter half of it, and I have really no idea what I said.  I know the point was, that I would like to stop feeling bad about the things that make me feel good.  This is, after all, my life.  I know that I am never going to make any “significant” mark on the world, but that is ok because nothing I have ever done or ever wanted to do is particularly “significant” so that is not a problem for me.

Does anyone else experience this?  What, if anything, do you do about it if so?  Please, discuss.  In the meantime, I’ll get started on those invitations, as soon as I make Raven a frock coat, which I am going to start as soon as this collage is out of the way, and I will be finishing that right after I dye the yarn that I am currently carding wool for the spinning of.  Unless I just throw in the towel and go knit something.



I don’t know why we (by which I mean “people in general”) seem so driven to make a big fight out of everything. It seems like there is always a cause or two, and forgive me if I point out the faddish nature of these causes, for which people are prepared to make all manner of illogical blanket statements condemning or belittling anyone who doesn’t sit in the same sometimes rather leaky rowboat. Did I mix a metaphor there, or just toss one in halfway through? Sorry. The fact is that this post is being rather difficult to write.  (EDIT  I was going to delete this opening because it sounds kind of abusive and inflammatory to me, but this post IS being difficult to write and I don’t quite know what to replace it with.  So let me just throw in that I know there is no one way of life that is perfect for everybody, and I support individual choices, I just get upset when those choices are either badly uninformed, as sometimes happens, and/or when people attempt to impose choices that are really very good for them onto people that they really aren’t good for at all.)

The current faddish cause is, of course, environmentalism. Now before you jump all over that statement, let me rush to say that although I hate the ‘buzzwords’ that have evolved out of this concern for our planet (‘green’, ‘organic’ to name two) I completely and utterly believe that it is good and right to live in harmony, as it were, with the planet we live on. I will go further. I think it is a long standing tendency for humans to treat their environments as enemies, to try to subdue and control the land and the creatures on the land, and even other human beings if given the chance, and I think that tendency is sad, reflects badly on us as a species, and may very well be immoral. I used to be more definite on the immoral thing, but at the moment I can’t decide whether the fact that the concept of immorality originates with us makes it irrelevant or whether it just makes our behavior worse, given that we violate standards we created in the first place. So whether it is a fad or not, I can’t help but support those who are making genuine efforts to reduce their negative impact on their environment, and to realize that just because we moved into it, doesn’t mean it isn’t an ecosystem, and it is better to find ourselves a place in that ecosystem than to stomp all over it, kill off half the indiginous species and then start a crusade to save the cute ones.

I also believe in responsible decision making. Not so much in terms of “should I cast on another sweater when I already have three sweaters and two pair of socks on the needles” – my idea of “responsible” there ends at “would I have to buy another set of needles to do so?” in which case I won’t, otherwise I’m all for irresponsible crafting abundance. But I have my limitations there too, in terms of the materials I’m willing to use, and like it seems half the world, I have some very strong opinions about those materials and the way they are manufactured and marketed.

I was kind of excited when I first learned about corn and soy yarn. They are advertised as using the “waste” products of these crops, and while I was a little confused about the bean plants, it seemed to me like corn is a big fibrous stalk and if they were spinning yarn from those fibres it would be really cool, and also maybe I could try it at home, being as there are corn and soy fields all around me, and once the crops are collected the actual plants are just ground back into the soil as mulch, and maybe the farmers would let the crazy chick up the road score a few plants before they brought in the plows. So because I am me, and research is what I do, I looked up how these yarns are made.

Yeah. So what they do (greatly simplified) is they take the fruit – yes, the same stuff that would otherwise be fed to animals – and they put it in a huge tank and squish it all up and ferment it, and extract or transform (my chemistry is not so strong) it into a plastic soup. And then when it is reduced to a tank of smooth goo they super-cool it by pouring it onto a spinning top full of frozen chemicals, making a mono-filament, which is then plied into yarn.

This is a process involving a huge pile of chemicals, machinery, heating and uber-refrigeration. It can not be done in my kitchen. It should not, in my opinion, be done at all.

I don’t know what they mean by ‘waste product’, but I have two suspicions. One (the most likely) is that the carbohydrate soup they use is actually a waste product of the ethanol industry. The only things I know about ethanol production are a) the price of corn has skyrocketed, which has a direct effect on my life and the life of my animals, all of whom eat corn, and b) corn which cannot be fed to animals because of fungus or mold or some other icky thing also cannot be used in ethanol production. Found that out a couple of years ago when there was a “pig vomit” bactillus on a lot of the corn and nobody could sell their crop anywhere. Which is my other suspicion: maybe the pig vomit corn got made into yarn.

If the latter thing is true, I would feel a bit better about it – but only a bit, because they won’t only be buying moldy fruit now that the market for these fibres is so huge. So summing it all up, I find myself unable to think of anything that is mass-produced in a factory (or factory-farm) environment as “ecological”.

I tossed that little “factory farm” thing in there, because my choice, for a number of reasons, remains wool. I would be happy if the people who are campaigning for ‘organic’ cotton crops would win, because cotton is another good fibre that just is what it is and while it requires a vast amount of effort to turn into workable fibre it doesn’t have to be turned into some weird petroleum simulacrum first. But North American cotton crops do have an awful lot of baggage attached to them, and I’m not sure if we can handle cotton responsibly. (Insert your personal definition of ‘responsible’ here.)

I don’t have an opinion on whether or not other people use wool. I don’t much care. There are pluses and minuses for each individual and each project. Some people are allergic to wool, and having allergies myself I sympathize with their discomfort and suggest they shy as far away as possible. I would not, myself, purchase expensive wool even if I could afford to do so, because I don’t trust that it didn’t come from some factory sheep farm where the poor sheep are jacketed and confined (jacketing is a whole other problem I’ve got) and mutilated for human convenience, and I think it’s mean. Environmentalism completely aside, I can’t grok being mean to animals, no matter what you’re raising them for. Stewardship is a responsibility, and someone with a better grasp of language evolution (Emily?) might have a learned opinion on the origins of the word “husbandry”.

But for the love of knitting, can we please get it straight that shearing sheep is NOT MEAN?! It does not hurt, they do not mind. Sheep have been domesticated and bred for their wool – which was originally a warm undercoat like your dog and cat shed every summer – for thousands of years. Wooly sheep have not been around as long as housecats – quite – but almost. They were bred and bred to amplify the amount of undercoat and reduce the amount of hair for the sake of human usage. They will not shed their wool in any useful (i.e. temperature affecting) quantity. They will, if the wool gets long enough, rub or bite it off. This is because they want it gone. It is itchy and hot, it traps the ever-unpopular ‘vegetable matter’, it catches on things and it hurts – a lot – when it is pulled. Grab a handful of your own hair and yank.

You are welcome to have a negative opinion on the breeding of sheep for the sake of human convenience. I will share it. I will help you make a banner, out of organic cotton, decrying the arrogance and lack of foresight of the many many many generations of shepherds in all nations whose selfish breeding habits led to the fact that we now have hundreds of breeds of sheep who must be sheared or suffer. (And even that is leaving out the whole flystrike problem!) I will not, however, advocate that the sheep who are alive now, and who had nothing to do with any of this and just want to eat weeds in peace and maybe a bucket of grain now and then please, should be made extinct or forced to scrape themselves raw against trees because humans now resent and disapprove of the activities of humans long dead.

This stuff has been on my mind for a while, and of course the issue is much larger than just fibre, animal vegetable or plastic, but I’m running awful long here, so maybe we can expand through discussion?   I was going to post before, but then farm-witch said something at shearing time, and said it so well that I didn’t bother. If you hadn’t read that post of hers before, it’s a really good one. So for a while I just went “Yeah! What she said!” But I don’t think something as important as how we live and how we treat other living things – any of them – is an issue that can be settled with finality. We tried that before, and the final decision was that man is evidently superior to everyone/thing else, and should therefore do whatever he wants. And look what happened! I think we need to share our opinions, and our information, and our experiences. What choices have you made about how you live and interact with life? How has it affected your craft? What are your ideals, and are they obtainable? I’d really like to hear people’s comments on this stuff – and you’re welcome to disagree with me and with each other, as long as you don’t get abusive and make people cry.

If you’re interested, I will elaborate on my own wool sources plus my own means of getting the fibre off the sheep in the least intrusive manner possible.  Because I assure you, my sheep are the boss of me.  But like I said, this is really long and I would really like to hear what other people have to say.  So please:  discuss!

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.

Sorry, there is no fibre content in this post, because I’m in a car, with Stalkermom, the Ed, and a small dog named Barney,

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and I have not got knitting. This seemed like a good idea when I left – I thought I would be in the cab of a truck with no space to knit, and although I am on my way to Toronto to hang out with Emily and Krista, I am also hoping to catch up on what is has become several years worth of missed beer-soaked arguments with their spouses Dru and Simon.

But I’m in a car, and I have no knitting. There is a cat-and-wool picture at the bottom of this post, if you want to just skip to the eye-candy.

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my mother brought HER knitting.

I’m really looking forward to some good conversation tonight. Simon and Dru have always been great people to argue/debate/think out loud with, and more and more I realize how much I need that, how much the way I think has always depended on not just words, but the exchange of words. I’ve complained before about “losing my words” and I don’t know what it sounds like but I mean it quite literally – the way I think and process ideas has been changing ever since we moved to the relative isolation of the farm.

I think that’s partly why I’ve been so enjoying talking to Jodi lately. Not that talking to Jodi isn’t great in and of itself, she’s a terrific person. But the project she’s involved in right now, and her thoughts on it… it’s exciting to hear her talk about, the project itself is fascinating, and listening to her explain it has started giving me a handle on how to approach – no, how to understand – what is happening to me. Apparently my hands went ahead and began expressing the changes some time ago, without actually consulting my brain – big surprise, eh? But talking with Jodi about alteration and destruction is helping my brain catch up.

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Jodi outside Milk in Windsor, modeling a new (although pieced together from older) project dress.

I knew, obviously, that I was expressing myself by decorating my house. I mean, that’s the point, right? In decorating. But it took Emily and Dru and Jodi to point out to me that the house is an organic work, that I’m not actually so much decorating as creating an installation (in quote-unquote artistic terms – I am making a space I want to live in, it just happens to be a bit more representative of my internal processes than I was externally aware of). It is not just a project, but a Project, I suppose.

For example, the walls. In my conscious mind, I am painting words on the walls. The stated purpose being to create a sort of unique and readable wallpaper – thought provoking in places, perhaps, but not profound or especially startling.

But, as I progress, I discover that there are “rules”. First off, the words are all “used”. By which I mean I am not writing anything myself for this project, nor am I letting Raven do so. All of the quotations are from published works. Genre or form doesn’t matter, there are songs, poems, fiction and non-fiction.

Second, many of the words are self-referential within the project. The quotes do not necessarily stand alone, removed from their original context, they often don’t mean anything without the new context of the wall. I have quotes referring to doorways and passages in doorways and passages, quotes about table etiquette and foodstuffs in the kitchen. Many of the quotes are actually about words. One of my current favorites is “these are the things that are written and painted on one part of the wall”.

Another rule I’ve discovered then is that I don’t want the quotes to be particularly meaningful. Raven and I each have some favorite passages that have found their way into rooms, but on the whole I am not trying – I am trying not – to fill my house with moving or meaninful phrases, or deep profundities. Where such things do go up I like to combine them with opposites, frivolities or contrary arguments/observations. The walls may contain a dialogue, but they are not actually intended to provoke one.

Finally, the words in the last stages are obfuscated. I am painting over the decorated wall, in such a way that the words are much harder to read, and much less obviously there. As a decorative feature, my intention was that the words be gradually noticed, that the first effect would be textured walls, and the nature of the texturing would be noticed later, if at all. I hang pictures and mirrors and place furniture in front of walls without regard to the passages being wholly or partially blocked (there are a couple of puns, I have a passage about a hanging a mirror in your entryway behind the mirror in the entryway).

As a decorative feature, this makes sense. But it’s been three years in the doing, three years during which I keep upping the ante in terms of obiliterating the words I’ve so carefully selected and painted, and I’ve only just now realized that as I think more and more visually and become less and less verbal, I do more and more to obliterate these representations of my old medium of thought.

This is connected to a lot of things, not all of which I’ve got a handle on yet. I’m putting this in the blog mostly because this blog is a place I notice my – I don’t think it’s mistrust, not yet – reluctance with words. I write far more entries in my head as I’m working than are ever posted here, and I feel badly that I don’t share here as often as I could/should.

As promised, here is some fibre, with cat:

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“According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 B.C., Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell in her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess’s chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside half a mile away before the cocoon ran out. (In the West, this legend would slowly mutate over three millennia, until it became the story of a physicist and an apple. Either way, the meanings are the same: great discoveries, whether of silk or gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.)”
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

This may be the most open and honest I have been yet in this blog… except no one will perhaps know, because all my words seem to have gone again. That happens occasionally – it never used to, but then I used to be surrounded by words, constantly writing, researching. Words were everywhere, and I took them completely for granted.

Nowadays most of what I do is either visual or tactile – heck, even when I am working with words it’s still visual – and so sometimes language just goes wandering off, looking for someone who will pay it more attention. Maybe the family up the road is feeding it, I don’t know. The darndest part is, I do some of my best thinking during those times. I discover things and ponder them, and examine other things, and oh, you know: Thinky-stuff. Except without words.

Maybe there are lots of people who are like this all the time, and the only reason I notice at all is that it’s so different for me. The first time it happened I even stopped reading for a month, which had never – literally never happened before. I didn’t forget how, I didn’t even not want to, exactly. I just sort of… forgot to.

I realized that it was happening again on Wednesday. Emily and Dru came for a visit, and the three of us went into Windsor to meet up with Jodi and Peter for supper. (Mmm. Lentils. And that other stuff.) They’d kind of had to drag me out of the house in the first place – and I’m glad they did – but I was feeling a bit off-kilter all evening. I’m not sure how else to put it. These people are brilliant, sincerely: Creative, smart, witty – and I’ve known them for years, and I love them all, and it is wonderful on those sadly now rare occasions when we’re all together. Wednesday was wonderful too, but at the same time I just felt kind of on the wrong plane all evening. I was thinking of Jodi on her porch (it really is a great sitting-porch) and how if I was in the city I would be sitting on my own porch – or hers – and people-watching, and neighbor’s kid visiting, and all that stuff. But I’m out here, and what I see from my (entirely different) porch is bunnies and chickens and the occasional deer. I love it, I wouldn’t change it for the world – but I think it’s changed or is changing me. For the better, I hope. I’ve mentioned that I didn’t used to be very nice.

I have this hope that when Jodi is finally back for good I will see her more. I want to go into the city and sit on her porch and listen to her talk about the neighbors and knit with her. I’m not sure how that’s going to work, what with the farm and the chickens and the Other People’s Stuff, and all those reasons I always hesitate to leave here, but I do go into the city sometimes, and sometimes for not much reason at all, so I would like it if a couple of times a month my reason could be Jodi. And we could talk about fibre in its various forms all day if we wanted to, and no one would complain!

There. Best I could do for now, and I think I just talked my way around whatever point I might have had.   There’s other stuff I’ve been thinking about, but it’s even more on the vague and linguistically-unformed side. I’ll try again later.