Thursday, May 17, 2018

Making the Best

 Irene Johnson in her studio, White Iron Lake, Ely, Mn, ca. 1982


My mom sewed for me, and both of my sisters.   In the 60's, girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school.  We wore cotton dresses, with gathered skirts, button-up backs, pockets, rick-rack, and bow back ties. She liked to add crisp white collars, and cuffs, which were always snapped on, so she could  wash them separately. She liked dark plaids for the start of school in September, but hounds tooth plaids, and cotton pique for spring.  The process of sewing a dress was the same for as long as I can remember, and involved me, and my sisters,  brought along to shop for fabric in  the dimly lit local department store, where she carefully evaluated the bolts of fabric.  We twirled on the tall stools at the pattern counter,  while she paged through heavy pattern books.

My little sisters were so bored and impatient,  they would lie down in the store aisle, whining, " Can't we go home yet?" Once we had the happy entertainment of our cat,  just retrieved from the vet, and still groggy,  that we carried around in a cake pan we'd just bought at the dime store across the street.
 
With patterns and fabrics selected,  she used to lay out the fabrics on the carpeted floor of the living room, pinning them out and cutting carefully. She had pair of dressmakers Wiss scissors which were never, ever to cut paper! Finally the day arrived when the dress was finished.  Wearing it for the first time was so exciting.  Who would notice?  I felt like a new, special person, sitting in the 4th grade of Miss Dankowski.  Sometimes, my mom made us  a set of 3 "sister" dresses for  each of her three girls.  Often, when she sewed a dress for me, she'd sew another little matching one out of the sewing scraps,  for my Ginny doll, with pockets!

She sewed in her bedroom, on the old, black,  Singer, with gold filigree,  that was her mother's.  An electric pedal modified the old treadle machine,  but it was the same one that was in her own mother's bedroom at the foot of the bed, where she slept with her mother.  "No, my father didn't sleep with my mother then.  They already had 4 children, and didn't have any other way to be sure they wouldn't get another one."  Before she was 40 years old, when my mother was just 8 years old, her mother died.

My mother and her sister, Marion, who was 2 yrs older than she, had to learn to do a lot of housekeeping in a short time. Pa, and her two older brothers were still home, and her mother's sister came to help. But,  much of the housework eventually fell to the girls.  "Thank goodness for the neighbor lady who showed me how to cook," my auntie Marion told me.  My mother said it was her job to start the cook stove fire, and Marion would cook.

My mother taught herself to sew, and knit. Later, she became a weaver.

"The neighbors used to say, 'Give those Peterson girls a piece of leather, and they'll make you a pair of shoes', " my mom told me, with a little pride.  I'd look down at my own scuffed, patent leather slip ons that I had cried to get, instead of saddle shoes in the shoe store, with a new sense of wonder.  How could I "make" a pair of shoes? I firmly believed my mother could have.

Our school dresses were sewn and hemmed, and worn, and ripped and repaired, and washed, starched,  ironed, and hung back in our closets, by my mother.  I remember calling to her, in the morning, when I was getting dressed for school, "Can I wear the blue dress with rick-rack?"   My mother, who liked to sleep in, called back sleepily from her bedroom across the hall,  "No, not yet.  Just wear the one you wore yesterday.  I just ironed the blue one."  Apparently my mother liked to admire a freshly washed,  ironed dress in my closet for at least a day before it went back into use.

I remember putting on my dress, and going in to sit on the side of her bed, so she could button up the
back, without leaving her bed.  I could tie my own dress ties behind my back, as soon as I learned to tie my shoes.

 I learned from my mother  there's no shame to sleeping in.  She also showed me how not to give in to fear, whether it was the Abominable Snowman that plagued my thoughts, trying to fall asleep at night, boys who bullied me at school,  or the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother refused to be scared. She loved to make things, and sewed clothes, drapes, upholstery, tailored dresses.  She treasured fabrics, and collected the best of them. She loved French Vogue patterns. She made exquisite bound button holes.

She had married, instead of going to college, which always bothered her.  "Education is like a pair of pants," she quoted something she'd read to me, "if you're wearing them you, don't notice it, but if you're not,  you really miss them."  She read so much. We hated to see her start to read a book.  She'd disappear for hours, and would barely hear us if we asked about supper.  Supper was likely to be hard boiled eggs.  For the record, my mother never liked to cook.

When I can push back fear, or offer something to someone who I see can use my help, or when I stand up for someone who can't stand up for themselves, I know I learned this from her.  When I feel pleased and excited with something I've just taken off my loom,  I know I'm like her. She showed me how,  if I decide to, I can learn to do anything I want for myself.  Also, when I'm in a hard place, the only thing to do is to make the best of it.

Mom, you're still making the best of it.















Thursday, September 28, 2017

come on in my kitchen




Make do. Get by. Take what you get, and be still.  Words my grandmother spoke over coffee in her kitchen in Northern Minnesota.   Or, other words my sisters and I heard in the kitchen, hiding under the table while my mother and her friends coffee-klatched and smoked,  in the late afternoon, before the husbands came home.  Tobacco smoke mingled with  the scent of ironed, white business shirts wafting in from the warm, afternoon living room, where the ironing board was not yet put away.  Lulled by the sound of women's voices, telling the truth to each other, we listened and waited quietly, so they wouldn't shoo us out.

When they stood up to go home, we sneaked out and sipped the dregs of sweetened and creamed
coffee left behind in some of the cups, and developed a taste for coffee in the afternoon, and women's conversation.

I have been weaving kitchen cloths these days.  "You better come on in my kitchen, cause it's going to be rainin' outdoors," the old Robert Johnson country-blues song runs around my brain.  I'm weaving the Swedish drall pattern, that keeps reminding me of some past I never had, and now the little offset, ghosting white cross, floating in a plot of gray plainweave linen.  I'm glad to see it back again.  The elements in my weaving come and go, reappear, reacquaint, recombine.  Somehow, piece by piece, a fuller picture emerges.  I'm always here waiting to see what comes up.

I have an old cast iron flat iron, actually,  a set of 2 of them,  that have been an essential part of my studio for years. I use them to hold fabric down when I cut a dress pattern, or to hold a scarf while I tie its fringe, or an extra hand to hold paper, until I can cut a piece of tape to wrap a package. I have heard them called "sad" irons, too.  I use them for many things, and together with an old piece of soapstone (an antique bedwarmer), I have the equivalent of a small cold mangle.  Cold mangling is an old Scandinavian technique of smoothing linen, heatlessly, to burnish a sheen on linen fiber, and smooth the fabric. Flax can shine. It has grown in a short season, northern clime, and gathered long days of sun into its cells, which grow long in the midnight sun. When it is harvested, retted, hackled, spun, and woven, and then cold mangled, the luminous fiber emerges.  The midnight sun has been gathered and held in the long fiber, the long staple, and then in the cloth. 

My own kitchen has a life of its own.  Right now it's abundant with tomatoes, and a sack of just ripe pears from Anne-Marie's tree.  On the counter is a big bunch of fragrant basil that Mary Lee brought yesterday, and eggplants and butternut squash from the Amish road stand. Pots and pans, bottles of olive and sunflower oil. A  cupboard full of spices, nuts, and a half-full bag of chocolate chips. Zip-loc bags, aluminum foil, baking parchment. Good knives. My food processor, and my Farberware 4-cup superfast coffee percolator!

For me, the kitchen has always been a place of comfort and certainty, where women hold the room, where I would often find my mother.  A refuge in any storm.  Making these homely kitchen cloths, with their subtle gleam, soft hand, and mysterious past, is a balance point, a centering place, peaceful, like a kitchen. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Milk Path






Almost forty years ago, when we bought the farm we still live on in Avalanche, we could see there
had been a little cow barn, across the spring creek. A stone foundation dug into the creek bank and the silo base, and silo top, were all that was left of it.  We put a wire fence around that half acre, and put in a couple of sheep and some geese. The sheep lived in the old silo top with a fancy ventilator that now sat on concrete blocks on the ground.  The geese had barrels. Years and years later, the sheep were gone, into our freezer, and the pair of geese (that multiplied into a flock of 26!)  lifted off one fall day,  forming a low flying V along Main St,  turned left at the old store, and migrated south, 2 miles down the road, where they took up residence at the Serendipity farm and golf course.  Good riddance! After that momentous event, the gate hung open, and the goose lot grew up in box elders and thorny ash.

Until we decided to build a building for my weaving workshop and store, on the best building
site in the lot, where the old 6 cow barn had stood. One other thing that remained of that
endeavor was the path between the backdoor of our 160 yr old farm house, and where the
barn door had been.  Worn by others' feet, long ago, along the creek bank,  I continue to follow it every day, as I go to my shop to weave.  I could call it chores. It is my work, and livelihood.

I think of it as the milking path, and since I warped my loom in the Swedish drall pattern, Jamtlandsdrall, I couldn't get it out of my head.  So the first set of drall scarfs came off, and they're all called Milk Path.

The drall pattern is an old Scandinavian favorite,  from Davison's book.  It was probably used
for utility cloths and functional textiles, towels and blankets.  It's from Northern Sweden, Jamtlands.
When I weave it, I have a peculiar sense of deja vu.  Yet, I've never woven it before, nor
can I remember seeing anything  that looked like it in my family's house.  I repeat the traditional pattern, and the pattern itself  is made of repeats. Weaving is repetitious.

I don't envy the farmers who lived in this place, and made the path between the house and the barn.  We probably wouldn't have liked each other very much.  They were probably devoutly Christian, I'm atheist.  They were not educated beyond the 8th grade. They were very poor. The family dynamics in this small town, from stories I've heard, may well have included spouse abuse, child abuse, incest, or a host of other regrettable human behaviors. People are people.

I don't sense  enlightened living on this farm, only poverty, and survival.  Still, my feet fall along their path.  The farm house, though not much improved,  is  now warm, insulated, electrified. There's a new kitchen,  computers, microwaves, flush toilets, hot water, refrigerator, washing machine, drier,  electronic devices, radios, and a large, flat screen t.v. If the weather is bad, I do have to dress up in boots, and coat, mittens, scarf and hat, to hike across the creek.  Sometimes I need to shovel snow drifts from  the path, or we put planks on the ground to walk on during the spring thaw and mud season, but otherwise, our daily lives are probably very different.

What I may have in common with them is that they loved and grieved, worked, were exhausted, were too cold, or too hot.  They ran around, they settled down.  They were probably as amazed as I am when the giant pink moon rises over the hill, the way it did last night in the valley.  The Big Dipper hangs in the same place in the sky above the valley, where it always does in September, the time of year I had my first born daughter. They probably listened to the owls hooting back and forth across the valley, up in the woods.  They stood on the bridge and looked down on the same winding waters of the West Fork. They collected the delicate finch nests that blow down from the white pine growing by the house, and set them on the window sills in the kitchen. They dreaded floods. They waited for winter, watching for the signs of the seasons turning.  They nursed their children through bronchitis and flu, head lice,  pneumonia, poison ivy, and broken bones  They buried some.

In many ways, we're walking the same path, in the same place on Earth, repeating our tasks, wondering if anything will ever change.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lucky Duck

Found today in the potato basket in our back hall! Not the face of Christ on a piece of toast, but I'm a secular humanist, so this will do.  A duck formed by chance out of a plastic thank you bag is my idea of a small miracle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Blue Thread

















When  I come back to weave in my workshop at night, the familiar room feels like a different place, where something unexpected might happen.  Night is always a fertile time for me to weave.  One summer night,  when the air was humid, cool, thick, and velvety, and the darkness was inky black, I was weaving a length of 3/4 inch tape, and about to quit.  It was a few minutes after midnight, but I thought I'd weave just a few more inches before I shut off the lights, locked the door, and found my way back along the dark path, cross the creek,  and back to the house.  The air was still, but a cool draft came down the east valley from the ridge, through the open screen, with fireflies lighting the course of the small creek behind the workshop, a chorus of night trilling tree frogs, and a dog barking at a short distance.

I'd been hearing all of this while I was weaving my tape, but the dog barking had caught my attention.

The bark was sporadic, not urgent. I knew whose dog it was, and her name, Maggie, and that she was an old spaniel that would sometimes decide to chase me when I rode my bike by, trying to nip my feet.  Sometimes she and the other dog that live at that house came up around my shop, chasing rabbits together, in the morning, but she never bothered me then. She was Daryl's dog.  Daryl had a farm welding shop a half mile away,  in a shed behind his house, across the West Fork.  He welded equipment for farmers at night, after his day job.  He wasn't married, and lived alone. He was still at work.  The lights from inside his shed glowed brightly through the wide open doors, lighting the willow tree tops across the river.  I didn't have to look to see that.

This dog's barking was so familiar,  a summer sound I remembered listening to when I was a little girl,  on summer nights, trying to fall asleep, after long, dirty, barefoot summer vacation days,  hearing all the night sounds: crickets, cicadas, barking dogs and trains at a distance. All the sounds mixed up in the dark, across the swamp and field, where we built our forts, fought with the boys,  and exhumed old farm dump piles in search of treasure during the day.  At night we played a wild game of sheep and wolves in the dark neighborhood, and pretended we didn't hear when our parents called us in. I've always loved the mystery of the night world, and always found it hard to fall asleep.   Daryl's dog barking this night made me suddenly wistful, and long for one more evening of my own childhood.  Instead I thought, I'll weave this.  How?  I picked up a shuttle, and there was a quill of thin, cobalt linen yarn in it already, and I thought, that will do.  I hate to pick colors at night. I decided I'd weave one blue thread every time Maggie barked for five minutes.  I watched the minute hand, and then started.  Bark, bark, bark.  Quiet, quiet.  Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark.

Whew! I was falling behind.  A pause followed,  quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet.  I may have missed a few of the barks, but in the end I had a 2-inch section of tape, with some random thin blue lines crossing it.  This was my record of 5 minutes of listening to a particular dog barking after midnight, at the confluence of the West Fork and Seas Branch river valley,  July, 2015.  I had a new measure on my tape without measure.

I have a conflicted relationship to measure, and measuring. I usually have a tape measure, hanging around my neck, like a yoke, or a choke.  A weave is one length on the loom, stretched tight.  Relax the tension and the length shrinks.  Tense up, and beat too hard, and the weave compresses.  Cut it down, and it shrinks again. Wash it, dry it, and it grows smaller, or not.  The task to weave a square, or two equal panels to a 1/2 in window width, or a pair of equal length curtains is fraught.  Measure is a burden!

I started to weave my own measureless tapes, partly in response to my father, an engineer, who tried to instill in his family, along with his Lutheran faith,  the idea that if a thing can't be measured, that thing does not exist.  It was long ago, but I have been refuting that untruth for most of my life (also the Lutheran faith). Actually, important things do exist that can't be measured, love, hope, fear.  Emotion is real.  How we feel about our human experience may be the most consequential part of our living.  Consequently, my tapes without measure hold marks of actual and conceptual events, but all of them ephemeral.  Nothing that exists ever lasts, not even memory, is my corollary theory.  On my woven tapes,  I've incorporated marks for my actual waist size, my cat's long tail,  the width of the stripes of woolly bear caterpillars crossing the road on the autumnal equinox between Avalanche and Bloomingdale,  simple actual observable measures. One tape has the height of the largest morel mushroom we found this spring.  It was a significantly big one.  Recording and marking events is a human practice, an activity we engage in, to get ahead of the game. On ancient Scandinavian rune calendars, the marks may have told when to plant seeds, when to cut hay, when to spin flax,  when to expect a spring thaw.   What the marks originally meant fade as centuries pass, but the marks are still there, though we don't know who made them, and the meanings are lost.  The desire to make these records is a record of the persistence of human need to try to capture the present, the thing we experience as reality, and carry it into an unknown and uncertain future.  What persists, over time,  is not the knowledge, but the enigma.

What happened is that Daryl became ill, and died of cancer.  His farm, and some others in the floodplain were purchased by the county.  His house and sheds will be torn down. I don't know where Maggie and the other dog are, if still on the planet. He lived there,  and the memory of him is now disappearing.  But, each time I weave that 2-inch pattern of blue lines into my measureless tapes,  I'm back in that night, when Daryl was welding late at night, across the river, and Maggie barked.  The meaning is mine, and will end when I end.  After all,  I listened to the barking, breathed  thick, midnight summer air, and lived five minutes of my existence, with all of my senses alive, trying to keep it alive in weave, warp and weft, weave, weave, warp and woof. Amused that it was the first time ever I wove a woof.
 




Wednesday, May 18, 2016

arte Rose Wylie










Adding my 2¢ of opinion to an online discussion often seems like a good idea to me, at the time. So, but for the grace of Google, which has locked me out of commenting in my ScanWeave group, until I produce my long lost password, I'd have felt compelled to offer my take on a recent discussion:  how often to advance the warp off the back beam, and  how frequently to move the rocking pivots on the overhanging beater of the Scandinavian loom forward,  for the optimal beat.

It turns out there are many aspects to the subject, which generated heated interest.  Opinions vary from never moving the rocking pivots forward, from a Swedish weaver who averred that no Swedish weaver she knew would ever do it, to moving it alternately, while advancing the warp, every 2 inches, never mind the temple, also advancing.

Of course, this sounds like an exercise I could never accomplish, like bringing myself to a free handstand in yoga class, that would require coordination well beyond my current (or future) ability and concentration, both sadly in decline.  It's probably better I can't comment, because I am  unqualified.  For the record, I've moved the rocking pivots on my loom rarely in my long weaving career, and when I did, it was only as a desperate measure, to eek out a few more inches of a warp that was coming up short.

In days past this kind of discussion would have preoccupied me. Should I pay attention to this? I am self taught and suspect (with substantial evidence) I may have quit teaching myself too soon. Maybe I'm not a real weaver.

But I am always interested in lively discussions by other, knowledgeable weavers, which I love to hear, and experience, if only vicariously, standing outside the inner ScanWeave circle.  To be clear, the ScanWeavers have always made me feel welcome. I do share their intensity about weaving matters, and try to pay close attention to the finer points.  But, I find my interests often lean in a different direction.  My  best hope at this point in my weaving career, is to be a competent weaver, no more, but certainly, no less.  I weave everyday of my life. My genetic code has made me a Scandinavian weaver to the bone.  I try to improve daily, or at least try not to lose ground.

The intensity of my feeling, and my urge to weave, conversely, increases steadily.  This state of mind usually begins with an image, or a memory, a fragile apparition.  I prepare my warps with as much planning and care as I can muster. I practice patience as I work out designs. I work deliberately at each step of the warping process, and try not to rush.  At the same time, I try not to make stupid mistakes.  I supply myself with  the best materials and colors I can procure.  I am finally able to develop very good, even tension, consistently, across my warp. Though I'm quite impressed with myself over these modest achievements, other qualities interest me more, and are what drive my desire to weave as often as I can.

Painters are often the source of my agitation, and tend to send me off in new weaving directions.  Lately, my muse and model for all things artistic is the British painter, Rose Wylie, who likes a quality of "slightly casual misfits," in her paintings. My obsession with her painting is acute, and people close to me have already had their fill of it. I usually can manage to work Rose Wylie into any conversation.

 Rose Wylie has a lot to say about her painting process.  She prioritizes the "object quality" of her canvases, "the thread, the glue, .... the marks of registration."  She cuts her canvases and pastes them on in a very casual, not precious way.  She even used to paint, stacking her canvases on the floor,  and sometimes even walk on  them.  This was not because of a careless approach to her work, but out of an intimate connection with it.  Her work is both careful, highly structured, and meaningful.   "In all the imperfection,"  she says, "the object becomes your own piece of work, it becomes very much a part of you."

 What is more saturated with "object quality" than a weave?  The beauty of raw materials, the feeling and shape that use and time add to the quality of a weave, the power of color and texture to surprise us, and change our perceptions.  I also obsess pay attention to Rose Wylie's fields of color, the division of the canvas, the use of black line, broken lines, subject (memory)..... I'm in artist-love again! Seeing these images sends direct current to my brain as I weave, and technique is a far-off consideration. If I am making a good weave, while getting close to my idea, I've accomplished what I desire. What weaver doesn't feel that way about her work?  Most importantly,  if I burn this new imagery into my brain,  how will it change my weaving?  It will change it. I anxiously wait to see that result.

In recent years I have read some discussion of craft whose highest achievement is not its "finesse, polish, and virtuosity. " "Sloppy Craft" and Arte Povera offer pushback to the dominance of skill as the primary criteria in woven work.  I don't mean to diminish the importance of skill,  but also to beware of its tendency to overpower, and even hold back the weaver/artist from achieving what may be the better part in the work.

Maybe I should have been a painter, but  I'm content to be able to call myself a weaver, even if it's just by the skin of my teeth.

Rose Wylie!


Friday, April 15, 2016

weights and measures











I don't know how much I weigh in stone, maybe 2, as in the above pictured.  Just guessing.
The days are progressing convincingly toward warm-spring, as we leave winter-spring behind.  I read yesterday that the Sami in arctic Scandinavia counted 8 seasons in their year.  Mud season is our equivalent to warm-spring.

 There is just a little leftover snow in a few northside places. Multitudes of tinnitis inducing peepers sound off in the evenings, raucous birds sing for mates well before the sun has risen, spring beauties are showing,  and geese and sandhill cranes are persistently setting on nests of eggs.  Sitting?

I've been weaving spring scarfs on a fresh 26 yard warp, since Groundhog's Day officially marked the turn of my workshop calendar from winter to winter-spring.  I put away cashmere, alpaca, and merino, yarns, and started in again on the perfect 4:  linen, cotton, hemp and silk.  This year I have new West Texas organic cotton from Voices of Industry to add to my usual Bockens. It is a beautiful and lustrous cotton, in milky white.   I've been using it in overshot designs, which remind me of cake frosting, on wedding cakes, specifically. (We have been eating a diet free of lactose,  gluten and sugar for the last 2 months, and I find my thoughts turn frequently to cake).

I've been very excited about this weaving, and apologize to anyone who has visited me in the workshop in the last month, if I have raved on about things weaving after you have lost all interest.  Maybe it's the diet!

In the woods, I have confronted a large, placid raccoon that has me unnerved, and I am not usually worried about anything in the woods.  On its first appearance, near where the turkeys danced, it simply sat and stared at us as Daniel and I walked by. Actually, Daniel decided to approach the sitting still raccoon, for reasons of his own, and when it didn't move away, kept approaching it.  I offered an opinion, from further back, What if it's not well?    It's healthy, he said, from ten paces in front of the beast.  I walked away, and Daniel caught up with me.

It didn't run away, I said. Yes it did, he said.  Later we encountered it, again, sitting near the same place.  It stared, unmoving, while we walked past.  The next day I walked up the  hill road and took the same trail out.  As I neared the place where the raccoon had been, I remembered it, and started peering under the trees. Thankfully, I didn't see it.

What if it's on the other side of the road?  I thought, and turning my head, came face to face with the stare of the same raccoon, not 10 feet from me!  Startled, I screeched a little, then slowly turned and walked away, not to appear as if I were running away.  I thought it might feel like pursuing if I showed fear, and I wondered how fast a large, ill raccoon can run.

Truly, I haven't a clue what any animal thinks.  After a while of brisk, and brisker walking, I hazarded a glance back, and saw no raccoon, teeth bared, giving chase.  Then I ran.