Saturday, January 31, 2015

Progress Report

 Six complete critters, three partials, and a whole lotta foliage to go. Dimensions about 54" wide and 36" high, stitched in Paternayan crewel wool for the critters and DMC #5 Perle Coton for the foliage. I started on November 18th, so that is approximately 150 hours of stitching to date.
I take my work seriously.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Be The Change

Today I went on a field trip to Chemainus with a lively group of island hookers. (We love it when people take that the wrong way!) We were off for a few hours of hooking at Val Galvin's studio, with side trips to the Old Town Bakery in Ladysmith, and the Sandpiper Gardens to pick up a mulberry bush for Heide. Believe me, traffic halts when a gaggle of creatively dressed gray-haired ladies scurry across the road.

It was a lovely and very fun-filled day, with lots of good conversation. I had a rare moment of clarity when, in trying to explain why I would show my art in a venue where I had no expectation of sales, I said that it was important to contribute to the aesthetic texture of the community. In thinking about this later I realized that this was the answer I should have had a few days ago when James was giving me heck for entering this year's studio tour, after vowing that I would never do so again.

The aesthetic texture of a community is a vital, yet rarely recognized aspect of our daily lives. Gabriola bills itself as "Isle of the Arts", and as one gets off the ferry, the first thing you see is a mural covering the bland square of a utility box. Proceed up the hill, and the telephone poles are brightly painted. Enter any restaurant and you will see local art on the walls. Drive around and you will see every variety of creative installation in people's yards. Venture down a forest path, and you will find sculptures of precariously balanced rocks, and leaves with little goblin faces scattered around. Drop by the pub and there will be live music of a surprising sophistication. If you come on a weekend, you will have to choose between offerings of modern dance, choral music or burlesque. The workshops of the Isle of the Arts festival extend throughout the year... you get the picture. Gabriola is a place bubbling with creativity. That is our background noise, our aesthetic texture.

Found sculpture deep in the Gabriola woods. It is a couple of feet high, and all depends on that horizontal stone in the middle.
It's a place that I would much rather be than, say, in the financial district of a big city. A piece of inspired graffiti on the side of a gray concrete building in the city is like a flower to me, not a defacement. Seeing and feeling creativity all around creates a fertile ground for more wild ideas, more colour, more thought, more fun.

It's easy to extend this concept to blogging (and I suppose those other thing like Flickr and Tumblr and such that I don't know much about.) Nobody logs on to see the countless ads for things we don't need and can't afford, or to be depressed by the relentless waves of newsdrek. At least, I don't think so. I think we want to feel connected, to be surprised, or amazed, to share, to feel human. I hope, in some tiny way, that my online presence contributes to a stream of aesthetic texture that has a positive impact. Like Sarah's comment two posts ago:
I love the idea of amulets to ward off rampant capitalism - for both personal use, and the earth. Maybe what is needed is not so much one big one, but thousands of small ones, made all over the planet, by many people and placed somewhere secret? Actually that could be a magnificent thing on so many levels - the magic of amulets, environmental education, possibly also highlight the environmental downside of the textile industry too ... or am I just going over board??
Not overboard at all, dear Sarah! I think that we each have the ability to make a small difference, and what are small differences when undertaken on a global scale but a complete change in the whole picture?

In closing, I offer a contrasting pair of real life scenarios. (If only I had had my camera with me!) The first, seen in a Nanaimo outlet of Staples, the big-box retailer of office supplies, is a display of T-shirts, printed with the slogan: "Be the Change". Only $24.95 and available in all sizes. The second, seen on the sidewalk outside the Art Gallery, is a scruffy young man playing the banjo, the case in front of him open, and a scrawled cardboard sign asking "Be the Change". Marveling at how Gandhi's head must be spinning at a pace beyond comprehension, my handful of coins went into the banjo case. I'll go for music and wit over crass cynicism every time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Well, That Didn't Take Long

I finished the cowl from the yarn I spun a couple of posts ago. Lovely, light and soft. No pattern, no swatch. I just cast on a likely number of stitches on a short circular needle, knit double moss stitch 'til i ran out of yarn.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Safe From Inner and Outer Harm

The thing about amulets is that they presume there are things we need protecting from in this world. Most of us would agree that it is reasonable to take measures to protect ourselves, individually and collectively, from harms such as sickness, injury and poverty. These ills can be defended against without one being accused of superstition. But what about deeper, darker forces that can be conveniently summed up as "evil". Sinful things like greed, hatred and ignorance, personified by the Devil in some belief systems, or as demons, tricksters and primordial beasts in others. Powerful forces that we have no control over. These are things that call for greater protection than immunization or airbags or social safety nets can give us, and that is where the power of magic comes in. Or faith and symbol, if you prefer.

Older cultures than ours believed that malevolent forces could be distracted or averted by materials or objects that, either through the nature of their making or their physical characteristics, were imbued with protective powers. Sparkly, shiny, reflective objects like mirrors and beads traditionally repel the evil eye, as do symbols such as crosses or the hamsa, and shapes with pointy corners. Amulets may also be blessed by a powerful individual such as a priest or shaman, as is the one below, supposedly blessed by the Dalai Lama.
I was given this after I broke my back. I think the kindness of the person who gave it to me was more immediately helpful in my healing, though. But I saved it, even after the end cap was lost, cause it's about as close as I likely will ever get to the Dalai Lama himself. As you can see the amulet contained a scroll with a prayer on it and a few grains of rice.
Our consumer culture is founded on feelings of need and anxiety, induced by advertising. How do we protect ourselves against such an insidious and nebulous evil?

I think one of the best defenses is our own creative power. The magic of bringing into being something that has never been before, of manifesting ideas into concrete reality, of transmuting our energy into a material object - this brings us closer to the core of existence.When these creative acts are conducted with selflessness, purity of intention and an open heart, we cannot fail.

So, I have this nutty idea that I need an amulet to protect me from rampant capitalism. Well, not so nutty, actually, I have just been reading Naomi Klein. I think Earth needs a planet-sized amulet to ward off those intent on raping and pillaging her for profit. What would such an amulet look like? What might it contain? I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Precious Thing

It's pretty rare for me to covet a piece of jewelry. But this gold cast fabric cuff by Alabama Chanin has me thinking dark thoughts. If you look closely, you can see that the precious metal is sewn through with real thread.

I know many of you are already fans of the the brilliant Natalie Chanin. I like her commitment to keeping the whole chain of production local to her community, her use of organic cotton and of course her beautiful, flattering designs. I like the way she shares her patterns and techniques so anyone can make their own "Alabama Chanin". And I also like the way she reduces waste by finding clever uses for her scraps and off cuts. She is no doubt a smart businesswoman, but she gives the impression, at least, of being one with vision and integrity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Now Here's a Change of Pace

And about time, too! I have pretty much stopped spinning, as I have a cedar chest full of handspun yarn, and nobody who needs sweaters, or shawls, or afghans. But my sweet sister Laura gave me a package of very intriguing rolags for Christmas.
Laura lives in Kingston, Ontario, known among other things as the "Limestone City". Appropriately enough, this fibre by Project Fleece is in the colourway "Limestone". It is a mix of grey and white merino/alpaca, BFL dyed locks, banana fibre and shreds of spun wool.
I spun it up in a loosely supported long draw. Pretty nifty, huh? Not sure if I should navajo ply it to keep the colour gradations or just barberpole it. And I don't know what I will do with the finished yarn either - probably a scarf for my sister. But it definitely made for a fun evening.

Laura bought the fibre from Purlin'J's Roving Yarn Company - a little yarn shop in a converted van that travels from town to town. Delightful!

I decided to just do it as a 2 ply, since the colour gradations weren't that long. I quite like the result, and it is super soft.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Facing the Rock, Rocking the Face

Sometimes the weary worker needs to emerge into the light of day. This is what I saw.

Heather's Little Sweatshop - The Day After

The camera pans down the stairs to the kitchen. A stray beam of sunlight illuminates the wreckage. Garish lime green fabric is strewn everywhere. Threads litter the floor. In the background, a tap drips.

Welcome to my nightmare, as the saying goes. Shockingly, it's not over yet, but the end is glimmering on the horizon. I have only the bibs to go, then the final assembly. I figure my wage has gone down from $20 an hour to $15, and it will be $10 before I'm done, but that is somewhat due to my inability to forgo niceties such as clipping thread ends.

I did discover that long tedious seams are not so mind-numbing if they are curved - applying bias binding to the 60 inch circular hems was a bit of a challenge in the technical sense. This reminds me of how I can do thousands of stitches by hand in an embroidery while loving every moment - I actually have to think about each stitch, and keep the hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills going.

I asked James, who used to work for a company that optimized assembly-line production about this. He said that the mind-numbing boredom induced by doing the same thing over and over and over was a safety concern, so it was recommended that workers be switched to different stations on a regular basis. They might still have to be on the same station for days or weeks though.

I also remember reading the book  Rivethead many years ago, written by Ben Hamper, a guy who worked the Flint, Michigan GM assembly line, and who described all the tricks the workers would devise so they could either stay awake or finish more quickly so they could catch a nap. It was a way of gaining some control over his place in a massive corporate system.

Well, Heather's Little Sweatshop is no massive corporate system, just a self-imposed yet still oppressive dynamic between me, the client and the clock. Anything I can do to be more efficient, or make my workplace more pleasant renders the whole enterprise more bearable.

The original model that I was given to copy.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Heather's Little Sweatshop

Before Christmas, I accepted a sewing job for a friend of a friend. She wanted some aprons sewn to give as presents to her friends. Not my most favourite thing, especially right after I declared determined focus on my art, but I quoted $20 bucks an hour, estimating that it would take me an hour to make each apron, figuring that would be enough to scare off someone who wasn't serious. Unfortunately, the client agreed, upping the order to six aprons, and gave me an open-ended time frame, as she was giving them as birthday prezzies, not Christmas gifts.

My friend and her friend (the client) went off to get fabric, hoping to match the very attractive retro style fabric of the bib apron she was wanting me to copy. I advised them to avoid the horrors of Fabricland, if at all possible, but where did they go? Straight there naturally, because a big sale was on. Of course, they couldn't find what they wanted, and settled for something not-as-nice, but okay. Once the fabric was in my door, I had to wash it, as it reeked of fillers and finishes.

It sat over the holidays, giving me the stink-eye every time I walked by. Then, the other day, I got an email from my friend wondering how I was doing with the aprons. In the interest of giving her a progress report, I figured I better get the damn things done and out the door. (Did I mention that I run a bad attitude sweatshop?)

I had already taken a tracing of the sweet little half circle skirt apron, with an overskirt and bib, adding the three inches in length the client requested. (I'll bet Damselfly is rolling her eyes right now. She knows what's coming.) Hmmn, seems the original took advantage of every inch of the 44" fabric and I would have to do some fancy manoeuvring to fit the pattern pieces to the fabric. Turns out this was the creative highlight of the whole enterprise, but it did take twice as long as it should have.

Okay, cutting is done, on to the construction. The only way to make this work is to do it like an assembly line. Apron strings and neckbands first. 18 times 45" of 1/4 inch seams, tubes turned inside out and pressed flat. After the first six seams, I was having great sympathy for real sweatshop workers. During the next six, I tried to make it like a game, and do each one faster than the next. For the final six I was vowing that if I somehow became Queen of the Western World, all citizens would have to work on a production line for a day to see what it was really like. I had to take a break then, because I couldn't face another endless seam.

Heather's Little Sweatshop has music, and wine, and unlimited bathroom breaks, and cuddly dogs - jeez, what am I complaining about? Only 35 minutes has passed. My neck hurts, and I'm bored to tears.

Thank God I have the best iron in the world. My sweetie gave me the Rowenta that I had been blatantly hinting about for Christmas, and wow, that thing can steam! It made blessedly short work of the miles of apron strings. It almost makes me look forward to the 6 times 85 inches of bias binding that is next on the list.

These aprons better not be gag gifts, that's all I can say.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sometimes I Just Need to Get Out of My Own Way

Just before I fell asleep last night I realized that, when I look back at my life, I always decide that I have been a complete and utter idiot up until very recently. Whether I have any sense now is remains open to question, but if I try to be in the moment, I usually think, "I'm okay. I am a good person, and I quite enjoy hanging out with myself. I like what I make, and do, and I think I have finally got a bit of a handle on things."

And then, something springs up from the past, and blindsides me. This is what happened with two lovely comments from Blandina and Lis on my recent amulet tutorial. They both thanked me for the post, and reminded me of the travel amulets I had made and sent them before they went to Japan for a workshop with Bryan Whitehead.

I was shocked! I had made them amulets? Really? Slowly, the mists parted, and I remembered. Of course! They went on that workshop that I would have loved to have gone with them to. It was at some chaotic time of my life or other, and I couldn't afford to go, but I could send a bit of my energy with them. After Blandina and Lis returned and I heard about how wonderful a trip it was, I was happy for them and then, I guess, I kind of forgot about the amulets. But they didn't obviously. What a wonderful little hit of energy was returned to me, years after it was sent out into the world!

So what can I conclude from this story? No, not my default position that I am a complete and utter idiot. How about, maybe, I have been a better person that I thought I was? All along? Could that be? Or maybe, just maybe, those years of therapy actually worked. Or, simply, I am not the impartial observer of my own life that I thought I was.

Quite often I have made things and they go out into the world and I forget about them until stumbling across them years later. I am usually astonished. "I made that? Wow, it's better than I thought." When I am too close to something, all I see are the flaws, the bits I could have done better. Time has a nice way of giving distance and revealing truth.
 I don't think it is a coincidence, that just before turning off the light and having my little epiphany last night, I was reading the genius Lynda Barry's  new book Syllabus. It is a real mind opener and I unreservedly recommend it, along with her brilliant What It Is and Picture This.


Photo copyright Carol Price
One of my readers (bless each and every one of you!), Carol P., sent me this lovely picture of the amulet she started making before seeing my most recent post. Here's what she said about it:
I've been working on an amulet bag since last week.  Even though I am not quite finished with it ( I am still crocheting the strap) I decided to send a picture anyway.   I am the recipient of this amulet.  It is designed to be worn as a necklace.   It is made from scraps of cotton fabric dyed with plants gathered from the fields surrounding my home.  I used crochet cotton dyed from locally gathered walnuts. I picked up the  peachy-pink stone used for the closure on one of my daily walks.  It is sewn closed and I'm not telling what is inside!! --  to divulge that information may dilute the energy I am trying to create!  I never begin with a plan, they just sort of evolve on their own.
I really like the earthy quality of the amulet, and  the chain stitch spiral, and the pretty stone closure - everything about it actually. And Carol has got it right - making amulets is about working with energy - there are no right or wrong instructions to follow, just let your intention (and intuition) be your guide!

 You can see more of Carol's beautiful handwork on her Flickr page

Monday, January 12, 2015

Amulets Are All Around

So many of you asked if I would be offering my amulet workshop online that it made me wonder. The prospect of setting up an actual online course is beyond me at the moment, but I thought, "Well, I have to make a number of samples, and I will probably post them on the blog anyway, so maybe I could expand them into tutorials, and if people want to share what they've made, I can always link to them."

So, what do you think? Shall we dive right in? I'm working intuitively here, without a plan. I'm trying to listen and respond to the materials, with the intention of creating an object that will contain my positive energy, and have the potential to transmit that energy to others.
Found cloth
Sometimes inspiration appears on our doorsteps. I found the piece of cloth above on the side of the road as I walked the dogs. It was frozen, and covered with pine needles, but the bold black and white pattern caught my eye right away.
Washed, dried and trimmed
As it was meant to! Black and white stripes have been called "the devil's cloth", as the high contrast vibration dazzles the eye. There's a great little book of that title written by Michel Pastoureau.
Finish the border
I debated about whether to finish the hem or to leave it raveled. Perle cotton in my favourite red, DMC 666, seemed more appropriate though. I just did a simple blanket stitch, but you could embellish it more heavily if you like. There is a reason for protecting the edges - many cultures believe the edges, corners and seams are vulnerable places where evil spirits can sneak in, so those places are given special treatment to keep them safe.
Add a blessing
Since the cloth was found by the roadside, lost and apart from its original body, I thought it might carry a blessing to bring travelers safely home. I looked in various books for appropriate words, and liked this one best, from John O' Donohue's "To Bless the Space Between Us". It is actually a blessing for an exile, but it seemed fitting. I wrote it on a square of mat board that I had faced with a nice piece of Japanese paper - you can see it peeking out below.

I thought I would put tassels on each corner (dangling objects also offer protection), so I made four little tassels out of red yarn. But they looked too new and skimpy for my liking, so I gave them a quick felting at the kitchen sink.
Sew the corners together to make a pouch
I'm going to sew the pouch completely closed. This might seem a bit odd, since the recipient of the amulet will never see the blessing. But I'm thinking of the Japanese silk amulets that one can buy at any shrine or temple, a tiny pouch containing, we are assured, a blessing written on a piece of paper and folded around a little piece of wood that holds the shape of the tiny pouch, which is then tied shut with a cord. Does the amulet have any less power because the wearer doesn't know exactly what is contained? Maybe it has power because there is belief, or faith, or trust. Do we need to see the evidence to know that it is there? I'm not sure...
Whipstitch through the loops of blanket stitch
Black perle cotton whipstitch gives a cord-like effect - simple and effective.
See how the pattern comes back together? Unexpected and neat!
I added a Hand of Fatima charm to protect the place where the four corners come together. Again, protecting the vulnerable spots. As this particular symbol has special meaning for women, I think this should be an amulet for a female traveler or immigrant.
The final step is to sew the pompoms to the corners. I strung a blue glass bead (another device to protect against the evil eye) and a small brass bead on the thread before securing each pompom. Finally, I added a hanging cord. The finished amulet measures about 4 inches square. Quite a transformation from its humble beginnings!

Total time, apart from the washing and felting steps, about 2 hours.
Materials: Square of cloth, small scrap of cardboard, perle cotton, chenille and tapestry needles, tassels or pompoms, beads, and charm. Best if they come from the stash, are found objects, or have a personal significance.
The creative midden
You may, if you choose, prepare the space in which you create your amulet. Many prefer a clean surface, as I would if I had elves that came in the night to tidy up. But as you can see, I work in chaos, and the eleves are busy elsewhere. The amulet was created in that small square of space in the foreground. So be it.

I'm going to try to present a different amulet each week. If you are inspired to make one of your own, please share with a link to your blog in the comments section, or send me an image to the email address in the sidebar and I will post it for you.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

In Progress

The new piece is finally getting to the stage where I know it's working. I had carefully set up the layout so the critters would be making eye contact with each other in various configurations, but I didn't know how well that would show up in stitch. Turns out, it is happening just as I had planned. (Gleeful chuckle.)
I stitch the critters first, then fill in the foliage around each one. In this way I can look forward to both the fun, more intricate parts (critters), and the less challenging, easy parts (foliage). Hmmn, did you notice that I think the hard parts are more fun? When I am starting a critter, I stitch the line of its back first, just like I would do in life drawing - the posture animates the pose.
Then I move to the face, which usually requires smaller threads and careful attention to detail. This feral cat has quite a wonky expression, and very unusually for Louis Nicolas, no teeth!
Whilst stitching, we were visited by a tiny creature of another order in the animal kingdom - a wee spider (see her in the lower right quadrant of the shot. Arachne herself shows up - a blessing to be sure!
I continue to fill in detail on the face and expand into the body. I can't complete the whiskers until the layer underneath is finished, so threads dangle for a while. It takes between 3 and 5 hours to complete a 8 inch figure. The fur usually goes fairly quickly. When the whole piece is done I will go back over each figure, making small corrections and adding emphasis to major lines if needed.

I'd like to make a shout out to Denise from Quebec, who left a comment recently on the red-Winged Blackbird post. Louis Nicolas's work was all in French (and Algonquin) of course, and I have been a bit worried that I have not served his legacy properly, writing only in English. Le maudit Anglais and all, you know. Thanks Denise for your kind words!

And also In Progress, is Vicky Bowes' recovery. Thank you to all who have asked for an update. Vicky has been home since just before Christmas, and has been making great, well not strides exactly, but baby steps. She is able to walk a short distance without her cane, and has been working on a new set of commissioned  illustrations. She has a pair of compression gloves that she calls her "Queen Mother" gloves that help keep the swelling down. And she has a whole new appreciation of stitching - over 140 stitches were removed from the wounds on her legs.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

And Now For Something Slightly Ridiculous...

Photos from the MAL Furniture website.
Latest style news from the New York Times features sweater cosy for a plastic Eames chair from Dutch designer Niels Wildenberg. The hand knit cosies are priced at $1750, more than the chair itself. Wildenberg explains: “It takes more than a week to knit just one sweater, but the chair — just put plastic powder inside a mold and pull it out.” "The sweaters are undyed wool from New Zealand, knitted on tree branches, above, that allow artisans to work around the curves", continues the article.
Here's the unclad plastic chair, priced at just under a thousand dollars.
Well, I say, it's obvious Wildenberg has never been near a knitting needle, or he'd know that the tree branches so attractively pictured would be impossible to actually knit on. I think an interview with one of the "artisans" he mentions is in order. Wonder how much they are paid? He says that he wants his work to make people laugh - well, good, but those are awfully pricey chuckles.

And of course, people have been knitting giant things for awhile. I am reminded of artist Dave Cole's giant knitted things, including a huge flag knitted using industrial cranes, and this teddy knitted out of fibreglass insulation. I believe he does the knitting himself. And he's about more than just making people laugh.
The world never fails to amaze me.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Gleaning of the Day

Photo by Mister Finch
Check out this article about an artist, Mister Finch, who makes animal sculptures from vintage cloth. I found it on an interesting site called Colossal. It makes a nice New Year's Day browse.