Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Good Times, Bad Times: Sometimes You Write the Story; Sometimes the Story Writes You

One of the most interesting things about writing is that the writer, who thinks she's in control of the story, always discovers that point where things get away from her. A fictional character changes her behaviour and becomes someone else; a memoir or tale of one's life takes an unexpected turn. That shift is what keeps a writer going. We never know how the story will end. That's the excitement and adventure of it all.

After we returned from Kelowna, after my climb up Black Mountain to see what I could see, I had a few days of feeling well. We cleaned out the trailer and stored it for the winter. Mr. DD worked around the yard, preparing for cooler days ahead. I caught up with housework. But, somehow, things were not right. My energy levels were low. I had trouble eating and sleeping. We (me, family, doctors) all suspected that the anxiety and depression which nags me from time to time had returned, but nothing seemed to ease it. Then the story changed, Dramatically.

At the end of September, I was admitted to hospital where a CT scan of my belly showed a bowel obstruction. That scan showed something else - the breast cancer that I had worked on healing the past five years had returned. One month to the day before I was to receive my five year clearance and discharge from the Cancer Clinic, I learned that cancer had spread to the lining of my stomach and small bowel, into the bones in my pelvis and the lower spine. There's a strong likelihood that the new tests I'm scheduled to have this week will reveal more cancer. 

When I was initially diagnosed, I had hoped to be the poster girl for healthy living, meditation and yoga as a treatment for cancer. After all, medically speaking, I shouldn't have cancer at all - the women in my family are strong and long-lived; I eat well, live well, practise my yoga and walk everywhere. All through surgery, chemo, radiation and hormone therapy, I practised. I received my 300 hour yoga teacher training certificate. Most days, I felt great. Although the overwhelming dread that comes with a cancer diagnosis always haunted me, I thought I knew how the story ended, with a full, long and happy life.

But. . . . Now, I'm facing that mountain again, preparing for the huge climb that will determine whether I have several years left to me, or a much shorter time. Facing one's own death clarifies the mind, but still, I can't imagine myself in non-existence, a non-being. No yogic or meditative training can prepare you for more than the theory of non-existence. Decisions must be made, based on how one wishes to live the rest of her life, whether treatment options will help or hinder that quality she wishes to have and how it will affect her determination to have a dignified death. Right now, I've decided to go for full on treatment. There are two small, unfinished tapestries I'd like to complete. There are projects my children have on the go that I'd love to see to fruition. There are a couple of projects of my own I'd like to be around to see through. 

Besides, I like it here. I'm not much for thinking that death takes us to a better place. I may be wrong and I'm willing to take my chances on that, but HERE is a pretty good place to be. Right now, the last of the autumn coloured leaves are falling from the trees, carpeting the nearby park I call my Sanctuary in brilliant reds, golds and oranges. The air smells crisp and clear. I've climbed a few mountains and I'd like to climb a few more, actual ones, not metaphorical. I've walked in icy mountain lakes and talked to ravens. I watched wheat fields sprout, ripen and turn to chaff again. There were bluejays outside my living room window this week (and they weren't playing baseball). I think there are things I can still offer as a teacher and a writer. I'm not dead yet.

I'm not dead yet, but the story has changed and, by necessity, if not by choice, so will this blog. I'm not sure how often I'll write. Although writing keeps me grounded, there are days when I have only so much energy to spare and I must choose my tasks wisely. The work I wish to do now has a greater sense of urgency to it, but reporting on it does not. I'm also not big on "poor me" stories, so if this blog threatens to become that, I'll let it go.

In the mean time, I'm still not dead yet. (I have been resting a lot, although not on a perch.) The story has changed; I'm not getting the lines I wanted, but there's still a story. Every day, I look out my window and am amazed at the beauty of the world. Every day, friends, some of whom I didn't even realize were friends, support me and my family and renew my faith in humankind. 

I've already cast my ballot for Monday's federal election. I'm hoping to see an evil force driven out of our country so that some sense of balance and community can be restored. The thing is, no matter what fortune brings me, there is always work to be done, the work of my conscience and my spirit. Everything depends on taking it one breath at a time. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you."



Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Sound of Silence: A Different Kind of Journey

It's been a long stretch of silence on the blog for me. We headed out to Kelowna in early September, to visit Young Ms. DD. Mr. DD packed his fix-it gear and his plans to work on Ms. DD's new home. I loaded the camper with spinning, knitting, crocheting and art supplies, intent on completing a number of projects while we were on the road and visiting.

I headed into the Rockies with expectations of how things would be.

I can plan all I want; the universe waits and chuckles. Whether it was the 3 day ride in the truck or the hours of crocheting a winter cap or a combination of both which set me up for trouble, the day after we arrived, I was hit with a most exquisite pain flare up which left me flat in bed for another 3 days. Nothing I did or took eased the pain; all I could do was stay still and breathe and know that, eventually, things would change. On Day 4, I was able to get up and about a bit, but I realized that, if I returned to my plans of working my way through my visit, I would be inviting another round of suffering. 

Despite all the time I've spent practising yoga and meditation, it remains difficult for me to do Nothing. I know that Being is important, but in reality, we are trained to believe that if we are not active, if we simply stay still, breathing and waiting and experiencing the moment, we are somehow doing something wrong, even if the situation that gives us the condition of Not Doing is beyond our control. I spent the first day in bed scolding myself for not taking longer breaks on our trip, for being obsessed with finishing a hat that, really, wasn't that great, for causing concern in my family, for not being stronger, better, whatever. Eventually, my yoga training kicked in (I'm a slow learner sometimes) and I was able to accept reality, to remember the wise words a cousin told me - "Rest and meditation are healing, too." - and focus on working with what was happening, not what I wished to be. I spent a lot of time working with being attentive to each breath, noting how pain changes and flows. I did the Ten Mindful Movements in my mind. I enjoyed the cats who curled themselves around me. I rested. Sometimes I cried.

Clouds on the mountain.

Slowly, slowly, I began to feel better, physically and mentally. (Pain tends to come with an extra bonus of a downward spiral into depression and anxiety, which is often more difficult to deal with than the physical sensations.) I was able to sit in Ms. DD's backyard patio, in the shade of lilacs, cedars and oak trees. In good moments, I practised the Ten Mindful Movements with my body and mind. I took photographs and painted in my trip journal. I stayed away from fibre work, but I did a lot of project planning. One brave day, I walked up the mountain to an apple orchard above my daughter's neighbourhood and I enjoyed the view from the top of the hill. I spent most of my time observing, feeling and hearing the breezes blow through the trees, smelling the crisp, fresh fall air and appreciating the ever changing colours of autumn. I lived a lot of time in silence. 

At the top of the mountain, Kelowna, B.C.

Beauty in small things: Artist's Bracken on a burned out log, Williamson Lake, Revelstoke, B.C.

Strange as it sounds, I was able to enjoy myself in the moments of pain - not the pain itself, but the experiences given to me because of that pain. I would have much preferred to travel without pain, to do the things I normally do when I'm in my favourite places. No Pain trumps Pain every time; however, when I'm stuck with discomfort, I am reminded that the value yoga and meditation has for me doesn't lie in being able to do complex asana or having out of body experiences. Yoga and meditation support me in times when things are not going well. They help me to work with my In Body experiences. Yoga teaches me that it really is about the journey, not the destination.

We're home now and I am healing, although I'm moving quite slowly and staying away from too much activity. Every time I'm tempted to move into high gear, I stop, breathe and listen, to the world around me, to the world within me. Yoga teaches us that we are Nature, sitting, waiting, experiencing what comes and what changes. It's a simple path, sometimes not so easy to to travel, but here's the thing - we don't need to Do anything to learn the lesson. We just have to Be.

Obstacles in the water make the lake no less beautiful.


Sunday, 30 August 2015

Smoke From a Distant Fire: Sea of Joy Continues

I live nowhere near a forest, except the urban one planted by my house, but this has been a summer of haze and smoke. The northern part of the province burned earlier this summer. British Columbia, Washington and Oregon are burning now; the smoke from those fires has made it difficult to be outdoors for days at a time. We do not suffer like those caught in the middle of the disasters, but the smoke is a reminder that everything on this planet is connected and that we would be wise to acknowledge and accommodate this. 

I've spent the last two days hiding from the smoke, heat, humidity and mosquitoes, which means full days of working on "Sea of Joy." She's coming along - there has been some unweaving, but only a bit, and I'm past the quarter mark of the piece. Here she is after Day One:

The little Sea Creature wasn't working. He looked rather frightening, a strange head stuck on a different body and he didn't flow the way I intended:

So, "Off with his head!" Here is he now, much better, I think:

There were some problems with value; The lighter green of the long vine disappeared into the light blue behind it. I spent part of this morning cutting out the light blue background and needle weaving in a darker blue. 

I'm working more embellishments into my tapestries - stitching small details onto the work to highlight images and add texture. The catch is not to use embellishment as an excuse for laziness or to fix something which doesn't please me. Anything added to a piece must add to the design.

In addition to viewing each day's work in black and white, it's important to study it as it will be presented. By flipping the image on its side, I can see what will need to be reworked: 

One of the things which delights me about tapestry weaving is the way it demands my full attention. Sections of the cartoon which seemed fine in the drawing surprise me when they're woven. If my mind wanders, if I shift into lazy weaving, it will cost me hours of unweaving. Tapestry weaving is always an exploration, an excitement about the process. In "Sea of Joy," my willingness to weave on the fly gives the sense of movement I'm looking for here. Whether or not my weaving is a success matters less than the fact that I have fun while I'm doing it. I make my best effort in every piece I weave and that's enough.

As I weave the images into this tapestry, as I connect foreground with background, I'm reminded that, on a tiny scale, I'm giving physical expression to the connection of all Life. What happens any place on Gaia drifts into and affects everyone. Which is Figure and which is Ground? Yoga tells us that they're One and the Same.   


Friday, 21 August 2015

Sea of Joy: Expanding Horizons

I ventured out to Open Fibre Night last night. My friend, Michele M-H, started this event a couple of years ago. OFN is held monthly; it's free, open to anyone with an interest in fibre work of any kind. I haven't attended for some time and there were many new faces among the group. (Then again, perhaps I was the new face. It's always a matter of perspective.) Another friend, Carla D, drove halfway across the city to transport me and most of my fibre room contents, or so it seemed. I'm moving away from using commercial yarns, so a few skeins for dispersal came with me and I decided to work on my tapestry, which meant packing my 16 inch Mirrix and a basket of singles weft yarns. This smaller Mirrix is designed for workshops, but compared to knitting or spinning on a spindle, taking it on tour is a big deal. (Getting everything back home is just as fun - Young Mr. DD found two balls of yarn beside the house this morning, escapees from my basket. Fortunately, he discovered them before Morris did.)

As it turned out, I didn't get much weaving done. There was visiting to catch up on, admiring of completed and new projects, demonstrations of unfamiliar techniques and snacks to keep us energized. I came home with two garden cucumbers, one for Mr. DD and the other for Morris, less yarn than I arrived with and a few passes completed on my weaving. I was out past ten o'clock, an outrageously late night for me and while I'm dragging my butt around at the moment, I'm feeling reconnected with my fibre world.

I warped the loom for a larger version of "Sea of Joy" earlier in the week and have been making steady, if slow progress. Here's the the basket of yarns I've chosen for the project. Behind it is the loom with the hem and a double row of twining in hand spun linen in place:

Here's the story so far:

Here she is on her side, as she will appear when completed:

At the moment, I'm not loving the larger version. It seems less spontaneous, joyful and free than the sample. I often have this reaction when I expand a small thought into a larger idea and it's really too early to judge what will happen. There may be a problem with the values; the images may need more contrast. Actually, they most certainly will require stronger value shifts, but since this piece will be approximately 12 inches x 24 inches or slightly longer and I have but a couple of inches completed, I have plenty of time and space to introduce what's needed. This is how the values appear now:

You can see by the ink on the cotton seine twine warp and the scribbling on the cartoon, that I'm revising the images as I go. I love this part of the process - never knowing whether my ideas will work, exploring the interactions of the colours in my weft, discovering what works in a cartoon and what does not.

In a recent blog post, Rebecca Mezoff says this about tapestry:
 "For me, it all comes down to this. I can't NOT do tapestry. I suspect the answer, for those of us who choose to spend our days making and teaching tapestry, is the same. It is what we do because we love it and we can't imagine using another art form."  ((Linked here. You should read it.),
Rebecca's words resonate with me. For me, it's always about the journey and never the end product. Even when I had a long stretch of non-weaving, tapestry informed my choices in spinning and design. I never lost sight of the road to returning to this process and I'm happy to be back on the path. Meditation and yoga influence my weaving, but for me, tapestry weaving is both meditation and yoga. When I'm in the process, time stops. I become one with the materials and the medium, a small speck of the universe united with all the other specks of our existence. I can think of no better place to be.


Saturday, 8 August 2015

Sea of Joy: A Small Study, a Big Change and a Glimpse into the Process of Designing

I finished another small tapestry this week, "Sea of Joy," a study from a tiny sketch I'd done years ago while drinking white wine and listening to CBC Radio. She's approximately 7 x 7.5 inches, slightly larger than the pieces I've completed this summer. I'm pleased with her; she's telling me she would like to be a larger work and the ideas for a cartoon, what size best suits her and what yarns I should use for warp and weft are rattling round in my head. At the moment, I'm thinking that she should be a companion piece to "The Garden," woven on my 16 inch Big Sister Mirrix Loom in a cotton warp with hand spun and dyed wefts and that she's likely to be around 12 x 24 inches. With those things settled, I'm now waiting for my drawing skills to kick in so that I can work out a cartoon. This may take the rest of the summer, but I've learned that there's no use in rushing. As I wait, I can admire this little piece - her colours are vibrant and her composition is strong, although not perfect. Overall, the tapestry works and she is worthy of a larger weaving:

One of the best ways to determine if a tapestry is working is to take black and white photos of the weaving as it progresses and when it's finished. Removing colour from the equation, especially when the colours are as bright as they are here, allows me to spot areas where I may need more contrast or sections where my composition is weak. In this case, my composition is stronger than I had anticipated. My contrasts are good, although I may need stronger contrast in the small sea creature at upper left. I'm undecided about that now because I rather like that the creature isn't readily apparent and only shows up after closer viewing, just as a sea creature would if she were camouflaging herself among the flora:

This is the back of the piece. I have a few ends tied off and there are several knots, but overall, I like my tapestries to be reversible. When I do mount my pieces (another summer project), I find that a smooth surface on the back of the work gives a flatter, more finished appearance on the front:

With two small studies completed and a larger piece ("Battle Fatigue") still on loom, I'm feeling another strong calling, one outside my comfort zone. Something tells me it's time to begin a large tapestry, much larger than I usually weave and to do it in natural colours of hand spun wools. Yesterday, I hauled out my large Zeus Loom:

This Big Boy, a gift from Mr. DD many years ago, will weave a piece up to 35 inches wide and 61 inches long. I've woven on it twice. The first piece was the banner I use for my blog, a study for the larger rug I wove next on Zeus. I seldom weave large pieces. The biggest tapestry I've ever woven was "Yellow Leaves Hang From Your Tree," started in 2005 and completed in 2008. She was woven on a loom made of iron plumbing pipes: 

Commercial wool singles warp, commercial mixed wefts, hand spun and dyed wool wefts. Approximately 24 x 36 inches.

After she was completed, I stopped weaving for a while. Since I've begun weaving again, my tapestries have all been small, bits of ideas worked out (or not) on simple frame looms. Now, all this summer, I've had the urge to resurrect Zeus and weave another rug/magic carpet. The images for that are coming as flashes in dreams, as I meditate or sit at my spinning wheel. There's nothing to draw, yet, not much of an idea as to what warp to use or how large this thing should be. She just sits and waits and nudges me. At first, that nudging came now and again, but in the past few weeks, she's been poking  and whispering at me on a daily basis, so yesterday, I gave in and did some spinning for my potential, future work:

That's 8 ounces of Icelandic singles spun up, along with a bin full of other weft yarns, from black to white. There's another 36 ounces of Welsh Mountain top on its way here. There's a voice, stronger and stronger by the day, saying "Weave me." We shall see where it all leads.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

Badlands: Continuous Strand Tapestry Weaving

I finished weaving my Badlands sample last night. I'm pretty pleased with it at the moment. The colours are lovely and the spontaneous design worked out nicely. I can see things I wish I'd done differently and areas which could use improvement, but that's always the case, is it not?

The interesting thing about this small tapestry (approximately 7 inches x 5 inches on loom) is that it is woven with a continuous strand of yarn from a single ball. When I speak of "continuous strand weaving," I don't mean to say that the yarn was never broken, as I needle weave using short strands of yarn. Continuous strand weaving - I haven't found a better term, yet - means that I weave with the yarn using the colours as they present themselves, either from the outside end of the ball or the inside of the yarn package. I align the colours in the order they come and I don't remove any colours which may be problematic. If I were to unpick this weaving and rejoin all the ends, I would have a ball of (very knotty) yarn whose colours would be the same as the original skein.

Just to remind you: I wove using the outside end of the ball to start, then worked with yarns from both ends of the package, transitioning into weaving with the yarn from the inside of the ball:

I've searched for information on other weavers who use their yarns in this fashion. Although there are many sites and works on weaving with hand spun and dyed yarns, including a few which demonstrate judicious placement of the colours, I haven't yet found a source in which a tapestry weaver worked using a continuous strand. I'm sure there must be others who have tried this and I'd love to hear from them/you.

The question which arises from this study is, "How will this technique work in a larger piece?" I have a frame loom warped with cotton which has been waiting for a project for a while now. Perhaps I've found one for it.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Controlling Colour Placement in Tapestry Using Hand Spun Singles

Yesterday, I discussed how I use my multi-coloured singles weft yarns to build a tapestry design. This style of free form weaving is relaxing and fun - I begin to weave and see where the yarn takes me. Weaving this way is truly "playing with string." Most of the time, though, I have specific designs in mind and I weave with a cartoon behind my warp. This watercolour was the starting point for a piece I wll discuss here, "Study for 'The Garden':"

I've lost the cartoon for this weaving, but my practice is to translate such paintings into line drawing cartoons, like this one:

How do I use my hand spun yarns to build a controlled design? A weaver can work mathematically, planning the colour changes in her spinning based on some calculations in a woven sample. Let's say that she knows that a 10 inch (25 cm) wide x 1 inch (2.5 cm) high block of colour contains 36 picks per inch (PPI) and that she has approximately 10% take up in her weft yarn with each pass. Each weft pass then requires 11 inches (27.5 cm) of yarn. She would multiply 11 x 36 for a total of 396 inches, or approximately 11 yards (10 metres) of yarn per block woven. Working from this, she would then spin 11 yards or 10 metres of each colour she wanted per colour block (or she could be wild and spin 11 inches of a variety of colours 36 times to mix her colours in that same block). There will, of course, still be some variation in colour placement, due to differences in take up, yarn grist, techniques used and the touch of the human hand, but overall, a spinner could make weaving weft this way and be fairly confident as to how the colours would weave in a given section.

Apart from the challenge presented, I have no interest in working this way. Spinning precise colours into my yarns doesn't strike me as an effective use of my time, given that I can use traditional weaving techniques to place my colours where I please. Instead, I use my experience as a dyer and spinner to blend colours in my yarns; my experience with tapestry weaving allows me to decide how best to place the colours. The short version of this is that I work intuitively, but I also pay attention to the shapes in my cartoons and how to build those shapes with my yarns.

In "'The Garden' Study," shown here as woven and turned to show how the final weaving is presented, I built shapes using both discontinuous weft tapestry techniques and the colours in the yarns:

You can see the traditional way that shapes are formed in the small flower at the lower left. The stem and leaves are woven with green yarns in eccentric weft technique and the bud is a separate shape from a different yarn placed between the leaves. The Snake's body and the right side of the large flower are woven with continuous yarns (each from separate balls). The natural striping of the yarn forms the stripes on the Snake. (For some reason, I always think of this image as a "he" and always in capital letters.) That colour way begins with the pink at his underbelly and continues to the tongue, orange stripe and eye, which are woven in separately, then the main yarn continues into his head to the top of his body. The large flower is woven the same way, beginning with light pink for the stem (right side, lower photo), into the purples and fuchsias of the bud. The left side of the stem is woven in the same fashion with a different multi-coloured yarn.

You can see the same effect in this detail of a leaf from "Chakra Roots." This shape was woven from a continuous strand of yarn, the leaf from one end of the ball and the soumak from the other:

Working this way is not an all-or-nothing process. Whether I use a fairly solid colour or a multi-coloured yarn depends on what I believe best suits my design. For example, in "The Garden," the rounded shapes are woven with solid singles, while the background combines various gradient singles combined with slits and eccentric wefts.

Weaving with multi-coloured singles reduces my weaving time by allowing my yarns to mimic some classic tapestry techniques. It can also enhance those same traditional ways of weaving. Working with such yarns extends my design possibilities - I can allow the yarn itself to determine my design, as I did in "Badlands" or I can use that yarn to highlight shapes in my cartoons. Best of all, weaving with my hand spun yarns combines my love of dyeing, spinning and weaving into a single fabric. There is a meditation in this practice as All becomes One.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Weaving with a Ball of Hand Dyed Singles

We had two days of much needed rain, although we could have done without the high winds which accompanied it. The weather was perfect for weaving, so I thought I would show you what I do with those balls of multi-dyed singles that I spin. I set up one of my small Forsythe frame looms with a commercial cotton seine twine warp, selected a ball of yarn which appealed to me and began to weave, without a cartoon or any plan at all, apart from demonstrating how I work with the range of colours available to me in a single ball of yarn. In this photo, you can see the variety of colours in a single skein, which I wound into a centre pull ball:

I have several options when using this yarn; I can work from the inside or the outside of the ball or I can select random sections by winding off yarn until I get the colours I want. In this case, I decided to work from the outside and the inside of the ball, taking the colours as they came to me. I began with the outside of the ball. Working across the width of the tapestry produces subtle stripes, as shown at the bottom of the sample (tentatively named, "Badlands"):

Once I begin to work over smaller areas, the stripes become more evident, shifting into blocks of colour, depending upon the techniques I use (slits and eccentric wefts here). You can see this happening on the left side of the tapestry. If I want to emphasize a particular section, I use an outlining technique - in this case, soumak.

For the background colour (the blue shown here), I wove using yarn from the centre of the ball. I prefer to have a clean surface on both front and back of my work, but in order to maintain a smooth colour transition in the sky, I floated my yarn behind the hoodoo image at centre right. The colour shifts from blue to light pink, at which point, I began weaving with yarns from the inside and outside of the ball. The inside yarn is on the left; the outside yarn is on the right:

You can see the hatching in the centre of the piece and my use of eccentric weft weaving to suggest movement in the sky. The hatching is barely noticeable, but there is a clear difference between the left side and right.

There are a few things to remember when working with multiple colour transitions:

  • When dyeing fibres, make your colours stronger and brighter than you require in your yarn. Spinning with multiple colours mutes everything. If your colours are too subtle, especially if you spin using complementary colours, your yarns will appear muddy and will become more so in your weaving. Choose your colour sequence wisely.
  • Stripes become more prominent as the weaving width covered by the yarn narrows, eventually becoming blocks of colour. The longer your colour runs, the bigger the blocks, so when spinning your yarns, pay attention to the length and order in which you spin your singles. If you want precise placements and shapes, you will have to measure your fibres as you spin. This defeats my intent to make less work for myself, so I eyeball my colours as I spin. 
  • If you want to maintain continuity in your colour transitions, the end which comes off the ball last is the end that goes through the eye of the needle (or is the first to be wound on your bobbin or butterfly). This ensures that the last end off the ball will also be the last end woven. If you aren't concerned with maintaining the shifts, you don't need to pay attention which end came off the yarn package last. 
  • Sample. Sample a lot, especially if you intend to weave larger pieces or if you want to weave specific shapes. Designing with the colours in the yarn is not a beginner's practice. It's easy to get pleasing colours when weaving random sections in a tapestry, but controlling those colours requires paying attention to how the yarn is spun and how that yarn is used in the fabric. Transitions are affected by warp sett, weaving width, beat and techniques. All these things and more affect the final appearance of your work. 

I hope this gives you some idea of how to work with rainbow dyed colours in tapestry. In case you're wondering: "This is all very well for free form weaving, but can I do this if I'm working with cartoons, specific images and larger pieces?" the answer is, yes, you can and I will have more on that in future posts.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Spinning Yarns

My last post walked you through one of the dyeing techniques I use for my hand spun tapestry singles yarns. Once I’ve rainbow dyed, washed and dried my Romney fleece, I sort it into locks and more jumbled fibres. Both sets of fibres will be used to spin tapestry yarns, but I treat them differently. Individual locks are divided into colourways for spinning from the lock, either as is or after combing with a dog comb. The rest of the fleece will be carded or combed on wool combs, depending upon its end use.

Spinning from locks retains the beautiful lustre of this Romney fleece and allows me to produce colour gradients, either subtle or distinctive, in my yarns. It is also easier for me to produce yarns which mimic tapestry techniques when I spin from locks. Tapestry woven with lock spun wefts has a smoother surface and higher lustre than tapestry woven with woollen yarns; however, the strength of the yarn and the parallel arrangement of its fibres mean that the wefts don’t pack as well over the warp yarns. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I do a lot of needle weaving and don’t use a shedding device very often, so I sometimes find that worsted singles shred as I weave them over and under the warps, usually when I set up a linen warp. While woollen yarns may pill in the shed, worsted yarns tend to drift apart all at once, so I have to work with short pieces of yarn and overlap my joins well. In most cases, this isn’t a problem – my pieces are small and require only short wefts and experience has taught me to anticipate any yarn drift which I can prevent by rolling the yarn between my fingers in the direction of the twist as I weave.

All of the yarns from this batch of dyeing were spun Z, cut end to tip on a top whorl spindle. This photograph shows Skein #1, spun directly from locks which were opened at the cut end, but which had no other preparation.  This yarn is slightly more textured and fuzzier than the next two larger skeins, which were spun from dog combed locks. Note the PVC niddy noddy – after spinning the yarns, I wind them on these noddies, twist the noddies flat to produce more tension on the yarns, then wash and dry them on the noddies.The locks below are the original colours in this skein. If you are planning a colourway using this technique, remember that the colours are stronger and brighter in the locks. Colours opposite on the colour wheel will blend to produce browns; equal amounts of opposite colours can muddy otherwise clear colours. Experiment a bit before you spin an entire batch to determine which colours work well together and how gradually you want your colours to transition.

This batch of lock spinning produced approximately 475 yards of worsted style weft yarns. You can see the strong colour shifts in the larger skeins. Depending upon the effect I want, I can use these yarns from either end or from the centre to place the colours where I need them. If I decide that I want a gradient shift in my colours without using tapestry techniques – such as winding multiple colours on a bobbin and then dropping or changing out colours as I weave – I spin fewer locks of any one colour and make them into smaller skeins which can be woven as is across the web. (This then begs the question: am I weaving tapestry, i.e., discontinuous weft-faced weave or am I weaving rugs? I’m not a purist and tend to go with whatever works best for me.)

There you have it – step two in the long, but rewarding process of weaving tapestry from hand spun singles.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015

Late yesterday afternoon, I dyed some Romney fleece from my favourite local supplier, Meegan Linklater, of Rousay Station. Meegan's Romney is always lovely - clean, bright, long stapled with great lock formation and strong. It has a wide range of uses, from garments to tapestry yarns, Although it's quite heavy with grease, it dyes beautifully, with lustre that highlights the silkiness of the locks. It's perfect for rainbow dyeing.

I rainbow dye most of the fibres I use for tapestry yarns. I like the unpredictability of the colours, the way the hues blend and the fact that the colours in a rainbow pot always go well together. I spin singles for tapestry weft. The colour transitions in the yarns often substitute for traditional weaving techniques; judicious placement of multi-coloured wefts can mimic the nuances of hachure, for example. Working with multi-coloured singles can make my tapestries appear more complex than they are and I'm all for using illusion to my advantage.

Rainbow dyeing involves nothing more than filling a dye pot with a small amount of hot water, several glubs of vinegar (or other acid), then stuffing the pot with raw fleece. (You can rainbow dye with any fibres or even yarns, washed or not, but acid dyeing with raw fleece is my preferred method.) You then sprinkle acid dye powders in several places on the fleece, heat the pot to a simmer and walk away. There's no stirring, no mixing of dye powders, no more than a bit of judicious poking if the powders don't dissolve. Once the fibres and dyes have simmered for approximately 20 minutes (which varies according to the dyes you use), you turn off the heat and allow the pot to cool over night. You then rinse or scour the wool and allow it to dry. I prefer to wash this Romney without a cleaning agent as I prefer the feel of the grease in the wool. That grease is removed when the yarn is washed and set, so it doesn't affect the woven fabric.

Once the fibre is cleaned, I separate it into batches of locks and fibres to be carded, then into colour groups. Here's the current batch ready to be sorted:

Here are the locks sorted into colour groups:

What doesn't sort into locks will be spun as is for textured yarns or carded and spun into colour blends:

Of course, I would not be as successful at all of this were it not for the faithful Morris, who watches over all events in our backyard. (Really, he's hoping we'll turn on the sprinkler so that he can play in it, He's broken so many sprinkler heads that Mr. DD designed one specially for Morris, built from a hockey puck and a piece of plastic plumbing tubing. At least now, when Morrie bites at the sprinkler, he won't hurt his teeth.The old boy turned nine at the beginning of the month, but you'd never know it when he's romping around in the water.) 


Saturday, 11 July 2015

Hot Summer Days: Working With Wool

The smoke from distant fires has cleared here, but we're into hot weather - the past few days have been in the mid 30's C range (up into the 90's F, which is plenty hot for us). We don't have air conditioning, so it's warm inside, too, a bit warm for spinning or weaving or doing much of anything except reading and sipping cold drinks.

A few months ago, my friend, Joan, gave me a book, Sylvia Olsen's Working With Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater.  These world renowned garments have a complex and interesting history, as do the women who make them. Coast Salish people once wove heavy blankets of two ply mountain goat and dog hair. These blankets were important, if not the most important, cultural products of the people. The blankets were used in potlatch ceremonies, giveaways and rites of passage; they held great cultural significance. Blankets became trade items as contact with the Spanish and British grew, but colonization and efforts to assimilate indigenous peoples brought an end to their production. Salish women took pride in keeping their hands busy and in working with wool; when the settlers introduced knitting to the West Coast of British Columbia and the United States, Salish women adopted knitting as their own and developed a style of sweater that became known as the Cowichan. These sweaters, made from thick hand spun singles wool, became a way to support their families as government policies drove the peoples further and further into poverty.

Ms. Olsen has a unique perspective on the history of these sweaters: she married into a Coast Salish family, lives among the people and has been active in the production, repair and marketing of the sweaters for decades. The book, published in 2010, is based on her Master's Thesis and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in hand spinning, weaving, knitting or the history of indigenous peoples in Canada. (Salish Indian Sweaters, by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, is another informative book on the history and making of these sweaters; however, as a member of the Coast Salish community, Ms. Olsen is able to offer insights unavailable to Ms. Gibson-Roberts.)

Coast Salish never received full benefit from their sweaters. Although certain traders were known for their fair payments and respectful treatment of the knitters, many traders took advantage of the knitters' need to support their families. The traders could be abusive and deceitful, offering far less than a sweater was worth, refusing to purchase sweaters made from wool not supplied by the traders or offering barter only. As the popularity of and demand for the sweaters grew, the knitters found themselves further behind. According to Ms. Olsen, what really struck a blow to the making of these sweaters was that same popularity - Salish knitters had to compete with cheaper imitation sweaters. Rather than work with their own designs and traditions, markets demanded homogeneity. Knitters would be required to knit hundreds of sweaters with the same designs, using wool imported from New Zealand and Australia, rather than their own home grown wool. Many of the knitters lost heart; their creativity stifled, they put down their needles and refused to teach their daughters to spin or to knit.

One of the passages which impressed me most in the book occurs when Elizabeth, a knitter, brings a sweater to Ms. Olsen for sale. Ms. Olsen was disconcerted by the "distinctly lop-sided series of snowflakes she had knit as her main design (p. 261)." The exchange that follows is worth quoting in full:

"I know what you're looking at," she [Elizabeth] said. "You think I've made a mistake."
"Yeah," I said. I was uncomfortable criticizing Elizabeth's work. She was a respected elder in the community and a good friend of mine. She laughed. "You see, the thing with you people," she said, referring to my whiteness, "is that you always want everything perfect. Everything has to be buttoned down so there's no place to move. You don't like any muss, any fuss. Any little thing out of place and you start squirming." . . . "You see, in our world," she said, referring to her nativeness, "we purposely leave a coloured stitch knit out of the order of the pattern or something like that. We don't call it a mistake. It's a window. It's where spirits come and go. That's why our sweaters are so comfortable. People can feel it. Our knitting isn't all stuck up and tight. You close things up so tight, so perfect they can't breathe."  (pp. 261-262. Emphasis mine.)

Of all the things which I took from this book, the idea that demand for perfection stifles creativity strikes close to my heart. These days, we allow little margin for error in any aspect of life; in the age of social media, where everything is instant and global, where humans are publicly mocked for mistakes they make precisely because they are human, it would be wise to remember Elizabeth's words. Allowing ourselves and others freedom to be creative and express our artistic visions, especially when we don't agree with them, will not degrade our world. Rather, accepting a multitude of possibilities will expand our horizons and enrich our abilities.

If you're looking for a good read this summer, or any time of year, find yourself a copy of Sylvia Olsen's book. Along with the video below, it offers insight into an ever changing culture and its beautiful work. Enjoy.


Monday, 6 July 2015

Battle Fatigue: A Selfie of a Different Sort and the Question of Design

I’ve been thinking about design these days: what makes good design, where design inspiration materializes, how to choose and work with media and techniques to realize a design. Such things have been rattling about in my brain for a while. I promised myself, when I finished my teaching gig at Fibre Week this year, I would concentrate on tapestry, weaving subjects dear to my heart with materials I produced myself.

After a few days recovering from the excitement of Olds College, I settled in to work on a piece I’ve had warped for a few months. The subject is personal, painful and I’m not sure I’m ready to expose it to the light of day, but it needs to be woven, even if it turns out badly. Mistakes are our best teaching partners and the past week, I’ve been making mistakes, although many of these are turning out to be happy accidents.

The finished piece will be approximately 10.5 inches x 11.25 inches, nearly square, which can be problematic, as the eye is drawn to rectangles. I’m weaving it on a Cactus Loom, which means four selvedges, no hems or fringes. As usual, I’m weaving from the front, but the back will not be clean finished, due to some of the techniques I’m incorporating into the weaving – soumak, lettering (woven in and applied to the surface), a wee bit of embroidery for detail. The warp is 2 ply commercial bleached linen, smooth and silky, but so strong and inelastic that it shreds the weft yarns. Those wefts are hand spun singles. I chose to weave most of the piece, which is primarily white with dark brown lines and bits of red, using a yarn spun from Norwegian top. The weft is strongly spun, to the point where it nearly cuts my hands when I break off a piece, but it’s no match for the linen. Because it’s spun from top, the fibres are aligned; when they unwind, as often happens when passing a singles through the weaving shed, they unwind all at once, unlike a woolen spun yarn where the misalignment of the fibres helps to hold the yarn together. This means that the supposedly strong yarn frays and breaks unexpectedly. It also means that the weft tends to shred; the yarn which appears smooth in the ball is rough in the fabric.

Battle Fatigue: Detail 

The Norwegian singles is a prime example of why I encourage beginning tapestry weavers to learn their techniques using plied commercial warp and wefts. Weaving with this yarn is not an easy go. I could have returned to my tried and true Romney singles which I know will behave better. Why did I choose to stay with the Norwegian worsted for weft? Here’s the thing: the difficulty in using this yarn matches the difficulty of my topic. The rough surface of the fabric reflects the ups and downs inherent with the design and subject. As I weave with this weft, the hairiness of the yarn obscures the images in the weaving, ever so slightly, adding to the texture of the tapestry and reflecting the ambivalence I have towards the topic. In other words, the media become crucial to the design of the tapestry. The strong commercial linen warp, the bones of the piece, holds everything together, but it’s a tough mistress, refusing to bend to the actions of the weft. The weft becomes a physical reminder of the hard subject as it builds the tapestry. This, I think, is critical to producing good design. Not only must the weaver capture an idea in her cartoon and translate the cartoon into cloth, she must choose to work with materials which enhance her ideas and her subject. If she selects images and materials which are easy for her, if she repeats a theme because it is safe and known to work, she risks weaving a facile tapestry, boring to herself and boring to the viewer.

By weaving difficult subjects, using materials which don’t bend easily to the will, the tapestry weaver risks disaster, but she also takes steps towards a clear understanding of her subject and the materials needed to express that subject. In doing so, she may provoke her audience into questioning its perspective. Ideally, tackling a hard subject may provide healing. And so, I weave.


Sunday, 28 June 2015

Wasn't That a Party?: Fibre Week 2015

Coleen and I arrived home from Fibre Week 2015 early Friday evening, both of us looking like wet dish rags that the cat had dragged in. I'm sure Mr. DD wonders why we do it every year, given that we return exhausted and I have to hide out for a couple of days just to recover from the experience. The fact is, that our appearance belies all the fun we have spending a stretch of time among fellow spinning nerds in a beautiful setting, where the conversation (fuelled by cider, soft drinks and tea) turns to topics such as, "Where does the twist really stop in a yarn?" as we gather round and watch YouTube videos of Peacock Spiders doing their mating dance.

Teaching Level 4 was a new experience for me. I teach beginners. That's my thing. I love coaxing novices down the rabbit hole that is the spinning world, or any new world, for that matter. I was nervous about moving away from my fledglings and towards advanced students, but everyone was patient and kind and once again, I found myself working with a great group of people. "Working with" is the operative phrase - many of these students know at least as much as the instructor about certain topics. Student occupations outside the spinning world run the gamut from project managers, mathematicians, artists, farmers to journalism majors. I'm learning that the trick to teaching upper levels is to step back, to utilize everyone's talents and to allow the students to tell me a thing or two or three.

Excellent math skills came in handy on Dye Day, when the assignment was Percentage Dyeing with acid dyes. By the end of day, the chart of percentage calculations on the board was a work of art. I couldn't get a decent photo of it because my camera didn't like the poor lighting in the machine shop, but this will give you some idea of the work involved:

By the end of day, the board was covered in calculations for each colour dyed, weights of fibres, stock solutions and the amounts of dye solution required for each colour. One of the assignments was to dye a 12 step colour wheel; one of the teams expanded that to 24 steps. Another group played with ombre and injection dyeing. The last assignment of the day was Rainbow Dyeing on fleece, which involves stuffing raw wool into a dye pot with some water and vinegar, sprinkling dye powders and top and then walking away with poking at the mix. The colours for that were fantastic; I am looking forward to stuffing a pot of my own.

Tending the pot

Jennifer with some of her skeins
 Assignments for this level include spinning line flax, working with bison, cashmere and camel fibres, blending fibres on combs and hackles and silk reeling.

We were fortunate this year to have two renowned silk reeling experts on campus - Michael Cook aka Wormspit and Coleen Nimetz, my travelling companion and the Level 6 instructor. Michael was our roomie. Most of the time, I sat in our townhouse with my mouth hanging open, as he and Coleen discussed the technical details of various silk moths and the fibres they produce. When Michael explained something to me by quoting a phrase in Latin, I knew I was out of my league. When he pulled out his tablet woven band with that same quotation woven into the pattern, I was done. (Old style Catholic masses and high school Latin classes just weren't enough to keep up.) I was toast and I knew it, but Michael is a friendly, gentle person who shared his knowledge generously. Both he and Coleen invited me to observe their reeling classes; Coleen kindly allowed my class to observe her Level 6 reeling. (I was happy about this because I've reeled silk three times in my life; once with Michael in a mini-workshop and twice with Coleen. Silk reeling is not applicable to tapestry weaving, at least not the tapestry weaving I do.) Because we had access to the experts, I had planned to skip the hands-on demonstration in class, but it became apparent that this would be a mistake, so I turned the assignment over to the students who did a wonderful job at reeling despite having a less than cooperative crock pot, makeshift equipment and a teacher (me) who was clueless in the art of silk reeling:

As always, the Olds Campus grounds are beautiful. I visited my poppy beds:

A large Raven was nesting on top of the veterinary clinic on campus and protested loudly every time I walked by. On the last day we had a lengthy conversation, as she squawked at me and I squawked back. (I hope no one saw me, because I'm sure I appeared quite mad.)  She would not allow me to take her picture.

The evening light at Olds confuses me every year. Olds is not that far north of my home, but it stays much lighter in the town than it does back in Regina. Here's a shot from our townhouse, taken at 9:43 p.m. on Wednesday evening. It's no wonder I can never sleep at Fibre Week:

That's it for another year. Thanks to everyone who made it such a wonderful experience, yet again. A big "Thank You" to my class, Level 4, 2015:

For fellow spider aficionados, I leave you with the video of a dancing Peacock Spider, courtesy of Michael Cook:


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Memories: A Tapestry Diary of a Different Sort

I love weaving tapestry samples. Nothing gives me more pleasure in tapestry than working on technical, colour and design challenges. I'm so in love with weaving samples that most of my work consists of bits and pieces of cloth, invariably tucked away in bags, in closets, out of sight, out of mind. (Have I told you lately that I'm a process person?) Those bits and pieces accumulate over the years. Eventually, they sulk, calling to me, "Do something with us, please!" I had an idea or two in mind, but, like so many things, I needed to get one of those handy aroundtoit's before I started.

Last fall, on my way to the yoga studio, I saw something in a designer clothing shop which intrigued me. In the window was a jean jacket. The back of the jacket was painted, boldly, with flowers and scrolls and curlicues and one other thing - the word "Artist" in dynamic letters above the flowers. How interesting, I thought. Who would buy such a jacket? Surely, an artist would design her own jacket; besides, most of the artists I know couldn't afford the many hundreds of dollars for the purchase price. Who else besides an artist would want such a garment? I never discovered the answers to my questions. The window display was changed and the jacket vanished - sold or not, I never knew.

That jacket started something, perhaps something unintended by the original maker, but a something for which I'm grateful. I'd been toying with the idea of stitching my tapestry samples onto garments, but, well, see the first paragraph. Adding tapestry to a jean jacket was my favourite notion. I'd worn jean jackets in my younger days. There's a bit of a rebel image attached to these garments which still appeals to me, although those younger days are long gone. Practically speaking, jean jackets are sturdy, able to support the weight of tapestry. They don't required continuous cleaning, so I wouldn't have to remove my work very often. The more I thought of that painted jacket, the more the idea of a tapestry jacket appealed to me.

Soon after I saw the store display, one of my sisters gave me an old, worn jean jacket. I took this as a sign and began adding samples. These are the first swatches I attached. (Thanks to my niece, Kasha, for the photos of me modelling.)

Each piece holds memories - the lotus was woven to mark the completion of yoga teacher training in 2014. The bottom band, "Winter Count," was a diary woven for my fortieth year on the planet. Many of my swatches resemble landscapes, perhaps because I feel most at home in a field or a forest, near mountains or water.

This is a work in progress - I'm adding swatches as the mood strikes. Although I play with the placement of each band, there are times when the design will be balanced and times when it will not, which, of course, is exactly how life goes. One day, the original jacket will disappear, buried beneath the fragments made by the weaver's hand, leaving behind marks of collected memories. Just like me.