August 19th, 2019
The only time anything has ever gone well is when it’s felt right, and nothing drastic was telling me to abandon ship. Although, I can be slightly oblivious to what looks like a drastic commentary on the nature of my endeavours, so maybe I wouldn’t notice even if I was being told to stop. Also, my personal threshold for “things going wrong” is fairly high, and that became very clear to me during this project, that began with very lofty expectations of what I might achieve. Perhaps that is a blessing in some sense, because I have an ability to work at things that seem almost hopeless, and achieve a level of success that someone who wouldn’t have such crazy ideas would never achieve. Overall, it seems that I have very little wisdom, and a foolhardy spirit, and my ability to truly evaluate my own methods seems, by and large, fairly poor. This is the reality we are set upon when recapturing the scene of myself envisioning a project such as this one not but five months ago!
It was April, and I had received news of a grant I’d been awarded by the City of Ottawa. I had been lucky enough to participate in a eco-printing workshop with Gillian King a few weeks prior. This involves steaming plants folded into fabric to extract their pigment properties onto the fabric. It had also come to my attention that there was a number of textile tools that had been left to my mother-in-law that were available to me. I had also recently completed a piece entitled Fold the Yoke in Gently, inspired by the workshop, and it seemed like a very promising avenue of artistic research. And so I decided, that day in April, that all signs pointed me in the direction of textile sculptures, and that the tools which were gathering dust needed to be used. This dyeing process had shed a light on a single step of what it takes to make fabric, and I suddenly had the means and the nerve to explore what it takes to create fabric from nothing. And should it be that I could, I would make art with it.
There were parts of my intention that were brought about by Donna Haraway‘s observations on the anthropocene, and the problematic nature of proclaiming that we have the authority to reign over nature, as though we are not a part of it. So I was called to connect myself to the earth, I was curious to watch something grow and turn it into a tool for my own devices. And as I began, I had a sense that it would take longer, and that it would take more. But the sheer scale of how much it would take was hidden to me, far outside the scope of my own naive vision.
I began to research the steps of making your own fabric, with the intention of dyeing it and using it to create the abstract compositions that it came to be in the end. And these steps were presented to me as a single menu, with no hint of all the sub-menus contained beneath each step, like a collapsable website navigation, or a lying publisher’s handbook index.
Spinning and Weaving
The first thing I did was learn to spin, because I needed to turn fibre into thread. Luckily there was some fleece that came with the spinning equipment in my mother-in-laws stash of textile tools. This was complicated, but well within my expectation of what the project would entail. I really appreciated the simple mechanics of a spinning wheel, and felt that putting my hands on something that didn’t need to be plugged in satiated some curiosity in me. But fibre doesn’t always happen to be in your mother-in-laws spare room, and I wanted to get to the root of things. I learnt that you either grow it over an entire harvesting season, or you get it from an animal like a sheep, once a season. If you happen to own sheep that you feed and house and protect from the foxes, to basically no avail, you’ll probably have the luck of fleece come spring. But I worked around this by approaching a local animal rescue who kindly sold me their fleece at a discount, since they weren’t about to sell it anyway. They only sheer their sheep because domesticate sheep aren’t able to shed their winter fleece themselves, as they have been bred to grow fleece that is too dense for that. Therefore, it’s important to sheer sheep for their own health, or they will get sick. Once you have fleece, you have to wash it. This is a very laborious process as the fleece is very heavy, and more so when it is wet. And you can not shake it or scrub it because it will hook itself together and turn into felt, which was not what I wanted. Therefore, the process involved dunking the fleece is water, and lifting it out of the muddy water, and dunking it into a new bucket of clean water. Three times for each fleece, of which I had three. This took an entire afternoon and an unclogging of a bathtub drain.
Next, you let it dry. That took a week. And once it is dry, you have to comb it out to prepare it for the spinning process. This is called carding fleece. And fleece is very dense, so when you comb it out it essentially triples in volume. At this point, I had already been spinning flax, because the sheep weren’t sheered until June, and so I was already long into the process of spinning, and was experimenting with plant based fibres. It turns out that this fleece would be stored for a later project, so far unforeseen.
Flax is a long stalky plant that is turned into flexible fibre by soaking it for a week and hitting the stalks with a stick to remove the hard outer shell of the plant. Unlike cotton, whos fibres grow obviously on the exterior of a bud, flax hides its riches inside. However, I did not get the chance to do this procedure because it takes an entire season for flax to grow to maturity, and although I planted some in early May, it is still growing in garden beds as we speak. Therefore, I ordered some flax that was already in rovings and spun it.
Spinning is all about tension. You need your wheel to be at the right place to grab the loose fibres into the grip of the twisting thread, but not so much that you don’t have time to pull the right amount of fibre to maintain the thickness you’re after. And it takes hours, and days, and weeks, to make enough thread to weave with. And there is dry spinning, and wet spinning. And once you’ve spun an entire bobbin of thread, you have to ply two bobbins together to make it strong enough thread to use. And once you have enough thread, you must prepare the thread to put it onto a loom by winding it into a warp. And once you have a warp you must thread it onto the loom one thread at a time.
Luckily, I had a spinning wheel, and bobbins, and a loom, and a warping board, and reed hook, and all the necessary items and contraptions necessary to do all of this. Unluckily, it fed into the illusion that I might weave all the fabric I was going to use in my sculptures, which turned out to be about 5 square yards. Over 3 months, I managed to weave a small piece measuring around 1′ x 3′. The rest I had to purchase. But did I ever learn!
I learnt how things come to exist for me, at my finger tips. I learnt the amount of expertise that has been liquified and purified into mechanical parts that churn out more product than the planet can deal with. I realized that all that knowledge that used to be known in every town around the world, has turned into very privileged knowledge of how to ensure a machine operates smoothly. And although these seem like concerns shared by our grandparents about the way things “used to be,” there was something powerful about reaching my hands into the dirt to attempt to care for myself. It made me wonder why we’re so concerned about progress and so ready to throw away the wisdom we once had.
Dyeing with Plants
The last leg of my journey was the dyeing, which up until then, had been supplied by a well prepared and experienced artist or a jar of powdered goods. And I was attempting to grow my dye plants on my balcony, which received sun for half of the day, in containers that would not host enough life for the quantity required of them. Moreover, linen is by and far the hardest fabric to dye. It has a natural brown colour that is hard to overcome without bleaching, and it does not like to hold dye to its cells. The dyeing process typically involves steps to clean the fabric, and lace it with a metallic element to assist the cells in the transfer of dye. But linen required an extra step of lacing it with tannins, found in teas and wine, to help it further. And even then, it did not take in much colour. These individual steps can take days, and I tried a variety of different plants, sometimes adventuring into the wild to retrieve them.
In the end, I purchased a lot of fabric, a lot of rovings, and a lot of dye supplies. Although the information that I needed did not come with the tools I was given, as one might imagine they would in times gone by, the information isn’t lost to us completely. There are people who continue to do this work, and make beautiful things. And I suppose I don’t really have an answer as to why it is important that we remember these things, I suppose there’s an argument to be made about having an awareness of what it involves to live. I wanted to know what it involved to make this art, and I feel I have barely brushed the surface of all the hands involved in what truly came to be my final series. Perhaps you feel the labour and research that went into. But it turns out that no artist is an island, and I could not have completed this without those far and wide, but also those near to me who lent me tools, who taught me crafts, who kept the sheep, and who listened to me lament about the never ending difficulties that arose.
Next time, I think I’ll try to start with less and end with more.