Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 24 January 2014

Back to Black: Raven Comes Calling

The weather has shifted here once again.  It's unseasonably warm, with a northwest wind gusting.  Water runs everywhere and rain is expected later today.  It feels to me like a day of light, hope and fresh outlook.

I saw a Raven this morning.  He was definitely a Raven, not a large and saucy Crow.  He flew down from the roof of the Robin's Donut shop, landed about 3 or 4 metres away from me as we crossed the parking lot and barked loudly.  (Raven barked, not me.)  I greeted him warmly. Raven took exception when I moved beyond the boundaries he had set and flew away.  The encounter lasted no more than a minute, but it made my day.

Raven is trickster, holder of knowledge and wisdom, respected (and sometimes feared) by many peoples. Here is a brief excerpt from Spirits of the West Coast Art Gallery about Raven:  (Click here for more information on Raven from this site.) 

The Raven 

The Native Symbol or Totem Raven:  Mischievous and curious the Raven is the cultural focus of the Native Northwest Coast People. He symbolizes creation, knowledge, prestige as well as the complexity of nature and the subtlety of truth. He also symbolizes the unknown and is there to show that every person sees the world in a different way as another. The Raven was often called upon to clarify truths in visions, as the wise elders knew that what the eye sees is not always the truth. Many of the original peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast refer to him as a god, and it is believed by some that messages from the creator or the cosmos are buried in the wings of the Raven only to be released to the families most deserving of his knowledge. The Raven is a long distance healer and is known as the “keeper of secrets,” he helps us in our lives by exposing the truth of kept secrets that could potentially harm us, in doing so he helps us back to good health. The Raven was only ever feared if misused. Besides being a member of many different clans, every descendant from the Northwest Coast First Nations belongs to either a Raven or Eagle Clan. The membership was always defined by which clans the mother belonged to.
After that meeting, I continued on with my day.  As I wandered about, exploring this and that store, I came across a treasure, Barbara Walker's The Crone.  If you're a knitter, you'll know that name: Ms. Walker wrote the bibles of knitting stitch patterns. Her Treasuries, along with her many other works on knitting, are considered the go-to resources for generations of knitters.  What's not so well known about Ms. Walker is that, when she believed she had completed her work on knitting, she moved on to exploring many other subjects, such as Tarot and mythology.  Most notably, she wrote about women, feminism, mythology, aging and power.  The Crone, which was written in 1985, explores the power of the aging female.  I've never seen a copy (although it's still available to order), so when I found it today, especially after I had seen Raven, it seemed like a sign.  I bought it-the poor woman in the store got an earful about the importance and history of the book and Ms. Walker, whether she wanted it or not.  Ms. Walker speaks of seven types of Crone, from the Lost Crone, through to the Wise Crone and finally, the Future Crone.  There is much food for thought here and the words seem timely, not simply because I am in the Crone stage of my life, but also because one chapter of my life is coming to a close and I am seeking more new beginnings.

Ms. Walker, still alive and by all reports still going strong, auctioned off many of her knitting samples last year.  I was fortunate to purchase one of her pieces.  It's a simple, seed stitch vest in black wool. Unlike Ms. Walker's flashier work, it didn't attract much attention, but it called to me. The vest seems just as it was described: plain, black, short and wide, with a bit of waist shaping.  It came with a Certificate of Authenticity and a tag signed by Ms. Walker. Like Raven, this black vest is deceptively simple, yet potentially powerful.  Her power doesn't lie in her existence or her maker.  Her power, like Raven's, emanates from the symbolism we attach to her.  For me, this vest is about possibilities, about the creative mind and the open heart required to move from one life to another. For me, this vest is the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy's used napkin that Penny gave to Sheldon as a Christmas gift several seasons ago on The Big Bang Theory.  I don't think I'll clone Ms. Walker, though.  In fact, I don't think the vest will live at my house for long.  She will stay only until the time comes for her to move on and then she'll find a new perch.

I don't know what Raven came to tell me today.  I don't know why I had to acquire Ms. Walker's vest or her book on crones.  I only know that these things happen and will continue to happen and that, if I practise allowing my mind to settle and my heart to open, I will learn those lessons I am given to learn.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

If a Tree Falls in the Forest: Between Two Trees (A Lamentation)

Two tall fir trees stand in our front yard.  They were there when we moved in, decades ago.  At that time, their tops reached the height of our roof; now, they’re at least thirty feet in height, so tall that I would have to stand down the block, in the middle of the street to photograph them in their entirety.  These twins have sheltered various creatures over the years.  When the children were small, a nesting pair of robins built their home in a branch in full view of our picture window.  We spent weeks watching the birds build the nest (with a stray bit of my yarn incorporated by chance), warm the turquoise blue eggs and raise their greedy hatchlings with a constant supply of insects.  We kept the cat inside when the fledglings spread their wings.  I kept a record of the process.  Those drawings and paintings are among the work that pleases me most, not for the quality of the artwork, but for the memories of days past.

One of the nests I've collected over the years

That spring, all the babies took flight safely.  The next season, we were not so lucky.  Crows moved into the neighbourhood.  Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t fend off that particular murder.  My children learned some heart-breaking lessons that day: all creatures suffer. Sorrow will come, no matter how desperately we fight to drive it away.  The robins never nested in that tree again, but every year since, we have had a family of feisty birds, living in a tree behind the backyard shed or in neighbouring yards, hunting the grass for their constant meals and boldly taunting both dog and cat from the safety of our fence.  I like to think that they are descendants of that same first family who gave us such pleasure all those years ago.

Now, the trees are home to several screaming squirrels and a rabbit who kicks out the dirt by the trunk of the northern most tree and spends his winter(s) there.  I say “winters” because, much like the robins, there has been a resident jackrabbit under that tree for several years.  Sometimes, he sits on the walk at the base of our front steps and looks in the window.  As soon as he sees me looking back, he’s gone.  Usually, we do no more than greet him, but last year, in the winter that would not end, the snow was so deep that we feared for his safety, so we bought a sack of alfalfa hay which kept him warm and fed until spring finally arrived.  That rabbit was a bit bolder.  Once he recognized what we were doing, he would no longer sprint away when we came down our front driveway. Other than calling out that greeting, which seems only polite, we don’t encourage friendliness with humans.  That way trouble lies.

The trees are old now, and sick.  Despite years of futile effort on our part—for what can we do for creatures like that?—unsuitable ground to grow and the simple passage of time has thinned their branches and weakened their trunks.  They’re not yet a safety hazard, but we know that someday, down they’ll come, so we make contingency plans for their removal.  The next door neighbour comments how much she enjoys seeing those trees from her front window and watching the squirrels and rabbits come and go and we think, “One more year.”

Here’s the thing:  this Christmas, Young Mr. DD, who has spent the past several years working in forests, planting trees, measuring the growth and health of the flora there, stood at our front window and watched our trees.  After a few moments, he said something which shocked me more than all the environmental  studies and messages I have heard the past few years.  His comment?  “Those are pretty healthy trees you have there.”  I looked at him in disbelief; his father and I both argued  that the trees were definitely not well and would have to come down soon.  Mr. Young DD’s response was this:

“You don’t see the trees that I see every day.  They are far worse than those two out there.”

Take a moment to think about that and what it might mean.  Two old, sickly, out of place fir trees are healthier than what a forest worker works with every day.  Draw your own conclusions: I’ve heard the stories about what happens in the woods and I know the sources to be reliable, but they are not my stories to tell.  Consider this: everything has an end and there will come a time when the forests are gone, but perhaps we should not be in such a rush to help that process along. For no matter where we are, in the heart of the woods, on the tops of bare mountains or on a city street deep in the prairies, those trees give us and all beings, Life. When that last tree falls in that last forest, there will soon be no one left to hear it.  And that will be another kind of murder.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

Spill the Wine: Winter Count and Random Thoughts on a Saturday Night

Coleen and I spent a pleasant few hours together yesterday, weaving, chatting and eating.  I did some random weaving on my Cactus Loom-the pipe loom is too heavy to carry far-then came home, inspired to work on the Winter Count tapestry this evening.

Day Three:

Yes, things always go better with wine, especially organic wine, which I believe can be classified as a health food. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)  I can manage only one glass of wine while weaving; by the second glass, things go terribly askew.

Weavers will note that I'm incorporating soumak knots (with a line or two of rya pile knots) into this piece. Those knots are a nod to Colin's Wednesday yoga class, where he talked about untying knots in the body by using the breath. Here I'm adding knots; the rhythm of winding thread around thread calms my breath and body.

In today's meditation class, we explored using a three part Viloma Breath to connect past, present and future.  Although it's important not to dwell in the past, what has gone before determines what we are Now. Although mindfulness brings awareness to the present, it also reminds us to consider what is important and allows us to use the present to build the future.

My tapestry weaving is much like this practice-each pass of the weft thread focuses my attention.  I can only think of Now as I position line upon line of weaving; distractions mean skips in the fabric, unfilled warp threads which require reweaving. Those passes build upon each other. What has gone before determines what will be woven in the future.  A strong foundation guides the unknown outcome.  Despite that Not Knowing, experience has taught me that each pattern will eventually form a cohesive cloth, though seldom one which went according to plan.

It's a pretty good way to spend a Saturday night-weaving, drinking wine, listening to Holger Petersen's Saturday Night Blues.  Outside, the temperature is rising, snow is blowing.  All is well.

Or perhaps I'm just drinking really good wine.



Thursday, 9 January 2014

Winter Count: A Meditation in Tapestry

Late last year, Coleen, my fibre arts compadre, and I made a pact to weave in the New Year this winter. Coleen recently studied with Sara Lamb and has decided to weave cut pile bags from her hand spun silk.  I have studied with different tapestry weavers, most notably James Koehler,  a remarkable weaver who left the planet a few years ago, and Terri Carefoot, who sparked my curiosity about Navajo weaving.  Coleen is beginning her weaving adventure; I have been neglecting my passion for the past few years, but whenever I need to lift my spirit, I return to my first love, weaving.  We both thought that weaving together would keep us walking the weaver's path and entertain us through this long cold winter. We have a weaving play date for tomorrow, so this morning, I dusted off one of my looms, a small, sturdy pipe loom given to me by another friend, Roberta, who has left fibre arts behind in order to devote her time to her photography.  Along with the loom, I hauled out warp yarns and a bag of hand spun wool yarns in natural colours and began to play.

In honour of those who drew me to weaving, I began a Winter Count. I weave my winter count tapestries on narrow warps, with no plan other than to mark the days, beginning in January. The goal is to weave daily; some weavers leave blank warp threads to mark the days they miss. I will be happy just to weave at all.  Weaving is part of my plan for post-surgical rehabilitation; I have to find a balance between strengthening injured body parts and avoiding excess wear and tear, so whatever happens will depend on how my body reacts to what I practised the day before. Self control is not my forte, but it seems I will be exercising that a lot over the next while.

I had quite a bit of help at the loom.  Although Mick sleeps in my fibre room, he seldom shows any interest in what I'm doing with all that fluff, unless it happens to be alpaca or weaving. Given the chance, he'll eat bags of alpaca fibre (not a good thing).  If I sit down at a tapestry loom, he's right there, sticking his head through my warp threads, marking his approval of the loom or batting at my shed sticks.  A true Weaver's Cat, he settles by the loom until I finish working:

Here is today's count.  There's no plan, no cartoon to follow, just some string, wool butterflies and a weaving fork.  That purple linen thread twined around the warps at the beginning of the piece is my signature.  Then the fun begins-there is plain weave, soumak, knotted pile, whatever came to me in the moment:

The weaving is a meditation record of sorts.  It's marked with quiet moments of simple under one warp/over the next, knots which require attention, inconsistencies and some fuzzy bits, all of which come together to cover the skeleton of warp threads with a textured cloth that at some unknown moment will become a complete story.  Right now, what that story is and how it will end is a mystery of endless possibilities.


Monday, 6 January 2014

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Spinning Out of a Deep Freeze

We've been stuck in abnormally low temperatures since mid-November.  Apart from a few milder days, our day time highs hover around -25C and it's much colder with the wind. Yesterday, the thermometer stuck at the -30C/-51C windchill.  Yes, you read that correctly. I have been feeling housebound and snarky, so when Donna asked if I wanted to meet for coffee, I was happy to have an opportunity to get out of here for a bit. I decided that a 6 block walk would do me good and that, if I planned things properly, I could handle the cold. The walk would also be a test for my newly fulled thrummed mittens.  I dressed in layers and layers of fabric and knitting, until I resembled Randy in his snowsuit in A Christmas Story, although I'm probably a wee bit taller and not quite as cute.

I won't say the walk over, heading into the NW wind, was pleasant, but it wasn't torment. The thrummed mittens, with thin stretchy gloves inside, did surprisingly well.  I had a nice visit with Ms. D.  My disposition has improved a little bit, although it's going to take a number of walks before I feel not so, um, grouchy. Yoga classes begin tomorrow which will help with the doom and gloom mood swings.

Spinning always cheers and calms me. I've spent the last few days clearing bobbins, plying and re-plying odds and ends of yarns which are scattered all over my fibre room.  There are balls of "this and that," samples for projects, samples which seemed like good ideas but which I abandoned for various reasons, tiny balls of yarn spun from small promotional packs of fibre. The largest skein, 300 metres of 2 ply camel down, looked limp and lifeless until I ran it back through the wheel. The extra plying twist added bounce and sheen; there's enough yarn for a lace scarf now in the planning stages. There is a 120 metre skein of 3 ply organic cotton, plied from singles of oatmeal, green and brown.  Small skeins of stringy-looking 2 ply cottons have been re-plyed back on themselves in their original S ply direction, which has transformed them into elastic, crepe yarns.  A boil with soap and baking soda darkened the colours, scoured off the pectin and settled the twist.  My favourite skein so far is a 150 metre 3 ply yarn of alpaca, angora and cotton; it's a strange combination, but very soft and strong.

L to R: 2 skeins of  4 ply crepe cotton; 3 ply organic cotton; 2 ply baby camel down; 3 ply angora/alpaca/cotton; 2 skeins of 2 ply wool tightly plied for sock heels and toes.  Foreground: 2 leftover balls of organic cotton.

There are no prize winners in this batch, although the camel down yarn is rather lovely. I ply my strings, knots and all. Finishing will improve their appearance and durability; knots can be managed as the fabric forms. Some skeins will work well in knitting, weaving or crochet, while others will fulfill their destiny as skein or package ties. While I believe that every spun yarn is a learning experience and that there's no shame in tossing hopeless yarns, part of me always remembers how precious string was and still is, in times and cultures where every bit of yarn was handmade, treasured, used and re-used.  As I play and ply with my rag tag strings, I think back to a time when cloth was more precious than gold and I bow to those who honour yarns with their skills, time and presence.



Friday, 3 January 2014

Thrumming Away With My Fingers: Building a Better Mitten

Michele, the organizer of our Open Fibre Nights, suggested a Knit-a-Long to carry us through January.  She proposed we knit mittens.  I wasn’t too keen at first. (I’d rather knit socks or gloves.)  On the other hand, it’s been bitterly cold here for over a month.  I have many, many pairs of warm socks, but only one pair of mittens, which is strange for a person who walks as much as I do. I revisited my aversion to mitten knitting and thought of what I’d like to do.  I decided to knit thrummed mittens, something I haven’t made in years.

There are dozens of thrummed mitten patterns on sites such as Ravelry.  I thought I’d use something available there, but I don’t like to use other people’s patterns.  It did seem silly to rewrite what has been done well, but years of mitten wearing in cold weather have taught me a trick or two about what constitutes a good mitten.  Mittens which will withstand our -25C and colder winters must be closely knit, of wool or alpaca or other warm protein fibres.  Since I carry packages to and fro or I’m hanging out at the end of a dog leash, I prefer rugged mittens-no delicate Merino or qiviuq for me.  One of my biggest problems with thrummed mittens in the past has been that they don’t resist our bitter winds, partly because the thrums are not thick enough.  The thrums are not particularly abrasion resistant.  Could I make a mitten that was warm, fairly wind resistant and which wore well? It would be interesting to find out.

The pattern here was written from scratch, but there is not much new material in it.  I knit my mittens from a coarse, tightly hand spun and plied Jacob fleece which is really too rough to wear next to the skin; however, I reasoned that the softer thrums would protect my hands from the coarser yarn.  Young Master DD gave me a cake of Custom Woolen Mills wool pencil roving for Christmas; I used that for the thrums.  I knit the mittens on small needles in relation to the yarn size and I made the thrums very dense.  (I had to continually check to make sure I could get my hands in the mittens.)  The cuff ribbing is longer than most patterns require.  You’ll notice that I increased the distance between the wrist to the beginning of the thumb gusset.  Usually, mittens start the thumb gusset after a few rows (the distance between the wrist bone and the base of the thumb).  I find that this distance causes both the cuff and the wrist to pull up on the inside of the hand, near the base of the thumb, exposing the wrist to the cold.  When you increase that distance, the mitten looks out of proportion, but the cuff stays tucked under your coat sleeve and the mitten encases the wrist.

I knit the mittens quite small, partly because the thrums will pack down with wear and partly because close fitting mittens are warmer.  If you require a size larger than Women’s Small, the easiest way to get there is to knit the mittens in a thicker yarn.  I have given directions for two sizes here, with suggestions for commercial yarn substitutes, the Women’s Small and Women’s Small/Medium.  You can change the sizes by increasing/decreasing the cuff stitches in multiples of 2; increase/decrease the mitten stitches in multiples of 4, adding 2 more stitches to the thumb gusset for every size increase.  Adjust the length of your mitten and thumb accordingly.  Do not skimp on the thrummed inserts. (See my Test Notes below.)

I make a pile of thrums before I begin and I pull them, rather than cut.  You want the ends to be uneven so that they full and fill the spaces inside the mittens.  Twist each thrum in the centre before you knit it into the mitten.  Lock each thrum by taking the mitten yarn across the back of the thrum to work the next stitch.

UPDATE, January 5:  I'm now knitting a smaller pair on 32 body stitches in 2 ply Jacob hand spun with Romney roving thrums.  I fulled the mittens shown below by placing them on my hands, running hot water (not too hot) on them and rubbing the mittens with a bar of homemade soap.  I rinsed them with alternate hot and cold water baths and let them dry by the heat register.  I prefer the look of them now; the thrums don't shed on the outside of the mitten, but are still fluffy on the inside.  I'm planning to test them today with a (short) walk in -34C/-51C windchill weather.  


Thrumming Away Mitten Pattern

  Sizes: Women’s Extra Small/Small; Women’s Small/Medium (numbers in brackets).  My hand circumference at the palm is 18 cm/7 inches; the outside palm measurement of the mitten is 23 cm/9 inches.

Materials:  Approximately 100 metres 2 ply Handspun Jacob yarn; 80 to 100 grams wool fleece, roving, pencil roving (I used Custom Woolen Mills pencil roving).  Substitute yarn:  100 grams of Briggs and Little Heritage or Regal wool yarn.
Handspun Yarn: Approximately 10 wpi, 9 tpi in 2 ply/13 in singles, 19 degree angle of twist.

Needles:  4 double pointed needles (dpns) in size to suit yarn.  I used 2.75 mm.

Stitch marker, yarn needle, scrap yarn, scissors.
Gauge:  4 stitches per inch with 3 knit stitches/1 thrum; 5.5 stitches per inch over stockinette stitch.


Twisted Rib Pattern:  Rnd 1: K1, P1.  Rnd 2: K1B (Knit one through the back of stitch), P1.

Make two mittens the same.  Weight of each mitten is approximately 65 to 70 grams.  Each mitten uses approximately 40 to 50 grams of thrums.  Thrums are made by breaking off pieces of fibre about 5 cm/2 in long.  Twist each thrum in middle before knitting into mitten.

Cuff:  Cast on 32 (36) stitches and distribute over 3 dpns. Place marker (pm) at beginning of round and join stitches. Work in Twisted Rib Pattern for approximately 7.5 cm/3 inches or 25 rnds. 

Mitten Body:  Working in stockinette stitch (SS), increase (inc) 4 stitches evenly over next rnd by K8 (9), m1 (make 1) to 36 (40) sts.

Work in Thrummed Pattern:

Rnd 1: K3, K1 Thrum (Drop the main yarn. Knit 1 piece of fleece or roving as next stitch.  Pick up main yarn and carry it across the back of the thrummed stitch.)  Continue in K3, K1T around.
Rnds 2 & 3:  Knit round.
Rnd 4: K1, *K1T, K3,* around, ending K2.
Rnds 5 & 6:  Knit round.
These 6 rnds form the pattern.  Maintain pattern throughout knitting.  Thrums will be staggered.

Thumb Gusset:  Knit 2 to 3 repeats of pattern as desired for wrist to base of thumb length before beginning the gusset. 

On Rnd 6 of pattern:  Slip marker to right needle, K into front and back (Kfb) of 1st stitch after marker, K to last 2 sts of rnd, Kfb of next st, K1.  Keeping in pattern (staggering thrum sts every 3 rnd), continue increasing for thumb gusset on every 2nd plain rnd until gusset is 8 (10) sts wide.

(Gusset increases will be worked as follows in appropriate rnd: K1, Kfb of next st, K to 3 sts before end of rnd, Kfb in next st, K2.  Next increase rnd: K2, Kfb in next st, K to 4 sts before end of rnd, Kfb in next st, K3. K3, st, K to 5 sts before end of rnd, Kfb in next st, K4. Kfb in next In each increase rnd, you will knit 1 more st past marker before your increase and knit to 1 more st before marker before second increase.)   You should have 44 (50) sts. on needles. (8 gusset sts/10 gusset sts)

K 2 rnds plain.  At end of 2nd rnd (at marker), break yarn, slip 8 (10) thumb gusset sts on scrap yarn (4/5 sts each side of marker).  Reconnect yarn. Work to end of rnd.

Working in pattern, at space made by held sts, CO 2 sts, pm, CO 2 sts (40/44 sts).  Continue in pattern.  Decrease 2 sts on 2nd plain rnd on each side of marker (38 sts/42 sts).  Work 1 more pattern repeat, decrease 2 sts on 2nd plain rnd at marker (36/40 sts).   You have completed the thumb opening and are back to the original number of stitches.  Work even until mitten body reaches the tip of the little finger (Approx. 7 inches/18 cm from cuff for Women’s XS/S; 8 inches/20 cm for Women’s S/M.)

Decreases for Top of Mitten:  On 2nd rnd of plain knit rnds, K2 together (K2tog) around (18/20 sts).  Stay in pattern; work 1 thrummed rnd (K1T, K1 or vice versa).  Work 1 plain rnd; on next plain rnd, K2tog around (9/10 sts).  Break yarn and fasten off.

Thumb:  Pick up (PU) 8 (10) sts from thumb gusset.  On inside of thumb, PU 3 sts, pm, PU 3 sts.  Keeping in pattern, work 1 thrummed rnd, dec  1 st at beginning and end of rnd for XS/S size only (12/16 sts).  Work in pattern until thumb is just short of tip of thumb nail (Approx. 5 cm/2 in for XS/S; 6 to 6.5 cm/2.5 in for S/M).  Decrease Rnd: K2 tog around (6/8 sts).  K3 rnds.  Break yarn and fasten off.

Make second mitten to match first.  Turn mittens inside out.  Darn in all ends.  Spend some time tightening and fluffing the thrums on the inside of the mitten.  Trim thrums if necessary.  Although I usually recommend washing items before wearing, I prefer to wear thrummed mittens a few times before washing because this helps full and compress the loose fibres, which will increase durability.  You can also full the mittens by wetting them with hot water and rubbing a small amount of soap over the outside of each mitten.  Rinse and dry the mittens thoroughly.

The Test:  I wore the mittens on a 30 minute walk at -10C with a windchill of -20C.  I also “snowball tested” the mittens by rubbing fresh snow vigorously into both mittens as I was walking.  The only areas I noticed the wind coming through were in the palm areas near the fingers where I had cut back on the thrum size slightly because I thought I had over packed the mittens.  This was a mistake; the thrums began to compress on the first wearing, leaving plenty of room for my hands.  Where the thrums were added to capacity, in the wrists and thumbs, the mittens were very warm.  Not a snowflake penetrated the mittens.  Although the outsides of the mittens were wet and icy cold, the insides remained dry and warm. They felt like sleeping bags for my hands.

I recommend you make the mittens a size smaller than you require and pack the thrums to capacity.  If you do need to cut the wind a little more, wear thin stretchy gloves inside these mittens.

Time will tell how these mittens will wear. Right now, I am pleased and ready to knit another pair in the Jacob yarn with Romney roving for the thrums.

Deborah Behm © January 2014