Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Amulet: The Great Family Riddle

From left to right: Ulrica, Sophie, Thomas, Dennis, Eleanor (my grandmother), Margaret, Allan and Leona. Taken in Chicago 1917
The story is this:
My great-grandmother, Sophie Ayres married my great-grandfather Dennis Kelly on December 27th, 1899 - the cusp of a new century - and they proceeded to have six children. The children's names, in the order of their birth, were as follows:


Now, what do you notice about the names, other than Ulrica is a rather unusual choice? Yes, that's right, the first letters spell the word "AMULET". If that was a coincidence, what would the odds be of the letters spelling out anything, let alone a word of some mystery and magic? On the other hand, if it was intended, how could anyone at that time be sure of having exactly six children who all survived past childhood? And given that my mother remembers her Granny as a rather sharp-tongued, stern woman, it is hard to imagine Sophie as young and in love and planning her future family so poetically. (Apparently Dennis left her with the six kids - if anything, he was the romantic ne'er-do-well type.)

In any case, this little story has always been a source of some wonder in our family. I think we felt in some way blessed, even a generation or so removed. And it points to the power of naming, which brings us to the source of real magic: intention. When we focus our attention and our heart and our energy on something, we are shaping the future with our intention. I believe this how we make art*.

So my upcoming workshop on making amulets is actually a slightly subversive way of introducing the idea of working with intention, and from the heart. It is unlikely that any of my students will be shaman or priests or wiccans, but I don't think we need to come out of any of those belief systems to be able to make amulets. Amulets are objects invested with protective powers, and what greater protective power can we give than our attention, and our love? The objects we make may reference traditional amulets, and symbols and materials that have been believed to carry special powers in various cultures, but it is the intangible energy that we transfer from ourselves to the object that makes it meaningful and potent.

As stitchers we know this. With each prick of the needle, with each measuring of the thread, we give life to our cloth, we give life to the world. We connect, we hold, we honour, we protect.

Love to you all in 2015.

*(Pretty flakey, I know, especially for someone who went to art school at the height of Marxist-Feminist Post-Structuralism. What can I say? I guess there's room for more.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's About Time!

Yikes, it's been forever since I last posted. Many of you have probably been in the same boat, busy with all the to do's of the holidays. And I had the most low-key Christmas possible, so being busy hardly qualifies as an excuse. I did have all sorts of ideas for blog posts that emerged from dusty corners of my brain, though, that maybe will develop into something one day. Here's the list:

1. Environmental Footprint of the Textile Artist/Craftsperson
Something like a post I did ages ago about the environmental footprint of a tee shirt, but looking at all aspects of how our creative activity has an impact on the world around us. I did a crazy huge mind map that could almost be a book, but my conclusion ultimately came to a simple "Make art, it's the right thing to do."

2. Rant about the Proliferation of Lazily Edited How-To Craft Books
Yeah, I know publishing is a tough game, but so much of what is out there is a waste of resources. I am also deeply suspicious of the ploy in which a popular blogger gets all her friends to help create the content of the book, for which no one is paid. This one could be tagged "Pet Peeve".
This amulet contains the prayer of loving-kindness.
3. Developing my Amulet Workshop
I will be leading a mixed media workshop on creating amulets for the upcoming Isle of the Arts Festival here on Gabriola. We will be making small objects that offer protection against negative forces using natural materials such as shell and bone as well as cloth, thread, shisha mirrors and beads, drawing upon traditional practices, mythology and symbolism. Underlying the process will be a focus on developing a practise of working with intention, and responding to the inherent meaning of the materials we use. This will be a fun one!
The latest piece, in progress. The frame is about 30" across so that gives some idea of scale.
4. Ongoing Projects
The latest piece, and the most intricate so far, in the Codex work is coming along. So is my "Home Sweet Dome" welcome mat that I am hooking, at a somewhat glacial pace.

5. Children's Book Based on the Story of Louis Nicolas
For some time I have had an idea cooking for a storybook about Louis Nicolas. My plan is to write it myself and have Vicky Bowes do the illustrations and her husband Mike Swallow to do the maps. The logistics of it all are daunting, but I believe it is such a great Canadian story that it deserves to become part of our national lore and legend.

6. Christmas Card
We don't give gifts in our family - rather, we draws names of one relative for whom we create a really special handmade card. I got my brother Dave's name, and I made this sweet mobile of bells, sparkly green rick rack, tiny Yule logs and three rows of red felt triangles embellished with cloth letters spelling out B-E-L-O-V-E-D, which is what "David" means in Hebrew, and a glass star. It was more elegant than it sounds, and I forgot to take a picture of it. Drat!

And there's probably more oddments kicking around in my head but daylight is fading and I need to actually do some work! If I don't post again before Thursday, I wish you all the very best in 2015!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Mystery in Lace

Dear Sarah Fincham of Small Offerings sent me a beautiful drawing in a trade for linen pajamas. As a surprise, she included this piece of silk lace that she had found in a flea market. She said that perhaps it was meant to be a doily or jar cover, but I suspected she knew better, and had sent me this little beauty as a test of my textile detective skills. (She knows I love mysteries.)

After marveling at its fragility and identifying the dry, somewhat crunchy texture as a sign of real silk, I gave it a long look. Something was off. See the outer edge, alternating points and rounds? But check out the far right. There are two points together, with a rather crude seam in between. Aha! The piece of lace had been re-purposed from its original use. Due to the small circumference of the centre round my first guess that it was a cuff.
Very, very carefully I removed the silk thread that attached the lace to the centre bit of chiffon, and unpicked the seam. Freed from the chiffon, the lace relaxed, and I could see it was in fact a collar, maybe for a child or a lady with a very slender neck.
Since the lace had several dark spots on it, I thought I should give it a bath. A soak in a bit of cool water and a drop of  dish soap, then a rinse and another short soak in diluted lemon juice. Several rinses later, I rolled it in a towel to remove excess water, then carefully laid it flat to dry, coaxing the picot edge into position with my fingertips.
While it dried, I Googled, and quickly identified the lace as Maltese bobbin lace, probably from the 19th C. Here's another example:
It is interesting that traditional Maltese lace had almost died out until an Englishwoman, Lady Hamilton Chichester, was responsible for reviving the craft, and Maltese lacework became quite popular in England after being exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Which explains how it eventually turned up in an English flea market. Why someone decided to re-model it in the interim remains a secret - even if no longer a fashionable collar, as a doily it wouldn't lay flat, and as a jar cover it would be too precious for raspberry jam. I think I will frame it, and hang it alongside Sarah's drawing.

Oh, yes, that drawing! I bet you want to see it. Here it is, as yet unframed. Wonderful, huh? For more of Sarah's work, check out her Etsy shop.
And an update on our Vicky - she is still in hospital and hasn't yet been given an idea of when she may be released. The possibility of infection is still a big concern, but she has been making steady progress and has even been taking a few steps unassisted. The outpouring of love and support for her has made a huge difference, she says - so thank you!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Brits Do It Best

I have gone hopelessly Anglophile these last couple of weeks. First, my rug-hooking friend Mary Anne was swooning so much over the British series Call the Midwife that I finally gave it a look. And promptly succumbed to its many charms.
This review of Call the Midwife sums up most of why I like the show. The main reason I never clicked when Netflix suggested it to me over and over was that I thought it would be all about babies. Now, I am probably one of the few women in this world who aren't smitten at the sight of a newborn, but Call the Midwife shows them in all their gucky glory and even I have to admit they are somewhat miraculous.

But what really captures me is the strong writing, note-perfect art direction, fabulous performances and unflinching camera work. As James, who is also enamoured with the show, says, "This is what TV can be!"
And then my request for the Merchant & Mills Sewing Book finally came through at the library. It is, of course, British. Finally, a sewing guide that I can recommend! (I look through all the new ones that come in to the library, and most of them are absolute junk. I was beginning to despair for the future of home sewing - how could anyone learn, or even be inspired to, by the trendy, superficial, dumbed-down books that are out there?)

But Merchant & Mills reads like it was being narrated by one of the nuns from Call the Midwife - brisk, practical, uncompromising, faithful and loving. It begins: "We love sewing and believe in it. It provides the invisible thread that literally holds together the world we know. It is everywhere, from the clothes we wear to the sails that enabled the discovery of America. It is in our shoes, the seats on the bus and lurks quietly all around the home. It is best friend to the upholsterer, the seamstress and tailor, the diva and the surgeon and is as ancient as time itself."

The book is packed full of information - even I, often accused of being a know-it-all, learned some interesting things about the history and use of sewing tools. The chapter on pressing echoes the words of my Bauhaus-trained high school sewing teacher, Elly Pucher: "You must press it beautifully!"
The design and writing style of the book are consciously nostalgic, but perfectly underscore author Carolyn Denham's approach to the art of sewing. The words on the inside front cover (above) sum it all up. I am impressed by her emphasis on quality and durability and that the word "cute" never once makes an appearance. The projects are both classic and utilitarian, with the possible exception of the Inside Out bag. This would be a fabulous book for a new sewer, and I have to admit that I have dropped some heavy hints about this one to Santa myself.

I would be remiss not to mention that Merchant & Mills has a lovely website.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


The thrift store yielded up an incredible stash of treasure. Embroidered cloth and ribbons...
...mother-of-pearl buttons...
...Czechoslovakian glass buttons...
...James played with the buttons on the scanner.


A walk at the beach with the dogs, after a torrential storm. Dazed and blinking in the light, we checked to make sure everything was still holding on.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Road to Recovery

Photo by Mike Swallow
This photo of Vicky was taken yesterday. What a girl! Her smile shows her optimism and spirit. We can't see the bandages that cover her lower body but she is on the mend. She was able to sit in a wheelchair for ten minutes before becoming dizzy, which is great news because it means (sorry sweetie, personal detail) she will be able to use the toilet. That seems to be one of the milestones hospitals look for before sending a patient home. There is still no word of when that will be, but there is hope that no further surgeries will be required at this point. The shrapnel that remains in her legs will continue to work its way out for years to come though, just as if she was an old soldier.

And the really good news is that a friend of Mike and Vicky's who works for the Red Cross has set up a fundraising page that makes it super easy to donate. You don't have to worry about all those wire transfer codes I gave you in the previous post, just one click and you can help. Here's the link:
Our goal is to raise $2500 by the end of the weekend - we're already at $900 after just half a day! People are so generous and kind - thank you, thank you, thank you!

Sunday Update! The fund just passed $3,650  - brings tears to my eyes. That, combined with $2500 in the trust account and over $1000 in sales of Mike and Vicky's artwork at the craft fair yesterday is so awesome, a stunning and heartwarming response.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

It Could Happen to Anyone

***UPDATE added at the end of the post.***
My plans for uninterrupted stitching came to a roaring halt on Sunday when I heard that Vicky, my lovely assistant, had been in an accident. Frantic phoning around ensued, and awful news of what had happened. Vicky, kind and generous soul that she is, had been caretaking for a neighbour. She lit the wood stove as usual - but she did not know that there was a water jacket on the stove, and that the pipes had frozen overnight. The safety mechanism, a release valve had also frozen. The ice in the pipes rapidly turned into steam and became the equivalent of dynamite. The stove exploded. Vicky was thrown three meters across the room.

Oh so fortunately, her brother-in-law Dave was just outside the house. He rushed in and pulled an unconscious Vicky out from under some burning debris. She was bleeding seriously from her leg so he used his sweater for a tourniquet. He yelled for a neighbour to call 911 and ran back in to the house to grab all the coats hanging by the door and tucked them around Vicky. The first responders arrived in 20 minutes -remember, this is a rural island.

We are lucky to have a emergency centre at the small clinic here on Gabriola. The doctor on-call made a quick decision and soon Vicky was being helicoptered to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. She underwent an 8 hour surgery to remove shrapnel (pieces of steel and cast iron from the stove) from her legs. Her husband Mike, brother-in-law Dave and Australian shepherd Tazi drove down to Victoria in the car - a two hour trip.

James, I, and the girls made that same trip the next morning to visit the hospital. Vicky was in bandages from the waist down, and her hands were also heavily bandaged. Miraculously, her face, neck and upper body were okay. No bones were broken except a couple of fingers. Her spine was okay. She was conscious and amazingly herself. "I got blown up", she said and laughed her gentle little laugh. Dave and Mike were pale and visibly shaken, rare for a couple of cool British lads. (The kids - I think of them as kids, even though they are in their early thirties) - are recent immigrants from England.)

We hugged and chatted and listened, and then Mike and Dave went to take Tazi for a walk. James did some reiki for Vicky, and I washed her face and cleaned the soot from her ears and hairline - she said she had been told she looked like a coal miner just come up from the deeps when the ambulance arrived. The nurses in emergency had wiped most of it off but a more thorough job needed to be done. It felt good for me to be able to offer a little care for this sweet girl.

The nurses at Royal Jubilee seemed to be the best - and as James, the eternal flirt, said to one, "Do they only hire beautiful nurses here?" Vicky had a private room, with sunshine pouring through the window. Thank the heavens for universal health care and that Vicky was covered.

She is possibly facing another surgery to remove more of the shrapnel and repair tissue damage. Follow up care and rehab, transportation and accommodation costs will add up, as well as lost time from work for Vicky and Mike. Our fabulous community has already started filling their freezer with home cooked meals and baked goodies. We have set up a trust account so people can donate money. Help is being offered to dogsit and walk Tazi, and to manage Mike and Vicky's table at this Saturday's craft fair. In less than a year, this kind, generous, talented young couple has made many friends on Gabriola - they may be far from their families home in England, but us islanders are doing our best to surround them with love and care.

You can find out more about Mike and Vicky at their websites:  Little Blue Dog Designs, Vicky Bowes Illustration, and their organization Ocean Roots.

James has seen Vicky again at the hospital and she is steadily improving. No estimate yet on when she will be home.