Friday, 30 November 2012

Dyes, Pies and Whys

Dyes and pies: that’s how I’ve labelled the blackberries in the freezer, and it’s a good job I kept some, as this year’s crop has been extremely low because of the weather. I’ve sneaked a few out of the ‘dyes’ bag – the better ones – to make up the deficit in the ‘pies’ bag, but I’m going to regret that when I reach for the dyepot this weekend. I wish it was as easy to turn wool bright colours as it is to grow plants which create an intensely colourful backdrop in winter time.  

My natural dyepot experiences have so far produced subtle colours rather than the deep and consistent shades you get from World of Wool’s artistic palette of colours. I therefore tend to use the commercially-dyed material for yarns to put in my Etsy shop, and the natural dyes, which can be a bit flighty if I haven’t measured things properly, for my own home use. Suppliers like World of Wool are good at doing their due diligence, but when I was asked by a prospective Etsy customer in the USA recently about shipments, and discovered what their regulations demanded of suppliers, I found I still have a lot of learning to do about sourcing.

It wasn’t just the transport issue – bulky yarns like mine seem to require ‘volumetric’ costing by shippers, thus extra expense – it’s that apparently I need to be able to identify the origins of every single component I use, which, with the fluffy stuff I make, can be quite a lot! If I’m thoughtful about what I’ve got to do to assure my very small supply chain, imagine how hard it is for fashion designers and even more for retailers, though at least they should have the resources to make active choices. According to Greenpeace’ report ‘Toxic Threads’, launched last week, some of them are falling down on the job.

The side-effects of industrial-scale dyeing processes can be added to the issue of ‘wool miles’, raised previously on this blog, as something that we as spinners ought to think more about. So my challenge for 2013 is to find ways of applying some form of ‘life cycle analysis’ to my woolly materials, in the same way as I advocate its use to others in a manufacturing context. I’m willing to give it a try as I believe the planet is worth saving, and as a gardener too I feel I ought to be doing more to help. Plants are valuable, and climate change will affect their growth patterns and our abilities to harvest and use them as our ancestors did. So here’s wishing you a thoughtful week, bending your mind to ways and means to make a difference, examining your own ‘whys’, and possibly your dyes and pies too.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Work-Life imbalance

Life’s web sometimes spins us a few tangles and that’s certainly been true for me in recent weeks. Firstly there came the totally unanticipated and most untimely passing of a close working colleague, for whom I then had to do both a professional and personal duty by writing all the necessary media announcements and obituary. In the middle of the turmoil, pre-arranged building work got underway here, meaning I had to move out of my small office, along with some 12 years of paperwork which needed sorting, and I have only just got back in here at the start of this week. Happily it hasn’t all been stress: the return of frosts have changed the balance in the garden to a much more autumnal palette, and my oldest and first spinning wheel, nicknamed ‘Stanley’, and I have made up from our wobbling-out-of-true quarrel and are now working famously together again.  

Being a ‘lone ranger’ as a businesswoman, having any ‘work-life balance’ is actually quite hard. You feel that you need to go the extra mile all the time, particularly when the economy isn’t good, to show that you’re worth your salt. And working from home there’s always the guilt-feeling that you should slip back into the office and “just” finish something off: of course you emerge three hours later. Operating in not one but two fields these days, also having to keep up professional accreditation with CPD points, plus whatever share of family duties come my way, and rapidly the concept of a ‘balanced lifestyle’, let alone a ‘balanced diet’, goes out of the window. Apparently though I’m not the only one, as my Enterprising Women newsletter tells me.  

Their report into women’s potential for providing growth in the economy revealed that 39% of their UK survey respondents found it hard to achieve ‘work-life balance’, quite probably because 68% of them are, like me, the sole operatives of their businesses. And like me they’re probably ‘chief cook and bottle-washers’ (or should I say ‘domestic godesses’?) in their households too. This “predominantly micro-business-based” community of women, though, are apparently less than confident about marketing themselves and/or their wares, with 41% of respondents “not knowing how to build a sales pipeline”. Now that figure really does surprise me. Why set forth in a business if you don’t know where your market is? Market research – even at a basic level – should be the foundation of any offering, whether it’s pictures, PR, pets or pottery. Simply plunging in can cost a whole pile, which most of us these days would have to think twice before investing.

Pricing is always an awkward issue, especially for small producers unable to gain big discounts on their raw materials, but we should think about our output, whatever it may be, in terms of value more than price. And we should put a very definite value on priceless things that keep us personally in balance, like swooshing through the fallen autumn leaves and drinking in the vision of ice crystals on frozen flowers. After all none of us can say how many bright frosty autumn mornings we will see in our lifetimes, so every one of them should be precious. Here’s hoping you can achieve a positive balance in your work and life this coming week.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Happiness and the Basket Case

How happy can a person be with making a basket? TV historian Ruth Goodman was almost childishly gleeful with her achievement on the BBC’s Wartime Farm this evening, making a basket to carry messenger pigeons. Maybe I’m a bit of a ‘basket-case’ myself, but I know that happy basket-weaving feeling. Even if it did cause aching thumbs, I was really pleased with making my first basket in about two years on a course at Denny Abbey the other weekend, taught by a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, Sandra Barker.  

It’s the first time I’ve worked under Sandra: in previous years I’ve had great fun working with coloured willows and dogwoods on courses with Mary Butcher at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. Teachers all have their different approach to things but share one thing in common – their passion for their craft. You can see it makes them happy transferring their skills to others, and it makes us happy to receive those skills, and to end up with a tangible achievement we can take home. It’s nothing to be hidden: we’re not after showing off, we’re just pleased to have made something worthy and useful. 

Psychologists recognise the primeval need we have to make things: it makes us feel, as one article says “vital and effective”. It gives us back our place in the world and the feeling that we as individuals can effect positive change. No wonder textiles and basketry were once the mainstay of medical Occupational Therapy. Modern Occupational Therapy has come a long way from the offerings of the 1960s while the value of craftwork too has been much better quantified. The Crafts Council’s report on the economic social value of makers says they gain from their craft “ confidence, self-esteem and a sense of value,” and that young people engaging with craft gain “a sense of autonomy and control”.  

Control isn’t exactly what I’d call the construction phase of my basket but it made the grade in the end. Letting go control is more possible weaving with other materials, though the collection of materials I’ve got on the loom at the moment are probably more controlling me than the other way around! Yet, as the Institute for Employment Studies points out about craft graduates, people in our sector carry with them: “ persistence, self-motivation and belief, professional attitude, a strong work ethic and dedication to creative practice”, which should at least see me through the battle with the mohair in the warp.

Whichever walk of creative or business life you choose, such attributes are to be proud of. So here’s wishing you the joy of process, persistence and positive outcomes created by your own hands this week.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Serendipitous Silk Scrunching

I was reminded in the Jekka’s Herb Farm newsletter this week that my gardening heroine, Gertrude Jekyll, once said gardening teaches you “patience, watchfulness, ...industry and thrift...and above all..entire trust.” I certainly charged off to the Boos’ Attic dye workshop last Saturday full of trust in our teacher Clare, determined to be as industrious as possible and achieve as much as I could with thrifty use of the dye colours, but allowing excitement totally to override the patience and watchfulness bit! I couldn’t wait to get started, especially as I’d been allowed to bring along some silk to try dyeing after we’d finished with the initial dyeing of yarns.

I’d been visited by a little serendipity with silk at the last workshop. A few twists of the silk and a few dobs of colour produced the most amazing effects with the colours running into each other and tumbling over the white space. This time my excitement had been wound up (pardon the expression) by reading articles on different types of Shibori dyeing. The library had a copy of Elfriede Moller’s book, which amongst other techniques shows how to iron, block and tie fabrics for Shibori dyeing. I’d also seen an article in Ashford’s magazine The Wheel (issue 21), about Arashi Shibori, delivering texture as well as effect. Only trouble was I didn’t have a drain pipe of the right size, nor some of the other kit suggested, so it took a little thinking outside the box to come up with alternatives.

I wound a couple of silk ties around big stones and wrapped them with crochet cotton; silk scarves were ironed like Origami shapes in different triangles and pleats, then rolled and scrunched up with the cotton. And the small silk hankies got tied up and strung up every which-way to see what happened. As to adding the colour, I did a mixture of random dabbing here and there, squirting some through the ends of the silk rolls towards the middle, and even a little over-dyeing. Happily the Spirit of Serendipity was with me again, and the first round of results are here to see.

One of the kind ladies on the workshop said one of the resulting scarves reminded her of “cathedral windows”. I was fascinated on that one by the feathering effect caused by the pleating, rolling and wrapping with the crochet cotton. Another one reminded me of a child’s kaleidoscope, with the coloured glass changing as it falls about into new patterns. The other two, in pinks, purples and browns, look as if I’ve been printing with autumn leaves, though in truth it’s just down to patterns of scrunching and tying.  To make the colour penetrate more evenly maybe I need to deploy some of Gertrude’s ‘patient watchfulness’ and be a bit more thoughtful about where I pleat and tie in relation to what I want to achieve.

Yet whilst I’d love to know more about Shibori techniques, part of me just wants to enjoy the randomness of simply ‘having a go’. That’s what I love about fibre-related crafts. They allow every one of us to express ourselves, liberate our spirits, and learn new things, whether by luck or by teaching, but in both cases without feeling desperately harnessed to “the right way” of doing things. Here’s wishing you a liberating week of expanding your creative horizons and challenging your own perception of the status quo.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Poetry, Power and the P Drive

Thank goodness it’s National Poetry Day today. My computer ‘troubles’, which have led to major upheavals in the past few days, are now over thanks to the heroic and willing cadre of two sons and husband, far better at gadgety things than I am. Collectively they managed to rescue my P Drive, comprising all my pictures, my e-mail, and most importantly, everything related to the day job. I can’t pretend to have been my calmer self during the process, but my spirits were empowered by Walter D Wintle’s poem ‘Thinking’, which echoes my own mantra when faced by life’s little obstructions, namely: “I will win.”   

I only came across 'Thinking'  this summer. It was one of the ‘Winning Words’ series on BBC Radio 4, airing around the time of the London Olympics. It’s from Walter Sieghart’s anthology of the same name, which I promptly put on my birthday list and was privileged to receive. I treasure my poetry books, many of them going back into childhood and reflecting the seasons, like “Come little leaves” by American poet George Cooper. Cooper’s lifespan must have crossed over with another of my favourites, Robert Louis Stevenson. His poem ‘Autumn Fires’ from ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ is highly evocative of this season of ‘..mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ as Shakespeare put it.  

There’s a fascinating reproduction of the 1895 edition of ‘AChild’s Garden of Verses’ online, which will interest to anyone with a liking for or social history. It’s the vibrant colours in ‘Autumn Fires’ that tempt me first into the garden and then back to the loom with a head full of ideas. Matching nature’s glory isn’t easy but I pay my woolly homage each autumn, working with whatever materials I can find. Mohair (from Angora goats) isn’t easy to weave with but it’s worth the perseverance. It gets all stuck together in the warp on a rigid heddle loom but with careful handling you can get around it. And it has its own powerful effect on texture, changing the whole feel of the piece, making it misty, soft and desirable. Fibre fashions come and go, but for me weaving is all about texture, and, at this time of year, creating a fusion of colour worthy of the average autumn leaf.

I doubt if there have been many poems about natural fibres, goats or sheep for that matter being recited during National Poetry Day, but if anyone has any to share, about spinning, weaving or any other fibre crafts, you’re welcome to let us all know. I saw some good Haiku coming through during the day via Telegraph Books’ poetry tweets, and what’s more, to reinforce the stereotype of the British being eccentric, I gather today saw the investiture of the first Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, working with the Canals & River Trust. Perhaps Jo will create some poetry around sheep in misty fields on summer mornings as life beside the canal towpath starts to awaken – maybe we ought to ask if such‘requests’ are allowed?

I see the Poetry Society now has a ‘PoetryPrescription’ critical review service, to encourage better poetry writing. But poetry, like art and textiles, is highly subjective, and besides which I for one am far too introverted to send in any of my scribblings for comment! Poets are brave people, distilling the essence of their person and experiences into a few lines and putting it out there for everyone to see. Maybe we should all take a metaphorical leaf out of their collective book and indulge in a little more self-expression in our constrained modern lives. Here’s wishing you a powerfully liberating week with your creative exploits - and one that’s completely techno-trouble-free.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Of buried textiles and boardrooms

I’ve never seen archaeology presenter Neil Oliver look so fascinated. He was presented, in episode 3 of the BBC’s ‘Vikings’ the other night, with a Viking woollen mitten around 1,000 years old: his eyes lit up with appreciation. Viking women were highly proficient in textile production of all kinds, but only recently have the heights of their achievements come to light. After reading Judith Jesch’s fascinating article about Viking women’s lives, I went surfing to find out more about the Oseberg ship burial of a high status Viking woman.

They say time flies when you’re enjoying yourself, and steeped in Anne Stine Ingstad’s article about the incredible preservation of the Oseberg ship textiles, its 30 pages slipped by before I knew it! It’s clear that Viking women were not only able to marry beauty with utility in their textile crafts but were also held in high regard for their skills, wherever they were based. Anne Stine Ingstad’s article reminds us of the precision, the organisation (of what today we’d the ‘supply chain’) and the decisiveness needed to create such high quality woven articles.

Precision, organisation, decisiveness are not new terms in the female lexicon. Yet at the moment there seems to be a plethora of women’s networking organisations and conferences emerging - and gaining members and delegates – as if these words were new to our realm of experience. I have to admit that I find programmes like Hilary Devey’s ‘Women at the top’ just a tiny bit embarrassing. The notion that women are ‘being held back’ just doesn’t seem to fit with the business women I know today, whatever their line of country.

It’s well accepted that gender diversity in the workplace makes for better business. I can therefore understand the ethos behind campaigns like Women 1st, which is aiming to increase the ratio of women board members in the hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism sector (from roughly 6% today), thus ensuring better representation for the 60% female workforce. I also totally agree there are still bastions where greater female representation would create a genuinely better working environment and future.

The new UK organisation of Women on Boards, launched in London earlier this week, is seeking greater female representation on company boards, aiming to achieve a mix that includes at least 40% women. There’s also the slightly lower targeting 30% Club, supported by some pretty major companies. The number of women on boards does need to be improved though in my view by merit rather than by quota.

I’m certainly not ‘anti-men’ either. It’s just that women bring a different perspective to business management that can beneficially run alongside the male mindset. Women are mental ‘weavers’, capable of bringing together many threads and make them work as a whole. At the same time we’re able to look ahead at the bigger picture, tracking down the resources needed to achieve continuing good results. We simply want to be recognised, as were Viking women a thousand years ago, for the different but equally valuable contribution we offer. Here’s wishing you a week of opportunities to weave your own positive future.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Old soundscapes and new business landscapes

I was away with the day job last week but was interested to hear on the radio the ‘sonic tribute’ to the closing of Bush House in central London, the home of the BBC World Service for so long. It was eerily fascinating – almost like being inside the mind of the composer – or perhaps I should say compiler.  With soundscapes now featuring regularly in art galleries it set me thinking about the interconnectedness of arts, crafts and other disciplines. 

They say as one door shuts, another one opens, and the closing of Bush House was linked to a piece of better news for all of us in the original Doctor Who generation:  the re-opening of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in response to the advance of the digital age in music and art. The Radiophonic Workshop will doubtless return to being a leader in using electronic technology to push forward innovation in music.  In the same way today saw a fascinating crossing of cultures in the Crafts Council’s Assemble 2012 event. 

Alas I wasn’t able to go, but from the resulting Tweets it seems to have opened the doors to a vibrant cross-fertilisation of ideas.  Talks ranging from ‘The Craft of Surgery’ and ‘Embroidered Engineering’ to ‘Biomaterials and Future Making’ have given participants from many disciplines an opportunity to step out together along new and innovative paths. 

At the same time, the Crafts Council is examining collaboration as a means of creating monetary value for makers, through its brief but pointed exhibition ‘Exploring Craft and Luxury’.  It’s on for the next few days at the Design Junction as part of the London Design Festival.  Monetary value is not usually the starting point for craft makers.  But would it really hamper our creativity if we took a step back and thought first about markets and creating a viable promotional niche? 

Like artists and photographers (including those capturing stunning images for Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012),  we makers start with ideas, colours, inspiration and materials, and work hopefully towards selling our work.  We don’t have to cross the divide totally and look solely at the monetary aspects, but matching a little more commercial sensibility to our creativity might enable more of us to continue doing the things we love, even in a recessionary economic environment. 

The occupations of those in the FTSE’s 2012 list of ‘100 Women to Watch’ in business, compiled with Cranfield University, demonstrate women’s abilities to look ahead, foresee risks, manage complex finances, communicate views and meanings, and to extract the best from themselves and from others. Craftswoman or businesswoman, those talents are within all of us. Here’s wishing you a week in which you can use all of them to their full potential.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Horizon, Hockney and the Hippocampus

“It’s blue.”  “No it’s grey but with some blue in the grey.”  “Well to my mind it’s definitely blue.”  Re-painting the garden table last weekend highlighted just how differently my other half and I see colours.  And as if to underline the problem along came the news this week that men and women really do process colour information differently in the brain.  Women apparently see more detail in colours, whilst men are better seeing small detail in moving objects.  Interestingly, research available out there in internet land seems also to suggest that language and colour are linked in the brain.  Perhaps if you’re a linguist you get an even better view of the spectrum! 

The polymath Stephen Fry chose to launch his new series of Fry’s English Delight with a programme on the language of colour a few weeks ago.  David Hockney, being interviewed by Stephen Fry, suggested that we see colours through our memories.  I can understand what he means.  The vivid yellow and chocolate black of a seemingly giant sunflower head, seen against a South-of-France blue sky is certainly deeply embedded in my psyche from travels with my family in childhood. 

Holding these powerful yet very individual stimuli to account when trying to reach agreement over a paint colour card is thus very likely to generate differences of opinion.  No two people’s experiences in life are exactly the same.  About a year ago, the BBC Horizon series dedicated a programme to the science of colour perception, from cultural, medical and psychological perspectives.  Expressing what you see may well depend on the angle of light and its reflection where you live, and its consequent effects on the development of your local language. 

The programme-makers seemed to find it curious that a certain African tribe spoke of water as being ‘white’ as opposed to our notion of it being ‘blue’.  If you live in a parched land defined mainly by earth colours, you’re going to have a different view, not just of the palette of colours but of their significance too, compared, say to people featured in Michael Palin’s Himalaya series.  In those lands, snow melt water brings forth a mass flowering of many hues.  These colours are reflected in traditional dancing costumes, such as those in Basil Pao’s photography for the series.  In the same way Scottish fabrics often reflect the mosses and mountains, heaths and heathers in their landscape of origin.    

Neuroscience would have us all boiling our life experiences down to a chemical soup in the brain.  Yet because none of our lives are exactly the same – thank goodness – there will always be differences in perception and use of colour.  So let’s celebrate the individuality which brings us the Monets, Gaugins and Hockneys, and that brings us a world of symbolic patterns, textures and colours in our textiles.  Here’s wishing you a week coloured with interest and good fortune in your making. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

From chutney to the stars

When Professor Stephen Hawking told the capacity crowd at the Paralympics opening ceremony the other night to “Look up at the stars” and be curious, I’m pretty sure my green tomato chutney wasn’t featuring in his mental landscape. Being curious about everything though makes for a fascinating life. Having been both amateur astronomer and chutney-maker in my time I can vouch that both involve a good deal of exploration, of one’s self and one’s environment.

As a small child, before my brother was born, when sent to bed in summer I’d invariably creep to the curtains and watch the sun set and the stars come out. As an adult, after putting my children to bed, I remember watching progress of, I think it was, Comet Swift-Tuttle standing in a cardboard box under an ideal dark sky in the garden of our thatched country cottage, hoping my feet wouldn’t get too cold. Even today I’m delighted by the continuing detailed images from Hubble, like this picture of globular cluster M68. This is probably more what Stephen Hawking had in mind!

Chutney too has warranted a lot of curiosity, from receiving an Olive Odell book on preserving as a young wife, to my continued lapping up of new recipes and new fruits to try. My Medlar tree delivered in abundance for the first time last year, involving a frenzy of recipe searching, and netting several jars of very tasty medlar jelly and even a medlar tart, recipe origin anno domini 1545, thanks to a fantastic site full of ancient recipes – it’s a whole universe for exploring in itself! Curiosity is something that should never be allowed to fizzle out in human beings, however tired or busy we become. You just don’t know what you can do until you try.

Stephen Hawking’s words at the opening ceremony were poignantly motivating, telling us that whatever difficulties we face in life, there’s “always something you can do”. And finding out what you can do is a worthwhile journey to make. I didn’t know I could spin – or would even like to – until trying it four years ago, and my has there been much fluffy water under the bridge since then. Fibres from Ramie (my latest conquest) to Yak, Possum and Llama, Angora bunny fluff and Angora goat (mohair) and multifarious sheep crosses, have expanded my horizons beyond my wildest dreams, from my first faltering try at a spinning wheel.

What we as a society can do if we try is summed up for me in that other Curiosity, the one sitting quietly working away on Mars and sending back phenomenal images like this of the landscape at the foot of Mount Sharp on the Red Planet. Whilst I’m enjoying a bit of blue sky backing the red colourings around me in at the start of autumn, Curiosity is almost mirroring the colours I see in the landscape of another world. And that, to me, is utterly fascinating. Here’s wishing you a week full of worthwhile curiosities.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Opening Statement

Firstly apologies for not updating the blog last week: I was away - not with the fairies but with best buddy Frances exploring the West Country, and trying to steer well clear of anything related to computers.  Everything else, though, we enjoyed in abundance:  good friendship, tea & cakes, Gertrude Jekyll gardens at Hestercombe and Barrington, a boot full of willow collected from Musgroves, and local cider and cheese – a winning combination.  We also enjoyed our first go at using a peg loom, weaving the rug opposite in the hotel room over 2 evenings. 

We certainly got some strange looks from chamber maids and hotel staff coming in with a peg loom and leaving skeins and balls of wool around the room as we worked.  It took just a couple of hours on each of two evenings to complete this, our opening statement in rug-making terms. I could never see how a peg loom could work, until we lifted the first set of pegs and slid the weaving down the warp threads.  Even then it didn’t seem real.  Would this really hold together?  As you can see it certainly did, and now I can’t wait to make a bigger one, perhaps even using some of my mega yarns. 

This small but epic production is on a linen warp and comprises fleece from a sheep called Noggin, sadly now in the Great Sheepfold in the Sky.  It represents the whole gamut of fibre preparation from washing and carding the fleece to spinning, plying, dyeing and weaving.  My Noggin rug yarn was dyed with plant dyes only.  If you’re interested, from top to bottom (up to down) they area;  exhausted woad; exhausted Brazilwood; woad over weld, dyers’ greenweed and exhausted dyers’ greenweed, Brazilwood, woad, pear leaves modified with iron water, Golden Rod, Golden Rod with pretty exhausted woad, medium-exhausted Brazilwood and exhausted woad. 

It’s given me encouragement to get plant-dyeing again before the dyers’ greenweed and Golden Rod are completely over in the garden, so I’m busy washing fleece on sunny days – a beautiful Leicester cross with lustre picked up from The Farm Animal Sanctuary stand at Fibre-East.    I’ve already got a haul of my own madder root, grown from seed and left for Jenny Dean’s suggested 3 years before harvesting. 

My bedtime reading in the hotel, after excited bouts of weaving, has also inspired me onwards. It was from Jenny Dean’s blog: the three entries on Anglo-Saxon dye experiments, in which she used only plants, including to produce the alum mordant replacements, and came up with a fantastic array of colours.  From a kitchen now scented by coloured willow, plants cut for dyeing and yarn waiting for its transformation, here’s wishing you all a similarly colourful and productive week ahead. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bees, blackberries and botanics

Even if you ask them most politely, bees are just too busy to stand still while you photograph them. I want to let them have the best of the Golden Rod (Solidago), before I take some for natural dyeing on recently-purchased fleeces. At this time of year all my interest coalesce: bees (I’m a would-be bee keeper), plants - their uses and history, and wool.

With the huge range of acid dyes and ready-dyed Merino tops (rovings) available, it’s thought-provoking to realise just how much time our ancestors must have spent achieving a wide range of colours from natural materials. Having been lucky enough to go on a course run by natural dye expert Jenny Dean, and having successfully replicated shades of the colours in her ‘Wild Colour’ book, I can vouch for the necessity of having all one’s dyeing ducks ready in a row before starting.

Dye plants feature in the new ‘Garden of Edible and Useful Plants’ at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, which opened a few months ago. The Chelsea Physic is one of London’s hidden treasures whose influential history is somewhat masked by its lower profile today. I say that with great affection, being one of those who’ve studied and received a Diploma in Plants & Plantsmanship in a slightly musty classroom in the Chelsea Physic’s inner sanctum.

The head gardener’s aim for the new space is: “to bring people closer to the plants which are inextricably woven into our everyday lives”. Have we forgotten already how inextricable that link is? I hope not, or the work of centuries will have been for naught. Making sure you had the right plant for making medicine or indeed for dyeing resource-expensive cloth in times past was essential. The eyesight of many scribes and medieval monks was devoted to keeping the knowledge chain intact. You can see the intensity of effort by tracing illustrations of the common blackberry from the Juliana Codex (the Vienna Dioscorides), through other copies of both Dioscorides’ and also Apuleius’ texts, such as the 11th Century Bury Herbal.  (See if you recognise woad or madder in the Bury Herbal pictures!)

A blossoming of interest in herbal cures and dyes amongst intellectual ladies like Maud Grieve in the last century gave the knowledge of centuries a helping hand into the modern era. Today, the mantle of spreading useful plant information to create a sustainable future has been taken up by the Plants for a Future database, which is a superb resource. It alerted me to the existence of a Dyers’ Woodruff I hadn’t come across: like every human being I still have a lot to learn.

Blackberries have various medicinal uses as well as offering potential - if rather elusive - to the natural dyer. My own experiments dyeing with blackberries are mixed. Thinking I’d sufficiently mordanted my Teeswater locks to achieve a purple-pink colour, they promptly turned smokey blue when I washed and felted my yarn. But experimentation is all part of the fun, as Jenny Dean’s trials re-createing Anglo-Saxon dye colours show.

There’s just so much out there that could bring us back into balance with nature. Here’s hoping you find something natural that opens new vistas in your coming week.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Bubble-gum, flag-bearers and barcodes

Does anyone else remember collecting picture cards from different types of sweets in the past?  I think some came with that very flat pink, dusty bubble gum that we used to pop and have it stick to our noses and chins. And some may even have been in those packets of white candy mock-cigarettes (how times have changed!).  One set held my childhood attention: it was a series of national costumes from around the world, featuring grass skirts in the Pacific isles, Kaftans, bark cloth from Africa and back to Europe with Dutch girls with triangular pointy hats and clogs.  It was one amongst many unconscious triggers firing me towards the world of textiles I now inhabit.  That trigger was pulled again last Friday as I sat watching the Olympic opening ceremony.

What a textile-fest!  Some of the countries chose only to show off their textile heritage with their flag-bearer, such as the glimpses of beautiful goldwork on the Kazakhstani flag-bearer’s hat and coat.  Others ‘went modern’ with only a hint of their colourful textile heritage to be seen. Yet the one getting my gold medal for textile display was Cameroon. They’d gone the whole way with traditional hats and flowing patterned robes.  

Such occasions used to be a real celebration of costume diversity, but this year few teams ventured as far as  Tuvalu and Kiribati in showing off proudly their national dress.  As ‘globalisation’ spreads its levelling glue, let’s hope traditional textiles and costumes aren’t levelled along with it. It would be a real loss if, like office buildings and hotel rooms, they all began to look the same.  

Our eye for spotting differences and enjoying detail is part of human evolutionary make-up, and enabled me to enjoy the first the mystery then the revelation of Thomas Heatherwick’s magical Cauldron with its copper Petals.  But humankind’s ability to copy is also inbred – and it’s not always used to the good, as I’m sure many designers and makers have found.  Responsible business has come a long way from the bad old days in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies were involved in disputes over the ancient herbal intellectual property of local peoples.  Yet protecting intellectual property is still high on the world’s business agenda. 

Protecting ‘design’ IP is felt to be difficult but the Design Council is trying to push things forward with useful tools like its downloadable Guide to Legal Issues & IP.  On their website I also came across a concept new at least to me:  that of the Creative Barcode.  It can be embedded into everything connected with one’s original work of creativity, including presentations, literature etc, and at a surprisingly low-priced entry point.  So perhaps we may all in future have solid ground on which to stand up and defend the differences that make our output unique, amongst the estimated £8.5 billions’ worth of clothing and textile industry products sold each year in Britain. 

Here’s wishing you a positive week of celebrating differences and making your own unique and sustainable mark on the world. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Monk’s musings and definitive detail

Reading Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is good for the soul.  In one of his sleuthing episodes, medieval herbalist monk Cadfael tells his charge that “..there’s no profit in ‘ifs’ – we go on from where we stand’. The Cadfael brand of wisdom came to me on a train journey today, returning from saying a final goodbye to a much-appreciated aunt. 

We’d got to know each other latterly in life and found we had much in common, from our very straight hair to our plain-speaking attitudes, from gardening to jam-making and also history, both ancient and family.  Like a train, which changes in meaning and significance as it metamorphoses from the 09.30 service from York to the 11.55 service from Stevenage, we remain the same in essence though the detail of what we mean to others and where we are in life defines us to our friends and family.

The defining nature of detail matters at every turn in life, and especially to people who express their being through the creativity of their designs.  Their detail becomes their creative ‘hallmark’, whether they be potter, painter, weaver or knitter.  Juliet Bernard’s Planethandmade blog recently highlighted the case of a knitwear designer whose woolly signature seemed to appear through a retailer.  The debate over ownership of creative intellectual property is at the heart of ACID – Anti-Copying In Design, and their petition entitled Commission it, Don’t Copy it!’.

ACID’s  ‘Government endorsed campaign intends to support the UK’s estimated 240,000 designers by encouraging retailers to sign up to a code protecting creative intellectual property, whilst simultaneously encouraging them to commission more original design and to create ‘signature ranges’. Presumably the campaign intends to imbue product design with the same protection and exclusivity deals which have long been the preserve of high fashion.

This does not guarantee, though, that we 'makers' will automatically achieve success.  As James Dyson related through the Guardian’s Small Business Network recently, failure is equally important.  Commenting on the success-driven culture of competition athletes (not far from any of our minds for the next two weeks!), he said he’ had over five thousand attempts at designing a prototype for his now-famous machines before achieving proverbial gold.   His point was that perseverance through adversity is just as valuable as success when you’re making something. 

Continued perseverance and finding ways around things was also the theme in an article I was reading on my train journey today, about Danish weaver Lotte Dalgaard (The Journal WSD, issue 236, 2010).  Change has been her constant companion through her creative textiles journey, bringing her to where she is today with her individual fabrics being made into equally individual garments through co-operation with a fashion designer. Brother Cadfael’s creator was most insightful in penning the lines I began with above.  May your coming week be one of rejoicing in the friendships and leaning life has granted you so far, and be full of determinedly future-focussed creativity.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Celebration, innovation and new horizons

If there’s ever a case for an award it’s for the members of the Community Interest Company that is Fibre-East. After a downpour of biblical proportions while we were setting up our stalls last Friday evening, both organisers and visitors carried on stoically in the mud throughout the weekend, in true ‘Glastonbury’ spirit, and good fun was had by all. Although they’ve closed for this year, I think we should all get together next spring and nominate Fibre-East for ‘Contributing to the Community’ – one of the Nectar small business awards, as a reward for all their efforts.

Fibre-East is a celebration of entrepreneurship, with small businesses of all kinds, including my own, at its core. And at the core of a lot of those small businesses are creative women, stepping out with their ideas and exploring their own potential for innovation. My guests on the Outward Images stand inhabit different but equally potent areas of fibre business life. Rachel John, innovator and inventor of Extreme Knitting, continues to promote creativity and engage all ages in her vision. Juliet Bernard of Planet Handmade is turning her expertise in the knitting and promotional worlds into help for new businesses find their way to market.

On the Sunday Rachel and I were joined by Pete Mosley, creative coach and business editor of Craft & Design, giving one-to-one advice to the small business owners and creative people visiting Fibre-East. It was interesting to see that Pete’s offer of free business advice was being taken up primarily by new and emerging women entrepreneurs. The Department of Business Innovation and Skills’ 2011 small business report found that only 29% of the UK’s entrepreneurs are women. Perhaps their survey didn’t extend to the fibre-crafts sector, where we seem to be in the majority.

The Federation of Small Businesses are doing their bit for women under their ‘Real-Life Entrepreneurs’ campaign. If you visit their downloads page to take part, you’ll find a ready-made women entrepreneurs’ postcard to send to your MP, lobbying for more education & assistance for women in starting up in business. The FSB say that 95% of all private businesses employ less than 5 people, so we needn’t feel we’re too small if we’re chugging along by ourselves. We’re in the majority here too, so have confidence and go for it!

We’re also pretty good at networking too, and it was great to meet and greet so many people over the Fibre-East weekend. I’m also deeply grateful to the creative, innovative women wool shop owners like the ladies from Yarn on the Square, and visiting men and women knitters, who kindly gave me some much-appreciated feedback on what I’m doing and how I can take Outward Images forward. Thanks tremendously for all of your input. Here’s wishing all readers, male and female, a positive, co-operative, and inventive week, brimming with new horizons.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Away in a land of orange

I’m a bit late updating this week as I’ve been away on a trip to a land of orange - and oranges. The deep orangey-russet of the soil in Portugal’s Algarve would be even more potent were it not for the bleaching of the sun. And plantsperson though I am, I’ve never before seen the developing, bright orange, fruit-carrying arms that stretch up so enthusiastically from the date palms along the sea-front. I hadn’t realised how fluorescent they look at that early stage.

The orange trees in Portugal were absolutely laden with fruit too, and almost all of it ripe and colourfully inviting against the waxy green leaves. The most vibrant experience though for a colour-imbiber like me was finding the orange ‘vibe’ of the area reflected on the walls of the Three Crowns restaurant in Albuferia, and seeing even this beamed back through the orange centre of a hot pink Bougainvillea climbing the walls. Apologies for the picture quality: the sea breeze wouldn’t let it still long enough!

Lace-making and rug-weaving were on the regional culture menu, and I was lucky enough to be allowed not just to look at but actually to sit at an estimated 200-year old pedal-operated loom. It was part of a display on weaving and old lace at the very recommendable Parque da Minta, inland near Monchique. Very kindly, the curator both opened the door and welcomed me to sit where many (much slimmer!) derrières had sat in centuries before.

I was even allowed to have a go at changing the sheds using the pedals. Much more complicated than my very simple rigid heddle Knitters' Loom - more like driving a car, but with vastly superior environmental outcomes. The ancientness and wear on the pedals makes one feel very humble thinking of the rigours of life for country weavers in the past, and full of admiration for their artistic output, given their circumstances. The detail in the weaving even of donkey back sacks reminds you just what a creative force textiles are in our lives, whether it’s practical astronauts’ space suits or art/fashion collaborations like those at Britain Creates.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to update the blog this coming Thursday as I’ll be getting ready for the Outward Images stand at Fibre-East. If I miss your company then here’s hoping we’ll meet in person at the show.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Valuable, free and at Fibre-East

We’re very caught up as a society with assigning monetary values to everything. Yet some of the best things in life are free, or happen to you when you’re doing someone a favour. At last year’s Fibre-East I was lucky enough to meet a number of friendly journalists, one of whom asked me to write a few articles for free as a favour for their magazine. I was only too happy to help: it was an opportunity to find out more about my Ashford Country Spinner and explore its heritage, and to explore other topics too. No money changed hands: it didn’t need to. I had fun and they got an article - or two: a most equitable bargain.

We’ve talked before about craft being about what you give, not what you get in return. It’s part of the whole ethos of passing on skills to the next generation so they can continue to benefit humankind. And as part of my ‘giving back’ for all the fun I have at Fibre-East, I’m delighted to say that on the Sunday, 15th July, anyone starting a craft business, or wanting to refresh their established businesses, can come along to the Outward Images stand and get free advice from Pete Mosley, business editor of Craft & Design magazine, and author of ‘Make your Creativity Pay’.

Pete and his business partner Janet Currie run courses for craftspeople starting up or moving on up with their businesses at The Refectory Table.  At Fibre-East, we’ll be lucky enough to have Pete at our proverbial table on the Outward Images stand in marquee B all day on the Sunday. In fibre-crafts, particularly as yarn producers, we can suffer from being only one link in a chain towards a finished product. Our unfinished square peg doesn’t quite fit in the normal round hole marked ‘Craft’, yet our skills of spinning, weaving and dyeing are based on millennia of, to use business jargon, ‘knowledge transfer’.

Textile designers like Joby Lawlor, showing for the first time at New Designers, on now at the Business Design Centre, have a much more focussed business case to make as their art is in the finished material. Yarn producers have extra business hoops to go through to achieve recognition, but that’s where Pete Mosley’s advice will come in handy. His extensive store of experience is in encouraging artistic people to have confidence and ‘go for it’!

So please, do come an join us in our ‘Crafters’ Den’ on the Outward Images stand, Sunday 15th July.  Pete’s helpful business advice is most kindly being proffered with the same sincere community spirit which pervades Fibre-East. Take your first steps in good company, and if you eventually decide to join the woolly business community here’s wishing you every success.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Golden stars and golden Sun-day

As the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice starts our reverse journey towards a colourful autumn, the world waits for news of the Egyptian presidential elections and the future of its freely-elected parliament.  Egypt is a country of golden light, as we found on our honeymoon many years ago.  We’ve been back since, taking our children to see the ancient achievements of its peoples, and climbing the very hot, sticky ascent right into the centre of the Great Pyramid.  For the inspiration engendered by visiting its massive monuments, I hope Egypt returns to peaceful prosperity soon, allowing ever more people to gasp at its glinting treasures. 

The golds and red-brown colours of Egypt have been in my mind over the past week, making yarn towards Fibre-East.  John Gillow and Bryan Sentence’s book ‘World Textiles’ brings north Africa’s natural colours and gold-work vibrantly to life for this armchair traveller.  It’s the nearest I can get these days to the continent’s welcome warmth and dust.  And whilst I ponder the value of my meagre efforts at the spinning wheel, Ruth Brompton-Charlesworth’s article recalls just what currency exquisitely-crafted traditional textiles originally represented to their owners.  I don’t think anything I make will be that valuable to future generations, but maybe I can create a worthwhile degree of individuality for people in the present. 

Looking back on our honeymoon snaps, I realised the golden-embossed leather frame we bought out there is still holding out against the ravages of time.  One of the tombs we visited back then, though, has not been so lucky.  It had a magnificent ceiling, now sadly collapsed, of darkest midnight blue covered in a million gold stars.  The ancients knew a thing or two about the night sky:  they only used their eyes to observe the heavens but they did pretty well.  Today we have vast volumes of information provided by missions like NASA’s SOHO.  For fellow aficionados of colour, the odyssey of pictures on The Sun Now page, which reveal the sun in many different aspects and all in ‘real-time’, is well worth a visit. 

While we’re hoping for sunshine on Mid-Sumer’s day in our rainy country, we should spare a thought for those at the opposite end of the planet in Antarctica, celebrating Mid-Winter’s day.  A cool, wet British summer may seem a bit grey, but I think I’d rather be here than in the -30 to -59 degrees of the frozen wastes! Here’s wishing you a week of golden sunshine on the inside, especially if there’s not so much about outside the window.  

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Seascape in a basket

As an avid watcher of the BBC’s series ‘Coast’, my eyes enjoy feasting upon views down onto the seas from above, showing (on their sunnier outings) the grey-blue graduation in colour of our watery surroundings. However lovely our coast appears, for me it can’t match the high intensity colour provided by summer light in the Mediterranean. The contrasts between bleached rocks and turquoise sea are something I’ve grown up with, for I was one of the ‘lucky ones’, taken to play on its warm, sandy shores when they were still relatively empty.

My parents were adventurous for Brits in the early 1960s and thought nothing of packing up the extended family, along with a multi-lingual dictionary, taking a ferry across the channel, and driving through France into Spain, to the coast near L’Estartit. There’s a picture here of a very small me on one of the empty Costa Brava beaches as then they were. I’ve followed in the same tradition, taking my children on the same route for many years to beautiful beaches like Sa Tuna. I hope they’ll go back one day themselves now they’re independent travellers.

Even to think of it now, looking down through the path under the stone pines to the sea below, the jewel colours of the gently lapping waters still come to vivid life. I can understand why artists are fascinated by the sea, like Monet for example, as it offers a rich palette as the light changes and the texture and rhythm of the sea moves with the wind. Mediterranean sea colours called me again during the week when I had my different coloured bags of ‘fluff’ out on the floor, seeking inspiration.

With Gypsy Kings music on the brain and Paul Theroux’s Pillars of Hercules on the table, the die was cast! With some Teeswater locks for seaweed, and a few bits of Angelina fibre as homage to the water’s sparkle in the sun, I was off, wheeling away. Despite all the rain outside, the colours kept me warm inside, mentally and physically while spinning. As I hand-felt my yarns after spinning, to make sure the locks stay in, it’ll be a day or two before it’s completely dry and I can admire my handiwork. In the meantime, here’s wishing you a week full of mental sunshine to speed you through your tasks!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bouquet of ideas

New ideas often arrive in parties – tagging along each with another.  And there will be plenty of new ideas to celebrate as we enter the season of degree shows at Britain’s art and fashion colleges.  The Royal College of Art has already had their fashion show, but still to come are many more ranging from DeMontfort to the London College of Fashion.  The best of the new designers will assemble at Graduate Fashion Week, which starts this coming Sunday with the four-day extravaganza at London’s Earl’s Court. 

Some of the most intriguing ideas marrying materials and other disciplines are coming from institutions like Central St Martin’s Textile Futures group, taking textiles to a completely different level.  Personally I’ll be very interested to see what comes from the launch of the sustainability-promoting Textile Toolbox next Tuesday 12th, which aims, it says, to create:  systemic change within the fashion industry through interconnected design thinking and processes for sustainable textiles and fashion’.  Can’t wait to see what that’s all about.  Let’s hope it brings greater recognition right across the textile sector of the ethical and environmental impacts, sometimes unwittingly created, along the supply chain from sheep (or other animal or plant) to finished products.  

At this time of year, ideas for me are all around the garden.  Last weekend, a family 60th wedding anniversary provided an inspirational bouquet to take home, which set me thinking of where we’d be without the interaction of green with other colours, in both the plant and craft worlds.  Look at this Astrantia:  perfection in its structure, yet it’s the interplay between the green and the wine-red of its venation that lifts the spirits and intrigues the eye.  This week has also seen another spirit-lifter, the first rose in my summer, coming into bloom despite the constant rain:  David Austin’s English Rose, Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.  I’m inhaling its heavy scent in my mind as I look at my photo. 

Combining the ideas nature bring us is never easy for mere human beings, but, like the new young fashion designers launching their careers this coming week, I go forward in faith.  I hope somehow to create something that does small justice to what I find around me.  Just as the small inputs of green ‘make’ the bouquet, I’m experimenting with small inputs of green to offset the other summer flower colours in the yarn basket.  I hope it works:  the skein is now drying in the airing cupboard, along with the scented rose petals from my ‘Gertrude’ rose. 

I can see the buds coming on my Philadelphus too:  I wonder whether the scent will be any more or any less because of last winter’s extreme temperatures?  More inspiration and scent to come!  Here’s wishing you and inspirational week whatever you’re creating.  And here’s wishing a sustainable future and a constant bouquet of ideas to all the young designers taking part in Graduate Fashion Week.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Enterprising spiders and helpful dragons

It’s only on until Tuesday and I’m going to miss it:  the largest textiles in the world to have been woven from spider silk have been on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in recent months but the display ends after the Jubilee weekend.  If anyone’s going to London and manages to fit in seeing these pieces I’d love to hear about it.  Seeing the enterprise and industry that goes into making spiders’ webs around the garden you just can’t imagine the vast effort that went into spinning and collecting the silk to make the textiles in the first place. 

This week’s been all about enterprise and industry in one way or another.  It’s good to see some capital being put behind young potential entrepreneurs through the StartUp scheme:  I’m sure it will help a lot of those young people coming up to graduation from their fashion and textiles courses, wanting (or having no option other than) to plough their individual furrows.  It’s about time there was something official to support them too, since Young Enterprise clubs have been going in schools for donkeys’ years without their being anything really to continue the interest generated at the end of it. 

In an article in The Financial Times this week, former BBC Dragon’s Den panel member James Caan said people participating in the programme wanted mentoring as much as they did capital:  it was the development expertise they apparently desired.   A few weeks ago I wrote about craft being about what you give, not what you get, which is something I firmly believe should hold true in every sound business.  So, being true to myself, I’m delighted to say I’m being joined on the Outward Images stand at Fibre-East by someone setting out in her new venture to provide mentoring and advice to crafters:  Juliet of Planet Handmade, who will be with me on the Saturday (July 14).  So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge into the craft world, come along for a chat. 

I’m also delighted to be joined for the whole weekend by my textile heroine who herself is a kind but potent advisor and businesswoman, inventor of ‘Extreme Knitting’™:  Rachel John.  We’re providing a safe haven for daring and creative knitters and crafters. Any Wool School students are also very welcome: designing your individual garments could be much more fun when you see what we’ve got on display!   

Between my two companions’ expertise and my own spin-doctoring experience, we’ll have our very own ‘Crafters’ Den’ on the stand.  Ours though will be one offering friendship, inspiration and options, rather than competition for capital.  I’m with Ken Hakuta as he reportedly once said:  “Lack of money is no obstacle. Lack of an idea is an obstacle.”  Here’s wishing you a week full of ideas that prove as enticing, extensive and flexible as spiders’ silk.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Putting a price on value

Measuring Worth is one of those all-too-fascinating websites, positively encouraging digression from what you’re doing.  I was trying to find inspiration – or perhaps justification? – for valuing what I make, creating a formula that relies less on subjective worth and more on measurable practicalities.  I wondered if there was any way of comparing the wages of spinners past and present, providing at least a starting point for context.  The craft itself has changed little, though the modern world has added all kinds of posh parameters, like ‘product positioning’ to the sales equation. 

Thumbing through Christopher Dyer’s book, ‘Making a Living in the Middle Ages’, the merchant owner of Paycocke’s (now a National trust property) obviously appreciated the skills of the combers, carders, spinners, weavers and fullers he employed from the local community, leaving each of them a small legacy that Measuring Worth told me would be around £280 today.  Yet the bringing into one ‘supply chain’ of all these different artisans began the process of detaching textile production from the reality of its parts. 

The product which carried the measureable value became the finished cloth, not the individual contributions of the skilled people who produced it.  Despite the efforts of organisations like the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in reviving the cultural value of specialist traditional crafts, that medieval shift in emphasis is at the root of today’s problem of making a decent living in the craft sector.  People by and large don’t understand the technical creation process, so they can’t even guess what the product might be worth. 

Juliet Bernard of Planet Handmade highlighted to me this week the launch of a new  CraftWorks Toolkit, supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  There’s a lot in it to help individual makers get a foothold on the business ladder, and to start putting a value on their products.  Yet to me one of the most telling pages on the CraftWorks website is about the value of craft in communities.  The intangible value of making things seems to offer far greater ‘worth’ to individuals and communities than mere fiscal returns.  

'Making’ fulfills something deep inside ourselves as well a creating a beautiful object, and that feels more like a privilege than an act of pure commerce.  Maybe it’s that  slightly ‘woolly’ good feeling that makes crafters less willing to put a price on what they do.  That others may admire – or even want to own – what you make remains a constant source of fascination.  Here’s wishing you a fulfilling week ahead, full of attractively-woolly good feelings.     

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Inspired weaving - with icing

If I thought using mohair as warp presented a few difficulties on my Knitters’ Loom, I hadn’t reckoned on trying to weave with fondant icing.  I’ve made a few birthday cakes in my time – monsters, Superman, Thomas the Tank Engine to name but a few – but I hadn’t reckoned on the nerve-rackingly extensive possibilities of passing a few sugary coloured warps and wefts by each other. 

With my multi-coloured edible ‘weaving’ trying to escape off the top, it was with trepidation that I presented Jean, our spinning group’s longest-serving member, with her 80th birthday cake at our meeting on Tuesday evening.  It reminded me of  weaving with bamboo yarn – beautiful colours, horrendous elasticity!  Still in both circumstances, I displayed ‘Resilience’ and ‘Results orientation’ – two characteristics common amongst successful business women, according to McKinsey’s recent report ‘Unlocking the full potential of women at work’.

Other characteristics these ‘top women’ exhibit are apparently a ‘Robust Work Ethic’ and ‘Team Leadership’.  Jean is certainly a team-leader, having cajoled our group along for about 30 odd years, and both it and Jean are still, thankfully, going strong.  And none of us spinners would ever get through a whole fleece if we didn’t have a ‘robust work ethic’.  Though these types of report are well meant, they do somewhat irk me.  Forty plus years on from the so-called second wave of the feminist movement, do we still really need reports exploring “barriers to women’s success”? 

Aren’t we actually pretty successful already?  Look at the calibre of people on the Prince's Trust Women's Leadership GroupAren’t we already living by the old maxim that “people take you at your own valuation”  and confidently treading our chosen paths?  The McKinsey report says that where women lead a business organisation: “Diversity of thought thrives, …fuelling creativity and innovation.”  But isn’t that just what women do anyway?  Form an evolutionary viewpoint it comes with the territory: you need to find strategies which enable you and your progeny to survive, so we’re programmed for innovation. 

The Desperate Artwives, featured in the Guardian Women’s Blog on Monday, have been highly innovative in pulling together their forthcoming show.  Many of us will identify with curator, Althea Greenan’s comment that:  "Women's art practice is rich in disruptions, side tracks, blurred boundaries and multiple identities.” Yet sometimes these stresses can play to our advantage.  Desperation can drive serendipitous marriages of unusual materials,  colour combinations, or finishing strokes on a painting. 

Maybe we should embrace what’s around us as we work at our crafts, along with all our messy or abandoned attempts at making something beautiful.  Even going back to basics and taking our craft apart can be refreshing, as those involved in the touring exhibition ‘Raw Craft’ demonstrate.  Whether you’re a writer, a spinner, a jeweler, a painter or a weaver, we can all take inspiration from the familiar things around us and the people we love.  Here’s hoping you can find extraordinary inspiration in every-day life this week. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Collective Meaning

This week’s launch of Collective Spirit, the so-called ‘wood collage boat’ brought home the value of being part of something: the value of belonging.  The many contributors of treasured wooden objects who put their faith in this arts project were clearly delighted to see all of them crafted carefully together to make a whole.

We spinners, weavers, dyers and textile enthusiasts feel a similar kind of community spirit, generated by our shared interests.  But is our love of all things textural hard-wired in our brains?  Caroline Barry, writing in the May/June issue of Selvedge, explores recent research showing that while our brains enjoy pattern, order and regularity, they also crave “stimulation from unevenness within that order”, for example materials with  “more complex texture”.  We're apparently part of a community of like minds whose “detail discrimination” is highly focussed. 

We may be focussed, but happily we’re not shy of sharing our skills and materials, as were the alchemists of old.  The recent discovery of a secret-coded Ripley Scroll, by archivists at the Science Museum preparing for an exhibition of alchemical art, shows how jealously they guarded their knowledge.  Thank goodness we don’t keep our skills to ourselves: we get out there and encourage others to share the joy of fibres and textiles.  The many spinning demonstrators at Fibre-East are just the kind of generous folk I’m referring to.  They give their time to awakening other 'detail-discriminating' brains out there, re-connecting people with their creative selves, and with the fundamental satisfaction gained by making things. 

Collective endeavour and community spirit is what Fibre-East is all about, especially when it comes to the fleece-to-jumper event – taking wool from the sheep’s back to a knitted garment in as short a time as possible.  Last year’s attempt brought together Ravelry friends, spinning group members and willing volunteers like Shiela Dixon of Handspinner.  There will be another attempt at this year’s Fibre-East on Sunday July 15th – come and watch!  Or even better, show your collective spirit and join in!  It will be more intense than getting your wooden treasure included on a floating art project, but the creative buzz that’s generated will certainly compensate.  Here’s wishing you collectively a satisfying week ahead with your making.