Monday, December 11, 2006

A Call to (Teddy Bear) Arms

Have you heard of Build-a-Bear? My 11-year-old stepdaughter had been going on about how much she wanted to go to Build-a-Bear, and she described it to me as a place where you can make your own teddy bear. I thought that sounded good, creative and all that, so I told her that when she was next with us, I would take her.

But I did a little reconnaissance first. Since I happened to be at the Black Hole of Burnaby, the Metrotown Mall, anyway, I checked out the local Build-a-Bear. As soon as I set foot in the place, I knew it would be impossible to leave, if accompanied by a demanding child, without shelling out a hundred bucks, at least. Full of bright colours, whirling machines and cute fake fur critters, it was immediately evident this place had some connection to the evil Disney empire.

Turns out that the"building" part consists of selecting the deflated body of one of about 30 options (including, of course, various Disney characters), taking it over to a stuffing machine, which blows some polyester fibrefill into the belly of your bear, and doing up a zipper. Voila! See how creative you are? But just not feeling that warm glow of accomplishment yet? Well, walk on over to the well-stocked aisles of little outfits, shoes, handbags, and other accessories (probably made by children in thrid world sweatshops) and you can continue "building" your bear by shopping for its wardrobe. When you're done, the helpful staff will attach a barcode and give you a "birth certificate" for your bear.

I just about threw up, I was so appalled. There was no creativity here, just shopping. As Wendy Tremayne says so eloquently in her essay on consumerism:
"Consumers are asked to view shopping as a creative endeavor, when in
actuality only the designers and engineers of things play a creative
role however limited by the constraints of profit margins. The
consumer’s creativity is simply selection. We interpret. We choose
between things, between styles, between prepackaged lifestyles that
we are each to find ourselves residing in chosen from a predetermined
set designed by marketing, and this is the means to which we’re asked
to express our uniqueness." (You can read the whole essay here).

And what's worse, this is callous, greedy marketing aimed at the most defenseless (and therefore most desireable) group of consumers, children.

I was now faced with the unpleasant task of telling my step-daughter that I would NOT be taking her to Build-a-Bear. To soften the blow, I went to Dear Bears, a sweet little shop in a business park on the outskirts of Vancouver (guess the rents at Metrotown were out of their budget). There, two wonderful ladies who had been making bears from scratch for years, helped me choose a pattern, beautiful soft leopard print fake fur, eyes, joints and the other sundry parts that would be needed. They gave me all kinds of helpful hints, and even said if we had any problems to call and they would help over the phone. I left the shop, yes, having spent about the same amount I would have at Build-a-Bear, but feeling good about where my money had gone. And although her face fell when I told her the news, I know SD and I will have a wonderful time putting "Simon" together. And I hope that when she experiences the fun and pride of accomplishment of really making something herself, I will have a convert.

But that may be me being overly optimistic. It's a battle trying to convince an 11-year-old who says without irony that "TNA is one of my favourite brands" that something made by hand can have any value. But I do think it's a battle worth fighting.

P.S. Since posting this I've been fretting that my visit to Dear Bears is still wanton consumerism, one step removed. Perhaps I should have put my energy into enticing SD into felting old woolen sweaters and making them into robot dolls or some such cool thing. And should I even be trying to share my values with an obviously impressionable child? My success in doing that is so far very limited, but then I don't have the marketing might of mega-corporations behind me.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Finding Bliss in Tangled Yarn

Bliss can arise from the most unexpected situations. I never suspected that untangling the Ghordian Knot-like mess you see here could be such an absolute mesmerizing pleasure. Unlike Alexander, I am not using force to meet my challenge, but instead discovering how much patience I indeed possess.

Years ago, my friend in Japan sent me several lovely, tidy skeins of indigo dyed cotton yarn that he found in Kyoto, at a family run shop called Aizenkobo. The worsted weight single ply yarn was beautiful and soft, but when I started knitting with it, it turned my fingers blue. I put it aside, planning to wash it, but somehow it made its way to the bottom of a box, and only re-emerged when I moved to the studio.
I felt guilty about neglecting this treasure for so long and, since I was dyeing some other yarn, and had the Synthrapol out anyway, was inspired to give it a wash. I made sure that it was tied securely, and then, not thinking clearly, threw it in the washer. At the end of the cycle, I removed the impossibly snarled mass you see here.

Ooofff. It took three days to dry. I was very disappointed in myself, for not realizing that the single ply might decide to relax back upon itself in the wash - or that the agitation of the machine might not be the best thing for the yarn. I might have just chucked it, if it had not come from such a unique place. I tried stretching the least snarled skein enough to get it on the swift, but it firmly clung to itself. The swift and ball winder were clearly useless.
So I sat down to watch Superman Returns, and decided to busy my hands with winding the yarn into balls. How bad could it be? I gently pulled on the mass, found an end and began to wind. It was immediately apparent that I was dealing with dreadlocks. It took several minutes to tease apart a snarl and wind just an inch or two, before hitting another snarl. But it was also strangely satisfying, and soon the movie was over, and I couldn't put the yarn down. "Just a few more inches!" (Where have we heard that before?)
It would be nice to say that I gained some insight into the world during this process, maybe come up with with a poetic metaphor for the transformation of a hopeless snarl into nice, neat, knittable spheres. But no. However, I may have stumbled upon another relaxing, meditative craft - now I'm not just a spinner, knitter, weaver, but an UNTANGLER as well.
But don't contribute your own snarled skeins just yet. I still have another three hanks to go - which should keep me busy well into January.

Friday, November 24, 2006

In the Studio

I moved into my studio this week. I'm sharing with a woman who designs costumes for film and TV. She is letting me share her cutting table - oh joy!! Uncluttered horizontal surfaces are a rarity in my life and this one's a beauty! It's 8' x 10', bigger than it looks in this picture.

I have room for my loom, and the wall of fabric. it's so good to have the fabric on view, rather than going through boxes everytime I'm looking for a particular piece.

Power's a little dodgy, there's only two outlets, but I haven't blown any fuses yet.

Now I just have to get busy sewing. So far, the space seems very conducive to work - there are many artists in the building and it's got a good vibe, (as we say out here on the west coast).
And here's a random bit - while cleaning, I found an apron I picked up at a rummage sale. I'm not much of an apron person, but i just love the colour combination.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just a Quickie - Indoors and Out

Yesterday I installed the mizrah in my client's apartment. It hangs on the easternmost wall, above the bed. This photo doesn't quite capture the true colour of the wall (more of a burnt sienna), but I think the mizrah looks pretty great anyway.

The same client had purchased The Blazing World series and installed it in the waiting room of his office. I hear that it has been a hit both with partners and clients. It is very gratifying to have my work out in the world, too much of it languishes in storage.

This last picture shows the colour and texture of my autumn garden. I snapped it during a sunny break, in between the torrential downpours we've been having here on the West Coast.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Getting Cozy

The fall rains have come to Vancouver in full force. This calls for warm woollies, and fortuitously I finished Arisaig just in time. I was so happy with how it turned out - it fits really well, and is just the right weight. You can find the pattern here, and meet the designer, the charming Ysolda Teague, here).

Then, yesterday, as I was hurrying along West 4th to Granville Island, I saw these slippers in the window. I did something totally out of character. My brain was flooded with messages of MUST HAVE NOW and I went in and bought the last pair in my size. I just love them, and am trying to ignore the fact that they are made in China. They can be found at Acorn Earth.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Spirit of Life

I've been busy this week working on a commission for a mizrah. This is a symbolic artwork that hangs on the east wall of a Jewish home, and it denotes the direction in which to pray (towards Jerusalem). Since I am pretty much a heathen, I approach this kind of work very carefully - I want to be respectful and correct in my interpretation of the meaning of the piece, yet it also has to be true to myself. I do a lot of research and check things out with the client as I go.
For this piece, I originally thought I might do it in fabric. However, my research showed that although mizrahs can be made in any medium, very often they have been done in a Jewish craft tradition of cut paper. This instantly appealed to me, since the steps of folding and cutting are very similar to a textile applique. The symmetry that results is, of course, my thing (see Robes of Power on my website). And all those years of graphic design have made me pretty handy with an X-Acto knife. This week, after several months of designing and letting it sit, I was ready to cut.

Unfortunately, I won't be moving into my studio until December 1, so I have to work on the dining room table. I don't have the tidiest work habits - note teacup in dangerous proximity to the paper. I am using katagami washi - a Japanese paper made for paste resist stencils. It is handmade from mulberry fibre, soaked in persimmon juice to make it tough, and then smoked to cure it. It is the most incredibly rich brown colour and smells fantastic.
I chose the tree of life as my central motif. I have used this image in my work before - it both ancient and a common symbol in many cosmologies. Since I am into Matisse these days, I drew a seven branched tree in his oak leaf style. The seven branches relate it to the menorah, which is sometimes depicted as a tree of life. More importantly, it symbolizes light (both literally and spiritually), and since East is where the sun rises, and the direction of Jerusalem, this seemed very fitting. The Hebrew text at the top states "From this direction, the spirit of life."

Animals are frequently part of a traditional mizrah. They are also symbolic. In spiritual life, Jewish people are told to "Be as bold as the leopard and as swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and courageous as the lion to do the will of thy Father in Heaven." The arabesques that link the creatures come from Matisse as well, but are also reminiscent of Japanese and Arabic decorative patterns. To me, the swirls and spirals are energy, light, air and movement, both inward and outward.
I backed the cut paper with a gold paper, similar to how I saw antique katagami displayed in a Tokyo museum devoted to the art.
I ordered the frame yesterday - a simple distressed gold finish. The wall the piece is to hang on is painted deep burgundy. I hope the mizrah will embody the elements of harmony, wholeness and radiance - of beauty, and of deep meaning.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I once had a yoga teacher who used to say that this is the time of year when the veils between the worlds grow thin. (She would also talk about the expansive spaciousness of shavasana, but I digress.) I do know it's the season for exploring alternate identities. And, Saturday night was the Work Less Party's Masquerade Ball - the perfect chance for some shape-shifting.
Ian took the classic route. Check out the frock coat - custom made by moi, with glittery Day of the Dead fabric.

Since I had been working on my business plan until the 11th hour, I made a last minute choice from my large collection of kimonos, added a fancy mask and voila, instant outfit. (Oddly enough, it wasn't the outfit that made me feel different, it was the lipstick, which I hardly ever wear.)

And here are a couple of samples of what I actually achieved in the Maiwa workshop I raved about in the previous post.

On this one, I did an applique, learned how hard mirrors are to sew on, added some beads and sequins and little bells, all on some fabulous Maiwa fabrics. (Even their scraps are exquisite!)

And this was a little patchwork featuring my grotesquely large quilting stitches and some tassels that I had great fun making.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Warning! Rated "R" Explicit Images of Cloth

I was one of the truly fortunate people in the universe the past two days. No, I didn't win the lottery or have a romantic weekend with George Clooney (those would be such banal pleasures). I took the Ralli Quilt Embellishment class at Maiwa! Pure orgasmic bliss for the threadhead! Here's a sample of the visual delights I revelled in.

Patricia Stoddard (left) was a gracious, generous teacher. She created an atmosphere that encouraged and inspired creativity.

The studio, in the Maiwa Loft, was mind-bogglingly lovely. Everywhere one looked there were treasures.

This bed was in one of the offices! Later, I saw one of the Maiwa emplyees sitting on it doing paperwork. Can you imagine working in such an environment?

Even the bathroom was filled with beautiful little touches. I definitely would love to have a handmade brass bowl filled with $80 brushes on the back of MY toilet.

I've probably used too many suggestive words in this posting and this blog will appear in the search engines of lecherous old toads around the world. If so, listen up guys -- what really turns this woman on is two days at Maiwa Handprints! And, judging from the "oohs" and "aahs" of my classmates everytime another exquisite piece of embroidery was brought out, I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Socks and Dogs

I finished the Koigu socks last week. Very nice yarn to knit with. I had two skeins of slightly different colourways, but they were close enough and so multicoloured I wasn't too worried about the difference.
Of course my dogs love to get into the frame when the camera is out. Here's Casey being her usual detached but cautiously hopeful self.

And Tasha, increasingly neurotic and jealous of any attention Casey gets.

Very simple socks - I knit them during business lectures. Since encouraging people to be creative is part of my business plan, I figure I can totally justify knitting at all times.
And after finishing them I went back to poor, neglected Arisaig (from Knitty) and realised I only have to finish off a sleeve and then I'll be done. My gauge issues seem to have sorted themselves out while languishing in the knitting bag - I love it when that happens!

Monday, October 02, 2006


Vancouver Swap-o-rama-rama 2006 is in the can! It was a roaring, chaotic success, with over 350 people through the door and a small ski hill sized pile of clothes recycled. My camera and I were having issues, and the room was on the dark side, so these photos could use a lot of tweaking but here's a taste of the day: (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

The fashion show was an exercise in improvisation, but the models (Erin, Jaleen, Jenny, Lizzy, Liza, Naomi and Gretchen) were beautiful and brilliant. The clothes of designers Gretchen Elsner, Wendy van Reisen, Shawna Reibling, and Tagalong Sally were fabulous, so ingenious and witty.

People were awesomely creative. Thanks to Wendy, Shawna, Alexis, Jennifer, Katie, and Charlotte for so generously sharing their skills. And the volunteers who helped sort (led by the amazing April), set up and clean up were wonderful to the point of heroism.

Swapping was frenzied (and that's putting it delicately.) Our DJ's were masterful in keeping the energy flowing.

Conrad showed his inimitable style and was a fantastic, witty MC. His energy never flagged, especially impressive since he had been up til the wee hours the night before hosting a packed Velo Fusion party at the Anza Club.

And, most of all, huge thanks to Wendy Tremayne, the originator of Swap-o-rama-rama, for her brilliant idea, and for all her generous help and support in planning the Vancouver swap. She's knee deep in prep for the New York swap, happening October 8. Blessings to you Wendy!!

Will we do another one?? Well let's just say I'm looking at the Heritage Hall in April.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Swap-o-rama-rama is almost here!

I'm going just slightly crazy over the Swap-o-rama-rama. Actually I think I'm starting to scare people. But it's been pretty incredible how wonderful people have come forward just as we need them. We will have airbrushing, stencilling, embroidery and grommets and lacing tables, as well as 4 or 5 sewing stations. And there will be a workshop in printing on fabric with found objects, and demos on making underwear from t-shirts and reverse applique. I can hardly wait!

Conrad and I had a wacky picture of ourselves delivered to all the homes in Vancouver via an article in the Vancouver Courier. (I can't get the link to work, but here's the pic.) It's a good thing I've been working on dissolving my ego. (Actually, I was quite pleased with the article.)

The fashion show features the work of four amazing creative women: Wendy Van Reisen, Tagalong Sally, Gretchen Elsner, and Shawna Reibling. After we see their incredible inspirational clothes, swap participants will be invited to model their own new outfits on the runway.

And there will be DJs, baking from Uprising, and god knows how many surprises. I need a cool cloth on my forehead just thinking about it!!
The world is getting better already...