Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Selfie: A Meditation on the "I" in Fibre Work

Coptic Tapestry from Google Images 

I'm not a big fan of  "selfies," those ubiquitous candid photo shots of everyone and everywhere which fill up Facebook, Instagram, snapchat or any other social media site.  It's not that I don't understand the urge to leave one's mark; before cave paintings, before carvings chipped in stone, before "Kilroy was here," people have been noting their presence on Earth in all ways possible.  It's the thoughtless (as in "no planning required"), endless posting of images to which I object.  If I have a device which will take a picture, it must mean that everyone wants to see me and what I am doing Now.  The irony is, of course, that the instant selfie means that I have missed the very moment I am documenting.

Digital media make selfies very different from the self portraits of the past.  Recording one's presence used to require a set of materials, which could include anything from blood, feces and urine, to paint, ink or film.  It took time to make or collect these media.  Materials were often scarce, so planning was required and records were reserved for the wealthy or for times of great social significance, such as battles won or lost, births, marriages and deaths. While I'm all in favour of the democracy of instant media, I do wish there was a little more depth to the records we seem to cast about everywhere.

There's a long tradition of self-portraiture in fibre, too.  Look at the astonishing Coptic tapestry weaving from around 7 AD, at the top of the page.  A quick Google search of images turns up hundreds of woven portraits (click on the link to see them), from many countries and cultures, demonstrating the great human need to record our images and actions. Each of these portraits embody what the selfie lacks-by its very nature, weaving requires specific materials, some degree of planning, time and effort on the part of the weaver.  Where the modern selfie begs for thoughtlessness, the woven version is an homage to mindfulness. Time stops and there is only the steady over and under of the weft threads as they cover the warps.  There is rhythm and ritual, attention to each moment. Once the weaver engages with her work, she becomes the weaving.

I've been weaving a set of tapestry samples for an upcoming workshop I'm teaching next month.  I've been experimenting with a variety of setts, from 10 epi down to 4 epi, which is about the bottom range for weaving any kind of stable cloth.  My latest weaving is a sample of the bags my students will make.  Sett at 4 epi, there isn't much opportunity for detail. This sett works better for looser interpretations of images or free form; however, I wanted the challenge of weaving a self-portrait which could only incorporate the simplest of details. This meant that I had to carefully select what went into that selfie. Here's the result:

Handspun, natural dyed wool weft on cotton warp.
Compared to ancient tapestry images or modern weavings worked in finer threads with closer setts, my little piece is simple and crude.  Technically, the work is successful in that there's enough detail to convey the sense of portrait; we can see that this is not an image of a fish or a bicycle. Most importantly, once I took on the challenge of weaving this selfie, I quickly became absorbed in the work.  My breath deepened and my heart rate slowed, bringing peace into the moment. Each weft threaded through the warp threads and beaten into place became part of a larger meditation.  My hands not only controlled the medium, they became the work itself as I submerged into the rhythm of the cloth forming, pick by pick.

Like the digital selfie, I now have an historical object and image of the process.  Unlike my experience of the digital selfie, there was no instant gratification, but neither did I miss the moment as I was recording it.  Weaving kept me aware and present. I suspect more of these selfies will be the subjects of other tapestries.  Right now, I'm pleased with the current undertaking.

If you're looking for a bit of a weaving challenge, one which will draw you in and fill your creative spirit, put down that phone, tablet or camera.  Draw an image of your self, preferably of that hidden, inner self.  Gather your materials and weave, slowly, mindfully. See if the results are more fulfilling than the endless photos you see or display.  I'm willing to bet that one simple, woven selfie will bring you more joy than a thousand quick photo shots.


Friday, 18 April 2014

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful!: Weaving April's Diary

I've been working on a Tapestry Diary Weave Along project the last while. I joined the Ravelry group in February. This group inspired me to finish Raven, but the last push to complete yoga teacher training put everything on hold for March. After a couple of weeks' rest, I was looking for a way to celebrate both the end of training and a return to tapestry weaving.  I'm still unable to work on my larger piece due to physical constraints, so I warped up my small Forsyth frame loom and wove on it.  I love this little loom-it fits in a large makeup bag (which wouldn't know what to do if it actually encountered makeup), along with the tools and yarns I need, plus a spindle in case I run out of yarn. (Unlikely, I know, but one must be prepared.)  I carried this project to and from Coleen's house, as we met to work on our weaving projects.

I've been so happy getting back to fibre work that everything else around the house has been neglected. Not only are the dust bunnies breeding, both Morris and Mickey excel at tracking mud and leaves throughout the house.  Our living and kitchen floors look as if I've stencilled paw prints on them. So, I had a plan for today. I was going to open up the house and do some long overdue spring cleaning.  That plan went down the tubes this morning when I woke up to snow, sleet, rain and howling winds.Time for Plan B, which meant weaving.

Armed with coffee and a cat perched beside me, I spent seven hours pushing to complete "April."  Here she is on the loom:

Here's a detail-the colour is more accurate in this photo.  I was not going outside today to take photographs:

Off loom, from the front and the back:

The size off loom is 17.5 cm x 20.6 cm.  I used a singles commercial wool warp (which was too fine for this yarn and sett) and hand spun, hand dyed wool singles for the weft.  I worked from a cartoon and wove sideways.

Tapestry weavers and designers will quickly spot the flaws in this piece.  One of the few rules I have for weaving tapestry diaries is "No un-weaving." I do this because these pieces are meditation/concentration tools. They remind me to consider consequences before I act. They demonstrate that although I will forever make mistakes, the end result can contain sparks of beauty. They show me a path to the next step on the journey.

It was a day well spent, much more fun than cleaning house.  As for those dust bunnies and paw prints-I'm sure they will wait until tomorrow.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

You Spin Me Right Round: A Bit of Spinning Spring Cleaning

In theory, Spring has arrived.  By mid-April, it's reasonable, even in this cold region, to expect a run of warm days in which we can begin to tidy up yards, flowerbeds and gardens. This year has caught us once again, with a long, bitterly cold Winter which refuses to let go and which, last night and this morning, brings snow and well below seasonable temperatures once again.

Yesterday evening's meditation practice was about "Waiting."  Heather drew our attention to the time we spend waiting for things to happen-we wait in coffee shops; we wait for people to change so we can be happy (haha to that!); we wait for the snow to stop and the weather to warm up, all in anticipation of something better around the corner.  As a result, we fail to enjoy Now.  "What would happen," she asked, "If instead of filling the time, we decided to accept Now, stop waiting and be happy with what is?"

It's an interesting question and timely, too, because, as I shift back into fibre mode, I've turned my attention to using fibres and yarns I have on hand, rather than buying more in anticipation of a nicer yarn, a perfect project which awaits me in the future.  I started by hauling out my cotton yarn samples.  A while back, I emptied my bobbins by plying cotton singles together at random, which resulted in a small stash of nice, if knotty, cotton yarns and blends.  This week, I knit a couple of washcloths and a long, long sideways scarf from these scraps.  I promised myself I would use only what was on hand and resist the urge to spin more yarn.  As it happens, I had just enough yarn for two washcloths, but ran out on the bind off for the scarf on the last few stitches.  I decided to take a note from weavers, who often weave Spirit Lines or obvious mistakes into their work, in order to let the weaving spirit move from one project to another or to acknowledge that not one of us is perfect. As a result, if you look closely, you'll see a shift in the edge of the scarf at one end, but I'm betting that no one will notice unless I point out that shift.

My next step is to use up a batch of hemp and linen yarns, some of which have been sitting in my stash since-get this-1989.  Talk about waiting!  I've cast on with the hemp and am sampling another washcloth, which is likely to be a super scrubber and exfoliating piece of fabric, judging from the hand of the sample.  You can see it on the needles in the photo below, along with the linen yarns above it:

The linen yarns are at the top; the skein on the right dates back to 1989.

What I discovered while using up the stash was that, rather than being bored with what was available, focusing on what was here stimulated all manner of possibilities.  That pile of hand dyed, thick and thin wool yarns I made while playing with colour and plying may be a blanket; there's another wrap in the huge skein of purple wool and silk yarn.  I'm not waiting for that to happen, though.  I'm happy with what is on my needles now.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Footloose: On the Value of Cutting Loose and Letting Go

Yesterday was a good day.  I overhauled the fibre room, clearing out extra yarns, art supplies and assorted things belonging to the category, Things Which No Longer Serve Me. There was a point where, when Mr. DD invited me out to The Church of Robin's, I was not quite sure I'd be able to exit the room, so surrounded was I by Stuff.  (I found a path. Nothing gets between me and my coffee for very long.)

By late afternoon, I had reorganized the area so that there was actual bare space on the floor-not much, but enough that I could walk around my yoga mat if I wished.  In celebration, I spent the evening practising meditation painting, which involves putting on loud music and laying down watercolour brush strokes to the beat of whatever is playing.  No purpose, no goal, just me, my paints and pens and the music. In this case, it was Harry Manx and Friends Live at the Glenn Gould Studio, which was perfect, because that particular album contains a lot of Indian teental beats, which are perfect for  random, but mindful, brush and ink strokes. (There was a time when I danced kathak. Badly. Very badly. My dance career ended abruptly, when my skirt fell off on stage during a group performance. I was in my 40's at the time; the display was neither cute nor charming.)  Later, after an encounter with The Tedeschi Trucks Band's Everybody's Talkin', in which Susan Tedeschi sings the best cover of John Sebastian's Darling Be Home Soon I have ever heard, I had a fit of nostalgia, which may or may not have involved listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash's Greatest Hits while sipping an entire half glass of wine wine and working on a neglected pair of hand knit socks.

I danced.  I sang.  I pranced around my room (as best I could, given the limited space) like a kid in high school.  In kindness to Mr. DD, I did shut the door, but my antics were lively enough that Mick the Cat abandoned his post and sulked off to sleep on our bed.  When things got really wild, Morris barked from the living room in a kind of "Hey, you!  Settle down!" tone. It was silly and fun and exactly what I needed, after a long winter of bitter cold and hard studies.  

Why do I think this is worth a mention?  Well, here's the thing: when's the last time you let loose and let yourself Be?  How often do you practise the saying, "Dance as if no one is watching."?  I know it's been far too long for me.  Most of the time, I live in self-consciousness, wondering and sometimes worrying about what friends and family think, what people think, what I think of myself.  From what I observe, I'm not alone.  As we move more and more into long hours of work, ever at the beck and call of social media, always aware that one slight slip might be enshrined in the public arena, we lose our sense of play. Perhaps if we spent less time immersed in the external world of Selfies and more time in the world of humans, Being, we'd all be better and happier for the shift.



Monday, 7 April 2014

Riffin' the Night Away: Random Thoughts on Chris Grasso's "Indie Spiritualist"

"Say 'Nevermore,'" said Shadow.  "Fuck You," said Raven. (Neil Gaiman, American Gods)  
I laughed when I read this quote. I wish I’d written these words.  I’d have them on my tombstone, except that there won’t be a tombstone, because there won’t be a grave.  There’s a jar, with a large dragonfly on the lid.  I hope all of me fits in that jar, but if not, no matter.  There are more jars and I won’t be in any of them for very long.

I digress.  I’ve never read Gaiman, but I think it’s time.  I suspect he might have something to say to me.  I came across this quote by him while reading Chris Grasso’s, Indie Spiritualist, a hallelujah to rebels and misfits and independent travellers on the spiritual path. (Click on Grasso's name to link to his website.) I know little about Grasso, although I know more now, but I couldn’t resist someone who counts Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs among his treasured authors and who has high praise for Sigur Ros (or as Mr. DD calls them, “The Band of the Endless Chord”), a favourite of my son. Gaiman I don’t know at all, except that he’s a well-rounded, popular British author, mostly of fiction, which may explain why I have read nothing by him. I will now.

About that quote: Grasso opens a chapter, “Ignition,” with it, a chapter about sitting in sorrow, with loving kindness and full attention.  Grasso has spent his life refusing to be what others expect him to be, often in very destructive ways.  That’s left him with a pile of baggage to sort and much healing to do.  These days, he channels his energy into spiritual matters, but never takes the easy, well-travelled path.  Where once his response to convention may have been reactionary, now it’s considered, because he believes that each being’s journey must be his/her own, not bound by the expectations of others.

Grasso points out that we prefer our heroes and our rebels neat, clean, pretty, young (or at least, well preserved) and nicely packaged, because, among other reasons, it’s safer that way.  Rebel-in-a-box fits our capitalist, consumer society; step too far outside that box and you’re something to be feared, dismissed or scorned.

Consider this: that guy who hangs out downtown, sitting on a grate, rocking back and forth while holding a coffee cup for change-while we may feel compassion for him, do we ever think of him as a rebel?  Surely, he is one, no matter what has led him to his present condition, no matter whether he suffers for it or-the unthinkable-whether he’s content to be as he is. As we ignore him, or throw something in his cup, do we consider the possibility that he has something to teach us and that something might not be just about charity and loving kindness?  As Grasso reminds us, that being is just that, a Being, One of Us and We are One.  While it may be easy to see our connections, our humanity with others like us, it’s not so easy to connect with the Unlike, the Unpleasant, The Whatever-Label-We-Give-to-Others, let alone see them as part of ourselves, or as teachers who might guide us on our own journeys. It takes a lot of work.  It may take many lifetimes.

That’s what Indie Spiritualist is about, a guide to finding the unique path which only we can walk, that path which leads us back to All. That guide shines light on ugliness, despair and death, as well as joy and delight and transcendence, for they're all part of our spiritual travels. It’s not an easy trip, and it would often be more comfortable for everyone if  Rebel or Raven would just give in and say, “Nevermore.” To do so, though, might mean she/he is sacrificing a Truth, the honesty of Raven’s own flight.  For Ravens, and Indie Spiritualists everywhere, that sacrifice is not worth the risk of losing one’s way.

Sometimes, Raven has a story to tell. Sometimes, Raven laughs.  Sometimes, Raven just squawks.  How would we have it otherwise?


Monday, 31 March 2014

Free Bird/Fragile Bird: On the Importance of Allowing Space

When I hauled myself out of bed this morning and checked, the weather office had posted that the temperature was -17C/-25C windchill. I grumbled.  Those winter clothes I had packed away-out they came again and on they went, as I bundled up once more and headed to the yoga studio.  Despite these bitterly cold temperatures, there's a shift on the wind.  The sun is warmer, fire bouncing off ice.  The days are longer; the smell in the air has a faint scent of loam and the grasses to come.  Birds are singing.  As I continued along streets and through parks, I could feel my mood lighten and lift.  After months of tense, tight, hunched shoulders, I felt-Space.

That same sense of relaxed openness was Colin's theme in our class today.  He talked about stretching and wondered whether stretching actually does much good.  After all, it can take a good hour or two to stretch out our bodies, only to have that stretch undone with worry or with the first time we slip on the ice. Undoing the stretch would take all of 10 seconds, so which was more important, he asked, the stretch or relaxation? For the next hour and a half, we explored moving in non-yoga-tradition ways, stretching, slipping and sliding, with our socks on and our bodies off our mats.  It was a very giggly, wise-cracking class (Bert was there), so much so that Colin assured any newcomers that he did in fact teach traditional yoga poses in other classes.  This was his pre-April Fool's Day Special.  (I will not tell you what his actual April Fool's Day plans are.)

It felt wonderful to move again, after months of winter, study and post-surgical recovery.  As I wandered home, I thought about how important it was to allow spaciousness into the day, how remaining relaxed and open might affect our perspective on everything.

For the past few days, I've been spinning yarn samples for an upcoming article. The fibre I'm using is a soft wool top, likely Merino, dyed and prepared by a yarn company famous for its soft yarns in gorgeous colours.  Coincidentally, I've been reading complaints about this particular preparation, from experienced spinners and novices alike, who have found this top difficult to spin.  Although it's not my favourite fibre option, I haven't had trouble with the spinning.  I knew this wasn't because of my spectacular skills; far more masterful spinners than I have had a lot of trouble with the fibre.  As I read about their struggles, it occurred to me that at least some of the problems in spinning this yarn might have been mitigated if the fibre had been allowed some Space.  It's a cottony, short wool, sold in a tightly braided package. Many of those having trouble with it had opened the braid and started spinning without allowing the fibres to relax. I had undone my bundle, set up my wheel and then left the fibres overnight, which loosened them up and made for much easier drafting. (I'd like to claim this was a light bulb moment.  Truth be told, I simply got distracted by some other shiny, pretty thing-darn that Raven!-and wandered away from my wheel for a day or two. When I returned, the fibres had transformed.)

I also noticed that several spinners had trouble spinning the fibre when they used Short Forward Draft, which, for many spinners, is the default spinning style for this type of fibre preparation. Some spinners use only that technique for spinning worsted yarns, because, they've been told, that is the correct way to spin this yarn. My default worsted drafting style is Short Backward Draft. It's a sometimes controversial technique (yes, there is such controversy in the spinning world), but I find that the sliding motion of that technique (instead of pulling forward as in SFD) can help the yarn form more smoothly. Depending upon who you ask, there are reasons to use it and reasons not to use it, but refusing to consider using it at all closes off my spinning options.  It takes away Space.

I won't show you the yarn in progress, because it's reserved for something else.  I'm not really talking about yarn, anyway.  Instead, I'll give you another example of the way in which allowing an open approach to possibilities might affect our perspectives.  Dallas Green (City in Colour) is an artist, a great songwriter with an incredible voice.  His "Fragile Bird" speaks to me, musically and lyrically.  Yesterday, I went poking around on YouTube and discovered a mini-movie for the song and another version in which Dallas sits in what appears to be a guitar shop and simply sings.  Version 1 gives you a script for the song.  It sets the theme, the meaning and the emotions for that version of "Fragile Bird." In Version 2, Dallas plays his guitar.  He sings.

When I watch the first video, I'm just that: The Watcher. With so much information, my experience of the song is much smaller. I observe. The second version leaves me with a song, my imagination and room to grow.  I become that Fragile Bird.

Sometimes it feels right to work from set patterns or scripts.  You know the moves, you know what's coming and how things will end. At least, you think you know. Sometimes it feels good to jump into Space and see where you land.  If it doesn't feel like the time to jump, then sit.  Sit and and move and "sploosh." Open up into Spaciousness.  Practice relaxing.  Because, as we know, Practice Makes Perfect."


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Persephone and Demeter Wrap: What to Do With Art Yarns

In Greek mythology, Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld, which enraged Demeter so much that she refused to bring forth the seasons of growth and fertility to the Earth. In order to heal the devastation this caused, Demeter was allowed to return to Earth; however, because she had eaten six pomegranate seeds while trapped in the Underworld, she was sentenced to return there for six months of the year.  Demeter, the Crone Mother, mourns her loss every year, which brings on the Winter season. Each time, her mourning ends. Persephone rejoins her Mother. Spring returns.

We are on the tail end of one of the coldest winters in our history.  We've been tempted with the promise of Spring several times, only to have Winter return.  Demeter must be very unhappy this past while.  It's difficult to know what to expect when we venture out (or stay in, near drafty windows).

A batch of art yarns has been calling me.  They're the result of my experiments in spinning stable super bulky yarns from soft, soft fibres, including Merino wool, silk, cashmere, camel and alpaca. The yarns are heavy and luxurious, the kinds of yarns which beg to be worn next to the skin.  Their texture and bulk precludes fancy stitches and there is just enough total yardage to knit something small.  I cast on 70 stitches on 12 mm needles and knit in garter stitch, picking up yarns as they spoke to me, changing from one natural colour to the next when it seemed the time to do so.  The result is this wrap, which reminds me of the Persephone/Demeter myth.  The heavy yarns in whites and brown belong to Winter. The openness of the stitches wrapped around large needles make the fabric warm but light enough to be worn outside on early Spring days or in the house when the weather turns cold again.  The wrap is simple and will suit many bodies, from Young Maiden to Crone. Persephone has an alternate name, "Kore," which is a nice bit of serendipity, because the yarns in this wrap include thick and thin, cabled, felted singles and core spun techniques.


I'm not providing a pattern here.  I had about 500 grams/250 metres of bulky yarn on hand. I cast on 70 stitches on a 12 mm needle.  I used straight needles because that is all I had, but I strongly encourage you to use a long circular needle, because cramming and knitting that many stitches on a straight needle is no fun. I knit until I ran out of yarns.The gauge is about 1.3 stitches per inch.  The knitting is loose and open, so stability in this piece has to come from the yarns. Spinning stable yarns from soft, often short fibres can be difficult; make sure to spin and finish your art yarns properly to prevent excessive stretching and pilling. Rather than making button holes, I made 6 twisted fringes from the yarns left as I changed colours, 1 fringe for each month Demeter rules.  Persephone is represented by 6 pomegranate seeds I embroidered with hand spun yarn on the back side of the wrap. The 3 large seed pod buttons were a thrift shop find; I rescued them from a worn out piece machine knit from acrylic yarn.

Close up view of the "pomengrate seeds"

(Congratulations to all my fellow graduates in the Bodhi Tree Yoga Teacher Training Programme.  I'll see you tonight at our Celebration, the yogic version of "Prom Night!")